T. E. Lawrence to His Biographers
338171, T.E. Lawrence of Abrabia
Over T. E. Lawrence, the sandstorm raised by Richard Aldington’s biography still roars and obscures. The gift fills your mouth as soon as you open it to discuss the man, and the blast of contending fanatics makes it hard to stand up straight. Lawrence-study has come to resemble the Swiftian satire identified by a critic in Kingsley Amis’s new novel One Fat Englishman: satire in which the reader damns himself as one sort of fool by unwarily laughing at another sort of fool.
The Aldington “biographical enquiry” keeps up a monotony of acrid, obsessed unfairness from which it must be right to recoil. Yet the step backwards brings you into the lines of the idolators, to whom Lawrence remains (in the gluey words so precious to those who put “in memoriam” notices on the front page of The Times) the “verray parfite gentil knight,’ or “The Great Captain,” or the saint or the genius or the Man of Scruple or the apostle of truth. Or something else he certainly wasn’t. There were (and are) some cool friends of Lawrence who took a careful line towards his qualities, like E. M. Forster or Sir Hubert Young. But those who are still alive must feel that the uproar has little to do with the real curiousness of the man they observed, and they stay understandably quiet.
An enormous film has been made. Though the Aldington life was published in 1955, many of the demonstrably unlikely myths which can be traced back to Lawrence himself were still there; one imaginable acknowledgement to Aldington, in fact, was the spadingin of incidents which even Lawrence never thought up, as if the producers had shrugged their shoulders, screwed out their cigars on the face of the desert, and agreed to treat the whole thing as a ductile bit of fiction “after a plot by T.E. Lawrence.” Two things remained in my memory: the landscapes and the performance of Peter O’Toole as a maddening, inviolable Lawrence who faced other men literally at an angle, shoulder towards them and eye avoiding theirs, in the stance of a ready boxer.
This, perhaps, suggests the answer to an inevitable question: why bother about this neurotic, upper-class Englishman, who couldn’t write fiction, bear being touched, or even tell the truth? Lawrence isn’t “of Arabia” any more, either. The revolt of the Arabs and his part in directing and supplying it became through the Second World War only one of many such brave stories, though few had such enduring political consequences as his. Why, then? O’Toole found himself absorbed, almost ingested by this strange personality as he worked on it, and it seems that the figure of Lawrence remains as a proper study for those who want to be saved—less a saint than a self-disfigured martyr.
Neither of these two books brings the study much further on, for neither is new and in fact both antedate the Aldington biography. T.E. Lawrence To …