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