Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The minor T. E. Lawrence

I want to stay with Michael Korda's T. E. Lawrence biography another day; but this post, you'll be glad to know, is focused not on key moments in the book but rather on particularly silly bits--which, as longtime readers will know, are a key marker of a good biography.

Such as this unforgettable description of military scholar and biographer B. H. Liddell Hart:
In every way the opposite of Lawrence, Liddell Hart was tall, elegant, storklike, fond of the good things in life, and so fascinated by women that he oversaw the smallest details of the lingerie for both his [presumably consecutive] wives, was exacting and deeply involved in the designs of their corsets, and regularly measured the waists of his two daughters. He was in fact a walking encyclopedia on the subject of lingerie--or as one of his biographers, Alex Danchev, refers to it wittily, "l'artillerie de la nuit"--as knowledgeable about bras and merry widows and garter belts as he was about war. A perfectionist in all things, he was obsessed by the ideal of the feminine wasp waist, which was the Schwerpunkt (to borrow a phrase from German strategic thinking) of his sexual desire.
Extending one's mania for perfection to one's spouse's waistline seems to be a step, or maybe several steps, too far. Which might explain the multiple wives . . .

I wish I could find online the photo that Korda uses of Liddel Hart and Lawrence, which illustrates perfectly the physical difference between the two men: Lawrence is standing on a bollard on a quay to bring him up to Liddell Hart's height, while Hart looks like a particularly well-dressed skeleton with a nicely groomed mustache. The photo of Liddell Hart below will at least give you an idea.


Then there's this bit, less amusing but nonetheless, I think, interesting--and featured here primarily for Ed Park, fan of the minor:
After the [translation of] Odyssey, Lawrence put in good order a compilation of poems he had liked over the years: Minorities, consisting, with his typical taste for paradox, of minor works by major poets, or major work by minor poets.
Frustratingly, however, Korda notes that not all the poets and poems included could genuinely be classified as minor--rather, he suggests, the anthology gathered poems that meant a lot to Lawrence, most of which were relatively minor. Which shouldn't surprise us: nothing Lawrence did, after all, was ever quite straightforward.

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