I came across “Kangaroo” by accident. I've been clearing out old books, making way for new ones, and found a 1982 imprint of "Kangaroo" in the Australian Classics series published by Angus and Robertson. Remember them? They used to be doyens of the Australian publishing scene, now sadly departed. I realised I'd never read it, so spent some time doing just that. I then came across "Seven Pillars" in an online catalogue of audio books. I'd read it in printed hard copy many years ago, but the book had long since passed out of my possession. I thought an audio book copy of "Seven Pillars" might be an interesting, if nostalgic, retrospective visit to this famous classic, so bought it.
There are some fascinating coincidences in the lives of the two Lawrences. Both were born in the 1880s and died in the 1930s. Both were relatively young men in their 40s, when they died. Both were scarred by their experiences in World War I. Both fled England, either permanently or for a time, after that war. Both had an Australian connection: DH lived in Australia briefly and TE served with Australians in the Middle East.
"Kangaroo", published in 1923, is the direct result of DH Lawrence's time in Australia, only several months long, in the early 1920s. When I was much younger, I had read a number of Lawrence's more famous novels: "Sons and Lovers", "Women in Love", and "Lady Chatterley's Lover". I quite liked them, and wondered how, more than 30 years later, I would take to "Kangaroo", one of his less famous and less-well received books. I found it a difficult and, in the eye of the 21st-century reader, off-putting novel.
Lawrence wrote it partly to record his visit to Australia, partly as a personal reminiscence of his difficult years in World War I, and partly to set out and explain his personal philosophy on a number of subjects. The actual storyline is remarkably slight. An English writer, Richard Somers (a thinly disguised DH Lawrence) and his foreign-born wife Harriet (Lawrence's thinly disguised German-born wife, Frieda von Richthofen) come to Australia to escape a Britain war-weary and decimated by World War I. They hope for a new start in the fresh, uncontaminated world of 1920s Australia. Somers comes in contact with an extreme right-wing group of ex-servicemen led by famous military figure Ben Cooley, whose codename is "Kangaroo". Kangaroo and his group are planning a coup to take over Australia. Kangaroo tries to enlist Somers to the cause, to give his movement some intellectual muscle. Somers is alternately attracted and repelled by the idea, but ultimately says no. Cooley is then mortally wounded in a riot, after which Somers and Harriet leave Australia.
This storyline reflects the historical fact that there were, in 1920s and 1930s Australia, right-wing groups prepared to stage a coup to save the country from, amongst other things, Communism. Whether DH Lawrence actually came in contact with them during his stay here, has never been satisfactorily settled. In any event, this "political conspiracy" plot is mainly a device on which to hang DH's philosophising on many topics: politics in general, Socialism in particular, love, male-female relationships (he was very conservative and patriarchal), questions of race (some of his views would have sat well with the KKK; his use of the "n****r" word to describe non-whites jars painfully with modern sensitivities), marriage, adultery, and his hatred of British officialdom – his chapter titled "The Nightmare" is essentially a re-telling of his own run-ins with the British bureaucracy during the 1914-18 war because of his anti-militarism.
Then there are his interminable descriptions of the Australian countryside. Evocative, maybe; but in these modern times with digital photography available to all and TV travel doccos everywhere, it's all rather boring and (now) unnecessary. He seems to have, sort-of, liked the Australians of his day, admiring their bluff, forthright honesty, but ultimately thought them lacking any cultured soul. He seems to have concluded that, finally, Australia wasn't worth too much of his time and trouble; note, for example, his geographical howler of placing Mullumbimby on the New South Wales south coast. Simple basic research, Mr Lawrence, simple basic research ...
"Kangaroo" has actually been filmed. An Australian-made movie back in 1986. Given the meandering, disjointed and sometimes unpleasant nature of the novel, it was a strange, almost unwatchable film. I do remember it – just. I retain no fond memories of it.
All in all, "Kangaroo" will be of interest to the specialist literary historian – but, I suspect, not to anyone else much.
"Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is, happily, a rather different beastie. The other Lawrence – TE – was that rare animal, a military commander who could also write very well. "Seven Pillars" was the only famous literary work produced by TE. It was – is – a fitting memorial to a great and complex man.
TE, of course, rose to fame as the British army officer who co-led the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in Arabia, during the First World War. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is probably through the epic 1962 movie, "Lawrence of Arabia", directed by David Lean; in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made. I thought a lot of the movie was fictionalised, but it was only after re-acquainting myself with "Seven Pillars" through the 2009 CSA Word Classic audio-book version of it read by James Wilby, that I realised how much of David Lean's film actually follows TE's career pretty closely. It is almost as if the audio book was prepared and released as a companion to the film.
TE writes compellingly. He makes the desert come alive. His accounts of military actions are tense and exciting. His comments on the people he comes across during his adventures – British, Arab and Australian – are always revealing and honest. Most of all, his analysis of his own motives and aims is always rigorous and sometimes painful; above all else he was tortured by the lie he was telling the Arabs – promising them independence to gain their wartime support, while knowing that England and France had secretly agreed in 1917 on a colonial carve-up of Arab lands. He liked working with the Arabs and respected them, though he admits many of them were motivated more by the prospect of Ottoman loot than by altruistic nationalism. His thoughts on desert guerilla warfare are insightful, particularly in view of modern-day ISIS tactics. He respected General Allenby, the overall British commander in Palestine. He worked with a number of Australians and seems to have got on well with them: there is, for example, an entertaining tale of his encounter with pioneer Australian military aviator Ross Smith, who later became famous for co-piloting the first aircraft to fly from Britain to Australia.
This audio book rendition of the TE Lawrence saga is an abridged version of the original story; just six disks. This rather fits in with the history of T E's manuscript. When it was first published in the 1920s, "Seven Pillars" appeared progressively in a number of official versions: some full-length, some abridged, and some abridged still further: his book "Revolt in the Desert" is a super-abridged version of the original "Seven Pillars". I don't remember which version I read years ago; I only remember that it seemed very, very long. Even good writers – and TE was an excellent writer – can produce too much of a good thing. I found this shortened audio-book edition of TE's adventures an enjoyable way of re-connecting with this exciting classic of 20th-century literature.
Maybe this is the defining test of what is a classic: Does it stand the test of time and still grip the modern-day reader? For me, in this tale of the two Lawrences, "Seven Pillars" still cuts the mustard, but "Kangaroo" is now out of bounds.
(Photo: Wikipedia/public domain.)