Book Review: The White Goddess

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The White Goddess: An Encounter, by Simon Gough, was the first book published, in 2012, by the newly created Galley Beggar Press. It is quite different from their subsequent offerings. Introduced as “a fragment of autobiography written in narrative form” the author states that his memories “should not be distorted or contaminated by the opinions of others”. What follows is a series of recollections of two defining periods in his life – when he was ten years old in 1953 and spent a seminal month in Majorca, and then seven years later when he enrolled at a university in Franco’s Madrid and visited the island for the second time. Although brutal in places the memories are dreamlike in quality. The privileged lives of the artistic elites with whom he consorted are laid bare.

The author was raised in boarding homes and schools until he was fifteen years old. His actor parents divorced when he was ten and it was during this summer that he was first summoned to the tiny village of Deya in Majorca where his mother was recovering from one of her many illnesses. They stayed with Simon’s Grand-uncle, the poet and author Robert Graves. Robert relished his assumed role as patriarch of the village, handing out favours to those who were loyal to his whims and banishment to any who failed to pander to his desires.

Simon was smitten both by the power of Robert’s personality and by the beauty of his adopted home. The lovelorn and brutally controlled schoolboy enjoyed a month long sojourn wreaking havoc alongside Robert’s eight year old son, the out of control Juan. Their escapades would have been enough to condemn a modern child to criminal incarceration. On the island in 1953, amidst the community created by his Grand-uncle, they were tolerated as irritating high jinks.

Simon’s mother appears vain and capricious. At times over-protective, she willingly abandons her son to schools where she knows he is suffering stating that others survived and it made them what they are. She appears intent on imposing her values on her child rather than furnishing him with the tools to enable him to discover his own. Although typical of a certain parenting style, this read as limiting and insensitive to me.

Simon reluctantly returns to his miserable life in England until he can revisit Deya, aged seventeen, before moving to study in Madrid. He discovers that the sixty-five year old Robert has a new muse, the beautiful twenty-four year old Margot. Simon is instantly besotted and struggles to deal with the intense emotions she evokes. He becomes embroiled in passionate intrigues whilst in Madrid, the outcome of which will affect him for life.

The writing is intense and in places ethereal but I felt discomfited by the portrayal of the many gilded people, expats living their lives disconnected from the natives of their adopted homes. Robert’s belief in his intellectual superiority was fanned by those around him, his creativity held in such esteem by them that he was granted leave to ‘own’ his devotees and demand that they bow to his will. It is not only poets who “live so deeply in their own worlds, among their own obsessions”, yet it is hardly admirable however talented they may be. Many of Robert’s personal habits were repugnant yet as nothing to the emotional trauma he was capable of inflicting. I had much sympathy for his children, although the author does not draw them too deeply into this tale.

Simon was amongst many in thrall to his Grand-uncle. When he attempts to seduce Margot and she says no he desists and then feels unmanned for not forcing himself on her as he feels others would have done. I found this disturbing, especially as it may be typical of the attitudes of such men.

There is little attempt at justification in these recollections although it is hard not to sympathise with an eighteen year old caught up in a rarefied world. There are echoes of Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’ in both Simon’s passion and naivity. The esteem in which he held his Grand-uncle, the beauty of Majorca before multiple tourists despoiled the island with their presence, the impact of his family’s associates tasked with looking out for the boy who considers himself a man, are all well evoked.

I cannot fault the quality of the writing or the construction of the story yet I did not enjoy reading this tale. The world conjured reminded me that those who consider themselves superior, either through wealth or popular accomplishment, are still granted leave to use our world as their personal playground. Simon’s experiences are presented competently and with feeling, but in looking through his offered window I was left feeling only despondency.

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3 comments on “Book Review: The White Goddess

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I’ve read other books about Robert Graves and his circle in Mallorca (especially the period with Laura Riding). One of those cases where the truth is stranger than fiction, really! Morbidly fascinating, a bit like watching a real-life soap opera with larger than life characters. So – sigh – I think I will seek out this book as well, I just can’t look away…

  2. I’m with you in that I find it hard to willingly spend time in the literary company of people with a superior attitude who are unlikely to get their comeuppance!

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