Monday, August 27, 2012


Yesterday while going through my shelves of books, I stumbled upon a volume that I had thought was lost to me. Years ago, when I used to give some of my books away to friends I thought would be educated by them, I had recalled passing this one on as a gift. But I must have only considered doing this and thought better of it. I'm so happy that I didn't act on the impulse, but kept it.

One of the most influential points in my world as a writer came when I read OCCUPATION: WRITER by the great author, Robert Graves. Graves is best known today for his novels, I, CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD AND HIS WIFE, MESSILINA, and his memoir GOODBYE TO ALL THAT. I had read a number of his novels and was casting around for more of his work. In a used bookshop in Roanoke VA I stumbled upon an old paperback copy of OCCUPATION: WRITER.

My copy of OCCUPATION: WRITER. Pure literary gold.

This book is a collection of various pieces of his shorter works. Short stories, essays, articles, and plays. It was Graves' intention to showcase the fact that he was a professional writer and to indicate the breadth and reach of his abilities in various forms. I was attracted, of course, to the short stories. Two of the stories within this book hooked me like nothing I had ever read. From that moment on I looked at the creation of a short story in a different light and I don't recall ever allowing the influence of those two tales to fade away.

The stories were probably published as mainstream fiction in the 1920s when they first found the light of print, but they are both very definitely horror yarns of the first order. When I read "The Shout" I was impressed at the power of the work, and if there's a better lesson in how to slowly build tension and terror, I've yet to encounter it. In "Old Papa Johnson" he introduces the reader to a pair of soldiers recovering from severe wounds in a hospital. One--the Old Papa Johnson of the tale recounts an Antarctic adventure to the much younger soldier, referred to as Graveyspoons by the older man and who is obviously supposed to be Graves himself. I assume the yarn was inspired by something similar that happened when he really was in hospital during the First World War. As the story progresses as one of mainly historical interest and character humor, it slowly degrades into a very dark incident ending, at last, in an act of pure, cold-blooded monstrosity. I've yet to see any author equal it for power.

It's sad to think that in today's world of self-published garbage, sub-normal TV scripts, and the degradation we experience as the ebook fad, that we may now be looking upon the end of the days of the true professional writers. Gone are the skills and the powers of writers such as Robert Graves. Now we have a new normal of bad writing, self-publishing, and circle-jerks parading as literature. Alas.


Lawrence Roy Aiken said...

I still have the hardcover of _Occupation: Writer_ you sent me back in 2005 or 2006. I especially loved "Old Papa Johnson" as the character was such an unapologetic, flaming queen, the kind I used to know back in high school whom no one bothered because of the sheer force of their personalities. I had to laugh at what happened to Johnson's Antarctic "playmate" in the story, though, Just goes to show: don't ever fuck with a guy who knows the surrounding and its environment better than you do.

I really appreciated the raw contempt with which Graves spoke in one essay for having to raise "funding" -- i.e., get a job -- so he could write. Your average American slave would slag him for his "poor attitude" before putting another Koch in their mouths and slurping away -- "mah mumma n diddy tawt me how to work HARD!" -- congratulating themselves all the while for being such loyal and faithful servants to the Lord. For all their puff-chested belligerence, Americans pride themselves on their servility to their masters and could never begin to understand Graves' attitude.

James Robert Smith said...

Graves would almost always find employment via the pen. One of the work-for-hire jobs that made him the most money was working with T.E. Lawrence to pen a biography about him (for children!). That made him quite a nice haul of loot, as I understand it.

When he wrote GOODBYE TO ALL THAT, he was thumbing his nose at Britain once and for all to go live forever ( or so he thought)at the estate he'd purchased on Majorca. The Navy had to come and pick him up when the Nazis installed Franco in power. So Graves spent a chunk of the war years here in the States. Seems he was tossed out of one university gig for pissing off someone...can't recall. I don't think he liked it here.

One thing that I've never really forgiven Graves for was the Franco-apology he wrote upon returning to Majorca. It was unnecessary for one thing--he didn't need to write it--and to say that the Spanish Republicans were no better than Franco...fuck. He almost lost me forever on that one.

And he was a hell of a sucker when it came to women. He believed in love at first sight. Of course he utterly abandoned his first wife for that monstrous harridan, Laura Riding. And then suffered at Riding's hands. Got what he deserved, I reckon. Of course he turned his experience with that monster into literary gold (and real gold) by basing his version of the Lady Livia (wife of Augustus Caesar) on Riding.