Robert Graves (1895-1985) was one of the great figures of 20th Century fiction and poetry, and a pioneering author of historical fiction.
Born in Wimbledon, South London, and educated at Charterhouse and St John's College, Oxford, his studies were interrupted by service in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during the First World War. He was badly wounded during the Battle of the Somme, and his wartime experiences inspired his memoir, Good-Bye to All That (Anchor, 1929).
His historical novels, I Claudius and Claudius the God, were published in 1934 (Arthur Barker) and won him the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. These were followed by further historical novels, including Count Belisarius (Cassell, 1938), King Jesus (Cassell, 1946) and The Isles of Unwisdom (Cassell, 1950). He was also a noted poet (his complete poems are published in a single volume edited by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward – Carcanet Press, 2000), literary critic and classical scholar (his translations of The Golden Ass of Apuleius – Farrar, Strauss, 1951 – and The Twelve Caesars of Suetonius – Penguin, 1957 – remain in print to this day).
Graves's historical fiction was closely underpinned by his own scholarship, to an extent that was rare in the work of other novelists of his age. It is sometimes difficult to disentangle the Claudius of Graves from that of Suetonius. It was part of his genius as a novelist that he was able to straddle the divide between "literary" and "popular" fiction, combining profound historical understanding with a poetic sensitivity and an eye for a great yarn to produce (in the words of contemporary novelist Andrew Miller) "insanely readable tales" set in periods previously thought to be of interest only to a small elite.
Graves's non-fiction work, The White Goddess (Faber & Faber, 1948), which he intended as "a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth," has been widely criticised by scholars of philology, archaeology and folklore, and is generally admired more for its poetic than for its historical insights.
Nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1968, Graves was passed over (as were Lawrence Durrell and Gunter Grass in the same year) in favour of Yasunari Kawabata.
Graves died in 1985, and is buried in the churchyard at Deia, Mallorca, close to the house in which he lived.