Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

On Robert Graves

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Do you notice anything strange about this room?…Well, everything is made by hand—with one exception: this nasty plastic triple file which was given me as a present. I’ve put it here out of politeness for two or three weeks, then it will disappear. Almost everything else is made by hand. Oh yes, the books have been printed, but many have been printed by hand—in fact some I printed myself. Apart from the electric light fixtures, everything else is handmade; nowadays very few people live in houses where anything at all is made by hand…One secret of being able to think is to have as little as possible around you that is not made by hand.

—Robert Graves, to The Paris Review

When I was growing up, one of my heroes was the poet and novelist Robert Graves, author of The White Goddess, which is one of those great and seductive books that can easily lead a young writer down a dangerous intellectual dead end. These days, I tend to regard The White Goddess as an infinitely more inventive and sophisticated version of one of those historical conspiracy books, like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, that might “inspire” someone like Dan Brown. But it’s still an amazing piece of work, full of wild guesses and incredible leaps of logic, with more fascinating ideas—right or wrong—in a single chapter than most authors have in an entire career.

Graves, too, remains a strange and inspiring figure: a scholar and a mystic, deeply learned in a way that seems impossible today, both hugely organized and capable of insane flights of fancy. The Paris Review article quoted above skims the surface of his singularity, but for an even more interesting look, check out Roger Ebert’s interview with him from 1966, which was posted online for the first time ever last week. The chance encounter of Graves with Ebert, another one of my heroes, is full of wonderful moments, especially the one where Graves claims to cure Ebert of scrofula. And I’ll be writing more about Graves—and what his example means for other writers—tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

December 26, 2010 at 10:43 am

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