T. E. Lawrence to E. M. Forster
I've been transferred from B. Company: so a man brought your letter over to me two nights ago just after I had gone to bed with a bout of malaria: and a miracle happened: the fever left me and I sat up in bed and read it all! This book is my only one, and I have a longing (which I seldom admit) to hear what men say of it.
In your case it is wonderful. Writers and painters aren't like other men. The meeting them intoxicates me with a strangeness which shows me how very far from being one of them I am. Of your work I only know Howards End and Siren and Pharos: but that's enough to put you among the elect... and yet you bother to write to me whole pages about my effort. No one else has done that for me, and I'm abnormally grateful. Grateful even to the point of wishing for more - not written of course, but to ask you of some of the difficulties I've met. However you will be spared this probably. The army does not let me off at practical times.
Your division of books into the active and the passive pleased me. The fluid ones are those written by writers: and the static ones are those (the many more) written by imitators like me. The second have no justification of being, except the scarcity of the real thing... and the need of books which shall be tools, ancillary. Works of art have their own life, and so aren't best fitted to be railway timetables, or dictionaries, or histories.
My thing was forced from me not as a poem, but as a complete narrative of what actually happened in the Arab Revolt. I didn't think of it till all was over, and it was compiled out of memory (squeezing the poor organ with both hands, to force from it even the little lively detail that there is). If I invent one thing I'll spoil its raison d'être: and if there are invented conversations, or conversations reconstructed after five years, where will it be?
Also, you know, I feel profoundly dejected over it all. It reads to me inferior to nearly every book which I have found patience to read... and that is many. If it is the best I can do with a pen, then it's better for me to hump a rifle or spade about: and I fear it's the best I can write. It went through four versions in the four years I struggled with it, and I gave it all my nights and days till I was nearly blind and mad. The failure of it was mainly what broke my nerve, and sent me into the R.A.F.... where I found six months of full contentment. The Army is a sad substitute. However I'm off the point.
War and Peace is almost the largest book in the world. I've carried it whenever I had the transport, and ever wished it longer. But then Tolstoi was an enormous genius. While I was trying to write I analysed most of you, and found out, so far as it was within my fineness to see, what were your tricks of effect, the little reserves and omissions which gave you power to convey more than the print says. But it is hopeless to grapple with Tolstoi. The man is like yesterday's east wind, which brought tears when you faced it and numbed you meanwhile.
Your goodness in writing to me with such care shows that you think (or makes me think that you think) there's some hope in my writing. Yet the revise I'm going to give The Seven Pillars in the next ten months can be one of detail only: for the adventure is dead in me: and I think it is the only thing I'll ever try to write. The Army is a great assoiler... and my two years of it has nearly cured me of the desire to work gratuitously. This means 'without self-satisfaction or money': the first I only get out of hot speed on a motor-bike. The second I never get. My own writing has brought me in eleven pounds since 1914. A scruple (absurd in view of the obliquity of the whole movement) prevented by taking pay while I was East: and prevents my taking profits on any part of the record of the adventure. I can make a little translating foreign novels: but it's not much, and painful work. The army is assured bread and butter... and that feels better than a gamble outside. Also I feel disinclined to struggle again for a living. If I can't keep alive without much pain then I won't bother to do so at all.
I wonder why I'm writing all this to you. I think perhaps because you are a stranger, and have been interested in my addled egg. It was an extraordinary experience for me, the reading of your letter.
Some of the people who were with me during the war have read the book, and want copies. When I had money I got a lot of drawings done in illustration of it. Not ordinary sorts of things... proper portraits by John and Kennington and Lamb and Spencer and Roberts and Co.... I got an estimate for printing all these as well as possible, and the complete text (revised again of course) in a decent quarto... and they said £3000. So I've agreed to do 100 copies or about that number, if they can find enough of the ungodly rich to subscribe 30 guineas each for a copy. To date they have got nearly twenty (in two months) and the block-making is started. I've stipulated for liberty to produce up to fifty extra pulls of the plain text for the fellows who fought with me... These I'll give them free: but only to the men mentioned by name in it.
It will probably lose me my American copyright, and may lead to pirated editions in England: and this I'll be sorry for, since I grudge others profiting where I refuse to sell. However that's all a piece with the folly of the revolt and my leadership and my story of it. If only I'd written a self respecting straightforward tale the thing would have been over long ago. My great passion and pleasure in living books snared me into the hopelessness of trying to create, and hence these tears.
If you have the spirit at the book's end (I fancy your halt was on the threshold of a chapter in which I tried to paint a full-length of myself, with paints more gummy than any other in the whole canvasses) I hope you will send me not indeed so much, but something, upon your experiences of the last chapters. I let the activity of the book fall into a trough for twenty pages, to give my imaginary reader a rest before piling up the agony of the last advance upon Damascus.
Do anything you please with any of it you please. I feel giddy at the idea of your taking the trouble.
The safest address is T E Shaw - Clouds Hill, Moreton, Dorset.
|Last revised:||10 February 2006|
T. E. Lawrence chronology
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset