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