When William Graves opened the door of his father’s old casain the undulating side of Deià on the island of Majorca, his eyes twinkled. Elena, whom he had been married to for 48 years, was with him. He was sporting a rain coat while she had a shawl around her neck and a jacket to boot and they had been confabulating about the cold-rainy weather.
Winter of 1946 – it was during this time of the year, when the Graves family would gather together in front of the fireplace after a frugal dinner of potatoes and some broad green beans freshly harvested from the garden. The house, despite its compact size, had a functional and modest space for the growing family. After all the children had climbed upstairs and gone to bed, Mrs. Beryl comfortably sat in her chair, relieved after a long day’s work. That moment she kept on imagining how she missed summer while Mr. Robert, a poet, scholar and novelist headed back to his study, scribbled some notes, piled one sheet over the other until the last set of manuscripts were placed on top of the perfectly varnished wooden table waiting to be published next spring. William, 74, the eldest son of Robert Graves to Beryl Pritchard, still vividly recalls these memories, as he showed us the living room where they spent most of their childhood days with his siblings during the winter. Across from the kitchen is a hallway that leads to his father’s office. What used to be Robert Graves’s possessions are all neatly kept and preserved.
The old letterpress machine was still operational where it published some of his greatest influential novels of all time – I, Claudius, Claudius the God and Count Belisarius together with numerous books of poetry under “The Seizen Press”.
Known as Ca n’Alluny among locals, Robert Graves’s house was built on the outskirts of the village and has a huge garden surrounding it. Nearby, are the terraced hillsides that rise to an impressive 600 meters. Just over the steep-wrinkled cliffs of the Tramuntana Mountains, olive trees proliferate, almost engulfing the whole landscape that overlooks the Mediterranean.
This was the place that Robert Graves fell in love with when he first came to Deià in 1929. Every morning after his coffee, he would walk down to his patched-earth garden and think about planting oleander or carnation as an addition to his fruit orchard and vegetables. On a typical summer day, he spent his time visiting the village, where he would hear the braying of the donkeys as they pulled a loaded cart of olives, potatoes and oranges. From time to time, the church bell rang out in unison with the sheep. The late afternoon light transformed the limestone houses into candid ochre-colored hue.
“I found everything I wanted as a writer: sun, sea, mountains, spring-water, shady trees, no politics, and a few civilized luxuries such as electric light,” Robert Graves, once passionately wrote about Deià, his adopted home. “I wanted to go where town was still town; and country, country.”
It was not so long ago when Deià, was hidden from the watchful eyes of holiday makers. A quick look into its past relates a rich history that traces back from the time of the Moorish invasion in Majorca during the 10th to 13th centuries. Though a sleepy coastal village in the early 20th century, Deià attracted many artists and writers and later become an enclave for those who were in search of a Bohemian lifestyle. Some came to spend a certain time, others decided to stay. It was Robert Graves’s presence and his legacy that made the world notice Deià.
He used the town as the setting for many of his stories and invited guests into his home that soon morphed into a literary salon and the hub of numerous writers and artists’ friends. Amongst those were Kingsley Amis, actors Alec Guinness and Peter Ustinov, who like Graves, came to live in Mallorca. While he was also busy entertaining his world-renowned friends, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin who were staying at the newly opened Hotel Formentor, Graves was engrossed with the writing of his poem “Not to Sleep”. The poem was dedicated to Ava Gardner, who sojourned on the island from time to time. In the poem, Robert described his blissful insomnia that affected him during her visits – particularly stimulating, yet disturbing.
It took him 80 years to cease writing. By the age of 90, he bid goodbye to Deià and rested in a small churchyard on a hill. This was the last scene I saw after William pushed the stop button on his father’s documentary film.
The narrator’s voice faded simultaneously with the background music and then, finally the screen went blank. William turned the lights back on. Like the first time, I saw his eyes twinkling once more. It was the same kind of sparkle that I knew. I remembered a man sitting alone in a café, his frizzy white washed hair and his rugged pullover made him look familiar to me. He spoke good Spanish but I knew he was English. He took the last sip of his coffee, placed some monedas on the table and finally stood up. He picked up his hat and just when he turned around, his eyes met mine.
How strange it is to see Robert Graves life condensed into a 14-minute video clip. Though it was a quick memory trip of a great writer’s life, it was without a doubt – long enough to last a lifetime.