Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lawrence, The Uncrowned King of Arabia (1998, Michael Asher)

Publishing Info

Asher, Michael. Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia. New York: Overlook Press, 1998. 419 pp.

Introduction

Michael Asher is a fine author with several worthwhile books to his credit (I'm especially fond of Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure, his account of the Mahdist Wars in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan). Sadly, T.E. Lawrence isn't so well-served by Asher's pen. Rather than the promised groundbreaking "major biography," Lawrence, The Uncrowned King of Arabia mainly rehashes other biographies with little originality or insight.

The Author
Michael Asher (b. 1953) graduated from the University of Leeds, and served in the Parachute Regiment and later the SAS. He later relocated to Africa, beginning a career as teacher, Arabist, explorer and ecologist. Asher's written both nonfiction works and novels, including the popular Death or Glory series, and produced several television documentaries. He currently lives in Nairobi with his wife, photographer and teacher Marieantoniette Peru.

The Review

Asher is a fine narrative historian: he's got a flare for battle writing and character sketches, making even topographical descriptions compelling. When Uncrowned King trades analysis for adventure, it comes to life: Asher recounts familiar battles like Aqaba and Tafileh, locations like Wadi Rumm and personages like Feisal and Auda in typically colorful fashion. One wishes Asher had done a history of the Arab Revolt a la James Barr or David Murphy rather than a biography.

For Asher breaks little new ground. His early chapters liberally mix the interpretations of Richard Aldington (focus on Lawrence's dishonesty) and John E. Mack (probing for psychological explanations of Lawrence's behavior). Hence the fixation on Sarah Lawrence, again depicted as a whip-happy sadist, whose floggings molded Lawrence's attitude towards sex. Hence also the emphasis on Lawrence as a "sensitive" young child (26), as if this were a prerequisite for homosexuality.

Asher revisits Lawrence's old haunts, interviews Bedouin (who largely dismiss Lawrence) and tries to recreate his feats. He devotes one chapter to an attempt by himself, his wife and two Arab guides to replicate Lawrence's 48 hour crossing of the Sinai Peninsula. These segments are entertaining and persuasive. Cynics might conclude that Asher's failure doesn't automatically discount Lawrence's ability to do so. But Asher's expert enough that his conclusions at least provide food for thought - subjective, but more convincing than other logical leaps.

Asher fixates on minor stories to paint Lawrence as a habitual liar. Two prewar letters, where Lawrence relates an anecdote involving bells on a caravan (changing from camels to mules) draw significant analysis: "it's hardly likely that Lawrence could have in the space of a month forgotten what kind of animals they were" (34). Even if we accept Asher's insinuation, so what? We're reminded of Aldington smugly debunking Lawrence's self-consciously absurd claim of reading 50,000 books at Oxford.

Using such trivia, and more substantive incidents like Deraa, Asher argues that Lawrence expressed "reverse exhibitionism" (20). His famous self-denial and "horror of being known to like being known" mask a crippling martyr complex. Thus he takes on responsibility for events and failures not his own, like the Tafas Massacre, and the Arab Revolt's ultimate collapse. Asher uses Mack and other psychologists like Lyn Cowan to bolster his analysis, yet often leans on speculation.

Similarly, Asher reads Lawrence's employing literary allusions as proof of unreliability. When Lawrence unfavorably compares Farraj's demise to Daniel Corkery's Hounds of Banba (310), he's not claiming dissatisfaction with his writing. For Asher, this means it never happened. Deraa becomes a coded admission of sexuality: "It was, perhaps, his final declaration to the world of his conviction... that he was untouchable and unclean" (295). Like Desmond Stewart, he doubts Farraj and Daud even existed, or that Lawrence executed Hamed the Moor.

Asher stands on firmer ground analyzing Bedouin culture. Asher draws heavily on personal experience, so these passages ring with authenticity that much of the book lacks. From his personal experiences, interviews and analysis, Asher's portrait effectively casts doubt on Seven Pillars' account of tribal lifestyles. He questions Lawrence's assertion that homosexuality is commonplace among the Bedouin, writing that "the merest suggestion of it would be like to bring out daggers" (233).

Asher critiques Lawrence and other biographers for Orientalism, but he's not above aureate prose when it suits him. Describing the Bedouin lifestyle, he becomes positively picturesque: (p.155)

They lived not by material wealth... but by the cult of reputation. A man gained honor by displaying courage, endurance, hospitality, generosity and loyalty, and while no strange caravan, nor traveler, nor rival tent was free from his depredations, there was no more honorable traveling companion nor host once he had shared bread and salt. Raiding for camels was the spice of his life, and a means of acquiring reputation, and his hand was turned against every man, unless it suited him. His services could be bought with gold, but his soul could not.


Not since Flora Armitage's The Desert and the Stars has a biographer employed such florid verbiage.

More egregiously, Asher peppers his text with dialogue from Lawrence of Arabia. Hence Dahoum finds England "a fat country, full of fat people" (110), while Alec Kirkbride thinks Lawrence has "a horror of bloodshed" (334). Hence Lawrence initiates Tafas by shrieking "No prisoners!" (331) instead of Seven Pillars' "The best of you brings me the most Turkish dead!" No biographer can entirely avoid David Lean's shadow, but directly quoting him is a temptation best avoided.

Asher's text contains other oddities. There are niggling errors, like his claim that Feisal's nemesis Abd el-Kadr died in November 1917 (286) (off by a year) or that Aldington published his biographical enquiry in "the '60s" (353) (off by a decade). There are odd misjudgments, like reducing General Allenby and Lawrence's French allies to bit players. There are also unaccountable elisions: Asher compresses Lawrence's entire postwar life into two terse chapters. So much for a "major biography."

Most often Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia is unremarkable when not inadequate. Just sixteen years on, Asher's work has already been eclipsed by Michael Korda and Scott Anderson's far more comprehensive (and persuasive) tomes. In contrast, King is a pedestrian work that contributes little to a crowded field.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lawrence discoveries and publishings

It's been almost seven months since our last post. Time to check in.

Three recent items might interest Lawrence enthusiasts:.

We'll start with a noteworthy archaeological find: the discovery of a wartime camp, used by Lawrence and his allies, at Tooth Hill in Jordan by the Great Arab Revolt Project, in conjunction with Bristol University. The Daily Mail has a detailed article along with photographs.

Secondly, Dr. Ali A. Allawi's (former Defense Minister of Iraq) biography of Emir Faisal has recently been published in America. So far as I'm aware, this marks the first English-language biography of Lawrence's friend and ally, and is worth seeking out for that reason alone. The Wall Street Journal has a detailed review here.

Finally, there's fiction news from this blog's friend, novelist/historian Benedicta Froelich. She recently published her novel Nella Sua Quiete (In His Quiet), detailing Lawrence's final days at Clouds Hill. Currently, it's only in Italian, but she promises an English-language edition in the future.

As for us? Expect a special article by week's end, and at least one book review in the foreseeable future. Happy reading!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2013, Scott Anderson)


Publishing Info:
Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Doubleday, 2013. 577 pp.

Introduction:
Just three years after the last major Lawrence biography (Michael Korda's Hero) comes this volume. Veteran journalist Scott Anderson further probes the Lawrence enigma, fitting him into the broader wartime canvas. In his view, "Lawrence was able to become Lawrence of Arabia because no one was paying much attention" to this marginal theater of war (3). Anderson's critical view of Lawrence nearly provides a throwback to Aldington-era skepticism.

The Author:
Scott Anderson is a New York-based journalist and author. As a war correspondent, Anderson covered conflicts ranging from Northern Ireland and Checnya to the Sudan. He's published several nonfiction books, along with novels including Triage and Moonlight Hotel. Anderson discusses his book with NPR here.

The Review:
As the subtitle suggests, Anderson attempts a broader view of World War's Middle Eastern Theater, focusing mainly on the Arab Revolt (though bringing Allenby's Palestinian campaign and the muddled Mesopotamian adventure in where appropriate). For that matter, he's more concerned with the war's diplomatic and political finagling than its military dimensions. In this regard it's more akin to David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, or James Barr's Setting the Desert on Fire, than a straight biography.

To flesh out his narrative, Anderson compares Lawrence with several contemporaries. These are Aaron Aaronsohn, the agricultural expert-turned-Zionist agent who became an intelligence asset to the British (see also Ronald Florence's Lawrence and Aaronsohn); Curt Prufer, Germany's chief intelligence operative in Turkey; and William Yale, a Standard Oil official who became General Allenby's American military attache. Anderson argues that in this military backwater, "these men drew upon a very particular set of personality traits... to both forge their own destiny and alter the course of history" (4).

These individuals are interesting in their own right, and occasionally clarify Lawrence's story. For instance, Anderson uses Prufer's correspondence to demonstrate that Lawrence's nemesis Abd el-Kadr was indeed on Djemal Pasha's payroll (385). Aaronsohn provides a window not only into nascent Zionism, but his contacts with Djemal allow readers to appreciate the actions of Turkey's government. But Anderson treats them superficially; they appear irregularly through the narrative, without making strong impressions. By default, Lawrence becomes the central figure.

Anderson's is primarily a disillusioned imperialist. He starts the book with Lawrence refusing the VC from King George V and follows this strand throughout. Lawrence's prewar intelligence work and early years at the Arab Bureau give way to bitter disillusionment. Anderson makes Lawrence's involvement in the Siege of Kut, trying to negotiate the ransom of General Townshend's besieged garrison, a turning point in Lawrence's worldview. Along with his Cairo experiences, Kut taught Lawrence to distrust the "toxic fusion of racism and British notions of military superiority" (170) that shaped British attitudes towards Arab and Turk alike.

Anderson views Lawrence as not only cynical towards his government, but actively siding with the Arabs. Lawrence not only opposes landing troops in Alexandretta and informs Feisal of Sykes-Picot but, in Anderson's view, encourages his March 1918 negotiations with Mehmet Djemal. Apparently Lawrence saw the negotiations "as a powerful potential weapon to use against his government" (447). Anderson views this as a reaction to Mark Sykes' devious diplomacy ("[he] had a very hard time keeping his facts, even his own beliefs, straight" (155)) and French Colonel Bremond's brusque arrogance. This tallies also with Lawrence's habit of cavalierly disregarding orders.

Post-Aqaba, Lawrence relished throwing his weight around, spiting not only officers like Cyril Wilson he disliked but "pushing aside" his friend Stewart Newcombe (352). Anderson thoroughly plumbs Lawrence's relationship with Emir Faisal: he respects the chieftain's "unshaken ambition" (246) but grows wary at his "propensity for vacillation" (289). Where Korda recounts Lawrence's postwar meetings with Feisal as happy occasions, Anderson shows them as "awkward gatherings" (504). Not an overt "debunking" work, it's surely the most cynical treatment of Lawrence since Michael Asher. 

Anderson isn't entirely convincing. Lawrence's disgust at Allied perfidy is evident throughout his writings; it's hard to credit authors like Suleiman Mousa and Phillip Knightley who strenuously argue him a heartless imperialist. But extreme suppositions that Lawrence engendered Feisal's negotiations with the Turks build on decidedly slender foundations. Anderson isn't wrong to that Lawrence's efforts during the Arab Revolt, and later at Versailles, left him drained and ashamed. Yet later, Lawrence felt his efforts at 1922's Cairo Conference squared his loyalty to Britain and the Arabs adequately.

Nor does Anderson particularly shine elsewhere. His accounts of Lawrence's military actions read fairly, but without particular insight or originality. He's less interested in Lawrence's tactics than his growing "hatred for the enemy" which culminates in Tafas (416). He dismisses Seven Pillars of Wisdom as a "fabulously uneven book" (504). Lawrence's later life, in Anderson's view, is "decidedly prosaic" (504) and hence largely ignored. The Lawrence lauded for his "genius for friendship," able to charm both aristocrats and army privates, appears nowhere in these pages. Any hints of insouciant humor drown beneath waves of bitterness.

Anderson sniffs at "arcane squabbles between those seeking to tarnish his reputation and those seeking to defend it" (3), yet can't help examining a few himself. He confirms Barr's assertion that the northern ride during the Aqaba expedition is beyond dispute (322). He reasonably questions Lawrence's account of Deraa but concludes that "something happened in Deraa" (401). His "something" is a recapitulation of Richard Aldington's theory that Lawrence willingly submitted to the Bey's advances (402).


One shouldn't begrudge Scott Anderson for a well-written book. History buffs can learn a good deal, and even jaded Lawrence snobs may find it an engaging read. It's just a shame that Anderson offers little substantive insight into his central figure.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Checking in

It's been over four months since my last post. Groggy's recently moved and started a new job, so not a lot of time for Lawrence research.

One obvious point of interest: the recent release of Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. The reviews are positively hyperbolic, yet little I've culled from more detailed pieces (cf. here) suggests there's anything not covered by myriad other Lawrence books, or broader studies like David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace. The only new wrinkle seems to be profiling Lawrence alongside contemporaries like Aaronsohn (already juxtaposed with TEL by Ronald Florence), Curt Prufer and William Yale.


Does this mean I won't read Anderson's book? Of course not. I'm always excited to read a new Lawrence tome, and will jump on this as soon as time and money allow. I'm just amused that the same old claims get trotted out by every biography coming down the pike.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Upcoming Lawrence Biography

May sees the release of a new volume on TEL: Lawrence: Warrior and Scholar by Bruce Leigh.

This book is a slim (120 pp.) volume published by Tattered Flag, an independent publisher of military history. Its Amazon blurb makes some rather bold claims, to wit:

"Nobody has gone in search of the mind of the man himself - of his formation and his deep beliefs. Nobody has asked the question, What, really, is the source of the extraordinary power of this little man?"

I leave it to my readers to judge the truthfulness of this comment. Suffice it to say this sensationalist, preening ad copy gets more tiresome with each new book. Still, let's wish Mr. Leigh the best of luck - and hope his book is a worthy addition to the Lawrence canon.