I stumbled across Simon Gough’s The White Goddess: An Encounter earlier this year. It was one of those rare moments when you just know you’ve made a discovery. So today, I’m reblogging a piece that appears on the Triskele Books site, as the latest in our Bookclub section.
Courtesy of Triskele, here’s my interview with Simon, an absorbing and articulate man. And below that, my review of the book for Words with JAM magazine.
Simon, we approached you as a Book Club choice because a sense of ‘place’ is essential to Triskele Books. The White Goddess: An Encounter is very much a love affair with a place. Why is Deya so special to you?
A sense of ‘place’ has always been of paramount importance to me; it informs and defines not only the character of a locality but the behaviour and mindset of those who belong there, which in turn influences me, and everyone with any sensitivity who merely visits an iconic locality. Deya has a particularly powerful sense of place because it’s a microcosm of so much that is beautiful, harsh, benign, and actually downright dangerous.
Even as a ten year-old boy, driven through the night to my grand-uncle’s house on the north coast of Mallorca, waking up and wandering outside for the first time in daylight, in 1953, I was awe-struck by what I saw: ‘As I stepped through the fly-screen that morning, I stepped from the cool, shaded Englishness of the house into a silent, baking world more ancient than anything I’d ever seen, into a landscape which seemed to draw in its breath even as I stared at it. Behind the house, from as far to my left to as far to my distant right, a massive wall off grey and yellow and orange mountains, flecked with red, cut us off completely from the world beyond…’
Mallorca must have changed a great deal since 1950s and 60s – the period covered by your book. Do you see positive sides to this, or does it depress you?
Change is inevitable everywhere; it’s one’s own perception of it that has to expand. No amount of being depressed about such things will ever bring them back, so one either has to accept the changes or leave, never to return. Mallorca, for all its high-rise hotels, new roads and redevelopment, is still a remarkable island, about the same size as Norfolk, and yet with 4,000-foot mountains, the remains of ancient civilisations, a wonderfully unpredictable climate, fertile plains and spectacular panoramas. All these are still there, and most important of all, the people haven’t changed; as long as you smile – and particularly if you make some effort to speak the language – the Mallorquíns are warm-hearted, honourable, polite, and make the firmest of friends.
You wrote this book long after your last visit. How much research did you have to do on the people and the times, particularly on the Franco regime?
Surprisingly little. When you live through such vivid, unforgettable times, among people who are so unique that you can still recall their every gesture and inflection, portraying them is almost a doddle, because they seem to do all the work. For instance, if I was writing Robert’s or Beryl’s dialogue, and I’d got it wrong in my head, my pen simply wouldn’t move until I’d got it right by their standards. The chronology of events was the most difficult part, because I chose not to consult any biography which covered the dates in question; my memories of those times were mine and mine alone, and I was determined that they shouldn’t be distorted or contaminated by the memories or opinions of others – who weren’t even there at the time anyway. Luckily, I had all Robert’s and Beryl’s and other peoples letters to me from those days, as well as contemporary accounts of my own to refer to. As for living in Madrid during Franco’s regime, my friend and mentor there was the journalist Alastair Reid, who dinned into me the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s’ of how to behave until my head spun. The rest was simply memory.
Tell us something about your reasons for writing the book, which in terms of ‘pigeon-holing’ and genre isn’t easy to categorise. Has this caused you any difficulties?
No – but then, I’m not the poor unfortunate librarian who has to pigeon-hole it. I suppose the reason it’s difficult to categorise is because it’s a hybrid of novel, auto-biography, biography and love story. To me, though, it was simply a book that I had to write. One day in 1989, having been given five years to live by one of those old-fashioned medical consultants who seem to relish doling out ‘death-warrants’ to shocked patients (who more often than not did precisely as they were told, and died, dead on time), I simply sat down and began to write a book in an attempt to use whatever creative powers I had to try and outrun ‘The Person From Porlock’ as I called him – the spectre of death.
To do so, I retraced the footsteps of my life in search of the root cause of this potentially fatal illness. The book is a fragment of the autobiography of a complete and utter nobody who simply happened, by sleight-of-birth, to have been brought up among a great many ‘somebodies’ – their profound influence on his life, and the strangely catalytic effect of his life on theirs. It’s written in narrative form in order to avoid (like the plague) any chance of it being mistaken for yet another Me-Me–Memoir.
At first, I called it an Auto-bi-fantasy: Auto– because it was unavoidably (and infuriatingly in many ways) about myself; fantasy, because who, after so many years, could perfectly describe every conversation and event of so long ago, and bi-fantasy because the story is told, entirely subjectively, from the viewpoint of a middle-aged man using his memories as stepping-stones to reach back to the instantaneity of his youth and undo the harm that was to lie in wait for him in years to come.
As for pigeon-holing the book, if in doubt – and you’re feeling generous – give it a shelf to itself. Others will join it, I’m sure (or it will join others). Personally, I think it’s a good thing, every now and then, to find a book which is in some ways not quite like any other.
Did the book achieve its goal from your perspective? Have you tackled those long-buried, unresolved events of your life?
Having buried my past alive by the time I was 21, and not looked back until I was almost fifty, the feeling has been like excavating a mass grave – but of people and events that live on in my mind as vividly today as they did at the time. Had I been a novelist, I could never have invented these characters in all their depth and realism. It’s entirely due to their help that I’ve so far managed, at least partly, to come to terms with my early life.
You mention how your great-uncle was susceptible to criticism. How does it affect you?
I rather like it. Few people are perfect in anyone else’s eyes – still less in their own. I write because I’m incapable of not writing; I write with all my energy, integrity, (for what it’s worth), and with all my heart. Even though I’ve more or less written something every day since I was at school, I’m still serving an apprenticeship, and I expect to be criticised. The difficulty with criticism of a published work is that there’s nothing I can do to correct it until a second edition appears; meanwhile, all I can do is stew in my own mistakes.
You’re published by Galley Beggar Press, a small new independent enterprise. What are the advantages for you, the author?
To be published at all these days is pretty miraculous, especially for a hitherto unpublished author (except in the dim and distant past.) For Henry Layte, Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison to take the risk of publishing The White Goddess : An Encounter as their first book took huge nerve and commitment – and a great deal of money. With a Second Impression already out there, it’s a tribute to their belief in the book, and to the general public’s growing belief in them – as publishers who have taken enormous care over the design, presentation and printing of a book they truly believe in. Their success (and their fate) lies squarely in the hands of Book Clubs like Triskele – of people who love to read books which are not safe, formulaic and mass-produced, but original, bespoke books, full of new interest, whose very existence has been fought for by independent publishers like Galley Beggar. They deserve all the support they can get.
We understand there will be a second book. Will it be a sequel?
Yes. The day after I finished The White Goddess : An Encounter, I went back to my barn and started on the sequel, which is now half finished.
My review of The White Goddess: An Encounter (first published in Words with JAM magazine)
Our 17-year-old narrator is swimming in the sea with his grand-uncle (note: grand, not great), when a boatload of literary tourists discover them. The older man is genial and welcoming, accepting their admiring attentions, much to the contempt of his younger relative. The tourists appreciate it, explaining that Lawrence Durrell gave them short shrift in Provence.
The Durrell reference is apt. The grand-uncle in question is Robert Graves, celebrated poet, friend and contemporary of Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen, whose character and force of personality dominate the book long after his departure.
The White Goddess: An Encounter is a difficult book to define. Even the author calls it an ‘autobifantasy’. Simon Gough is indeed the great-nephew of Robert Graves and relates his memories of three periods of his life which were affected by the great poet. 1953, aged eleven; 1960, aged an agonising seventeen; and 1989, after Graves’s death. His recollections and records are extrapolated into a perfectly woven story; a balance of emotion, tension, growth and change.
The first section, when the child Simon arrives on the island of Mallorca after his parents’ divorce, is described with such brilliance and intensity at ground-level detail. I could not help but be reminded of Gerald Durrell’s observations on nature and eccentric relatives. Humour bubbles up with childlike spontaneity, yet Gough adds a darker level of insecurity. The unfamiliar is fascinating, but also fearsome.
That insecurity is only exacerbated by intensity as the seventeen-year-old Simon returns in 1960. This second trip to the village of Deya is entirely derailed by Margot, Graves’s Muse. Enthralled from the outset, Simon suffers agonies and delights, in a mirror image of his grand-uncle. Again, Durrell springs to mind, but this time, Lawrence. The evocation of the place, period and atmosphere; the precise description, the adoration for a particular geographical arrangement and its peculiar ambience. All this against the threatening backdrop of the Franco regime. Certain passages I could read again and again. Gough makes us fall in love, as much with Deya as with Margot.
Finally, twenty-nine years later, he returns. Once again his memories, opinions and judgements are forced to shift, by the undeniable presence and tangible absence of Graves.
A beautiful, thoughtful and intelligently constructed book, which makes me want to re-read Graves. And to visit Deya. But I suspect the Deya of This Encounter with The White Goddess no longer exists.
A difficult book to define, but an easy book to love.