The Tragedy of the Korosko - why some lit remains obscure

12.31.2015

Wathen, George - Egypt sketch3

I'm afraid Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Tragedy of the Korosko checks most of the bad boxes on the mainstream reader's list; to name a few: exoticism, imperialism, stereotypical females, and racist language.  I had high hopes, based on some reviews I'd read, but even accounting for the mindset of the times wasn't enough to give it more than 3 out of 5 stars on my scale.

Doyle covered a pretty vast range of subjects apart from Sherlock Holmes.  Some of his other topics include medieval knights (The White Company), Napoleonic soldiers (Brigadier Gerard), Huguenot emigrants (The Refugees), and contemporary horror (Round the Red Lamp, The Captain of the Polestar, etc).  I'd recommend any of those, even if some are dated, simply because they transcend their "datedness" and are good stories even today.

I guess that's why Korosko was disappointing - I expected more from Doyle, yet I was under the aching suspicion all the way through that he was doing what a writer should try to avoid: writing for his audience.  This is a great technique if you want to make a living writing...it's a great mistake if you want to be a great author.  It's like buying trendy furniture; you will be admired immediately, and ridiculed in the next season of House Hunters.  Korosko is, unfortunately, more trendy than timeless.

The plot follows a group of white travellers taking a Nile cruise to see the ruins of Egypt, ca. 1895.  The travellers are split by their nationalities and denominations, which gives them cause for disagreements, both friendly and heated, on the way.  Their tour takes them on the edge between British-Egyptian-held Egypt and the lands controlled by radical Islamist bedouins.  On one of their excursions, they are attacked by the Islamists, who force them to make a choice, either to convert to Islam or die.

The premise is excellent, and not dated at all.  I enjoyed the first part of the book quite a bit, and though Wikipedia says there is a "strong defence of British Imperialism," that is a blanket statement and not necessarily true.  Doyle presents both sides of the topic, in different views of his characters, including one we would empathize with today:
    "Well now," said Headingly, in his slow, thoughtful fashion, "suppose I grant you that the Dervishes could overrun Egypt, and suppose also that you English are holding them out, what I'm never done asking is, what reason have you for spending all these millions of dollars and the lives of so many of your men? What do you get out of it, more than France gets, or Germany, or any other country, that runs no risk and never lays out a cent?"
    "There are a good many Englishmen who are asking themselves that question," remarked Cecil Brown. "It's my opinion that we have been the policemen of the world long enough. We policed the seas for pirates and slavers. Now we police the land for Dervishes and brigands and every sort of danger to civilisation. There is never a mad priest or a witch doctor, or a firebrand of any sort on this planet, who does not report his appearance by sniping the nearest British officer. One tires of it at last. If a Kurd breaks loose in Asia Minor, the world wants to know why Great Britain does not keep him in order. If there is a military mutiny in Egypt, or a Jehad in the Soudan, it is still Great Britain who has to set it right. And all to an accompaniment of curses such as the policeman gets when he seizes a ruffian among his pals. We get hard knocks and no thanks, and why should we do it? Let Europe do its own dirty work."
The opposing argument follows next - perhaps this is where Wikipedia gets its "defence of British Imperialism."  However, I was not sure which side Doyle was on, and I'm sure he gave both a fair representation.

I liked the characters quite a bit.  Colonel Cochrane Cochrane should be remembered as one of Doyle's best minor characters, if for nothing else but this commentary:
Colonel Cochrane Cochrane was one of those officers whom the British Government, acting upon a large system of averages, declares at a certain age to be incapable of further service, and who demonstrate the worth of such a system by spending their declining years in exploring Morocco, or shooting lions in Somaliland. 
Where the book begins to fall short is after the travellers are captured.  The terrorists are laughably accommodating (seriously, drawing lots to see who gets the camel?), as well as dim-witted enough to let the prisoners talk to each other throughout the journey.  Even the horrors which happen do not seem to produce the effect upon the travellers that I would have expected.  Maybe I'm quite biased, because terrorism is a much closer enemy to us today than it was in Doyle's time.  Still, for someone who so masterfully wrote about moral dilemmas in the Sherlock Holmes series, Doyle doesn't go as far in Korosko to make us, or the characters, feel a vital sense of fear and urgency, as he does in his other books.

Ordinarily, I'd recommend it as a "light" read, but the subject matter is far from light.  So if you're a Doyle completionist (as I'm on my way to being), or if you are looking for a quick turn-of-the-century read, then you might want to read this one - otherwise, there are better Doyle books to read.

Minorities - the poetry collection of T. E. Lawrence

12.30.2015



During moments in Lawrence of Arabia, or in whole passages in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, you might notice T. E. Lawrence's love for the poetic, both in the actual form and in his prose.  He was, as it turns out, a serious reader and critic of poetry: he toted The Oxford Book of English Verse with him in Arabia, and collected his Minorities during and after the war.  In his own words, he defined Minorities as "Good Poems by Small Poets and Small Poems by Good Poets."  The first U.S. edition was not published until 1971.

The poems (many of which are from the Oxford Book) are fairly what you'd expect from the complex mind of T. E. Lawrence.  Some are classics by his predecessors, such as Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others are poems by his contemporaries who surpassed his honest criticisms.  I was surprised at the variety, but perhaps I shouldn't have been.  If you take into account his mental state after the war, mixed with his survivor's fighting spirit and his longing for peace, the range of the collection makes more sense: beauty and bleakness, profanity and reverence, depression and hope.  Some of the first poems are particularly ugly and sacrilegious, coming near the end of the Arab Revolt and his depression over its result.  As the book goes on, however, the poems become less dark and more reverent, suggesting that time, if not the ultimate Healer, was instrumental in the healing process.

That said, the editor warns us not to take the book as autobiographical.  Though Lawrence copied some poems in entirety, still it was sometimes only a line or two of a poem which struck home with him.  I was very impressed with the editor and introduction; it's very rare that an editor doesn't make mountains out of mole hills, and J. M. Wilson succeeds in coming across as interested, but not overblown.

I marked nine poems that really stood out to me.  Maybe the most memorable one was "The Owl" by Edward Thomas, written in 1917.

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.


(Source: The Poetry Foundation)

I give this 3.5 out of 5 stars, recommended for anyone wanting to learn about Lawrence or the zeitgeist of his time.  They say these days you can learn a lot about someone by the music they listen to; think of Minorities as Lawrence's playlist. 

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 9 & 10: "But for fit monument, I shattered it, unfinished..."

12.25.2015

Seven Pillars 2008 e5
Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation in Wadi Rum, Jordan
by Tomobe03 [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Some books, when you come to the end of them, leave you gaping inwardly.  Dejected and confused, you feel like you missed something critical, after "getting" everything that came before.   Seven Pillars of Wisdom ends just like Lawrence of Arabia, so I should have seen it coming. But after some whirlwind chapters, the ending came suddenly, doubly sobering as a first-person narrative.  Like so many real-life struggles, it hangs loosely together instead of being tied up neatly; you look for closure and find questions instead.
Men prayed me that I set our work, the inviolate house,
                                              as a memory of you.
But for fit monument I shattered it, unfinished: and now
The little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
                                            in the marred shadow
                                                                     Of your gift.

9 & 10 - Balancing for a Last Effort; The House is Perfected

Emir Faisal; Lt. Colonel T.E. Lawrence - early 1918
Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence and Emir Faisal during World War I; Damascus.
Exasperated one night at G.H.Q., I had blurted out that to me 1918 seemed the last chance, and we could take Damascus, anyhow, whatever happened at Deraa or Ramleh; since it was better to have taken it and lost it, than never to have taken it at all.

Feisal...replied that he would try this autumn for Damascus though the heavens fell, and, if the British were not able to carry their share of the attack, he would save his own people by making separate peace with Turkey. (p. 571)

I begged him [Feisal] to trust not in our promises, like his father, but in his own strong performance. (p. 572)
It became a legitimate cause for care that the Arab Revolt continue to collaborate with Britain even till the last minute.  Lawrence sensed that they would fare badly - perhaps fatally - if they made motions counter to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which would split Ottoman Turkey between the European powers of England, France, and Russia.  He warned Feisal in advance of this treaty, and Feisal, hardly blind to the political deception of his "allies," listened to Lawrence's advice and went along with the British plan, which as the lesser of two evils would at least prevent his displacement altogether.  But, knowing as he did that his possession of the conquered territories was up in the air, Feisal listened to their promises with more than a grain of salt.

T. E. Lawrence, Herbert Samuel, Emir Abdullah - Amman 1921
On the Aerodrome at Amman:
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935),
Sir Herbert Samuel (1870-1963),
and Emir Abdullah (Abdullah I of Jordan,
1882-1951).
I think it is tempting, especially in the film, to view Feisal as the "king" of the Arab people, a monarch on the scale of George V or Nicholas II.  However, though he and his family were the symbolic power figures of the Revolt, it's worth remembering that throughout the effort, there was plenty of conflict between the different tribes that he and Lawrence attempted to unite, and unity in war may not have been unity in peace.  It goes back to that telling quote - "fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it" (p. 100)  Perhaps his flexibility was a kind of realism, and he may have made certain choices based on survival, rather than ideals.

At this late point, I had supposed the most gruesome scene from the movie - "No prisoners" - to be mostly a Hollywood fabrication, but I was wrong.  The placement is different, but it makes more sense that it happened near the end of his career in Arabia, when Lawrence was struggling both mentally and physically through his self-proclaimed fraud that he so hated.  He, Auda, and his men come across the remains of a village that had a personal connection to a member of their group.  They find a child bleeding to death, women sadistically raped and killed, and the bodies of dead babies on the ground.  It is not hard to imagine that this hellish sight must have provoked the hellish response from Lawrence and his men, in their revenge on the retreating enemy.  "By my order we took no prisoners, for the only time in our war...we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals; as though their death and running blood could slake our agony" (p. 654).

There is nothing glorious in war.  This has to be one of the major themes of Seven Pillars - mankind's most decorous and elaborate and stupendous undertakings are not unwed with devastation, even when you are on the "good" side.

Edmund Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby in 1916
Edmund Allenby, 1916.
Lawrence writes of the taking of Damascus matter-of-factly: British and Arabs are welcomed joyfully by the citizens, and, as shown in the film, there are numerous hiccups to the establishment of government, some humorous and some not.  Yet in the midst of the victory, photographs, and commendations, there is irony and sadness in the final words of his narrative.  The Syrian Government is established, albeit on shaky foundations, with Feisal and General Allenby jointly managing the city.  Lawrence's "soldiering" was no longer needed.

It is worth pointing out that Lawrence had a great and sincere respect for Allenby, summing him up as "dreamlike confidence and decision and kindness" (p. 682).  There is no suggestion that there was any bad feeling between Lawrence, Feisal, and Allenby, as portrayed in the movie.  I think the purpose of that cinematic twist was to express how Lawrence felt, in the hands of British and French politicians, but it does a large discredit to Lawrence's actual feelings about these two people at that time.

T.E. Lawrence, The dreamer whose dreams came true

Finally - for the third and last time, Lawrence asks to be let go.  For the first time, he is told yes, and feels instant pangs of regret.

Lawrence returned to England, where he wrote and published Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Ultimately he returned to military service, this time as a humble aircraftman, "John Hume Ross," in the Royal Air Force.  Feisal's power in Syria was challenged by the French, and his subsequent Kingdom of Iraq was one of mixed successes and even infamy, before his early death.  They were both only in their mid-to-late 40s when they died.

World War I history always leaves me with the question - why?  Here, in this book, is another echo to that why.  I cringe to hear the words "war" or "revolution" used flippantly, as they sometimes are by our politicians.  On paper or in speeches, the concept can sound good, desirable, or necessary, but if ever it is, hopefully we have measured its worth by the testimony of those who have fought wars, and through their tortured words tell us the human cost of war, in lives of "ordinary" men, women, and children.

by nav chatterji

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 7 & 8: The Dead Sea Campaign; The Ruin of High Hope

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59157
Sherif Nasir
The Arab Revolt as led by Lawrence was not a solely independent effort.  Money and reinforcements came from Britain, and in return the Arab tribesmen and leadership collaborated with General Allenby against the common enemy.  The Dead Sea Campaign came after Allenby had taken Jerusalem, and would benefit both Arab and British objectives: 
"The Arabs were to reach the Dead Sea as soon as possible; to stop the transport of [enemy] food up it to Jericho before the middle of February; and to arrive at the Jordan before the end of March." (p. 465)
This seemingly moderate plan became a source of extreme frustration for Lawrence.  Part of this was circumstantial, playing out in the alternate taking and retaking of the town of Tafileh, a tiresome and unpleasant part of the campaign.  Some of it, too, was the challenge of working with Zeid, Feisal's younger brother, who like Feisal's older brother and father was not of one mind with Lawrence's methods.

At one point, for example, Zeid spends a large quantity of the money apportioned for the campaign.  He spent it in payments to recruits, but it was prematurely paid, and not all of it went to the right people.  This is the breaking point for Lawrence - without the money, he is unable to back up Allenby as promised.  He sees nothing but failure and himself as part of the problem.  Once again, Lawrence returns to his superiors and begs for reassignment:
I complained that since landing in Arabia I had had options and requests, never an order: that I was tired to death of free-will, and of many things beside free-will.  For a year and a half I had been in motion, riding a thousand miles each month upon camels: with added nervous hours in crazy aeroplanes, or rushing across country in powerful cars. (p. 514)
But his release was not to be.  Lawrence was once more requested to stay: Jericho was taken without his help, yet British Headquarters still wanted his leadership, in the final push for Damascus that would wrest it from Ottoman Turkey decisively.
"There was no escape for me.  I must take up again my mantle of fraud in the East.  With my certain contempt for half-measures I took it up quickly and wrapped myself in it completely.  It might be fraud or it might be farce: no one could say that I could not play it." (p. 515)
Jericho P1190715
Jericho - City of the Moon, City of Palms - in a rainy day 
by Deror_avi [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the things that makes Seven Pillars of Wisdom an extraordinary memoir is how the themes, political and personal, are countered by the intricate, sometimes poetic, "travelogue" side of the story.  Though his self-deprecation and cynicism continue to increase, Lawrence still recounts these other moments of his journey, when he is fighting against time or the elements, not human strength or weakness.  It is really a memoir of survival, sometimes of wits and sometimes of body.  My favorite part of these two books was when he was riding his camel, Wodheiha, in the snow, and, weighed down by both gold and fatigue, she got stuck in heavy drifts.
So I carved her a beautiful little road, a foot wide, three deep, and eighteen paces long, using my bare feet and hands as tools.  The snow was so frozen on the surface that it took all my weight, first to break it down, and then to scoop it out.  The crust was sharp, and cut my wrists and ankles till they bled freely, and the roadside became lined with pink crystals, looking like pale, very pale, water-melon flesh.

Afterwards, I went back to Wodheiha, patiently standing there, and climbed into the saddle.  She started easily.  We went running at it, and such was her speed that the rush carried her right over the shallow stuff, back to the proper road. (p. 509)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 5 & 6: Marking Time; The Raid upon the Bridges

12.19.2015

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II, Book III, Book IV

After the capture of Akaba, the Arab Revolt was again able to re-focus on its core strategy: destroying the Turkish railway in Hejaz.  This followed Lawrence's philosophy of undermining Turkish resources instead of targeting their forces directly, following the priority of utilizing the Arab advantage - mobility and knowledge of terrain - and preserving Arab lives.

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59674
The Hejaz Railway, 1908

With the help of British expertise and the leadership of Arab sherifs, Lawrence set this plan into reality, both leading and training the Arab fighters in a series of bomb attacks on the railway.  The most materially valuable points were the stations, full of loot for the men to take back to their tribes...the most vulnerable points were the bridges.

T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59627


T E Lawrence and the Arab Revolt 1916 - 1918 Q59640

These two parts were rich with Lawrence's insights on not only his own actions, thoughts, and struggles during this time, but also the geographical features he saw, the behavior and attitudes of other British officers (and the British Empire in general), and the behavior and attitudes of the Arab tribes and their leaders.  He wrote an entire section upon "Syria in 1915" - could he have known that so much of it is still relevant 100 years later?  His remarks on Western intervention in Middle Eastern politics are candid, self-reviling, and far from outdated.  It is both depressing and fascinating, one of the best parts in the entire book.
Arab Government in Syria, though buttressed on Arabic prejudices, would be as much 'imposed' as the Turkish Government, or a foreign protectorate, or the historic Caliphate.  Syria remained a vividly coloured racial and religious mosaic.  Any wide attempt after unity would make a patched and parcelled thing, ungrateful to a people whose instincts ever returned towards parochial home rule. (p. 344–345)
As I sit here, the West is still trying to "stabilize" the Middle East and still experiencing - yet hardly learning? - the lessons of a century ago.  Lawrence could have told us what to expect.
The fraudulence of my business stung me.  Here were more fruits, bitter fruits, of my decision, in front of Akaba, to become a principal of the Revolt.  I was raising the Arabs on false pretences, and exercising a false authority over my dupes...  In such conditions the war seemed as great a folly as my sham leadership a crime... (p. 387) 
It always came back to the War.  The War was Lawrence's one justification, and even that at times left him cold and cynical of its priority, which was one of the elements - though perhaps not the only one - that set his conscience in a cruel balance.  Was he British first, or was he his own, undefinable self above all?  Were his actions reestablishing his character in a way he did not like or want?
There were Englishmen whom, individually, the Arabs preferred to any Turk, or foreigner; but, on the strength of this, to have generalized and called the Arabs pro-English, would have been a folly.  Each stranger made his own poor bed among them.
Though fluent in Arabic and living nearly as one of them, he still felt like a stranger.

At the end of book 6, Lawrence goes to the town of Deraa to investigate its layout prior to an attack.  Something that had confused me in the film was his confidence that he could pass for Arab, yet in the book this is supported, in several places, by instances when he successfully disguised himself, at least from a distance.  He succeeds in Deraa, but is apprehended by the Turks and conscripted into the infantry.

The film shows nothing as disturbing as what Lawrence describes.  The Turkish soldiers take him to the Bey (governor), who, in his position of power, satisfies his lusts using the most attractive officers.  He tries to rape Lawrence, and when Lawrence defends himself, the Bey orders him to be beaten.  The horrific flogging leaves him undesirable to the Bey, and he is finally released and sent to the soldiers' quarters.

There he finds a suicide drug from the dispensary, takes it with him in case of recapture, and escapes without notice.  But the physical torture by the Turks becomes linked with his mental torture of guilt, and he writes that from that point "the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost" (p. 456).

Reading England 2016: London challenge

12.05.2015


The Reading England challenge is coming back next year, and I'm pretty excited for it!  I'll be committing to Level 1 (13 books), though I haven't decided if I'll focus on one county or read from multiple.  So far, I know I want to read The Mint by T. E. Lawrence, which is a London book...after that, anything goes (though I'm reserving a spot for Conrad on the list :)).

1/2/16 update: at the risk of excluding Conrad, I've decided on multiple counties, since I feel most of my British reading so far has been London-centric

8/6/16 update: Leaning back towards London now, since I've read two London books this year.
  1. London: The Mint (T. E. Lawrence)
  2. London: The Man Who Was Thursday (G. K. Chesterton)
  3. London: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)