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