Thursday, August 23, 2007

T. E. Lawrence's Odyssey

[T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers]

R.A.F., India.

You start off 'Dear Shaw', so I should say Dear Rogers, or Bruce Rogers; for we always think of you as a diphthong. Only it sounds like presumption. If I've been a myth to you, you've been an exemplar and ambition to everyone who's fond of books. The difference between you and private presses is that many of your works are fit for ordinary sale; a more difficult achievement than doing something de luxe. However we mustn't swap compliments all day.
Two or three times, in the ten days since your letter came, I've tried to write to you. Something about this Odyssey effort frightens me. It's too big: Homer is very very great: and so far away. It seems only a sort of game, to try and bring him down to the ordinary speech of my mouth. Yet that is what a translation ought to mean. I do it, tacitly, every time I read him: but that is for my own belly. Isn't there a presumption in putting my version abroad?

True that the work will be seen by every right-eyed person as typography, pure and simple. Your medium will hide all its sins. Only I'd like my work to be worthy of the dress: and I feel sure it cannot be. Some writers have called my Seven Pillars good. Others (fewer, but I can't help thinking them the more choice judgements) have said that far from being good, it is very very bad: perverse, dishonest, pretentious. I suspect they are right, though I did try, with the better side of me, to play fair and clean in the writing of it. Only we are all such mixtures, that it would be a miracle of self-suppression to be good all through.

However, granted that the Seven Pillars is not wholly contemptible, as prose. I can concede that much, I think. Isn't that relative goodness due to the heat of my engagement in the Arab business, and the obligation, the absolute obligation upon me, to put my share, and the other fellows' share in it, into print? Can I expect to make a decent thing of a translation of the Odyssey, undertaken because I want money, and would be flattered by being printed by you, and like Homer? I like Homer for myself, and will like him less well if I make a task of copying him out: and I shan't have any great hope that my labour will open him to anyone yet strange to him.

The Palmer* version duly arrived. It is very wholesome, and very loving. Do you think I'll do better? I'd suggest you get a lien on Palmer, in case my sample book is notably less worthy of preservation. Preservation I say... I mean canonization or apotheosis or whatever is the process of being printed by you. It's amazing you are not a millionaire. You must have refused to chase money with your best legs. It doesn't come to the half-hearted about it. At least I've never caught any: and I've lost wonderful chances of making enough to invest and live on, for good. If bread and butter were assured me for the term of my life, without working for it, how eagerly I could give up this dullness of working every day. Yet I really like the Royal Air Force, and am happy in its ranks, when they leave me unmolested - which is oftener, far, than were I earning a living in civil life.

Isham's** first letter about it gave me a wrong idea. I thought some plutocrat publisher was backing you, regardless: the price he offered was so fantastic; and so I thought 'Let's spoil the American'... a word which many hotel-keepers and others in Europe have often today in their hearts.

Isham hasn't yet written again: but I see from your letter that you have nothing cut and dried. I do not want to spoil you; nor would I if you were as rich as Mellon: because you are B.R.
So let's regard the offer as withdrawn; and do you figure out what you think the proposition can fairly stand, as translator's fee, and I'll tell you if I can do it. No time is being lost, for I have to change camp very soon, and the move will be a wasted month. It's unsettling, to move: and I have to look round the new place for a quiet corner to read in. If I have any chance, till your answer comes, I'll spend it playing with the first book. It is difficult to avoid affecting a style of some sort, in doing Homer.

The anonymity is the rub, of course: but I want to do my best to maintain it. Indeed I'd go so far as to refrain from writing it if I saw the thing was ever likely to be brought home to me. Why shouldn't I send the stuff to you, as it is done, and the Publishers have no dealings whatever with me? There will, as you rightly say, be no interest in the book, except as typography: that is as it should be, for it will be superbly printed: and not superbly translated. No one is ever likely to ask you who was your scribe.

Or the second idea you had, of finding some very rich man to undertake the whole expense... that would solve the publicity question? What he would want is a genuine B.R. book: and he wouldn't care whether you printed Dutch or gibberish, so long as it was as good as possible, on the page.

Anonymity is, in my eyes, worth sacrificing a very large proportion of the translator's fee, to obtain. Will you please, with this in view, talk it over with the very rich man; and if he does not embrace your proposition, ask your publisher friends if they are willing to take the stuff from you, without asking questions, or answering them? I can invent a name for copyright purposes, if such is necessary: though I can't imagine anyone wanting to pirate a Homer!

I have not seen your Persephone. You must remember that I have now been six years in the ranks, and comparatively bookless all that while. We are oily, when we are not dirty, and no good book should ever come near us. All camp property is common, and so all books are ruined in a few weeks. Therefore I will beg of you not to send me any of yours, however recent: I have quite a number of your pre-1922 works, in a friend's house in London. I have not seen them for years, and will not for years: because I can't have them with me, and so I'd rather not have them, at all, even near me. But if you have any spoils or sheets, I'd like them very much. Before I finished my Seven Pillars I'd begun to see some of the first difficulties of printing.
You'll find it hard to gather much Mycenaean ornament: however Minoan is a cousin, and there are other varieties of island Greek, which are at least as Homeric. Homer is more an aspiration than a person. I aspire most fervently in him... but we know even less of him than of Shakespeare.

Leading is a very good way of clearing a page - if you can afford the space. I was cramming too long a book into 650 pages when I printed mine. Two-volume books are clumsy things. Why some people condemn leading I can't conceive.

My capital letters were designed by Edward Wadsworth, a very fine artist, for John Rodker, who prints in England. He did not use them, so I bought them off him for a copy of my book. Wadsworth did A-W. I had X Y and Z done by Hughes-Stanton to complete the alphabet (W was abroad, at the time, and couldn't carry on) and exhausted my ingenuity to bring in each letter at least once. Rodker would probably send them you: or Wadsworth (who is rich) do you another set, if you really liked them. I thought them uncommonly new and delightful.

The Hewlett pages you typed out for me are fascinating. The introduction says exactly what I'd like to say to everybody who reads or writes translations; and the verse pages are wonderful. I can't do anything like that. Hewlett was really a fine poet: I have seen a trilogy (classical) and a volume of short pieces (Artemesia?) and an epic of peasant life... a sort of Georgic... and they were all the real thing. He was also a good prose writer and a charming critic. His monthly reviews in the London Mercury were the best-reading criticisms of their time. So his Iliad is, naturally, the best yet. I can see that, even from the fragment you send. What a pity he never finished it.

I cannot write blank verse... at least, I have never yet written a line of poetry in my life... and I don't feel that Homer is the thing to begin on. So if you ask me to do anything, remember that it will be prose. Remember too that Morris said prose madea squarer page.
Amharic writes itself superbly: but I doubt whether the Abyssinian classics (rather dull church folk-lore, in my acquaintance with them) would repay the beauties of their letters. Nor are there wealthy patrons: nor any reading public!

To print a first book of the translation, as a high-priced pamphlet to finance the whole, might be possible: but wouldn't that raise talk?

There, I think this has glanced at all the things you wrote to me about. I want to do it, and am afraid: but can get over that difficulty by doing the sample book for you. I want to be anonymous: and value this above a big fee. I know that my writing without my name isn't worth much. In London I can get it published, just: (not always) and they pay me about 30/- a thousand words, at the best, for it. This fact may put my literary gift in its proper perspective, in your eyes!

Yours ever,
T. E. Shaw [Lawrence]

* George Herbert Palmer: translation of The Odyssey into "rhythmic prose" published by Houghton Mifflin in 1886.

** Lt. Col. Ralph Heywood Isham, collector of 18th century English Literature and purchaser of the Boswell papers at Malahide Castle.

- from Letters of T. E. Lawrence edited by David Garnett (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938).

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