Robert Graves’s writing paradise
A visit to the English poet and novelist’s home in Majorca
Robert Graves (1895–1985)
Though I’m someone who revels in the mundane details of writers’ lives, I don’t think I’ve ever visited a famous writer’s house—until last month, when on vacation in Majorca I dragged my wife away from the sun and sea and jamón to tour the home of the English poet and novelist Robert Graves. (In truth, I didn’t have to drag very hard; we’re both fans of Graves’s 1934 novel I, Claudius and the 1976 BBC series it spawned.)
For me, writers’ houses are by definition melancholy. They are often obscure, undervisited, quiet, and dark. They remind me of death. And they aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand.
But Graves’s house, it turned out, could hardly be less melancholy. A two-story stone building set in the olive grove–lined hillsides of Deiá, on the mountainous northern side of the island, with a lush garden and a view of the Mediterranean, Graves’s house is a rustic, sun-drenched dream of the writer’s life. It has been preserved for visitors by his son William, who has said that his goal was to retain, as much as possible, “the way in which he lived in the house when he was at his most creative, between the 1930s and the 1950s. . . . The vegetable garden is planted as if Robert were to come out from his study to pick tomatoes, aubergines, lettuce or a melon for his lunch.”
On arrival, visitors are first shown a brief, entertaining documentary about Graves’s life and work. (You can read the transcript here.) Born in Wimbledon in 1895, Graves moved to Majorca in 1929, seeking a refuge after the horrors of World War I, where he was badly wounded, and the breakup of his first marriage. (It was Gertrude Stein who suggested he consider Majorca.) After renting a house that proved unsuitable, Graves had a new one built to his specifications: a study for himself, another for his partner and fellow writer Laura Riding, and a spare study for visiting friends, plus a light-filled room for the printing press that Graves and Riding operated together.
Graves and Riding’s backstory is, um, interesting. When they met, Graves was already married and had four children with his first wife, Nancy Nicholson. But their marriage was strained (due, in part, to Graves’s severe postwar PTSD), and Nicholson was open to Graves seeing another woman. Together, the three of them attempted a triadic relationship that they dubbed “The Trinity.” But the Trinity morphed into the “Holy Circle” with the addition of the Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs. Then things really got messy: Riding fell in love with Phibbs, but Phibbs preferred Nicholson, and when he threatened to leave the Circle altogether, a despairing Riding jumped out of a fourth-floor window. Miraculously, she survived, and Graves nursed her back to health while writing his autobiography Good-Bye to All That, which became a bestseller. The proceeds from the book allowed him and Riding to start afresh in Majorca.
Unfortunately, money soon became a problem again. “I’d been let down in a land deal,” Graves explained in a 1965 interview. “I had to find four thousand pounds, and I’d mortgaged my house.” The solution, as he saw it, was to write another bestseller, so he produced I, Claudius. “I wrote it and I made eight thousand pounds in six months, and that saved my house,” Graves said. “It was purely a practical job.” He quickly followed it with a sequel, Claudius the God, and the books’ massive popularity not only allowed Graves to pay off his debts but hire a typist as well.
Speaking of which: The documentary included some revealing glimpses of Graves’s writing process. He wrote first drafts by hand in pen and ink, then began a lengthy editing process, crossing out lines with a paintbrush. Later drafts were typed, and discards were crumpled up and tossed into a wastebasket in the corner of his cozy, book-lined study.
When he was writing one of his historical novels, Graves liked to handle an object from that era: a coin, a piece of a statue, an old tile, or a similar chunk of “ancient evidence.” Turning one of these objects about in his hands while he daydreamed about his story, he was able to, he said, “get something out of it in an odd way.”
But while he’s most famous for his autobiography and his historical novels, Graves always thought of himself as a poet, and he thought of his prose-writing as merely a way to pay the bills. “Prose books,” he said, “are the show dogs I breed to sell and support my cat.” That didn’t mean, however, that he thought those books were bad. “This is to be said for the money motive,” Graves once wrote, “that an eye to salability of work obliges a writer to take some thought for his readers, and may even help him cultivate a clear, vigorous, economical style.”
I like that. We’re accustomed to think of creative work done for money as “selling out,” when, in reality—as Graves suggests and as I’m finding in the research for my next book—financial pressure is just as likely to lend the artist a level of urgency and focus that leads to his or her very best work.
SPEAKING OF THE MONEY MOTIVE…
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