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BOOK REVIEW

‘Hero’ looks back on the life of T.E. Lawrence

His public glory and private torment

By David Shribman
Globe Correspondent / December 10, 2010

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He ate dates and rice covered with boiling mutton fat, found lice and fleas in his uniform, slept in campsites fouled by human and cattle dung, was exposed to extremes of hot and cold, suffered the effects of winds, sandstorms, insects, and floods. He sometimes buckled in the relentless sun, seeing mirages and suffering from desperate thirst. He took pleasure in blowing up a train or a bridge. He was the hero of his time, one of the heroes of all time.

He was, of course, T.E. Lawrence, the man who launched a thousand legends, many of them true. Short (5 feet 5 inches), uncomfortable on a camel, but completely aware of his powerful presence — the triumph of image, and in part the triumph of his own remarkable sense of imagination — he wasn’t so much a self-made man as a self-made hero.

“He had steeled himself to an almost inhuman capacity to endure pain; he had studied the arts of war and of leadership; he had carefully honed his courage and his skill at leading men,’’ writes Michael Korda in his new biography of the man we know as Lawrence of Arabia. “Like the young Napoleon Bonaparte he was ready to assume the role of hero when fate presented him with the opportunity.’’

The Arab Revolt is all but forgotten in the West today, but Lawrence remains an enduring part of our folklore. Lawrence had a distinct idea of his place in the world, and even as a young man he nurtured it. “From boyhood on,’’ Korda writes, “he had deliberately cultivated indifference to danger and hardship, as well as emotional independence, as if rehearsing for the role he was about to play.’’

The role he played in life — dressed in white and gold-threaded robes and carrying a British Short Lee-Enfield rifle — was to mobilize Arab warriors to fight the Turks and win their own states, all the while weakening the Central Powers. But with the dash came the deepest of dilemmas: He knew he was leading the Arabs in a rebellion to win lands that their Western allies had secretly carved up for themselves, and as a result he was plagued with what Korda calls “moral revulsion.’’

Lawrence’s fame grew after his success in capturing Aqaba. He was, Korda writes, “a hero on a grand, unconventional, and glamorous scale,’’ and before long had ships and planes at his beck and call.

And yet inner torment accompanied his public acclaim. He shied from physical contact of any kind, though later he acquired a taste for sadomasochism. After the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, Lawrence sank into depression. But his celebrity continued to burgeon, in part because of his splendid memoir, which opened with blank verse declaring that he “wrote my will across the sky in stars.’’

It was Lawrence who created the legend, but it was Lowell Thomas (popularizer of the name “Lawrence of Arabia’’) who promoted him, transforming him into something of a Levant version of Billy the Kid. But his legend wasn’t only fortified by his military feats. He was a wildly successful diplomat as well, helping to create the boundaries of the modern Iraq and Transjordan (now simply Jordan).

Korda has produced a readable (though terribly long) biography of a hero that manages not to be a heroic biography — a rare achievement. That’s because he sees Lawrence “not just [as] a hero, a guerrilla leader, or a gifted strategist,’’ not just as a man with “a remarkable eye for the commercial development of what we would now call the third world,’’ but also as a complex figure with failings as large as his achievements. This, as Shakespeare said of Julius Caesar, was a man— but large parts of his life were a mess.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA By Michael Korda

Harper, 762 pp., illustrated, $36