on 15 October 2014
When I started this book at the introduction and through the early chapters, I found this a most fascinating insight into the Arab Revolt of the Great War, the people concerned in the conflict and the geography of the Arabian peninsular. As I progressed through the book, to page 187 so far, I realised that this was perhaps the most profoundly boring book that I had read for many years. Despite the unquestionable intellect of Lawrence, his writing is clumsy: the structure of the sentences being often ambiguous due to poor punctuation and his confusing changes in spelling of place name. He explains this in the introduction as irrelevant in the context of the story but this explanation comes across as another aspect of his obvious arrogance evident from his narrative. This book, so far as I have progressed, is less a story more simply a catalogue of Lawrence’s movements and the discussions of the conflict which, incidentally, Lawrence seems to have had virtually no influence, in contrast to my previous understanding from the famous film.
I have now moved this book to that part of the bookshelf reserved for books which I thought were proper for me to read but in the end just proved too tedious. It joins War and Peace (p. 291), Ulysses (p. 160), Diary of Samuel Pepys (p.75) and Pillars of the Earth (p.577).
One point in the book’s favour was its excellent print quality by Wordsworth Classics. I find modern print quality of a generally low standard: Fourth Estate books are particularly poor and a recent copy of Annie Proulx’s Postcards, at £7.99, was practically illegible in places.
on 24 September 2011
Rightfully regarded as a modern classic, this book is nevertheless not light reading. This is a result of the density of information, as well as Lawrence's writing style, which often makes a re-reading of passages necessary to fully grasp them, besides his use of some unusual vocabulary. But by the time one has completed the journey to Damascus with Lawrence and his Arabs, one has almost got a taste for his own peculiar style, even if one cannot always agree with his views, which however, were pretty progressive for a man who grow up at the height of imperialism.
There are, however, many contradictions in the man. At the start of the book, for example, he sympathizes with the unwilling Turkish conscipts, illiterate Anatolian peasants who really wished to be back home, led by a militaristic officer caste fresh from the Armenian genocide. Later in the book though, little sympathy is shown, and on one occasion when Lawrence was angered by the Turks, he did nothing to stop their massacre on their defeat, and left all their wounded where they fell - every one of hundreds froze to death in the cold winter night...
But when one considers that he lost both brothers in 1915 in France, his father in 1919 of the Spanish influenza, and his closest friend, and probably boyfriend, Salim Ahmed, shortly before his entry into Damascus, one can be more forgiving of his attitude. And who can forget his botched execution of Hamed, who'd killed another man? To avoid a blood feud, Lawrence suggested that he execute the man, which was insisted on by the Arabs. 3 shots with his pistol, one of which hit the man on his wrist. No wonder he said he couldn't sleep that night. Or his having to shoot long-time compatriot Farrah in the head as he was too seriously injured to move, and wanted to avoid the inevitable torturing to death of Arab prisoners. Enver Pasha, the Turkish commander, had thrown so many men live into his furnace that he knew just how long it took before you heard the sound of their heads popping. Considering this background of brutality, Lawrence comes across as positively humane.
The book has it's lighter moments though. Who can forget the tribe of the Ageyl, who were so poor they used to go into battle stripped to their loin cloths, both in the belief that it reduced their chances of infection if they were hit, as well as to protect their clothing from bullet holes or blood stains...the young Arabs urinating on others' wounds as the only antiseptic treatment in the desert...the Howeitat treatment of snake-bites - bind up the part with snake-skin plaster, and read chapters of the Koran to the sufferer until he died. Life was hard, and luxuries were few, something which seemed to attract Lawrence even more towards his mission of reaching Damascus and driving out the Turks, even if his conscience continued to bother him that the British Govt's promises to the Arabs were unlikely to be fulfilled.
Finally, Lawrence claimed he left the original manuscript on the train, and had to rewrite the entire book from memory, an amazing feat considering the wealth of detail here. Actually, it would be a superhuman task, and Robert Graves, one of his best friends, believes the story was a lie. The implication is that Lawrence made out that he'd had to rewrite the book by recalling his memories as a cover for the fact that parts of the book are invented, and many facts changed, and that this would be the perfect excuse should his information later be found to be inaccurate. But why claim to have blown up over 70 bridges when the real number was around 20 or so?
The answer is that this is a work of literature, and not a military textbook. We'll never be really sure of which parts are exactly true, and which merely invented as representing what typically happened. It's not always light reading, so set some time aside for this one, but when you get to the end, you'll be glad of having made the effort.
This is such a long, difficult book to read, but really a valuable book for gaining an insight into the middle east. Lawrence of course was writing during the First war, which ultimately heralded the fall of the Ottoman empire, the subsequent carve-up by the British and French, and the roots of the middle east we know today.
Lawrence's dealings with the Arabs show things from a unique perspective, and he is almost fatalist in his attitude. For me it certainly gave a good insight of how things have turned out today.
on 3 July 2012
I read this whilst sweating in Qatar and although far removed geographically from where the story takes place, sitting in the desert looking out at a sand obscured horizon made me realise a little of what T E Lawrence went through just to survive these harsh conditions.
As a historical record of an almost forgotten campaign, that effectively helped to shape the Middle East for the next 90 years, it is really second to none. Although I found Lawrence to be an impenetrable person even on second reading, I do find his descriptions of the landscape, vegetation (what there i!), rocks, and the unrelenting sun to be enlightening and engrossing bringing the land alive and it is this which is the main unchanging (and ever changing) character of the book.
It is worthy of it's historical status but the descriptions alone should make this book stand out from many.