Monday, September 25, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on The Letters of T.E. Lawrence:
On August 2, 1909, T. E. Lawrence, five days before his twenty-first birthday, wrote a letter to his mother in which he told her that he had “left Beyrout not long after the beginning of July, and walked straight to Sidon (30 miles or so),” and that “everywhere one finds remains of splendid Roman roads and houses and public buildings, and Galilee was the most Romanized province of Palestine.” This letter, more than 4500 handwritten words in length, is one of 583 letters included in The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, published in 1938. The first letter, also to his mother, was written August 4, 1906; the last, to Henry Williams, was written May 13, 1935, a few days before his death. Forty-six of the letters were written to his publisher, Edward Garnett; fourteen to E. M. Forster, the author of Passage To India, who became one of Lawrence’s close friends; nine to Bernard Shaw, who thought Seven Pillars of Wisdom a very great book; and seven to Robert Graves, whose book, Goodbye To All That, is essential to understanding what the First World War did to those who fought it.

Ten letters were written to John Buchan, an English writer and diplomat, who was convinced that Lawrence’s letters “will rank as high as any of his books, because they show nearly all the facets of his character.” Buchan, who knew everyone of importance, and considered Lawrence “the only man of genius I have ever known,” understood him, perhaps, better than anyone had. When he met him in 1920, “his whole being was in grave disequilibrium. You cannot in any case be nine times wounded, five times in an air crash, have many bouts of fever and dysentery, and finally at the age of twenty-nine take Damascus at the head of an Arab army, without living pretty near the edge of your strength.”

The letters Lawrence wrote read like a novel: everything he does, everything that happens to him, everything he tries, everything he learns, all follow in the ordered sequence of a well-told story; everything , from the very beginning to the very last letter, leading to a conclusion that seems not just appropriate, but inevitable. The twenty year old who decides to write, “a comparison of the castles built by the Crusaders in Syria and Palestine with those of Western Europe;” the twenty year old who, as he wrote on September 22, 1909, had walked more than 1100 miles and seen all but one of “37 out of the 50 odd castles” that “were on my proposed route,” and, in part of the journey, had been “the first European visitor;” the twenty year old who did this was, at the beginning of the war, the only Englishman who knew what the Syrian desert, was like.

In the autumn of 1914, he wrote to a friend about putting together, for the British command in Cairo, a complete map of Sinai. The map was eighteen feet by eighteen feet. “Some of it was accurate, and the rest I invented.” That was not all Lawrence invented. Toward the end of December, he wrote about the situation in Cairo: “There wasn’t an Intelligence Department, it seemed, and they thought all was well without it: - till it dawned on them that nobody in Egypt knew about Syria…so they changed their minds about sending us flying as a good riddance - and set us to collect intelligence instead.” Three months later - March 22, 1915 - he had formulated the strategy of the Arab Revolt he would lead: he will “roll up Syria by way of the Hejaz in the name of the Sherif,” and then “rush right up to Damascus, and biff the French out of all hope of Syria. It is a big game, and at last one worth playing.”

There was not time to write many letters during the war, but those he wrote, and what he wrote in the Arab Bulletin that was circulated among British officials, add a new, and different, light on what happened, than what he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. When Akaba was taken, after what was thought an impossible journey to the sea coast city from across the desert, he writes that Auda, the leader of one of the most warlike Arab tribes, “had a narrow escape, since two bullets smashed his glasses, one pierced his revolver holster, three struck his sheathed sword, and his horse was killed under him. He was wildly pleased with the whole affair.”Lawrence was less pleased with what had happened to him. In a letter written from Akaba on September 24, 1917, he expressed the hope that “when the nightmare ends…I will wake up and become alive again. This killing and killing of Turks is horrible when you charge in at the finish and find them all over the place in bits, and still alive many of them, and know that you have done hundreds in the same way and must do hundreds more if you can.”

Lawrence may have regretted what he had to do; he never doubted that he had to do it. There were rules in war, but God help the Turks if the rules were broken. With cruel honesty, Lawrence recounted what happened after the Turks took the village of Tapas and raped all the women they could catch. Sherif Bey, the Turkish commander, ordered all the inhabitants killed, including two small children and forty women, one of whom had been forced down on a bayonet. One of the sheiks who rode with Lawrence was so enraged by this, that he “galloped at full speed into the midsts of the retiring column and fell, himself and his mare, riddled with machine gun bullets, among their lance points.” With Auda’s encouragement, Lawrence ordered “No prisoners!”

Despite the order, two hundred fifty Turks were taken alive. “Later, however, they found one of our men with a fractured thigh who had been afterwards pinned to the ground by two mortal thrusts with German bayonets. Then we turned our Hotchkiss on the prisoners and made an end of them, they saying nothing.” Lawrence does not apologize for this. To those who criticized the Arabs for what they had done, he answered that “they had not entered Tura or Tapas, or watched the Turks swing their wounded by the hands and feet into a burning railway truck, as had been the lot of the Arab army at Jerdun.” With all he had seen and done, it is no great wonder that when the war was finally over, he would sit at his mother’s table in the morning and, without moving at all, stare straight ahead for hours.

After the war, Lawrence was determined to do two things: make certain the Arabs would get what they had been promised and to write a true account of the Arab Revolt. The settlement of the Arab situation, which took place during 1921 and 1922, a settlement made by Winston Churchill, “in which I shared, honorably fulfils the whole of the promises we made to the Arabs, in so far as the so-called British sphere, are concerned,” he wrote in a letter of October 1929. “If we had done this in 1919 we could have been proud of ourselves.” The true account he wanted to write, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, took four years, years in which, “I gave it all my nights and days till I was nearly blind and mad.” He didn’t think it good enough to publish, but he wrote to Bernard Shaw that, “I’m shamed forever if I am the sole chronicler of an event, and fail to chronicle it: and yet unless what I’ve written can be made better I’ll burn it.” If Shaw reads it, and comes to the same conclusion, “you will give me courage to strike the match.”

Shaw read it, thought it one of the greatest things ever written, and, among his other suggestions, advised him to eliminate the introduction because it was likely to give offense to some of those still living. This was unfortunate. It removed, among other things, the following:

“Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, and make it possible. This I did. I meant to make a new nation, to restore to the world a lost influence, to give twenty million of Semites the foundation on which to build an inspired dream-place of their national thoughts.” He had at least made a start: “I have fitted these people for the new commonwealth in which the dominant races will forge their brute achievements, and white and red and yellow and brown and black will stand up together without side-glances in the service of the world.”

Lawrence continued to consider Seven Pillars a failure, a “hopeless failure partly because my aim was so high.” Everyone else, not just Bernard Shaw, everyone of intelligence and experience, thought it a remarkable achievement, better, by far, than what most other writers had done. Comparisons, however, had no relevance for Lawrence: “Better perhaps than some, than many, almost - but I do not care for relatives, for matching myself against my kind. There is an ideal standard somewhere and only that matters: and I cannot find it.” He tried. He was always reading what others wrote, reading with an eye to how something was done, how a writer achieved an effect other writers could not. In a letter to the publisher F.N. Doubleday, he wrote one of the most insightful things ever written about Joseph Conrad:
“You know, publishing Conrad must be a rare pleasure. He’s absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was. I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes (Do you notice they are all paragraphs: he seldom writes a single sentence?) goes on sounding in waves like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops. It’s not built on the rhythm of ordinary prose, but as something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can’t say or do or think. So his books always look bigger than they are.”
In another letter, written that same year, he explains that, “prose depends on a music in one’s head which involuntarily chooses and balances the possible words to keep tune with the thought.” Music like this is not given to everyone. “Half the books I pick up, now a days,” he wrote in l931, “seem to have no raison d’être: one does not feel that the writer would have burst if he had not got it out. And that discourages me, for I would like my work, if any, to feel like that.”

Lawrence wrote with a fountain pen, and not with a typewriter, because it was impossible “to think…direct on to the instrument Now, with a pen I can hold my fancy in leash and write what my mind dictates or approves.” He had the same disregard for the modern obsession with historical documents: “The documents are liars. No man ever yet tried to write down the entire truth of any action in which he has been engaged All narrative is parti pris. And to prefer an ancient written statement to the guiding of your own instinct through the maze of related facts, is to encounter either banality or unreadableness. We know too much, and use too little knowledge.”

Lawrence had, from the very beginning, wanted to make a new nation, and so he led the Arab Revolt, and then wrote about it so the story would be told and become a reminder that great things could still be done. But he wanted more than that; he wanted, finally, to understand his own moral standing. He had been so much at liberty to decide what he, and all the others involved in the Arab Revolt, should do, he was not sure if what he had done had been morally justified. By “putting all the troubles and dilemmas on paper, I hoped to work out my path again and satisfy myself how wrong, or how right, I had been.” Seven Pillars, he concluded, was “the self-argument of a man who couldn’t then see straight: and who now thinks that perhaps it did not matter: that seeing straight is only an illusion. We do these things in sheer vapidity of mind, not deliberately, not consciously even. To make out that we were reasoned cool minds, ruling our courses and contemporaries, is a vanity. Things happen, and we do our best to keep in the saddle.”

Lawrence despised fame, and despised himself for sometimes liking that he had become famous. It was, for him, no way to live, with journalists showing up all hours of the day and night wherever he happened to be. He had refused to take any money from Seven Pillars, or any of its abridgments, donating the money to those injured in the war. He talked Alexander Korda out of making a movie about Lawrence of Arabia. He sought, and found, escape in the anonymity of a private volunteer in the Royal Air Force, serving under a different name. He tried to explain this to Bernard Shaw:
I just can’t help it. You see, I’m all smash inside: and I don’t want to look prosperous or be prosperous, while I know that. And on the easy level with the other fellows in the R.A.F. I feel safe: and often I forget that I’ve ever been different…. It would be so easy and so restful just to let sanity go and drop into the dark, but that can’t happen while I work and meet simple-hearted people all day long. However, if you don’t see it, I can’t explain it.
Lawrence, famous around the world as Lawrence of Arabia, could have made a fortune writing, or giving lectures, about himself, but lived instead in the privacy of his air force work and the privacy of his mind, writing the kind of letters we have now, in our hurry to tell everyone in ten short words everything we know, forgotten how to write. Of these years in which he avoided the fame and the money and the celebrity everyone else prized, he wrote: “My last ten years have been the best of my life.”
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

--Marshal Zeringue