I’ve posted a shorter version of this review on Amazon and Goodreads, but for publication on my blog, I’ve added some additional remarks and examples. In fact, this review really belongs on my other blog because it focuses on myth in literature, but I'm posting it here, hoping it will accrue more attention that way.
I have sometimes thought that all fiction of merit contains elements of fantasy and Simon Gough’s The White Goddess: An Encounter is no exception. The author, a grandnephew of the writer Robert Graves, calls his book an “auto-bi-fantasy,” a term that makes for an accurate description. The piece is autobiographical, but it also inhabits fantasy worlds.
Graves was foremost a Poet with a capital P, but he was also a novelist and a classical scholar, writing what I consider to be the essential distillation of Greek myth, entitled (appropriately) The Greek Myths. He also wrote his own White Goddess, a book of poetic theory in which he details how poetry and myth are related (and I sympathize with Simon’s attempts to read that book: he writes, “It’s a bit like fighting one’s way through an impenetrable Welsh forest in pitch darkness.” Personally, I’ve never managed to fight my way all the way through; I’ve mostly just dipped into it.)
In both works, Graves sets forth his personal, quirky views of poetry and myth. First, the poet must have a Muse, who can be a human woman who incarnates the White Goddess (the ancient female principle whose worship Graves believed to have preceded Zeus worship) and inspires him to great feats (he states that all genuine poetry is about the Goddess). Second, he develops the concept of the death of the year as embodied in the myth of the Twin Kings, one of whom is killed at the Goddess’s whim at the winter solstice and replaced by the other.
Gough’s White Goddess contains two fantasy worlds that arise straight from Graves’ familiarity with and personal view of Greek myth. The Island of Majorca and specifically the region around Deya where Graves lived for the greater part of his life, palpably embodies the Golden Age of Greece, when gods and spirits walked the Earth in harmony, permeated by the archaic worship of the Triple Goddess but presided over by Zeus. In this case Zeus is the mighty Graves himself, who emerges as an Olympian figure – intellectually and physically all-powerful, yet rife with the brutish nature of humanity, even as were the Greek gods: he farts, sneezes and hacks, blows his nose on his fingers, takes out his false teeth at the table in order to clear out pips that are hurting his gums (in a memorable scene). Graves is larger than life, overwhelmingly charming, straightforward, and supportive toward the ten-year-old Simon, yet always dangerous, ready to fling lightning bolts. If one were to novelize Greek myth, Zeus might be endowed with those very same qualities.
On a darker note, Graves also becomes the Minotaur, in the climactic chapter entitled the same. Simon even approaches his final confrontation through a grotto. It’s a powerful scene, mirroring the bullfight scene in Madrid, which occurs at another climactic point in the story:
“ ‘And you knew!’ he bellowed, his monstrous dark forequarters twisting round in front of me as he grabbed the arms of my chair –
“I nodded dumbly, paralysed by my awful vision of him, his huge head still twisting around, aligning the horns of his hatred, his fury, to my heart, my head – ”
The golden world of Deya dominates up to the point where the 18-year-old Simon leaves for Franco’s Madrid of the 1960’s. This is the second, contrasting fantasy world – a dystopian cityscape of horrors – an underworld presided over by an unseen Hades (Franco?) with his legions of demon guards, and inhabited by grotesques whom Simon encounters when he first arrives alone in the city. Is the porter of the pensión Cerberus, rattling keys to the underworld? Is the legless beggar in his cart, whom Simon placates with coins, Charon conducting the spirits across the Styx? There is even the requisite descent into the Underworld in the visit to the catacombs, complete with guide (Alastair), and Simon brings back a token from that place to prove he has completed the anabasis. Of course, no exact correlations can be drawn here between myth and reality, but for me these implications add mightily to the weight and suggestiveness of the book.
Strangely, while Simon’s vision of Margot Callas (the incarnation of the White Goddess herself – or is she, too, only a metaphor, a wish fulfillment?) is often erotic, there is no explicit sex in the book. One is not sure with whom Margot has had sex, or even whether she has ever had sex with anyone. Just what aspect of the Triple Goddess is she? Aphrodite or Athena Parthenos? Or is she the Crone, the Death-Giver? Most likely, you could call her Hecate, the Triple Goddess, embodying all three aspects.
As to style, it’s florid in the extreme, loaded with similes and metaphors which are highly effective but which gush out at a breathless pace that can be exhausting. The book also exists at a high emotional stress level. The characters never do anything halfway or with restraint. Part of this is the point of view – Simon is so young and so full of raging hormones, expected to behave with a maturity he couldn’t possibly possess. And the author makes heavy and obvious metaphorical use of the weather – the violent lightning storm in Madrid at a moment of intense passion, the sirocco in Deya near the end when the Golden World is falling apart.
I could give many examples of the use of metaphor in the book, but I’ll limit myself to only two.
One of the most memorable moments comes when Margot is first revealed in her Goddess state:
“Once they’d gone, I glanced around at Margot – but she’d vanished again, not physically this time – she was palpably standing there, facing into the sun from the step above me – but her face was sphinx-like, still, and so suffused with evening sunlight that the source of it appeared to be buried deep within her. Some trick of the light had turned her eyes into liquid gold, their moltenness overflowing, not as tears, but as a tegument, a golden mask, set forever in that instant –
“Whoever she was, or said she was, and wherever she said she came from, the face I’d just witnessed belonged to another time and to another world. Whether or not it had been a trick of the light, I knew that I could never see her in the same light again; there was more than one of her… and sometimes there was none.”
One thinks instantly of the golden “Mask of Agamemnon” excavated from the ruins of Mycenae.
In fact, staring into the sun is a noticeably frequent occurrence in the book; at one point Simon almost blinds himself doing so. Who is not blinded by staring into the face of the Goddess?
Another striking example of metaphor occurs after Margot has departed and Simon and Robert are walking down to the sea for a swim:
“We were walking along the bank of the torrent now, in the deepest part of the gorge, the dry riverbed choked with elephant boulders and dead trees, strangely ominous in the silence of its violent past, the dripping limestone caves on the far bank leaking a deep rust-red trickle from oxidization, like menstrual blood seeping from the womb of the mountains behind us –
“She was here – still – as she had always been! I had to believe it!”
What could be a clearer evocation that the Goddess inhabits and pervades all things, but particularly the body of that magical, ancient island called Majorca?
To descend from the sublime, I want to speak of a major oversight in the Kindle formatting of this book: the lack of a linked table of contents. It doesn’t even have an unlinked ToC, and it’s a long book (450 pages in the paperback version); if you lose your place, there is no easy way to find where you left off. And I never got a real sense of the shape of the book – for example, whether there is any coherence or sequence to the way the author names his chapters. What I should have done was to write down the Chapter headings and Part titles as I went along so I could make use of the search function on Kindle. The word “Chapter” isn’t even part of the headings, so you can’t use that for a search. It would be helpful to future readers if the publisher republished the Kindle version with a linked ToC added.
At Amazon, the book is available only on Kindle, although some Expanded Distribution sources for the paperback do appear there. For a new paperback, you need to go the publisher’s website http://www.galleybeggar.co.uk/book-store, and that would require shipping from the UK. It would be more convenient for Americans if the publisher placed the book for sale on Amazon. I don’t find it in Barnes & Noble, either, although I’m sure any regular bookstore would order a copy for you.
For me, being captivated by both Robert Graves (whom I'll never look at quite the same way again) and by the function of myth both in literature and in our lives, this book had an unforgettable impact. I will certainly read the promised sequel, and I strongly recommend the work, particularly for anyone who shares those interests with me.
View Max Cairnduff's review of this book here.
View Max Cairnduff's review of this book here.