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T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett


[Karachi]

1.XII.27

This is going to be mainly about Read's very excellent note; but first you must hear that I got an even better criticism of my style etc. from a son of yours:- possibly your son par excellence. He puts together my writing and Doughty's, with results of great interest to me. He has read D. Whereas most people only write about him. I've answered him at colossal length; it is easy to write to strangers and I have told him insulting things about his own work. So you will have a local war on soon. I take it he is The Sailor's Return and Into Fox Garnett? He wanted me to write another book. I told him that I did by accident, before I saw how bad The Seven Pillars was: and suggested that he pester you for a sight of it, some time next year, after I send it you. It will cure these ideas that I can write.

Now about Read. I'm going to take him page by page, with the book open on the table. He starts off on a defeatist note, about the brief life of modern books. He may be taking in periods of geology, and be deploring the present neglect of Aurignacian letters, if he is thinking post-Homeric, then I call his sentiments rot. There has never been such interest in books as there is to-day, nor so much writing, nor so much book-publishing, nor so much book-buying, nor so much reading of books, or about books. This century holds the record in every particular. A book's life only begins when the newness has passed off its covers, and when the reviewers have stopped talking. He is confusing the news-value of a book with its being read. Go to... 'Great books are written in moods of spiritual light and intellectual certainty'.

I would maintain against him that these moods never produced an imaginative work the size of a mouse from any of the people sterile enough to feel certain. My notion of the world's big books are War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazoff, Moby Dick, Rabelais, Don Quixote. Of course we treat of prose. There's a fine set of cores of darkness! But of course his idea of a great book may be different. Probably he uses 'romantic' in some special sense, as a word of abuse. I do not know how the coteries transcribe it now-a-days. We used to mean by it books like the Odyssey, as compared with the 'classical' works, which were the Iliad or Marmion sort of thing.

The title of my book was a reminiscence, for my ear, of a destroyed book of mine. But it fits the new S.P. better than it fitted the old. Perhaps Read is not fond of Jewish symbolism? I hate bibliophiles, and did my best to throw them off the track with the S.P.; so I did not number my copies, or declare how large the edition was (the published guesses are wide of the truth) or have a standard binding, or signatures, or index, or anything posh. It is heavy, so as to be little carried about. Its type is too large for my taste, but the Lanston people hadn't a decent 11 point in 1923. It is grangerised, of course; I said why, in my preface to the illustrations. Why shouldn't I grangerise my own book? I bowdlerised it too.

The Rothenstein drawing was not asked to consort with the Kennington. It is not possible to put a coloured illustration on a page of type. So all my plates were segregated at the back of the book, in an appendix like a picture gallery. They had no connection, except that of needle and thread, with the text. When he says that the Kennington drawings slip off into the infinite space around them, he puts it better than I ever managed to explain my aim to myself. One doesn't bother, usually, to verbalise one's aspirations. Titles were printed where they went best, because they were just titles superposed on colour reproductions of drawings. He would have had me try to turn them into pictures, perhaps. I wanted them to remain outside the book, and be what they were.

'Ruthlessly cutting the text to suit his page'... any evidence of ruthless cutting, or of cutting, either? I am not aware of it. Of course 15% was cut in making this text from the Oxford version; but my aim and standard of cutting was always the betterment of the prose, and those people who have compared the versions generally give me best with the new one. There are plenty of initial letters not in the top left-hand corner of the page, by the way... unless he has the heresy of thinking each page is separate, and not, like trousers, inseparable as pairs. In which case we will not argue where the stress comes on a sheet of type-script.

Of course the S.P. is not a work of art. Who ever pretended it was? I write better than the majority of retired army officers, I hope; but it is a long way from that statement to literature. Yet The S.P., if not art is equally not 'scribble'. It is the best I could do - very careful, exact, ambitious; and a hopeless failure partly because my aim was so high. I think it better to have burst oneself over-thinking and over-trying, than to do Max Beerbohmish little perfections. So I have pretensions - and haven't....

I do not like his categorical specification of a hero on pp. 38, 39; who, in God's name laid this down? Is the hero to be the changeless thing in the world? And why make Aeneas your archetype? I can't think of any other character in fiction who fits his definition. Not even von Heidenstam's Charles XII, who nears it, in some respects. 

Isn't he slightly ridiculous in seeking to measure my day-to-day chronicle by the epic standard? I never called it an epic, or thought of it as an epic, nor did anyone else, to my knowledge. The thing follows an exact diary sequence, and is literally true, throughout. Whence was I to import his lay-figure hero? Leaders of movements have to be intelligent, as was Feisal, to instance my chief character. Read talks as though I had been making a book, and not a flesh-and-blood revolt.

I also disagree with much of his page 40. I have known intimately English, Turk and Arab soldiers, from experience of the ranks of those armies. I have some acquaintance with French, Italians and Belgians. I entirely repudiate his suggestion that one race is better than another. This is the purest jingoism and Morning Postliness. They apply it to the Irish, and so to myself. He will excuse me from believing so meanly about my own kind. There were compensations in
Flanders. The breaking point of man remains much the same everywhere, and many Arabs and English broke down on the Arab front. Many of these would have broken down in Flanders. He writes as if 'adventure' were a delightful thing. It hurts, if it is the sort of time we had, as he implies. Also his saying that the press is mostly in the hands of non-combatants strikes me as not a very illuminating circumstance if true. He is one of the few really fighting men I have heard entertain a bitterness against non-coms. We usually envy them. Agreed a thousand times about Doughty. If only the people who run about after my farthing dip would go and read Doughty. But D. is partly to blame for that. These fellows here, with whom I have lived the last five years, are not so sure in their English as to enjoy Arabia Deserta. D. uses hard words for which they would need a dictionary, and his Scandinavian syntax puzzles them. He closed his goodness off from the world by not being as honest and simple in manner as he was in mind... and so people like Rosita Forbes and Mrs. Hull and me can still write about the desert.

His last six lines are, I'm sure, very near the truth; except that there too must he pursue his quarrel against the word adventure. He seems beset with whims and bogies. Has he in some way a grudge against something in life? In his writing I see a lack of happiness and of carelessness. In me there is so much of the cold-blooded calculator that I can understand him, I think, more or less by myself. The emotionalism of my S.P. is what sticks in his gizzard, and what he means when he girds at its romance and adventure... as if these forms of activity had some lien with emotion. You told me he was too intellectual:- perhaps, but not in this bit of work. Here he puts on paper his feelings towards the book, in the purest manner of impressionists, for whom Middleton Murry has lived in vain. So he is much to my taste, for I feel through the appearance of those who would make criticism a science.

One smile to finish up. I was not a graduate, but an under-graduate, during the war, my degree happened later, I think.

If you see Read once more, please tell him that I got more for myself, for my own enlightenment, out of his note than out of most of what has been printed. One Pope-Hennessy was as good. Your letters, and I think those of Garnett II, piled up better, you being men of the market-place, as well as of the study. It is a great aid to judgement to know the price of fresh butter and the machinery of parliamentary government. Read is broody by comparison.

The shadow of Hogarth's going is still always there whenever I turn round to think. He was really to me the parent I could trust, without qualification, to understand what bothered me. And I had grown to lean on his knowledge of my motives not a little. Also so much of his goodness lay in himself; and has gone into death with him. That makes it feel wasteful. He had not finished.

Well I have for this week.

T.E.S.

Note. Herbert Read reviewed Seven Pillars of Wisdom in The Bibliophile's Almanack, 1928

Source: DG 547-551
Checked: dn/
Last revised: 10 February 2006


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