Last night, the Robert Graves Society met at Castell de Bellver on the outskirts of Palma to welcome guests to its 15th international conference.
Castell Bellver sits above Palma on a hilltop surrounded by thick pine forest. It was an appropriate place to open the conference. Built in the 14th century but remarkably well-preserved, it feels ancient but is oddly well-preserved and a little like a movie set.
The highlight of the evening was a musical performance by Society member Jay Ansill on harp and then fiddle, singer Claudia Balant and, rather astonishingly, the legendary British folk musician Martin Carthy singing and playing guitar.
Martin’s appearance was somewhat of a coup for Jay, for whom he’s a personal hero.
On Friday, after a couple of days of seriously academic presentations including Greg Leadbetter on ‘The Face in the Mirror: The Poet and Critic in Graves’ and Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s ‘Musing on Muses’, the Society will spend the day in Deià.
The Graves aficionados will explore the superb Casa de Robert Graves and wander the village that was home to the man who did so much to create the idea of Deià as a haven for writers, artists, and musicians.
Launched in 1995 during the Robert Graves Centenary Conference at St John’s College, Oxford, ‘The Robert Graves Society is truly international. We have 200 or so members from all areas of Europe, America, and Asia,’ Charles Mundye, Society President since 2014, told me.
‘Our members come from all walks of life – academics, yes, but also artists, poets, dancers, musicians, lawyers, university Vice-Chancellors! It’s an exciting and eclectic and fun community united by a love of Robert Graves’s writing.’
Members include the poet Ruth Fainlight, who knew Robert Graves well, first meeting him in 1952. Fainlight lived and wrote in Mallorca with her husband, the writer Alan Sillitoe. Here, they became close friends of Graves and his wife Beryl.
Poet Michael Longley, who has just been awarded the 2022 Feltrinelli International Prize for Poetry, a prize awarded every five years by the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome, is also a member.
Charles himself is the co-editor of two of Graves’s books written with Laura Riding, A Survey of Modernist Poetry and A Pamphlet against Anthologies published by Carcanet. In 2016, he published a comprehensive edition of Graves’s War Poems (Seren).
For Charles, Graves is ‘an inspirational writer who takes up a significant part of my professional life; he means everything from great and moving poetry to email and zoom meetings to organising major international literary conferences. When I retire, I’ll enjoy just reading his books!’
One of the things that intrigues me about Graves is why he continues to attract devotees.
‘Fashions come and go but Graves is an enduring writer,’ Charles says. ‘I think writers and artists love and respect him and learn from his attention to craft. And of course Graves has enduring popular appeal, most recently evidenced in the brilliant new film The Laureate, directed by William Nunez and starring Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron and Tom Hughes, which I would urge everyone to see.’
Beryl Graves, his widow, was the first Honorary President of the Robert Graves Society. After her death in 2003, his niece, eminent political scientist and anthropologist, Dr Sally Chilver took on the role.
When Beryl passed in 2014, William Graves, MBE, Graves’s son, literary executor, and Director of the Fundació Robert Graves, was elected the Society’s new Honorary President.
The existence of the Robert Graves Society is important for William in that it ‘encourages papers and learning regarding Robert’. He believes that Robert would have been ‘amused’ by the Society’s existence. William himself has contributed enormously to the Society’s work.
‘I have always been involved in much of the non-academic organisation, especially the conferences. I helped get all the data together for robertgraves.org, the Society’s website,’ he told me.
William has translated Graves’s enormously influential The White Goddess into Spanish and overseen the complete collection of Graves’s works published by Carcanet.
For quite some time, he has been keeping track of all Graves’s extant letters. The theme of this conference is Graves’s correspondence and William will be ‘presenting the work I have been undertaking with my son Philip in collecting, transcribing, and posting on robertgraves.org the text of all his letters for research purposes.’
In his own way, Graves inspired a certain kind of tourism to the village that is really a pilgrimage.
‘Robert came to Mallorca, like many others, because Gertrude Stein recommended it to him. And so many others have come to Deià because Robert Graves lived here and wrote about it. There are various other Robert Graves related projects in the pipeline that should strengthen the connection. For now, it’s satisfying to see how many of his visitors visit the Casa de Robert Graves. His house and garden are much as he left them,’ William says.
Charles Mundye adds, ‘Visiting La Casa de Robert Graves is a must. I never tire of it.’
Photographs by Gabriella Kiss, except the portrait of William Graves and the photo of the entrance to La Casa de Robert Graves.