Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Michael Korda's "Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia" (Cadillac)

T. E. Lawrence, also known as 'Lawrence of Arabia', also known as John Hume Ross, also known as T.E. Shaw, gives us a biography with many unexpected faces and facets.

Best known for his desert exploits during WWI, of course, there's a great deal more to his story than simply riding off into the sunset of history on his motorbike.  I sought this out for the 'of Arabia' Lawrence, but in the end, found the life-long arc of his personality made for the most interesting read.  

Korda's account is one of many biographies on Lawrence (not to mention Lawrence's own 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph*).  It's a faithful account as far as this layman can tell.  Some of the more remarkable claims called for follow-up and cross reference online, which attests to the quality and surprise of the read.

I'll indulge myself with a long quote here, as it really captures the core of the character presented to us in Korda's bio:

Seldom has anybody stated more clearly his determination never again to be placed in a position of power over others.  With all his formidable willpower, Lawrence was determined to shackle the part of himself that had sought fame, glory, and greatness, and never allow it to rise again except in the pages of his book.  Nobody knew better than Lawrence what he was capable of.  He had executed a man in cold blood, suffered torture, killed people he loved, witnessed the ruthless murder of prisoners in the aftermath of battle.  Nor was anybody more anxious to do penance.  It was as if one of the great heroes of medieval times... had put aside his honors and retired in midlife to a monastery, tending to his herb garden and performing his humble chores, a simple brother, hoping not to evoke curiosity, pity, or interest.

Keep that larger context in mind as I give you the 'too short sum-up' of Lawrence's life:
- Lawrence is an illegitimate child.  His father runs off with Lawrence's mother (a servant) to start a new life under a new family name, leaving the comforts of minor nobility behind.
-Lawrence, though short of stature, shows great skill in anything he pursues.  From marksmanship to bookbinding, to ancient pottery, to architectural/tactical insight on the medieval castles based on summers riding his bike around France to advance his thesis - he's clearly gifted and passionate at whatever he pursues.
-His unique skills and interests lead him to study in the field at archeological digs in various parts of Turkey.  Despite incredible risk and danger, he travels alone and without pause for safety.  There are many close calls during this formative time.
-At the outbreak of the first world war, Lawrence is transferred to Egypt, and is eager to see action.  He's eventually entrusted with risky but minor missions, and quickly proves himself as a field agent and expert in local custom.
- By and by, Lawrence gains the trust, respect, and latitude of his superiors to prove himself in the storming of Aquaba from the desert side [not *quite* the odyssey portrayed in the film, but that's par for the course in such epics].
-Lawrence is fed money and supplies to fuel a guerrilla army of patchwork Arab groups with diverging interests and loyalties.  They all share the common enemy/target of the dying Ottoman empire.  While Lawrence is aiding the British cause in his efforts, his ultimate purpose is to deliver independence to the Arab people (a promise he already knows he cant deliver on, given the planned partition of the region in French-Anglo treaties premised on the successful close of the war).
-This guerrilla war is an ugly one, and Lawrence faces moral dilemmas I can't imagine, and at every turn.  He's raped, brutalized, and commits acts of callous brutality himself.  To say the experience is scarring only starts to capture what this must have been like.
-After the war, he seeks the anonymity of an assumed name and a modest role as mechanic in the contemporary equivalent of the Royal Air Force.  He's soon discovered, changes his name again and enters the army.  He's already refused decoration of any kind for his achievements in the war, and this to the face of the king himself.  He's become a headache for the establishment, and a press darling despite his best but mixed efforts to remain out of sight.
-He's transferred back to the air force, his real love, and dies as a mechanic in a random accident on his beloved motorcycle (a long standing love affair with fine bikes comes to a close).  It's a modest death for the modest man he strove to be.

It's been some time (3 months) since I read this, so the summary might be rough around the edges.  Still, this is quite an arc.  He's just a fascinating character.  The richness of the detail in-between these large milestones makes this an exceptional read all around.

With Faisal, Paris 1919 (middle inner right).
It's worth mentioning another facet of this biography that I found particularly surprising.  Maybe unexpected is a better word.  While the author attests Lawrence died a virgin, the book portrays a very complex, and very much sublimated sexuality for the hero.  How this erupts in his story I'll leave to the curious reader, but it's fascinating stuff, and does much to give you a feeling that you've read a really well crafted, intimate and thoughtful biography.  Highly recommended. 

* Lawrence had a passion for bookbinding, and worked at great personal effort and cost to create about 100 fully individualized versions for his intimates and other persons of note, all inscribed.  Variations were often random or subtle (e.g. different colours, types, plates/no plates, etc.), leaving experts to parse out the full range of differences after the fact.  Some of these have recently been valued at tens of thousands of pounds and more.  Yet another fascinating facet of this incredible character.

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