A study of the ‘lit­er­ary Churchill’ high­lights a man of com­plex­ity, mag­na­nim­ity and end­less fas­ci­na­tion, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ain might have been de­feated ... the ab­sence of any­body of his qual­ity was so bla­tant that one can­not imag­ine what would have hap­pened if he had not been there.”

Play­wright Stephen Sewell once said that one of the most strik­ing things about the war is that it was fought be­tween two artists, Hitler and Churchill, and that noth­ing is more re­mark­able than the way Churchill used the power of his rhetoric like a bat­ter­ing ram and like a mighty fortress.

This is close to the heart of what pre­oc­cu­pies Amer­i­can his­to­rian Jonathan Rose in The Lit­er­ary Churchill, a highly coloured, con­sis­tently en­gag­ing study of Churchill and the power of the word. He puts his case with an elo­quence that sits well with a book that has the sig­nal virtue of con­stantly high­light­ing the colour and re­ver­ber­a­tion of what Churchill said but also the daz­zled ar­tic­u­la­tion of the world that saw him com­ing.

Here’s Rose’s the­sis: “In May 1940, the Sec­ond World War be­came a duel be­tween two artists. The sig­nif­i­cance of that fact should be bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ated by po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans, be­cause aes­thet­ics con­trib­uted im­por­tantly to de­cid­ing the out­come of that con­flict ... ap­plied to the po­lit­i­cal realm, (Hitler’s tal­ents) ... pro­duced a mass move­ment that con­quered most of Europe. He might have won the war if he had not been op­posed by an equally bril­liant po­lit­i­cal artist.’’

The Lit­er­ary Churchill

has the great virtue of pre­sent­ing this ob­vi­ous par­al­lel with great res­o­nance. Al­though Rose’s em­pha­sis is on Churchill, he points out that Hitler de­signed the Nazi flag with its black swastika in a white cir­cle on a red field and that, as Ber­tolt Brecht ac­knowl­edged, he was a mas­ter of “Poli­tik des Bluffs und Theater­coups”, and in Ian Ker­shaw’s words, “He was above all a con­sum­mate ac­tor.” Some Ger­man-speak­ers say Hitler’s un­du­la­tions and stac­cato bursts of ar­tic­u­la­tion had a mes­meric qual­ity a bit like Lau­rence Olivier do­ing Richard III, or per­haps any Shake­speare.

When Churchill was re-elected prime min­is­ter in 1951, aged 77, he used to some­times take in an act of Shake­speare at the Old Vic and then leave. One night in 1953, how­ever, he went to see 28-year-old Richard Bur­ton as Ham­let and pro­ceeded, from the front stalls, to re­cite the en­tire part with him. On this oc­ca­sion, he stayed un­til the end and turned up at the stage door. “Lord Ham­let,” he said to Bur­ton, “may I use your bath­room?”

That’s one of the flaws in the glass Rose hints at in this book, the Ham­let one. It was that man of enig­mas, TE Lawrence, who said to Churchill, “What a sub­ject for a book you might have been if you had not writ­ten it yourself.” Rose spec­u­lates about Os­car Wilde’s in­flu­ence on Churchill, but the main thing Churchill has in com­mon with Wilde is the way he re­mained true to Os­car’s motto that he had put his ge­nius into his life and only his talent in his lit­er­ary work. Never mind that No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture

Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill, re­cov­er­ing from a bout of pneu­mo­nia, meets US Gen­eral Dwight Eisen­hower in 1943

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