Simon Gough’s The White Goddess: An Encounter is the book I’d recommend to anyone curious about Deia but who’s never been here. If you know Deia and have some knowledge of the people Simon writes about – larger than life hardly does them justice – his book is even more compelling. From Simon’s Grand-Uncle Robert Graves to Graves’s Muse, the bewitching Margot Callas, these are characters.
In the foreword to his book, Simon calls what he’s written an Auto-bi-fantasy that describes events in which he played a part in a highly subjective way. He’s a middle-aged man staring down a death sentence, using his memories and contemporary letters and manuscripts to “reach back to the instantaneity of his youth”.
To me, The White Goddess: An Encounter has elements that bring it closer to pure fiction than autobiography. But, this could be because Simon’s extraordinary life has been lived at the place where fact and fiction, truth and mythology become blurred.
For example, The White Goddess: An Encounter inevitably reminded me of The Go-Between. It turns out that Simon’s father, the actor Michael Gough, played the father of Marian, the beautiful young aristocrat, in the movie directed by Joseph Losey.
I won’t describe The White Goddess: An Encounter in enormous detail. As I say, you have to read it. But, be warned, Simon’s feverish, overheated book vibrates with an energy so intense and his story is so powerful that you may well end up devouring it all at once, as I did.
Although deep into writing the sequel to The White Goddess: An Encounter, Simon kindly responded to my questions about his book by email.
How long did it take to write The White Goddess: An Encounter?
It’s difficult to say, exactly, because I started the book in 1989, when I used it as a means of out-running the spectre of ‘The Person from Porlock (as I christened death), who was expecting to collect his debt – my life- within five years. But as the deadline passed, and I was still alive, I went on writing until 2010, by which time the book was so huge after 21 years work that I had to divide it into four books, of which The White Goddess: An Encounter became the third. I suppose this book alone took six years to write, from conception to publication.
You’ve spent a lifetime surrounded by books. Did that make writing your own more or less of a challenge?
A life surrounded by books is like a life surrounded by ‘familiars’ – by the ghosts of other peoples’ work. Provided that one doesn’t become haunted by them, in trying to copy their styles or idiosyncrasies, one will have a far better chance of overcoming such challenges and faithfully expressing one’s self.
Was Robert Graves writing an influence on yours, and if so, in what way?
Even Robert’s simplest poems were so uniquely constructed that it was almost impossible to copy him. In my late teens, trying to write a poem at all made me feel limp and queasy, so there wasn’t the slightest danger of plagiarism.
Do you have a single memory of Robert that sums up what he was to you?
Not a single memory, no, because he meant so many things to me. My most vivid memories are recounted in the book.
How do you feel about Robert now?
As I’ve always felt, except that now I miss him very much on top of everything else.
How was the book been received by the people you write about? Juan Graves, for instance, is particularly vivid. Did he read the book and did he remember things the same way?
The people I wrote about in any depth received it very generously on the whole, and Juan in particular laughed a lot. There were many things he didn’t remember very clearly because in those days he was so wild, and yet so deprecating, that he soon forgot the startling effect he could have on people. Equally, there were things he told me he remembered after the book was published that I have no recollection of at all – and wish I had!
One of the most powerful things for me about the book is the way you evoke Deia and the landscape around it. When you come back to the village, what do you feel about the place?
The whole world seems to be changing, mostly for the worse, as people get greedier and more aggressive. Deia, for all that it has grown and changed, remains one of the most unique and peaceful communities in the Mediterranean. The villagers, whether Mallorquín or Estrangeros, treat each other with the respect of hosts and guests and so long as the social niceties continue to be observed, there’s no reason why this should change. That’s not to say that the Deians aren’t a proud race, or that they, and the extraordinary landscape they inhabit, won’t get their own back on those who abuse their hospitality.
Is there something you always have to do when you come back to Deia? A ritual?
Like the majority of those who come to Deia, I’m still no more than a visitor, although my Grand-Uncle Robert came to live here in 1929, and I first came here on a visit from Prep School in 1953. Nowadays, my ritual is to visit my Grand-Uncle and Great-Aunt’s graves as soon as possible, and then make my way down to the cala, which has changed dramatically since I was a boy.
In those days there was only the ‘upstairs’ café where we could eat memorable family lunches, have a siesta, and wake up to a cold beer. Since then, though, there has been such a pressure of visitors to the beach, that an old boat-house, giving straight onto the rocks, was converted into a second café, now owned and run by the giant Jordí and his family. It is here, on the terrace overlooking the rocky beach and the sea that I sit down to the finest Dorada I’ve ever eaten, (no matter how many times I’ve eaten it), drinking cold white wine, then swimming in the cove, more or less regardless of the strength of the sea, remembering the people I’ve known and loved in this unearthly paradise.
Are you working on another book? If so, is it in the same vein as The White Goddess: An Encounter?
At the moment I’m finishing the sequel.
And we trust we won’t have too long to wait to read it, Simon. Thank you.
David Holzer is a freelance writer who has been coming to Deia for almost 20 years. Apart from loving the village, he is fascinated by the – without being too pretentious – cultural history and significance of Deia.