ECHOES of the English reception of Robert Graves’s autobiography have reached these shores: how the author publicly retracted a statement which cast a slur on Scottish soldiers in the war; how the first 300 copies are fetching 8 apiece, and contain references to Siegfried Sassoon which have since been omitted. Meantime, Tomlinson lovers have been on the outlook for his war book, also coming from England. They make an exceptional couple for review.
MAN makes his own past by the books which he writes about it, and with the recurrence of the war books we can begin to judge how our own day will appear as the past of a day to come. At present it looks as though the honest picture of the war has a chance of defeating the romantic one which usually survives from such episodes Certainly the two fine English war books which have opened the new year have the virtue of honesty and unillusioned facing of the facts.
Robert (Graves, on the point of going to Oxford, went to war instead with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, His autobiography, Good-Bye to All That (Cape & Smith, $3.00), is a life story completely colored by the war years. Its externals differ little from those of many other lives in his generation —the boy of eighteen stepping from school into the army, serving first at a home training camp and then seeing active service as lieutenant and later captain through year after year at the front. But it is set apart by an unforced candor and by a superlative mastery of narrative. The incidents follow one another with telling vividness, and the whole range of one man’s war experience is brought info relation with the pattern of his life and with that of his friends and acquaintances. If one could read only one war book, or one half of one war book, the central portion of this volume might safely be chosen. It is not a typical case, for Mr. Graves is a poet and an individualist, but this gives it all the greater impact. Many of its accounts of behavior at the front, of official blundering and private and public knavery, are startling, but their matter-of-factness puts them above mere scandal or sensationalism. The author’s friendship with Siegfried Sassoon, for example, permits him to tell the whole story of one of the war’s most spectacular figures. The book is free from vanity except for the initial vanity of writing an autobiography at the age of thirtythree. An apology for this is implied in the title and epilogue, which proclaim that that life is now ended for the author. The reader can accept this as a statement of intentions without taking it too seriously as a fact. It will not be easy to put that life away.
In All Our Yesterdays (Harper, $2.50), H. M. Tomlinson attempts something very different: he is creating literature rather than recording fact. In a sense Tomlinson too has written an autobiography, for he has taken the high lights of memory from the span of his active life and drawn from them their ironic comment on civilization. Beginning with the Boer War, and pausing on the way for a glimpse of imperialism at work in the tropics, he comes to 1914 and the Great War, which he follows through in a series of episodes part fiction and part memoir. He has no mercy for human follies; and he despairs at our failure to learn from our mistakes. But he retains a warm regard for the qualities of individual character, and this permits him to offer a comforting sense of man’s true possibilities. One would like to give nothing but praise to this magnificently written book. Every paragraph bears the mark of a modern master of language, and over each episode broods a thoughtful and feeling nature. The writing is rich with metaphor, cadence, and lavish variety of phrase. But it suffers as a work of art from two or three serious faults. The repeated shift from fiction to memoir is disturbing. While the episodes are. well chosen and perfect in themselves, the wisdom of their arrangement and emphasis as parts of a whole is not always apparent. The allusive style makes severe demands on the reader — even the force of the title
is weakened if its context b not remembered; and the entire first part of the book holds few rewards for readers whose adult memories do not go back to London in 1900. Finally, if is open to question whether such writing as this is truly effective for material so immediate as the war scenes. It is realism, but with the overtones made explicit. In passing through a ruined town he sees a child’s doll ‘sprawled in mimicry of wanton grief’ or a dead horse ‘whose horrific grin was apocalyptic’ — where the fact of the doll or the grinning horse would be far more telling than his comment. These criticisms all suggest that Mr. Tomlinson is an essayist rather than a narrator, and that All Our Yesterdays ought to be judged in the category of belles-lettres. On that plane, however, it has no recent peers; and because it vivifies fact with understanding, it takes on the qualities of enduring literature.