- Series: ALA Notable Books for Adults
- Hardcover: 592 pages
- Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (August 6, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 038553292X
- ISBN-13: 978-0385532921
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 1,480 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #113,630 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (ALA Notable Books for Adults) Hardcover – August 6, 2013
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, August 2013: Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia is a marvel of a history book. The research is impeccable. The story is fascinating and unforgettable. And the characters are so compelling that they seem to have been plucked from a novel. During World War I, the course of the modern day Middle East was set by a handful of young, low-ranking actors who exerted oversized influence on the region. Anderson focuses our attention on four men: a minor German diplomat and spy, an American oilman descended from the Yale family, a Romanian-born agronomist, and T.E. Lawrence himself. As we witness the western nations attempting to carve up a region that they were never able to master, these adventurous and often duplicitous men come to full life--none more so than Lawrence. The amount of research it must have taken to write this book is astounding. But there is no filler here: this is the kind of detail that causes the narrative to pop, that makes it live and breathe, and it will keep you reading long into the night. --Chris Schluep
*Starred Review* To historians, the real T. E. Lawrence is as fascinating as the cinematic version in Lawrence of Arabia is to movie fans. The many reasons interlock and tighten author Anderson’s narrative, yielding a work that can absorb scholarly and popular interest like. Start with Lawrence’s WWI memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). A rare-book collectible, it inspired many of the scenes in David Lean’s film and is also subject to cross-referencing interpretations of Lawrence’s veracity. For lyrical though Lawrence could be about Arab leaders and desert landscapes, he could also be enigmatically opaque about the truth of his role in events. Accordingly, Anderson embeds Lawrence and Seven Pillars in the wider context of the Arab revolt against Turkey, and that context is the British, French, German, and American diplomacy and espionage intended to influence the postwar disposition of the territories of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence was Britain’s agent in this game, and the other powers’ agents, although none enjoy his historical celebrity, assume prominence in Anderson’s presentation. Its thorough research clothed in smoothly written prose, Anderson’s history strikes a perfect balance between scope and detail about a remarkable and mysterious character. --Gilbert Taylor
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The book is much larger than just the story of Lawrence, because Anderson deliberately sets out to create an epic narrative. He introduces three other characters, whose lives and activities during the war years are recounted alongside those of Lawrence. They are William Yale, a young American oil man who almost serendipitously became the then rather amateurish US State Department’s expert on the Middle East; Curt Prufer, a German intelligence operative, and Aaron Aarohnson, the Jewish/Palestinian agronomist who formed the NILI spy ring in Palestine working on behalf of the British. Following extensive background on each of these three, the author uses the standard epic novel technique of interspersing contemporary narratives of the activities of each of them with those of Lawrence. Much of it is interesting; for example, the very detailed account of Aaron Aarohnson’s trials and tribulations in attempting to get the British to take his spy ring seriously, or his involvement in the Zionist movement. But overall, much of it is just filler; Lawrence was a “mover and shaker” who influenced events on a massive scale; the other three are minor characters, for the most part observers who had little or no influence in shaping either the war efforts or strategic outcomes of their respective nations. The account of Lawrence in Arabia gains nothing – other than length – from this treatment.
This is clearly a book written by a journalist, rather than a historian – not because of any deficiency in the author’s research – but because it takes a very moralistic contemporary point of view of British and French imperialistic policies, how the war was mismanaged with a reckless disregard for life, and how the peace was so badly compromised. This is with the benefit of 90 years’ hindsight and the sensibilities of a contemporary liberal outlook , although a clearer understanding of past events is usually better seen from the perspective of their participants.
One gets the impression that the wartime Anglo-French jockeying for control of large parts of the soon to be ex-Ottoman empire is the whim of individual English and French players, rather than a strategic rivalry between these so-called allies. James Barr’s “A Line in the Sand” does a better job of this, because it follows the rivalry through the next 30 years after WW1. Anderson of course is concerned primarily with Lawrence, so his book ends with Lawrence’s exit from the scene, and subsequent events are only covered very briefly in the epilogue. “A Line in the Sand” is no less replete with interesting characters than “Lawrence in Arabia”; but the difference is that in the former, the characters subserve the narrative, rather than the other way around.
If you are interested in reading an in-depth analysis of T.E Lawrence, then this book will give you that – but you will also have to learn almost as much about Yale, Aarohnson and Prufer. If you are looking to understand, as the cover blurb says “… the making of the modern middle east”, there are more complete and less judgmental accounts to be read.
This month we have the release of Scott Anderson's new book LAWRENCE IN ARABIA which for some reason felt it important to replace the word OF with the word IN. And although I have some concerns with some of Anderson's characterizations and his depiction of Lawrence especially in his post war life I think the book is a tremendously good read that takes on a much broader scope than just being a Lawrence biography.
Anderson gives us a broader picture of how the Arab Revolt and Lawrence's roll tied into other World War I campaigns. There is a good section on how Lawrence and others proposed early in the war that the British attack the Ottoman Empire (who controlled the Middle East) at Alexandretta (near Aleppo which is much in the news today). But instead Winston Chruchill and the British war planners attacked Gallipoli resulting and a lost opportunity and a crushing defeat. If Alexandretta had been captured and the Ottoman Empire split in two there may have been no need for an Arab revolt.
The book tries to be a biography of Lawrence asking how did Lawrence do it (answer no one was looking) and three others: Curt Prufer a German spy who tries to get Arabs to attack the Suez Canal, Aaron Aaronsohn the Jewish Zionist who along with his sister set up pro-British spy ring in Palestine, and William Yale who working for Standard Oil traveled the Middle East. The problem with these three other individuals with the possible exception of Aaronsohn is that they are at best interesting footnotes except that they do help expand the readers understanding of people and events beyond the scope of the Lawrence story. And although I liked Anderson's structure I thought the Aaronsohn story was better told in Ronald Florence's 2007 book LAWRENCE AND AARONSOHN, T.E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronshon, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Anderson quotes Florence in several of the Aaronshon sections). As to Prufer and Yale I don't recall ever hearing about them before this book.
Anderson's book justifiably spends a lot of time discussing the Sykes/Picot treaty between Britain and France and the person of Mark Sykes who was a major political player and is a major character in the book. Much more so than even Aaronshon. His personal and political story really is what the book's subtitle is about.... Deceit... Imperial Folly... and the making of the modern Middle East. Add Sykes/Picot with the Balfour Declaration and you have the unbelievable colonialism arrogance that Lawrence opposed in his support of an independent Arab nation. What the Arab's hoped to gain by their revolt.
This brings me to a point in Anderson's book that really disturbed me when I read it. The fact that Anderson calls Lawrence out as a TRAITOR. This on pages 270-271, "....in any wartime army at any point in history - The divulging of a secret treaty to a third party was considered a consummate act of treason, one sure to win the offender a long prison sentence if not an appointment with a firing squad. Yet a some point during those early days of February in Wejh, Lawrence took Faisal aside and did precisely that, revealing to him both the existence and salient details of Sykes-Picot." No one doubts that Lawrence at this time knew of the treaty but I am hard pressed to see any evidence that Lawrence was a traitor. There are many other numerous explanations about how and when Faisal first found out about the treaty. If Lawrence was in fact a traitor I would have thought the French at the very least would have pressed the point with their British allies. I don't believe any other biographer has made a point of this issue. Anderson then even ends his book in the Epilogue by saying, "Everything T.E. Lawrence had fought for, schemed for, arguably betrayed his country for, turned to ashes....." This is a heavy handed indictment. The interesting thing about Lawrence is that many things about him are elusive and will always remain a matter of conjecture. But I for one feel Anderson has gone over the top on this claim. (Much the way prior biographers have made the point that Lawrence was a homosexual. No one will really know for sure but then does it matter.)
Lastly, I take exception to Anderson's brief depiction of Lawrence in the Epilogue diagnosing Lawrence as having had Post-traumatic stress disorder. Anderson further says, " ...it is hard to escape the image of a sad and reclusive man, his circle of friends and acquaintances steadily dwindling to a mere handful...".
No doubt Lawrence had a unique and difficult personality to understand. How many Britain's would turn away from being knighted by their King during the actual ceremony? None before Lawrence. John Mack in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, THE PRINCE OF OUR DISORDER: The Life of T.E. Lawrence (1976) devoted a whole book to doing a psychological study of Lawrence (One of the best books on Lawrence). In Michael Korda's recent book, HERO: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (2010) Korda paints a more convincing picture than PTSD where Lawrence having sought fame, having become a celebrity as big as say Diana today, found he did not like living with fame. Rather than leverage his fame like most people would be expected to do Lawrence hid from it. I always thought the fact that he grew up keeping the secret that he was illegitimate in class contentious Britain that he was a pretender. The work Lawrence did after the war was never going to be heroic...the stuff of headlines.... But he was an intellectual who wrote two books and translated others. The letters he wrote were long and interesting and send to a wide circle of acquaintances yielding who collections of text. Yes, Lawrence was not like the rest of us... and that is why his legend, myth and enigma endure.
In Anderson's Acknowledgments at the end of his book Anderson gives high recognition to Jeremy Wilson whose authorized biography, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1990) and says, "While I respectfully disagree with Mr. Wilson on several aspects of Lawrence's actions in Arabia. I am deeply indebted to the astounding amount of scholarly research he has done on Lawrence......" If you're a fan of all things Lawrence you no doubt know that Jeremy Wilson and his wife Nichole own Castle Hill Press. They have been publishing fine collector quality books by Lawrence for some twenty years. I own several of these the two most recent being THE MINT and BOATS FOR THE RAF 1929 - 1935. I recommend the Wilson's work to you as well as Wilson's T.E. Lawrence Studies page on internet. (Here he also does a good power point presentation covering the historical accuracy of the movie.)
For those who like and collect things Lawrence I want to also mention a book I found very well published and presented. It is in part what one might term a small coffee table book. It is Joseph Berton's T.E. LAWRENCE AND THE ARAB REVOLT (2011.
Lawrence is now but a drifting bit of sand blowing across the landscape of a land and people he loved that today is fractured by human intolerance. He became the medieval knight he dreamed of becoming. And I think that is what drew my Father to Lawrence.
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