T.E. Lawrence, of Arabia, was by turns a very interesting and a very unusual man. He often was what used to be called queer, before it took on the meaning of homosexuality (though Lawrence *may* have been that, too), and expressed himself in the most strange ways. He was trained as an archaeologist before the First World War, and spent some time in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire (in what was to become Syria) and learned the language and customs of the locals. When the war started he joined the British army and spent two years working in the intelligence branch in Cairo; in 1916 he was sent to Arabia to evaluate the chances the British had of instigating a revolt among the locals, who would fight against the Turks (who were themselves fighting the British at the time). This evaluation mission evolved to the point that Lawrence was the British liaison to the local Arab prince who led the rebels, one of the Sharif of Mecca's sons, known as Feisal. Gradually Lawrence supplanted Feisal in terms of military leadership, and eventually the Arab revolt was pretty much all Lawrence, at least militarily...though Lawrence would never have acknowledged this, and probably would have argued with the statement had it been made in his presence.
The current book, by Robert Graves, has an interesting pedigree of its own. Graves is one of the premiere British literary figures of the 20th Century, writing everything from novels (I, Claudius) to compilations of mythology (The Greek Myths) to a war memoir (Goodbye to all That) with all of these books regarded as classics in their respective fields. Lawrence and the Arabs doesn't have the same reputation for excellence: Graves wrote it hastily in a few months in 1927, at the request of Lawrence's publisher. Lawrence had become famous as "Lawrence of Arabia" at the end of World War I via Lowell Thomas's book and a lecture tour Thomas did, where he spoke and showed silent films and slides from the desert. Much of what Thomas recounted of Lawrence's experiences was inaccurate: Lawrence decided to redress these untruths for his friends with a book he would write for them.
The result was a very long book called Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Upon completion, Lawrence published the book privately, selling about a hundred copies and giving away half that. The cost of printing the book was much more than the sale price he was charging, so the book was a commercial disaster. Having no money to pay the publisher to compensate him for the loss, Lawrence agreed to edit the text and sell a shorter version of the book, which was titled Revolt in the Desert. However, Lawrence insisted on there being, in the contract between him and the publisher, a proviso that once the debt from Seven Pillars had been paid off, he would be able to demand that the publisher cease printing Revolt, even if there was a further demand for it. Sure enough, when the debt was paid off, he so demanded, and the publisher reluctantly shut down their presses, though they could have sold many more copies of the book. They then asked Lawrence if they could have another writer write a book which summarized his experiences, and he agreed. Graves was a friend of Lawrence's; Lawrence was apparently pleased that Graves was the one chosen to write the book, though he was disappointed that Graves wasn't given a proper amount of time to write it. The publisher wanted to strike while the iron was hot: during this time copies of Seven Pillars sold for as much as 500 pounds, and were actually for *rent* in the London Times, by the week.
The resulting book isn't bad, by any stretch of the imagination. I guess Graves' reputation is such that anything other than an excellent book is considered mediocre. The writing is good, and since the author knows the subject of the book, he has some insight into his character that all subsequent writers lack. The book relies heavily on Seven Pillars for its account of the events in the war, and of course that book has been criticized (I think somewhat unfairly) as inaccurate. *All* memoirs are by their nature inexact: one person's point of view is only rarely completely accurate and objective, and that is by definition what a memoir is. The book also includes a concluding chapter which discusses his life after the war, including his service in the RAF.
I enjoyed this book very much, and would recommend it to the specialist for its value as a picture of Lawrence and what he was like to those around him.