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9 april 2011

It took me two weeks to read Michael Korda's biography of T.E. Lawrence. It's hard to say why. I've been busy, and the book is 700 pages long, but there were other factors at work. Hero is intensely interesting, and full of details unfamiliar to me. It's also leisurely and full of sidelights, many captured in small-font footnotes. Like its protagonist, Hero is genteel and idiosyncratic. One feels compelled to savor its company while one can.

Korda notes that "there are probably more people who know of Lawrence today than ever . . . but people seldom know all that much about Lawrence" (695). I'm in those categories. Virtually everything I knew about Lawrence before Hero comes from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia – from that film, and also from stray references to Seven Pillars of Wisdom that I've picked up in my wanderings through 20th-century literary history. Seven Pillars is a long book that nobody reads, and Lawrence of Arabia is a long movie more praised than enjoyed. I'm surprised I picked up Hero, but it came recommended and I had a long trip scheduled. Read at whim!

Korda allows as how he'd always been fascinated by T.E. Lawrence. Korda joined the RAF because Lawrence did. He was also inspired by Lawrence to become a motorcyclist, which is a bit like taking up yachting because you admire Percy Shelley. Whatever the manner, it's hard not to be fascinated by T.E. Lawrence. Though smaller than average, he lived much larger than life. And his death at the age of 46 seemed to be one of the more salient signs of the passing of an era: the passing of Empires and Great Games and Boy's Own visions of vast realms won on the playing fields of Eton.

Lawrence himself was neither athlete nor Etonian. His passion was cycling, with or without a motor – he tested himself against the environment and the machine, not against other people. (This was even true in warfare, where Lawrence was famous for traversing deserts and blowing up trains, not for charging into enemy ranks.)

Lawrence was the son of an Anglo-Irish baronet named Thomas Chapman. They had different surnames because Chapman couldn't marry Lawrence's mother, the governess of his four legitimate daughters. The public didn't know about Lawrence's "illegitimacy" during his lifetime – it's possible that Lawrence himself didn't know all the details. Between this blot on his scutcheon and his father's second family's limited resources, Lawrence became a day student at Oxford High School: a lofty privilege for most boys of his era, but a distinctly non-U social position within the English establishment.

Lawrence made his way at Oxford, high school and university alike, by academic merit, determination, and chutzpah. He wrote a brilliant archeological thesis at Jesus College, and later became a fellow at All Souls. He was one of those useful chaps who knows useful things – in Lawrence's case, the military topography of the Middle East. A chap like that would be just the thing for His Majesty's service if war should break out against, say, the Ottoman Empire.

It would be hard to take Lawrence's war against the Ottomans seriously, except that lots of people continue to die in the Middle East in its aftermath, more than 90 years later. Zooming around the desert dressed like Peter O'Toole, thwarting Turkish control of the Hejaz, keeping an eye on French imperial ambitions for Lebanon and Syria, constantly apprehensive of the cherished Tsarist dream of a warm-water port – one looks back at this nonsense and is tempted to ask why anyone cared. In the 21st century, where globalized commerce has made imperialism seem not just irrelevant but positively counterproductive, no career like T.E. Lawrence's could ever get off the ground. And a good thing too. Though at the same time there's a lot to be said for Lawrence's goals. He favored self-determination, opposed genocide, and was one of the few Englishmen in the service of Empire who actually believed that the white man's burden was perfectly capable of carrying itself. The problem was that, no matter how successful he was as a military commander, nobody in London took Lawrence's politics of self-determination seriously.

So the great powers divided up the Arab world arbitrarily after the War, and Lawrence was reduced to making the best of a bad job of it. He helped his allies to thrones in Jordan and Iraq; but the irrational fixations of the British and French helped create a map that is still being fought over today. (It is no accident that British troops went into Basra in the 2000s; they'd gone there in the 1910s and 1920s. Old spheres of influence die hard.)

Hero is a fascinating book, though not without flaws. It's sometimes hard to know what year it is. There are quite a few maps, but they seem to have been added by an intern who hadn't read the text (and cribbed from some 1910s atlas, at that). Korda gives us stereotypical Arabs who aren't quite human at times, a savage people addicted to violence, theft, and indolence. Korda has the absurd habit of tacking long alphabet-soup lists of honors after people's names – in part, perhaps, to show the virture of T.E. Lawrence in remaining merely CB, DSO (honors that Lawrence suppressed and would probably have erased if one could do such a thing). Korda is obsessed with royals, nobility, and celebrity. But perhaps inevitably; Korda establishes that Lawrence himself was a man of vast celebrity, one who attracted celebrities but longed for a life led just offstage and out of focus.

There's also the problem of Lawrence's sexuality. It would seem, from the perspective of the 2010s, that Lawrence was a closeted gay man, fond of young Arab boys, and of being beaten with birch rods by burly English soldiers. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that: even ages of consent differ from culture to culture and era to era. But Korda seems at pains to present Lawrence as virginal. I don't see how this is reconcilable with the well-established fact that Lawrence paid for rough sexual beatings. Better just to acknowledge that Lawrence's sexuality was as eccentric as his approaches to warfare and fame, and that it worked for him and (apparently) for his partners.

But then, the title of the book is "Hero." Korda admires his subject relentlessly, his greatest stylistic flaw being hyperbole. Korda doesn't downplay the fact that Lawrence could be gauche, peremptory, impolitic, and supercilious. (At times; at other times he was the soul of charm and consideration.) But Korda always claims for Lawrence the best, smartest, most original, most wonderful of achievements. This wears thin long before page 699.

Perhaps the most interesting, and likable, element of Lawrence's story is his venture into the "other ranks" of the British services after the First World War. "With all his honors on," as W.H. Auden might have said, Lawrence changed his name (first to Ross, then to Shaw), and joined the RAF, the Army, and then the RAF again as an ordinary enlisted man. He needed a job (see limited family resources, above), and he wanted someone to run his life for him. Most glamorous war heroes would marry a wealthy earl's daughter in such straits, but see birching by burly soldiers, above; Lawrence may have been in the closet, but he wasn't about to ask a wife to guard the door.

So he joined up, and after some false starts, made a specialist career out of seaplane rescue for the RAF. He refused promotion to sergeant, which he could easily have gotten, and seemed to relish being a regular guy who also had the ear of king and cabinet – and lobbied his contacts unmercifully for better working conditions for the common aircraftman. I positively like that T.E. Lawrence.

Korda, Michael. Hero: The life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.