Feature

Book of the week: Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda

Korda’s “baggy but beguiling” biography of T.E. Lawrence includes a “rather gripping” portrait of what a postwar Middle East might have looked like had Lawrence’s vision for the region been realized.

(Harper, 784 pages, $36)

Lawrence of Arabia made a career of being “fabulously weird,” said Ben Macintyre in The New York Times. Because the 5-foot-5-inch British officer “loved to dress up,” we still think of him almost a century after his World War I heroics in the Middle East as a figure in a flowing white robe with a sword in his belt and gold bands across his forehead. But if Michael Korda’s “baggy but beguiling” new biography of T.E. Lawrence sometimes heaps too much adulation on the legendary war strategist, memoirist, and diplomat, it also distinguishes itself by helping us see that its subject’s eccentricity was the key to his lasting impact on the world. Whether Lawrence was leading Arab allies into battle against their Turkish rulers or paying to be privately whipped, he exhibited “an unshakable determination to do things his own way.”

Standing apart had been Lawrence’s M.O. from childhood, said David Shribman in The Boston Globe. Determined to blossom into a hero, he made a study of leadership and warfare while training himself to endure great hardship and pain. That self-education paid off when he mounted a camel and began mobilizing Arab warriors to fight for independence against the more powerful Turks. Unfortunately, “inner torment accompanied his public acclaim.” Not only was Lawrence so uncomfortable with his apparent homosexuality that he avoided normal physical contact and developed a taste for sadomasochism, he was also plagued by guilt about misleading his Arab friends: He knew all along that “he was leading the Arabs in a rebellion to win lands that their Western allies had secretly carved up for themselves.”

Evidently “even heroism has its tragic limits,” said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times. Distraught over the way the Middle East was remapped by the war’s victors, Lawrence tried more than once to escape his fame by re-enlisting in the British military under assumed names. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1935. But Lawrence by then had been instrumental in creating three Arab states, and Korda provides a “rather gripping” portrait of what a postwar Middle East might have looked like had Lawrence’s vision for the region been realized. Lawrence had won Arab support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and his map would have ensured that oil wealth strengthened the most developed areas rather than the “most backward.”

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