Thursday, April 7, 2011
Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive (1961, Anthony Nutting)
Nutting, Anthony. Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive. London: Hollis and Carter, 1961. 256 pp.
I'm surprised that Anthony Nutting's 1961 biography isn't better-remembered. It may be one of the most influential: Nutting was an adviser on the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and his depiction of Lawrence as a tormented sadomasochist undoubtedly influenced David Lean and Robert Bolt's depiction of Lawrence in said movie. Besides this cultural influence, The Man and the Motive is a mixed bag, mixing good storytelling with often-shaky history.
Sir Anthony Nutting (1920-1999) was the scion of a wealthy British family. During World War II he served in various diplomatic posts and in 1945 was elected to Parliament at the age of 25. Despite his youth he became a major player in the Conservative Party, becoming Privy Councilor in 1954, serving in Winston Churchill's second Cabinet as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and leading two delegations to the United Nations.
An Arabist who encouraged friendly relations between Britain and the Middle East, Nutting helped negotiate the turnover of the Suez Canal to Egypt in 1954. However, he was aghast when the British and French decided to "knock [Abdul] Nasser from his perch" by invading Egypt two years later. Nutting resigned in disgust over the resulting Suez Crisis, ruining his political career, though he remained in the public eye as an historian and political commentator for decades.
Parenthetically, Lawrence may be one of the few cases where a man's biographers are as interesting as their subject. Between Nutting, Graves, Aldington and Lowell Thomas, we have a number of men as worthy of lengthy biographies as Lawrence.
In Images of Lawrence, Stephen Tabachnick attacks Nutting for a lack of original research and a lot of speculation. This is a valid criticism, as The Man and the Motive essentially boils down past accounts of Lawrence's life and actions to a simple form, with some brief chapters of analysis and examination. That said, it's also one of the most readable, straightforward Lawrence biographies.
Nutting's main virtue is accessibility. He structures his biography like a novel (or a film script?), with events clearly laid out. This isn't always to the benefit of the book, with Nutting indulging in speculative dialogue and analysis on occasion. But his prose is crisp and the book flows perfectly, so for pure readibility it comes highly recommended. Of course, for historical works readability isn't the only consideration.
Nutting's portrayal reflects the general debate on Lawrence circa 1961 - eg., the scholarly community still reeling from Richard Aldington's broadside, and trying to reconcile it with the traditional Lowell Thomas/Robert Graves portrayal. To Nutting's credit, he avoids either extreme, seeking a balanced portrayal of Lawrence rather than deifying or demonizing him. His account of the Arab Revolt is straight out of Seven Pillars with some brief sections on his pre- and post-war life, but this is an issue of presentation His history is generally good; his view of Lawrence may raise an eyebrow.
Nutting portrays Lawrence as admirable in many ways, but a tortured, self-contradictory one, who mixes heroism and idealism with vanity and neurosis. He mostly abstains from direct analysis until the final chapter, fittingly entitled "The Motive," where he tries to determine "What... lay(s) at the root of the Lawrence enigma?" (p. 237). So again we have a biographer thinking there's a definite "key" to Lawrence. And without the psychological training of a John Mack or the documentation of a Knightley and Simpson, Nutting's interpretation is questionable.
Nutting rejects some of Aldington's more egregious speculations, namely that Lawrence was a pathological liar or a homosexual. However, he does agree that Lawrence was a "rabid masochist" (p. 244), and goes a step further in arguing that Deraa is the key to all his subsequent actions - not least the Tafas Massacre. Edward Robinson made a similar argument in his Lawrence the Rebel, but this seems idle speculation at best, misrepresentation at worst. If Seven Pillars is accurate, Lawrence's failures during the Dead Sea Campaign, and general guilt over misleading the Arabs, prompted him to try and resign, not Deraa. As for Tafas, biographers needn't engage in psychological speculation: Lawrence's vivid account of the Turkish atrocities beforehand should suffice for a reason.
Nutting's overall depiction of Lawrence is mixed. Much of his account rings true, if overly simplified. His depiction of Lawrence as a "Kingmaker" (p. 36), though harmed by silly "thought" dialogue, seems accurate, and for much of the book Nutting draws a good bead on Lawrence's basic motivations: a mixture of genuine idealism and personal ambition. Nutting is also credible in portraying Lawrence's relationships with Feisal, Auda and Allenby. Finally, Nutting commendably points out Lawrence's mutual sympathy for pan-Arabism and Zionism, where many authors (Suleiman Mousa) see these beliefs as inherently incompatible.
On the other hand, Nutting's depiction of Lawrence's "northern ride" during the Aqaba campaign as a "compulsive act of bravado" (p. 75) seems ridiculous. Rather than rebut Lawrence's stated reasons (intelligence reasons plus a guilt-driven, self-destructive impulse) he claims it "unlikely" and substitutes his own speculation. After Nutting's account of Tafas: "If... Lawrence was able to see into his soul... he must have been among the most tortured of God's creatures" (p. 163). This is psychological profiling by someone lacking the qualifications.
There's also the minor quibble that Nutting spends two-three pages rebutting Terence Rattigan's depiction of Deraa in his controversial play Ross, which has Lawrence deliberately raped by Hajim Bey to break his spirit. I agree with his conclusions but I wonder what the point is; after all, Ross isn't intended as anything more than fiction.
In spite of its flaws, Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive stands as a decent pre-1969 biography. As a work of ground-breaking scholarship it isn't great, though Nutting is ahead of his time in some of his conclusions. As an entertaining, readable, if occasionally suspect, biography, it's cautiously recommended.
What Others Say:
"Not much new here, and it basically assumes T.E. told the truth." - CooperToons
"The best short book (on Lawrence)." - Thomas Jackson, Forbes Magazine
"Offers interpretation rather than concrete new evidence about Lawrence." - Stephen E. Tabachnick
Time Magazine review