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‘I really have read…Seven Pillars Of Wisdom’, The Times

‘Lawrence’s tough, sometimes feral bodyguards “were by nature foppish…and spent much time braiding their plaits’”

It is surprising anyone has read it at all, since Lawrence left the only copy of the first draft in the buffet of Reading Railway Station, had to write it again, then spent agonised years rewriting.  And it is hard to read some episodes without images from Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia hijacking your mind’s eye.

Indeed the film’s narrative follows that of the book: the two years Lawrence spent helping lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the flickering of war along the Red Sea Coast, through the Hejaz Mountains, the wadis of Jordan and up, triumphantly, to Damascus.

But Seven Pillars Of Wisdom is more complex, and vivid. The Revolt’s charismatic leader Feisal, insecure behind his cloud of chain-smoked cigarettes. Lawrence, not the film’s rebel, but an English patriot guilty about the betrayal of the Revolt he believes Allied victory will bring.

The vividness can be strange (Lawrence’s tough, sometimes feral bodyguards “were by nature foppish…and spent much time braiding their plaits and shining their hair”; the shaking rages of the usually jocular tribal leader Auda Abu Tayi, which can only be abated by killing someone) touching (the love for each other of Lawrence’s closest followers Faraj and Daud) and disturbing (a pregnant woman skewered to the ground by the bayonets of retreating Turks).

Lawrence can certainly be fascinating company. During a fever he realises that, counter intuitively, the Revolt shouldn’t obliterate the Turks’ railway lifeline, because it keeps Turkish troops in isolated, harmless pockets. But he can be boring sometimes too, as one long journey follows another.

Perhaps he is reminding us that war often is.  For every tribal feast, there is a camel ride across hellish lava beds. For every mine-laying raid that blows up a train, there is one that fizzles out into inter-tribal squabbling. The affect after 684 pages is exhausting, because the subject demands it.

I haven’t read….A Farewell To Arms, Earnest Hemingway, 1929. Honestly, I have tried Hemingway but his hairy-faced, liver-pounding brand of masculinity has always seemed less authentic than the more diffident, stoical Lawrence’s.

5 May 2006

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