Robert Graves: The Years With Laura, 1926-1940
This has to be one of the funniest biographies ever written, and the funniest thing about it is the way in which the spotlight is constantly being deflected from its ostensible subject — poet, novelist, and pundit Robert Graves (I, Claudius; Good-bye to All That; The Greek Myths) — to illuminate his muse, mistress, and nemesis, Laura Riding, a woman of gargantuan and zany self- esteem who rivals the best of Dickens’ comic monsters in the splendor and variety of her awfulness. History, Riding often confided to her initiates, had come to its destined end in her own more-than-human person; she embodied, and I quote, ”Finality!”
Richard Perceval’s Robert Graves: The Years With Laura, 1926-1940 is the second of what promises to be three volumes, but thanks to Riding’s overriding presence, the book is quite sufficient to itself. One quickly gets a fix on Graves’ school years, apprentice writing, trench warfare, marriage, and four children. Then, in 1926, enter Laura Riding, an American poet who had already, by age 25, divorced one husband, was rumored to have had an abortion in the aftermath of an affair with poet Allen Tate, and endeared herself to the poetry frog pond by what would become a lifelong strategy: making megalomaniacal claims for the importance of poetry and, as a corollary, for herself as the leading poet of the age. In Graves, Riding found someone whose need to abase himself before a woman of stronger character perfectly matched her need to dominate. The result was an emotional vortex that would suck dozens of other luckless victims into it over the next 15 years.
The first of their victims was Graves’ ever-complaisant wife, Nancy, who spent years keeping house for a ménage à trois and bringing up the kids. The ménage expanded to a foursome when another poet, Geoffrey Phibbs, succumbed to Riding’s charms. The resulting erotic permutations constitute an epic farce that climaxes in a double suicide attempt when Riding, distraught that Geoffrey had fallen in love with Nancy, jumped from a fourth-story window and Graves, not to be outdone, ran down a flight of stairs and jumped out a third- story window. Riding was partially crippled and secured thereafter a position as an albatross about Graves’ neck.
Off they went, funded by Graves’ knack for producing best-sellers, to found their own art colony on the isle of Majorca. Their writing life was like an endless duet of ”Anything you can do, I can do better,” with the significant difference that Graves, secure in his fame and fortune, always acceded to Riding’s preeminence even when she wrote terminally dull novels and poems.
There is a happy ending. As World War II looms, Riding abandons Europe and Graves for an American poet, Schuyler Jackson, whom she marries after his wife is consigned to an insane asylum. Few writers manage to live lives interesting enough for the movies. The Graves/Riding saga would do for a hefty miniseries on the scale of I, Claudius. A