The White Goddess: An Encounter – Simon Gough

the white goddessAbout two years after finishing university, once Mr FH and I had proper jobs that paid enough to get us off the bread line, we did something we’d never done before and have not done since; we went on a package holiday.  To Majorca.  It was one of those pot luck affairs, “assign on arrival” I think they call it, basically we didn’t know where we were staying.  Luckily for us the reps on the coach from Palma airport didn’t ask us to alight at Magaluf.  Despite still being in our 20’s we could see it wasn’t for us.   Further around the coast was our final destination.  A resort called Peguera, which to my memory was particularly favoured by German tourists, and the local eateries definitely pandered to their palates; Bratwurst, Sauerkraut and even Eisbein (pigs trotters – I kid you not) were on the menus at the restaurants on the strip.  We had a cute little ground floor apartment with a patio and spent a lovely week tearing around the island in a hired Peugeot 106 trying to avoid being maimed on the winding Majorcan roads frequented by crazy locals.  One of our excursions was to Deya, a tiny coastal village on the west side of the island.  We wanted to visit the place where poet and writer Robert Graves lived and worked for most of his life, he is also buried there, as is his wife.  There is no denying, it is a beautiful hamlet in an idyllic setting which undoubtedly provided a sanctuary for him to write.  But my abiding memory is that Deya was crawling with tourists, like us.  The locals were unfriendly, not without reason I guess and it was altogether slightly disappointing.  I think I built up my expectations and hoped to feel some of the mysticism and poetic magic that is supposed to surround the place, and I just didn’t.  We had a very nice menu del dia before taking our lives into our hands again, en route to some other hamlet.  I know what you are thinking…you are wondering where this is leading.   Here it comes.

I thought of this holiday while reading The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough, the grand-nephew of Robert Graves, who incidentally was educated right here in my local town at the big scary private school on the hill.  In the author’s own words from his forward, this book is:

..a fragment of autobiography written in narrative form in order to breathe new lfe into a remarkable story which occured over fifty years ago..

So, neither completely fact, nor completely fiction, more of a mash-up of the two and it really is remarkable.  At the beginning we meet Simon in 1989, he is an antiquarian book dealer in his 40’s mulling over a life-threatening illness and the prospect of returning to Majorca for the first time in over 25 years.

…The past was not to be trifled with..My past had haunted me for so long that if I didn’t attempt to return to it now – lay bare the ruins which had become the foundations of the rest of my life, I’d not only have denied its existence, but denied my own…

That passage gives you a flavour of the way this book is written; in a slightly melodramatic tone.  Don’t let that put you off because Gough has a gift for description and although sometimes a bit long-winded and on occasion, laboured, his writing is wonderfully lyrical and almost mesmerising.

The story revolves around Simon’s visits to Graves’ house in Majorca when he was 10 and 17/18.  On his first visit he is with his highly strung and newly divorced mother.  At the Graves’ household he finds the freedom to roam, releasing him from the stifling grip of his mother and the stuffy English school he attends back home.  The lifestyle in Deya is bohemian, the larger-than-life Graves is surrounded by family and other admiring artists. Simon feels safe and at home and soon makes great friends with his Grand-Uncle.

When he returns aged 17 there is a new member of the inner circle.  24 year old Margot is Robert’s muse.  He believes she is the reincarnation of an ancient goddess.  The muse was very important to Robert’s work and although not his first, Margot seemed to have a profound affect on his writing.  Margot and Robert’s first meeting is described as causing the following reaction:

…his hair stood on end and he felt as though he were having a heart attack or a stroke or something because shards of words…and fragments of poems he’d already written in the future…started to flash through his brain like missiles.  He said that his head was full of chaos, as if he’d broken through to a new universe.. 

Margot is beautiful, distant, indifferent and almost exotic.  Simon is in awe of her as though she really were the mythical creature she is supposed to be, he feels an overwhelming magnetic attraction to her and Margot is somehow drawn to Simon, trusts him, befriends him and finds an ally in him, which of course is his undoing.

The story shifts to Madrid, where Margot goes for a rest from Robert and Simon to study.  Simon’s loyalties are torn between the two, he has promised Robert to look after Margot, yet Margot makes him promise not to tell Robert her address, she refuses to write to him and Simon knows how this must be affecting Robert’s writing.  Madrid is where things go horribly wrong and Simon eventually realises his part in the final betrayal.

This book feels like catharsis fiction (or Auto-bi-fantasy, as the author calls it), as though Simon Gough needs to get it all off his chest, every last detail.  And there is a lot of detail and minute description in The White Goddess.  Having said that, it is captivating and touches on themes of loyalty, family and personal freedom.  Gough builds the tension effectively, to the point where I was gritting my teeth and muttering at Simon, wondering why he couldn’t see what was going on.  I knew things couldn’t end well, because quite early on I had that feeling of foreboding.  The way Gough describes his teenage self, so passionate and infatuated, self-centred and blind with love is true to the maniacal fever that comes over you as a teenager, desperately in love for the first time.

Readers who pop by frequently will know how much I love a bit of landscape in literature, and there is plenty in The White Goddess with descriptions of the winding roads I mentioned earlier, vertigo inducing precipitous cliffs, gorgeous beaches and barren, dusty countryside.  You can almost feel the sultry warmth, taste the dust and see the heat shimmer. This is a long book at 650 pages, but worth the time it takes to read and I would encourage you to give it a go.  I don’t recall what I read on that holiday in Majorca, but this would have been perfect.

I was sent this book by the publisher, Galley Beggar Press and I owe them a bit of an apology for my tardiness seeing as I received it back in September.  I read it quite quickly and sat down on several occasions to write but couldn’t.  I’ve needed some time to digest it!  Sorry Sam!  Galley Beggar is a new independent publishing house, with only this and one other book in their catalogue.  Their newest book My Elvis Blackout by Simon Crump has had great reviews in the last week.  Check them out here: Galley Beggar Press

This book is now off to Literary Taste, who lives in Madrid and I’m sure will appreciate it.

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4 thoughts on “The White Goddess: An Encounter – Simon Gough”

  1. Graves was a fascinating character, one of those Edwardian survivals who seems to define the Twentieth Century in terms both ancient and modern. One day I hope to visit Majorca. I can’t wait to read the book!

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