A Life in Books: T. E. Lawrence AKA Lawrence of Arabia

Just chatting about the life, books, and adventures of T. E. Lawrence (1888–1935). Lawrence was the young British officer who, during World War I, became “Lawrence of Arabia” – the face, strategist, and de facto leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turkish Empire. A complicated person, he battled greatly with conflicted feelings about his personal identity and his role as a “hero” of the British Empire.

Crusader Castles – A Young Lawrence of Arabia

Having resolved to read everything written by T. E. Lawrence, I inevitably picked up his college thesis, published posthumously under the title Crusader Castles.

It’s a very rare book, but happily a New Year’s discount made the Folio Society edition a good option, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with the customer service, shipping, and, of course, the edition itself.  The FS release is a reprint of the original two-volume edition, and it includes an excellent introduction by biographer Mark Bostridge, whose interest in WWI history makes it a worthy addition.

Through the introduction, you learn that T. E. Lawrence completed his thesis just four years before the outbreak of WWI.  For his research, he had already traveled extensively in Britain and France, and even to Syria and Palestine – his first exposure to the Middle East and its climate, both in a geographical and political sense.

His topic?  In his own words, he set out to prove “The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture to the end of the Twelfth Century.”  In what became his trademark style, Lawrence was not afraid to take on an opposing viewpoint, even if it meant going against Sir Charles Oman, the Oxfordian expert on the subject at the time, whose own stance was that East had influenced West, not vice-versa.  Lawrence, not without basis, was confident he could out-research Oman and convince his examiners that the Crusaders took their own architecture to the Holy Land.

Violently controversial points are usually settled by a plain assertion, for simplicity and peace.  If they are of importance in my argument they may be discussed.

It takes a geek to know one, and certainly, readers without prior knowledge of “Ned” will find this book too niche to appreciate.  For fans, Crusader Castles is a gold mine of insights on his young adulthood, both in terms of personal development and in his relationships to his mentors, his family, and the world at large.

T. E.’s taste for physical exertion and adventure is well known; what is more interesting here is his capacity for organization and process.  The book is filled with sketches and photographs of the castles he visits; touristy postcards were, as he points out, not capable of doing justice to the edifices.  Beyond what mere observation would reveal, his drawings of castles plans show an incredible attention to scale and detail, labelled carefully and referred to in his writing with the same exactness that a mathematician might use with a graph.  T. E. clearly put the science into “social science,” and his commentary on crusader strategy not only points to his own extensive reading, but also to the systematic workings of his mind, which played not a small role in the Arab Revolt.

Lawrence (left) and his brothers,
around the time he finished Crusader Castles.

What I enjoyed most about Crusader Castles was the personal side.  Luckily for us, T. E. later added margin notes to his paper, a sort of “Older Ned Reacts to Younger Ned” commentary.  His notes are two-fold: they critique his youthful research and writing style, while adding insights he gained from further thought or experience.  More than that, they showcase his sense of humor, from schoolboyish remarks on “admirable latrines” to gleeful tut-tuts on his college-aged criticisms of other writers.  Even within the original paper, there are delightful references to his castle climbing and (irresistibly) an encounter with a nest of snakes.

That Ned heartily enjoyed himself is no secret.  The second half of the book contains a selection of letters he wrote to his family while he was abroad.  Each one is fairly technical for a personal letter, suggesting he relied on his mother’s care of them to supplement his notes later.  A handful of these letters come from his time in the Middle East, and here we see the very first glimpse of the legendary Lawrence.  It was still an innocent time in his life, when being shot at by a local was a great adventure, and that joy of exploration could not have been a small reason he soon returned to Syria as an archeologist.

Of all the book, maybe my favorite part was his letter from Aigues-Mortes, a medieval castle-city in the south of France. It is the oddity in the volume, because it is an emotional letter, in which Ned’s enthusiasm for his trip and his research cannot be subdued.  He quotes Blake and Shelley, letting his love of poetry show through, and in a glimpse, we see the same passion for landscape that colored his description of Wadi Rum in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

You are all wrong, Mother dear, a mountain may be a great thing, a grand thing, but it is better to be peaceful, and quiet, and pure, omnia pacata posse mente tueri, if that is the best state, then a plain is the best country: the purifying influence is the paramount one in a plain, there one can sit down quietly and think of anything, or nothing which Wordsworth says is best, one feels the littleness of things, of details, and the great and unbroken level of peacefulness of the whole: no, give me a level plain, extending as far as the eye can reach, and there I have enough of beauty to satisfy me, and tranquility as well!

The Writings of Lawrence of Arabia – Episode 3

Today’s episode delves into WWI history with the life and writings of T. E. Lawrence.

Books mentioned:
Crusader Castles (Hardcover)
Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Paperback)
Minorities: Good Poems by Small Poets and Small Poems by Good Poets (Hardcover)
The Forest Giant (Free online)
The Odyssey (Hardcover)  |  The Odyssey (Free online)
The Mint (Paperback)  |  The Mint (Free online)

Sources / Further Reading:
Mack, John E.  A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence.
Brown, Malcolm.  Lawrence of Arabia: The Life, the Legend.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom (My book journal)

The Forest Giant (Le Gigantesque)

Since watching Lawrence of Arabia last year, I’ve been actively seeking books written by or related to T. E. LawrenceThe Forest Giant, by Adrien Le Corbeau, is one of the more obscure books.

Sequoia sempervirens Big Basin Redwoods State Park 4
Coast Redwood by Allie_Caulfield
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lawrence, for the most part, withdrew from politics after the disappointing Paris Peace Conference.  However, he continued to write books and critique literature – writing was one of the few pieces of his past life that he actually still valued.  His French-to-English translation of a book called Le Gigantesque was published in 1924, and along with Homer’s The Odyssey, it is one of the few of his written works that are non-autobiographical.

I seem to recall The Forest Giant has been referred to as a “novel,” but it is really a philosophical ramble.  The “giant” referred to is the California redwood, and Corbeau explains his thoughts and questions through the journey of the tree’s life.  Lawrence was enthusiastic at the beginning of the book, but by the end of his translation, he was not particularly a fan.

At last this foul work: complete. Please have [it] typed and send [it] down that I may get it off my suffering chest before I burst. Damn Adrien le Corbeau and his rhetoric. The book is a magnificent idea, ruined by jejune bombast. My version is better than his: but dishonest here and there: but my stomach turned. Couldn’t help it.

This is just one interesting T. E. quote from the excellent foreword by Jeremy Wilson.  From the foreword, I was also intrigued to learn that Lawrence almost – but not quite – got to translate The Arabian Nights.  (Sad that that project never came to fruition!)

I felt similar to Lawrence by the end of this reading, and I’m not sure if it was due to the translator or Corbeau himself.  Certainly, it wasn’t T. E.’s fault that the author inserted a lengthy (though non-graphic) sex scene in the middle of the philosophy…I got an laugh out of that anyway, imagining T. E.’s reaction as he came upon it all of a sudden and had to plough through it.  Thematically, this book has a lot in common with contemporary literature, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets “rediscovered” and even famous some day.

Sequoia sempervirens foliage Mendocino
Sequoia sempervirens foliage by Naotake Murayama
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, some parts of the book are fascinating and almost brilliant.  Corbeau talks about fate, balance, war, time, death, and existentialism…lots of big topics.  He doesn’t seem to settle on one conclusion, unless it be the existence of the “circle of life” (my quote, not his), and that all matter is reincarnated after death into just another being or substance.  The subject is depressing; the writing is absolutely gorgeous, some of the most beautiful I’ve read in a long time.  I think that Lawrence, despite his growing dislike for the book, nevertheless gave it an incredible translation.

There were many quotes I saved along the way.  I’ll leave you with one, which maybe is the most introspective, having been written after the first World War. 

How much has been said and thought and written about death!  And without effect.  We should make up our minds that nothing is to be added to what we already know about it.  We continually strain to realise the flavour of death by heaping up a confused mass of ideas, by strange and inordinate imaginings, by deliberately forcing our thought and dealing to a point beyond control.  Yet these are not means and ways by which to learn; for in our wildest dreams, in our most fearful phantasies, or strangest visions, in all that is unfamiliar, runs the thread of life.
–  Chapter 13, “What is Called Death”

Reading England 2016 – Recap

When I joined this challenge a year ago, I had every intention of branching out and reading books from multiple counties.  As it turns out, I stayed in familiar territory and read London for all three books (Level 1).

Lawrence of Arabia Brough Superior gif

The Mint was a fitting sequel to Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  For some reason I went into it expecting a novel, but it’s actually a journal-like memoir of T. E. Lawrence’s peacetime experiences in the military.  After his campaigns as “Lawrence of Arabia” – and, as importantly, after his attempts to deal with politicians – T.E. was sick of being a leader and wanted to disappear from the public eye.  He joined the service under an assumed name, and that is where he found a place of security and camaraderie, the R.A.F.  The Mint is a coarse novel, written in a modern voice (for the times) and full of all the profanities and vulgarity that Lawrence encountered around him.  I found myself unable to rate the book, because it came across as an honest, unidealized portrait of reality – and how can you rate that?  Read the last chapter, if nothing else.  I feel like it is the real ending to Seven Pillars.

Counties: London (RAF Uxbridge), and bonus: Lincolnshire (RAF Cranwell)

Lamppost-Istana-Singapore-20060207
 A lamppost at the Istana in Singapore by Finn Perez
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I read The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare to my brother this year.  It was a first read for him and a reread for me – we both heartily enjoyed it!  G. K. Chesterton is one of those authors that is deceptively simple in his style.  The first time I read it, I wasn’t so sure about the bizarre ending.  This time, however, something clicked…I think I finally got what he was getting at.  (I still can’t explain it off the top of my head, but it made sense, I promise.)  The story is, artistically speaking, literary gold: a policeman on an Alice-in-Wonderland-type adventure in Sherlock Holmes’s London, with moments of hilarity and deep thought alike.  After this reread, I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Counties:  A rather whimsical London.

Lippincott doriangray

A number of books this year were favorable surprises – The Picture of Dorian Gray being one of the most surprising.  I didn’t know, for example, that this novel was written for the same magazine as Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four.  A comparison of the two stories would be interesting in itself.  I noticed that drugs feature heavily in both plots and, sadly, for both protagonists.

I went into this book with a couple of misconceptions, one of which was that Dorian Gray wants always to look young.  This is only half of it, however.  He also wants to look innocent“He had always the look of one who had kept himself unspotted from the world.”

At the Anglican church I attend, the priest gives you a blessing on your birthday.  These are the words, from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (quoting, for that line, James 1:27):

Watch over thy child, O Lord, as his days increase; bless and guide him wherever he may be, keeping him unspotted from the world. Strengthen him when he stands; comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful; raise him up if he fall; and in his heart may thy peace which passeth understanding abide all the days of his life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wilde’s first readers would have instantly caught this reference, and I can tell you, this line makes it all the more tragic to read what happens to Dorian, or rather, what he does to himself.  It goes both ways.  He is preyed upon – emotionally and probably physically – by an older, cynical man, and he embraces it.  He reads a book that he knows is a negative influence on him, and he doesn’t stop. 

For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it.

I didn’t love The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It is too relateable to be comfortable.  I can’t say I haven’t been selfish, hurting someone in the process.  I know I’ve read a book, or watched a movie, or listened to a song that left me worse off than before.  And only recently, I’ve looked at pictures of myself from a few years back and felt disappointed by the changes.  I was half-expecting this novel to be some kind of subtle glorification of youth; it’s anything but that.    

Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this novel to everyone, it was a worthwhile read for me, particularly at this time.  (For the topic, it was more poignant than Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)  4 out of 5 stars.

Counties: London

Lawrence’s London is something of a sprawling, safe haven, where he can dissolve back into humanity and still, sometimes, see glimmers of his illustrious yet painful past.  Chesterton’s London is the London of Americans’ dream –  a romantically gloomy, lamppost-lit cityscape where a savvy, well-dressed gentleman is on a mission probably involving hansom cabs.  Wilde’s London is a grim facade where something hideous is lurking behind an elegant society.  It’s fascinating how one location can look so different from the viewpoint of different novels. 

Thanks, o, for hosting this challenge!