A TOUCH OF GENIUS by Malcolm Brown


The Life of T.E. Lawrence
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Lawrence himself probably would have liked this intelligent, well-researched, profusely illustrated biography, first published in Britain last year, that depicts the hero of WW I Arabia as neither saint nor sinner but simply as "an exceptional human being." The stated aim of the authors--who collaborated on two BBC documentaries about Lawrence (Brown also edited The Selected Letters of T.E. Lawrence)--is to offer "a centrist view" of their subject: a balance between the early, hagiographic portraits (most notably, Lowell Thomas's) and later, iconoclastic biographies such as Knightley and Simpson's The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (1969)--which depicted Lawrence as a supreme masochist. Brown and Cave succeed, piecing together an absorbing mosaic of narrative text; letter, diary, and book extracts; and an extraordinary array of drawings and photographs--many by Lawrence--that delivers a forceful portrait of a man driven in his youth to surpass limits ("to challenge himself, extend his powers"), to burn with such intensity that he burned himself out--with some diabolical help by Turks during his infamous capture and rape. According to the authors, "He was physically and mentally exhausted" after the legend-making Arabian exploits, neatly detailed here; thus his astonishing self-exile into anonymous obscurity, first as Aircraftman John Hume Ross, than as Private and later Aircraftman T.E. Shaw. Illuminating every corner of Lawrence's life, albeit sometimes with a gauze-covered light (there's a curious reluctance to deduce the obvious about Lawrence's long relationship with the Arab youth Dahoum, for instance), Brown and Cave do their subject justice. Although in no way a substitute for John E. Mack's equally fair-minded but much more richly layered A Prince of Our Disorder (1976), their work, with its splendid photographs, is a first-rate Lawrence primer.

Pub Date: March 30th, 1989
ISBN: 1-55778-203-2
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