THE FADING MARGIN: serial 28Posted: June 28, 2013
A SUMMER IN MALLORCA
Though he had not actively sought the status of Deya’s most prominent resident, it was one that Robert enjoyed. Like most of us, he liked to be liked and was not difficult to become acquainted with, though notably parsimonious thereafter with his tolerance for anyone who failed to interest him either for their intrinsic selves, or for their usefulness. If this seems to detract from his own congeniality, it does him an injustice: he was generally kind and as generous as he could afford to be, even with his time. Such interest as I possessed for him was certainly not that of the aspiring writer, an article all too common on the Deya scene, but rested rather upon a triviality or two in common. Each of us had gone straight from school into the army and served for 5 years. Robert had been in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, I in the 53rd (Welsh) Division. Both of us had gone to Oxford. Each of us had been a boxer and broken his nose.
Years later, Robert was to say that there was a time in Deya when the only two foreigners who ever did any serious work there were himself and I. Fanciful though the exaggeration was, a document here on my desk suggests that it may have held a grain of substance. Some 70,000 words long, the yellowing, heavily corrected typescript is a monument to a doomed attempt to write a first novel. Once the move to Deya had been decided on it had seemed the obvious thing to do; what else could sensibly occupy me in a remote hillside village in Mallorca? There would be no dearth of material, I had thought, no need for creative invention: the experiences of the past few years had surely embraced as much real-life agony and ecstasy as any best-seller might require. Besides, unless they underwent some sort of catharsis, the emotional traumas that were still so much with me could only continue to exert an increasingly baleful influence on an already unpromising future. Never waste good agony seemed especially appropriate to the circumstances. I almost began to search for a title that would look well in the book reviews.
So, as A Summer in Mallorca bears witness, I worked. I started early, stopped more or less when I had run out of steam, in between wrestled mightily with plotting and scene-setting and character-building and dialogue and, as I supposed, whatever else novelists were advised to attend to. So I rejoiced when I had had what seemed to have been an especially good morning and despaired when I had nothing to show for hours of hard labour except a few paragraphs that I knew were no good before the ink was dry on the paper. The trouble was that I had so far not done too badly at writing short factual pieces that editors were willing to pay me for, but had everything to learn about any other form of creative writing. To be of serious literary worth agony needs to mature. In its unseasoned state, poetry, not prose, is the medium for its expression and Robert would have been capable of putting mine to better use. He not only knew what a competent writer could do with the pain of unrequited love, but insisted on the poet’s necessity of it. (Hence —he would have argued, and did assiduously preach— the indispensability of his famous Muses.) In Deya I was too close to the past: our hero in the would-be novel looks far too like myself; our heroine is the double of the girl who faced me across the candles in Trastevere and swam costumeless with me at Capri’s Faraglioni; the villain of the poorly plotted piece is clearly identifiable in press cuttings of the period as a panellist on TV’s popular Brains Trust; the dialogue is reproduced from the audio loop that was still running in my head. But real life requires skilful contrivance if it is to be publishable. The Deya typescript, testament to the industry that Robert Graves advertised, is too much authenticity and not nearly enough artistry. What value the 70,000 words may have represented as emotional therapy I cannot say. What a publisher might have given for them I have never dared enquire.
In at least one respect Robert’s extravagant pronouncement regarding foreigners in Deya was outrageously flawed: it took no account of the man upon whom he was almost as dependent as upon the very air he breathed. Replying to my enquiry about accommodation earlier in the year, Karl Gay’s self-identification as ‘secretary’ had been a ridiculous belittling of his true status. Born Karl Goldschmidt, a refugee from the burgeoning Nazi terror of the late 1930s, he had first met Graves in Mallorca in 1933 and begun working for him and Laura Riding in Deya the following year. In 1936, with the outbreak of the Spanish civil war imminent, he had joined them in a last-minute evacuation to England and only by quick thinking and energetic negotiation on Grave’s part had escaped forced repatriation to Germany and almost certain death. On their return to live in Mallorca in 1947, Graves and his second wife, Beryl, invited Gay to return to Deya and his old job. Accompanied by his recently acquired pretty and lively English wife, Irene (“René”), the 35-year-old Karl, now a naturalised Briton, moved into Can Torrent, the house which Robert owned, neighbouring his own.
“My peppery task-master” was Graves’s own assessment of Karl’s status for the next 18 years. It disguised a multitude of services without which Graves himself would professionally have been desolate. Transforming the poet and novelist’s prodigious outpouring of hand-written work with its plethora of corrections into typescript acceptable to a publisher was alone an indispensable function requiring uncommon skills, but Karl’s contribution to the finished publication went much further: when occasion demanded, he was not only researcher, but copy editor and not always welcome literary critic. Standing in for Robert’s own conscience, as so often he felt obliged to do, Karl was not unwilling, if pressed, to agree that he possibly knew the poet and his best interests better than Robert himself knew them. Grave’s detractors have sometimes accused him of exploitation of the man who served him with something like devotion for almost thirty years. Karl, viscerally grateful for the part that Robert had played in saving him from the Holocaust, never made such a charge. René Gay, whose attitude to life, though far from sentimental, fell engagingly short of the cynical, could be merciless in her appraisal of Robert’s many idiosyncrasies and (as she saw them) affectations. Karl, by contrast, was seldom without a mitigation, tending, if cornered, to resort to the defence that Robert would have had no difficulty in endorsing: poets were not to be judged by the tenets of ordinary mortals. Asked for his thoughts on Robert’s famous (or infamous) ‘Muses’, Karl would be inclined to entertain the possibility of the writer’s need for poetic inspiration. René would lift her eyes entreatingly to the ceiling and tilt back her head in a silent but eloquent “If you believe that you’ll believe anything”! To anyone of Robert’s close acquaintance, Karl and René Gay were as much a part of Deya as the most famous foreigner himself.
It has been suggested by the most readable of Graves’s two principal biographers (Miranda Seymour, Life on the Edge) that his decline, both physical and mental, became marked in the early 1960s. I can bear scant witness to the facts. Before 1959 I had never met him. Later, I was not with him frequently enough to make such a judgement. During my time in Mallorca he was often absent, when he was there he was still working too hard to be gregarious. In the montage of snapshots that passes for remembrance of that summer he features only twice. In the first he is in the garden at Canellun, burlesquing Lawrence of Arabia at a rehearsal for his traditional 24th July birthday play in which, implausibly, I played the part of a cowboy. In the second, wearing swimming trunks, he is standing on the rocks at what he liked to think of as his private bathing place a short distance round the corner from the Cala, but without a beach, and therefore unattractive to the great majority of holidaymakers. To anyone who knew the form, it was not done to bathe here unless Robert had suggested it. Occasionally our visits would coincide and we would walk back together up the rough track leading to Canellun and the village. A visiting Kingsley Amis, aged only 40 but the worse for a self-indulgent life-style, is said to have done the same a year or two later and found it hard to match his 67-year-old companion’s pace.
Holding so much of the summer that I loved, another frame in the Deya montage is also one of the most evocative. At a table by the railings on the very edge of the concrete floor of the restaurant at the Cala, two men are having lunch. Both are wearing shorts. One, myself, is also wearing a half-sleeved blue shirt; the other, though topless, escapes any charge of giving offence by reason of being handsomely built and deeply tanned. For both of us, together or alone or in other company of our choosing, lunching at the Cala is without any doubt the most agreeable thing that we ever do or can imagine doing in Deya. It is what Deya is ‘all about’. Perched up on the rock at the west side of the cove, in the slender shade of the slatted reeds, there is often a whisper of a breeze. For thirst, there is the wine, always ordered by colour and the capacity of the container, never by branded bottle. For the unfailing appetite there are the salads and fish (and lamb chops and escallops of beef) and island cheese and generous quantities of bread. The proprietor’s family does much of the fishing and all of the cooking. Maria, the strikingly attractive daughter, does most of the serving. This, it is agreed, is the quintessence of Mediterranean bliss, a delight equal to that to be savoured at ten times the price in fashionable waterfront tavernas in the isles of the Aegean or simple little millionaire hideaways on the Ligurian Riviera. In countless other places from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Cedars of Lebanon, fair women and braver men than us are seated at impeccably furnished tables on 12-crewed yachts or 3-starred terraces in jet-set rendezvous, spooning caviare from ice-packed bowls, sipping Meursault and Montrachet poured by white-jacketed sommeliers, while whole brigades of cooks prepare the langoustines royales croustillantes or the selle d’agneau en croûte de pain au sel. But at this moment we would rather be here today with whatever that cool white wine in the carafe happens to be and whatever Maria has recommended on our plates than anywhere else on earth.
We came up from the beach about half past one (Maria knows our lunchtime habits and has defended the corner table by the railings against all other would-be occupiers) and it is now getting on for four o’clock. Two whole carafes have come and gone. I am still sitting, lazily asking myself if I have what it takes to go back down to the beach and doze under a sunshade until the evening cool begins, when my companion gets to his feet, kicks off his sandals, says “race you for the price of lunch”, climbs over the railings, dives into the 15 feet-deep crystal-clear water ten feet below and powers his way to the far side of the cove. There is not the slightest chance of my accepting the wager. For one thing, I was brought up strictly to believe that it is dangerous to bathe soon after a meal. For another, I swim with what I can best describe as a laborious cross between a breaststroke and a sidestroke and don’t intend making a fool of myself by comparison with the challenger’s easy overarm crawl, of which inhibition he is well aware.
In a little while, the swimmer returns, barefoot, with a towel draped round his neck, plonks himself down at the table, from which everything but a jug of water and glasses has been cleared, looks impatiently round for Maria and when he catches her eye opens his arms wide in an unmistakable gesture of urgent and agonised supplication, which Maria acknowledges with a smile of long-suffering understanding. In a few minutes she is making her way to our table with another carafe of white wine and a wicker basket of chopped baguette.
My so-far-anonymous vis-à-vis is my junior by some eight years but we were contemporaries at Oxford where he, like me, read history. At the university we moved in different circles, but I once incautiously accepted a lift with him in his open sports car after a party, when he characteristically took a sharp bend at a speed which a sober calculation of elementary kinetics and geometry would have found to be wildy imprudent, writing off the car and (so the police and the proctors warned) very nearly the driver’s academic career into the bargain. Seeing the bend approaching, I had remembered military training in crash procedures, taken appropriate precautions and walked away almost unscathed. The man at the wheel bore the scars for the rest of his cruelly short life.
Had we been there 25 years in the future, my luncheon companion at the Cala would have been instantly recognised by many of our fellow visitors as the most controversial (and perhaps the most popular) news reader on their television screens. He was Reggie Bosanquet. “A man of consummate excess”, said a friend. Where most people would be content with a single measure, Reggie would demand a double. When two or three had proved enough for any reasonable person, Reggie would call for a fourth, or a fifth; not merely selfishly, but with insistence on the participation of all those present. “An irrepressible joie de vivre” was an attribute accorded him by a life-long admirer. It was an attribute not suited to all occasions and all comers, but for the ten days he was in Deya that summer it was a source of more pleasure than resentment. Karl Gay argued politics with him, René scolded him for his flirtatious indiscretions and leaving tar from the beach on her carpet, but much enjoyed his company at barbecue suppers. Robert was sorry that his stay in Deya was not long enough for him to take part in the birthday play.
They were days for remembering. Here is a post-card from Edinburgh, dated 25.V.60: ‘Arrive Palma Wednesday, 2.15 local. Looking foward to seeing you. Kath.’ Here another, postmarked Kensington, 7th July: ‘Self and luggage arrived OK. Love and all thanks again, Elizabeth.’ The picture on the reverse is of Buckingham Palace. A third, saying: ‘Arrived back safely. Hating it. Hope you miss me!’ is from Hannah. A bent arrow, drawing attention to a photograph of the Cala on the obverse, accompanies the additional message ‘Wish I was HERE.’ Kath met Robert briefly and held his attention for longer than mere courtesy demanded. Elizabeth, a high-powered secretary whose luggage had been delayed on the flight out, liked cooking tortillas. Hannah was a third-year medical student who became an eminent consultant in gynaecology and said that she didn’t think she would ever love anywhere else as much as she loved the Cala. In years to come I was to see them all happily married, memories of that summer always crowding my mind. Once, in my fancy, the echo of exuberant laughter and someone shouting “Look! Venus arising from the waves!” rivalled the music of the bridal chorus from Lohengrin.
And here is a snap of four young men and as many girls on the terrace of a villa on the hillside above the Cala, jokily posing as if in a school team photograph; girls in the front row seated with legs crossed, men standing behind them, arms folded. There is something about the men which suggests that they are all high achievers. The girls look like the sort of young women that high achievers tend to prefer for summer holiday house parties. I had known two of the men and two of the girls before Deya; between them, they produced one married couple who have lived happily ever afterwards.
They were days that were numbered. Looking a few months ahead, I could see no reason for supposing that anything but rough weather awaited my return to England. As the laboriously lengthening typescript all too clearly showed, there was no reason for thinking that a mere déménagement had fundamentally changed anything, that any emotional rehabilitation had been better than cosmetic. Concomitantly, the financial prospect was dire. To think that the accumulated words themselves might have any material value would require an effort of supreme self-delusion. The occupant of my flat had so far failed to pay the agreed rent. The landlords were disputing my right to sub-let and were threatening repossession at the end of December. Before the end of the year there would be nothing in the bank.