16 December 2011

Imprint Friday: Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Harper Perennial. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

You've likely seen the movie, heard the tales, or at least recognize the name of the dashing World War I hero known as Lawrence of Arabia. Like millions of others over the last century, I've been drawn to his story, wondering whether the real T. E. Lawrence was anything like his popular image. Michael Korda's Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, now out in a new paperback edition, has all the answers.

The story of an epic life on a grand scale, Michael Korda’s Hero is a gripping, in-depth biography of the extraordinary, mysterious, and dynamic Englishman still famous the world over as “Lawrence of Arabia.” An Oxford scholar and archaeologist sent to Cairo as a young intelligence officer in 1916, Lawrence was a born leader, utterly fearless and seemingly impervious to pain and fatigue. A bold and ruthless warrior, he was the virtual inventor of modern insurgency and guerrilla warfare; a writer of genius who alternately sought and fled the limelight. Korda digs deeper than anyone before him to expose the flesh-and-blood man and his contradictory nature—farsighted visionary; diplomat and kingmaker; shy, sensitive, and private man; genius military strategist; arguably the first modern "media celebrity" . . . and one of its first victims. Hero is the magisterial story of one of the most unique and fascinating figures of modern times—the arch-hero whose life was, at once, a triumph and a sacrifice.
I'm not quite halfway through Korda's engaging 700-page biography, so I can't yet comment on Lawrence's life at the end of the war and after, but I have read enough to have been utterly won over by Korda's style. Whether we are in the Arabian desert with the young military officer or back in Oxford with the boy, Korda brings out the essence of Lawrence's personality and the dynamics (and dramatics) behind his decisions.

From a young age, Lawrence held himself apart from the crowd, even moving into a small cottage behind the family home when still a teenager and choosing to live off campus when he entered university. Once in the army, he was rarely seen in regulation dress and was known to act on his own orders. In addition, unlike most of his colleagues,
he was a teetotaler, and, when he bothered to eat all, by inclination a vegetarian, except on occasions when he was obligated to please his Arab hosts by sharing their mutton. (p. 6)
His aloofness could be off-putting, but his legendary charisma would usually win people over in the end. However, no matter what others thought of his personality, few could deny his intelligence, capacity for hard work, and his visionary thinking.

Korda relies on Lawrence's own writings and letters, firsthand accounts, and other biographers in his account of the making of a hero. As Korda says in his preface, Lawrence was a hero in the classical sense of the word. He was a man of great courage who set out to become a leader, preparing himself for the role and seizing the opportunity when his chance came (p. xvi)

Because I started out knowing very little about the Arab Revolt and Lawrence's actions at Aqaba (the focus of the well-known movie), I thought it was smart of Korda to open his biography with a brief account of campaign that put Lawrence on the road to heroism. When the narrative then took us back to England and the circumstances of Lawrence's birth, boyhood, and years at Oxford, I was better able to appreciate how early events helped shape the man.

I am looking forward to reading the second half of the biography, which details Lawrence's triumphs and hardships in the Mideast as well as what he saw as his personal failures:
. . . the feeling that would motivate Lawrence through the rest of his life: the belief not just that he had failed the Arabs by not getting them the state and independence they had fought for, but that he was rendered, by what he done, seen, and experienced, permanently unclean, unfit for the society of decent people, a kind of moral leper. (p. 435)
Later chapters cover the postwar years, when Lawrence was hounded by the press, wrote his memoirs, and reenlisted in the military several times under assumed names to avoid public attention. He died in 1935, as the result of a motorcycle accident (prompting cries of assassination and conspiracy theory), when only forty-six years old. Lawrence of Arabia was a legend even in his own time, and his fame has yet to ebb.

Here are some other opinions (click on the links for the full reviews):
  • Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times: "the strength of 'Hero' lies in its ability to analyze Lawrence’s accomplishments and to add something meaningful to the larger body of Lawrence lore. It is here that Mr. Korda’s full affinity for his subject shows."
  • Tim Ruttan, writing for the Los Angeles Times calls Hero "an unexpectedly fresh, engagingly written biography that adds substantially to our understanding of this strange, contradictory, curiously admirable and compelling subject's life and contribution"
  • Lydia Pyne, writing for The New York Journal of Books: "With so many biographies of T. E. Lawrence, Korda’s detailed research and narrative arch, coupled with the narrative explicating the creation of Lawrence as a hero, creates a unique and reflective niche for the book."
Photo credit: 1919 painting by Augustus John; in the public domain.

Harper Perennial is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For information about the imprint, please read Erica Barmash's welcome note posted here on June 18, 2010. I encourage you to add your reviews of Harper Perennial books to the review link-up page; it's a great way to discover Good Books for Cool People. And don't miss the The Olive Reader, the Harper Perennial blog.

Hero at an Indie
Hero at Powell's
Hero at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Harper Perennial, 2011
ISBN-13: 9780061712623


Anonymous,  12/16/11, 8:07 AM  

This is a wonderful book (my thoughts: http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=1700. I had to read some parts right in order to make sure I understood what was happening and best of all, after I finished reading, I felt as if I knew the man.

Col (Col Reads) 12/16/11, 8:38 AM  

I absolutely love biographies, and have to admit that the sum total of my knowledge about LofA comes from the well-known movie! I am putting this on my TBR right now. Thanks for the great review!

rhapsodyinbooks 12/16/11, 8:56 AM  

LofA is so interesting too because no one seems to agree on the truth about him. The movie is very cool though even though it isn't supposed to be all that accurate. But there's a director's cut disc that shows how David Lean managed all the shadows and sand in the desert that is just fascinating!

Beth Hoffman 12/16/11, 11:02 AM  

Oh my. This sounds wonderful, and that's saying a lot since I normally don't read much non-fiction.

bermudaonion 12/16/11, 11:20 AM  

I'd never really thought about the real Lawrence of Arabia. I bet my mom would love this book.

Zibilee 12/16/11, 11:32 AM  

I know so little about Lawrence of Arabia, and hadn't even ever realized that he was a real person! I must have been hiding under a rock somewhere! This book does indeed sound fascinating though, and I find his strange behaviors very interesting. They probably make for very intriguing reading. Great review today. This might be a very eye-opening book for me to check out!

Jenners 12/16/11, 7:58 PM  

Oh I bet this is interesting. When I read The Rose Trilogy by Jennifer Donnelly, the last one (Wild Rose) featured Lawrence as a charcter and he was intriguing in that as well. Plus I want to see the movie!

Anonymous,  12/17/11, 12:04 AM  

I just checked audible and now have a serious contender for my next audio book. Thanks!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 12/17/11, 9:14 AM  

As I read your feature, I was thinking "yes, I loved the movie, and he sounds like a fascinating person I'd like to learn more about, but ... 700 pages?!"

Then I saw softdrink's comment about the audiobook.

Of course! Thanks to you for bringing this bio to my attention (and whetting my appetite for some promising nonfiction)), and to Fizzy Jill for showing me how I can do it.

Unknown 12/18/11, 5:06 PM  

Lawrence of Arabia is probably my favorite film. He will forever be a young Peter O'Toole staring off across the desert.

This sounds like a great book. I'll have to look for it.

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