Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure (aka Lawrence and the Arabs) (Robert Graves, 1928)

Publishing Info:

Graves, Robert. Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure. Garden City (NY): Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1928. 400 pp.


The second major Lawrence biography, Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure (UK title: Lawrence and the Arabs) (1928) is mostly a curio despite its distinguished pedigree. Lawrence cooperated closely with Graves, providing him with notes, diary entries, correspondence and a manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (which, up until then, had only been released in a very limited "Subscribers Edition"), and the result is that rehashes Seven Pillars to a painful degree. Its primary value is providing some shrewd insights into Lawrence's characters.

The Author:

Robert Graves (1895-1985) was a renowned English poet and novelist. After service in World War I, during which he befriended Siegfried Sassoon, Graves spent time at St. John's College (Oxford) and the University of Cairo and collaborated on several academic works with fellow poet Laura Riding. He's probably best-remembered for his novels Good-bye to All That (1929) and I, Claudius (1934), but he was also a prolific poet and translator of Classical works, including a controversial take on the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam.

The Review:

Despite being a gifted writer in his own right, Graves resorts to paraphrasing Seven Pillars, with an occasional parenthetical comment thrown in. I'm informed by Maarten Schild that Lawrence wrote much of it himself. For this reason, it's very difficult to pass judgment on it as an original work, aside from some interesting and valuable primary research.

For comparison's sake, compare Lawrence's account of his first conference with General Allenby in July 1917:

Before I was clothed the Commander-in-Chief sent for me, curiously... It was a comic interview, for Allenby was physically large and confident, and morally so great that the comprehension of our littleness came slow to him. He sat in his chair looking at me - not straight, as his custom was, but sideways, puzzled. ... He was hardly prepared for anything so odd as myself - a little bare-footed silk-skirted man offering to hobble the enemy by his preaching if given stores and arms and a fund of two hundred thousand sovereigns...

Allenby could not make out how much was genuine performer and how much charlatan. The problem was working behind his eyes, and I left him unhelped to solve it. (SP p. 330)

And here's Graves's version of same:

Later at Cairo [Allenby] sent for Lawrence... It was a comic interview. ... Allenby sat in his chair looking at Lawrence, very much puzzled at this haggard little man, with silk robes and a face burned brick red with the sun, explaining with a map a fantastic plan for raising the Eastern Syrians in revolt behind the enemy lines. He listened quietly, asking few questions and trying to make up his mind how far Lawrence was a charlatan and how far a real performer... (pp. 184-185)

This, of course, is just one example of many. Aside from an occasional interjection of original research (an interview or correspondence with Lawrence's comrades-in-arms), Graves ventriloquizes Lawrence's own account. At that, it's a sanitized version of Lawrence's account, with Deraa and other messy aspects excised. Graves frequently criticizes Lowell Thomas and slams Revolt in the Desert as "a series of incidents loosely strung together" (p. 358). Fair enough, but what does one make of this in light of Graves's own work?

What's mostly of interest here are the bookend chapters, which deal with Lawrence's character. Graves relates dubious claims and anecdotes about Lawrence (reading 50,000 books at Oxford) that more critical writers would refute or at least question. And he is an unabashed Lawrence-worshipper, who like John Buchan would "follow Lawrence over the end of the world." But his personal analysis and depiction of Lawrence remains spot-on, and it's especially valuable coming from a man who actually knew him. Here is a representative sample of Chapter 2, where Graves tries to provide us with a snapshot of his ever-elusive subject:

[Lawrence] keeps his enormously wide circle of friends... as much as possible in watertight compartments, each away from the other. To each friend he reveals in fact some part of himself, but only a part: these characters he never confuses. So there are many thousands of Lawrences, each one a facet of the Lawrence crystal: and whether or not the crystal is colourless and the facets merely reflect the characters of the friends whom they fact, Lawrence himself has no motion. ... [Those who] try to corner him, each believing that he alone knows the real Lawrence, so that there is a comical jealousy when they meet. (pp. 39-40)

This comment seems especially prescient when one considers that Lawrence simultaneously helped Graves and Basil Liddell Hart on their respective biographies, without telling either about the other. Supposedly Lawrence wanted the novelist Graves to provide a personalized portrayal of T.E., while military historian Liddell Hart could put his military campaigns in the proper context.

In a broader sense, this comment presciently captures the biographical and historical debate about Lawrence that continues, even today. He was such a unique personality, a mysterious, mischievous individual who reveled in being elusive, that any attempt to pin him down or pigeon-hole him is doomed to failure.

Equally interesting is the primary research; virtually all of the primary participants in the Revolt were still alive in 1928, and Graves corresponded with most of them (at least on the British end). The final chapter, dealing with Lawrence's life as "Airman Shaw" in the Royal Air Force and Tank Corps, gives us some valuable insights into his character: RAF Sergeant Pugh's account is especially revealing T.E.'s intense love of music and motorcycles, his mechanical skill and chumminess with his mates. Pugh gives comment on Lawrence's chest and back scars - evidence of Deraa that none of the "skeptical" biographers have adequately refuted. Unfortunately, such gems are only a small part of a dissatisfying whole.

I recommend Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure only for Lawrence completists and serious scholars. Everyone else is encouraged to read Revolt in the Desert and Seven Pillars of Wisdom instead, where you can enjoy Lawrence's own words in... Lawrence's own words.

What Others Say:

"If Lawrence is portrayed as larger than life... nevertheless Graves introduce(s) a psychological complexity to his subject." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

1 comment:

  1. T.E. Lawrence can only be understood within the historical and political perspective, and Graves's account of Lawrence within the psychological antidote only enriches our understanding of this great man. Luis Lazaro Tijerina, Burlington, VT, United states of America