T. E. Lawrence to E.M. Forster
Your wonderful letter about The Mint has given me about eight readings of unalloyed pleasure, so far. It is a gift that, of mine, of being able to read so loosely that I can go on reading a thing for time after time, and enjoy it always. Now I am going to read it again, time 9.
No, it is properer to write and thank you for it. It is just like the letter of one writer to another. Marvellous, that you and I should be on such apparent terms. I looked up to you for years as a distant but impeccable star. Now you are no further from me than the thickness of this sheet of notepaper, and my reluctance to cover it with black marks... and not impeccable, since I have found your critical judgement partial to my imperfections. However perhaps I am your blind spot.
Do not swoon with the eccentricity of this typing. I am doing it in the dark, and there is not a bell to ring at the end of lines. I only turn over when it stops on the far side. And I cannot feel with my finger-tips exactly where I am striking the keys.
The (Hitherto) youngest Garnett wrote me a most queer letter* about The Mint (forgive my egoism in talking about it all the time. To write an unpublished book is to hear nothing, except from you and the Garnetts and the Shaws, what sort of book it is... and one does wonder, you know). He said it was a study in pain, and that it had hurt him; I did not think it very horrible anywhere. Now there were things I did write about the Tank Corps which were horrible... but The Mint is not abysmally cruel or crude. Surely not. You get on the side I'd like to stand, when you deduce from it that cruelty is not universal, nor basic in humankind. I am sure it is not.
You put the first and second parts before the third, as writing. I am interested by that word. Every night in Uxbridge I used to sit in bed, with my knees drawn up under the blankets, and write on a pad the things of the day. I tried to put it all down, thinking that memory and time would sort them out, and enable me to select significant from insignificant. Time passed, five years and more (long enough, surely for memory to settle down?) and at Karachi I took up the notes to make a book of them... and instead of selecting, I fitted into the book, somewhere and somehow, every single sentence I had written at Uxbridge.
Now tell me. Did my mind select at the time... or is there no truth that art is selection... or does my book lack selection. Is the whole affair there, and the trees cluttered up by redundant twigs and blossoms?
I wrote it so tightly, because our clothes are so tight, and our lives so tight in the service. There is no freedom of conduct at all. Wasn't I right? G.B.S. calls it too dry, I believe. I put in little sentences of landscape (the Park, the Grass, the Moon) to relieve the shadow of servitude, sometimes. For service fellows there are no men on earth, except other service fellows... but we do see trees and star-light and animals, sometimes. I wanted to bring out the apartness of us.
You wanted me to put down the way I left the R.A.F., and something about the Tanks. Only I still feel miserable at the time I missed because I was thrown out that first time. I had meant to go to a Squadron, and write the real Air Force, and make it a book - a BOOK, I mean. It is the biggest subject I have ever seen, and I thought I could get it, as I felt is so keenly. But they broke all that in me, and I have been damaged ever since. I could never again recover the rhythm that I had learned at Uxbridge, resisting Stiffy... and so it would not be true to reality if I tried to vamp up some yarn of it all now. The notes go to the last day of Uxbridge, and there stop abruptly.
The Cranwell part is, of course, not a part, but scraps. I had no notes for it... any more than I am ever likely to have notes of any more of my R.A.F. life. I'm it, now, and the note season is over. The Cadet college part was vamped up, really, as you say, to take off the bitterness, if bitterness it is, of the Depot pages. The Air Force is not a man-crushing humiliating slavery, all its days. There is sun and decent treatment, and a very real measure of happiness, to those who do not look forward or back. I wanted to say this, not as propaganda, out of fairness, the phrase which pricked up your literary ears, but out of truthfulness. I set out to give a picture of the R.A.F., and my picture might be impressive and clever if I showed only the shadow of it... but I was not making a work of art, but a portrait. If it does surprisingly happen to be literature (I do not believe you there: you are partially kind) that will be because of its sincerity, and the Cadet college parts are as sincere as the rest, and an integral part of the R.A.F.
Of course I know and deplore the scrappiness of the last chapters: that is the draw-back of memory, of a memory which knew it was queerly happy then, but shrank from digging too deep into the happiness, for fear of puncturing it. Our contentments are so brittle, in the ranks. If I had thought too hard about Cranwell, perhaps I'd have found misery there too. Yet I assure you that it seems all sunny, in the back view.
Of Cadet College I had notes. Out of letters on Queen Alexandra's Funeral (Garnett praises that. Shaw says its the meanness of a guttersnipe laughing at old age. I was so sorry and sad at the poor old queen), for the hours on guard, for the parade in the early morning. The Dance, the Hangar, Work and the rest were written at Karachi. They are reproductions of scenes which I saw, or things which I felt and did... but two years old, all of them. In other words, they are technically on a par with the manner of The Seven Pillars; whereas the Notes were photographs, taken day by day, and reproduced complete, though not at all unchanged. There was not a line of the Uxbridge notes left out; but also not a line unchanged.
The only photographic chapter of The Seven Pillars was the account of the tribal feasts, in Wadi Sirhan, when we stuffed meat and rice till we were sick. For that I had photographic notes, which only required rearranging. I wrote The Mint at the rate of about four chapters a week, copying each chapter four or five times, to get it into final shape. Had I gone on copying, I should only have been restoring already crossed our variants. My mind seems to congest, after reworking the stuff several times.
To insist that they are notes is not side-tracking. The Depot section was meant to be quite a short introduction to the longer section dealing with the R.A.F. in being, in flying work. Events killed the longer book: so you have the introduction, set out at greater length.
'You hadn't, that is to say, communicated your happiness to me' - nor convinced my rational side of it. The happiness is real: but sensory, only, I think.
'The Mint is not so great a work as The Seven Pillars':- but possibly better, as Garnett thinks. It is so tiny a theme and work; perhaps I have a cherry-stone talent. The Seven Pillars is a sort of introspection epic, you know: and it would have taken a big writer to bring it off.&
'There seems no reason why you shouldn't write all sorts of books'. Why, I feel as dry as a squeezed orange. I do not think it is at all likely that I will ever be moved to write anything again. The Mint dates from 1922, when I hadn't looked back in cold blood at The Seven Pillars, and seen how they fell short of my fancied achievement. Too ambitious, the little soul was: and so he's come a fearful cropper.
There are now women free in Waziristan to explore: so that point does not yet arise. 1930 before I come home. 1935 (if I am lucky) before I get thrown out of the R.A.F... and then I have a promise of a job, as night-watchman in a City Bank. So life is all mapped out safely, for long enough ahead.
It is good to feel a little safe. Often I get sorry over all the chances of money I have thrown away. One does need money, to the bread and butter point, to keep one's behaviour decent.
The Mint mustn't be published till after 1950... when it will be so stale that nobody will much want to publish it. The new point of view, to which you (surprisingly... for I did not know there was one) allude, will be old, by then.
More and more thanks. You have given me vast and unalloyed pleasure.
*It was a quite absurdly laudatory letter, too: only so queer. More like a woman than a man.
|Last revised:||19 January 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