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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Literary Churchill’

- - Thursday, July 17, 2014

THE LITERARY CHURCHILL: AUTHOR, READER, ACTOR
By Jonathan Rose
Yale University Press, $35, 528 pages, illustrated

The character and career of Sir Winston Churchill are both so protean that it is not surprising that there have been studies of the great man emphasizing innumerable aspects, running the gamut from military strategist and statesman to painter and gourmand. Certainly, Churchill as a literary figure is a topic also well worth considering. What other British prime minister won the Nobel Prize for literature? (It was awarded to him in the midst of his second premiership in 1953.) Interestingly, although it was widely believed that this accolade came to him because of his magisterial history of World War II, Jonathan Rose, Kenan professor of history at Drew University, informs us that it was the autobiography "My Early Life" that impelled the (neutral in World War II) Swedes.

Well-researched and clearly informed by great admiration and attunement to its subject, "The Literary Churchill" is simply crammed with interesting facts like this — and not just about his oeuvre and his accomplishments. We find out about the origins of his writing with his discovery of it as a talent and much-needed boost as an indifferent student, his literary and theatrical tastes and his affinity for melodrama.

A lifelong politician dedicated to statecraft, Churchill was also a professional writer. If he could not equal his predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli, who wrote an astonishing 18 novels and was still doing so while in office in his 70s, he actually earned his living for much of his life with his pen. Quite a bit was journalism — some of it of a high order, other hackwork — but there is no denying the quality of his major works, such as the biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough and his histories of both world wars and of the English-speaking peoples. In his youth, he even wrote a novel, "Savrola," that he "consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading." Mr. Rose writes, "Churchill ultimately recognized that 'Savrola' was an artistic failure" and himself characterizes it as one "which arguably ranks among the worst novels of the nineteenth century." Mr. Rose goes on to aver that "bad books can be wonderfully revealing, and this one in particular offers remarkable insights into the author's core political convictions and methods."

So, by the time we have Mr. Rose seeing Churchill's only novel — probably the least accomplished product of his pen in his own (and others') judgment — as a precursor of his "Finest Hour," this book's methodology is on very thin ice:

"'Savrola' turned out to be a remarkable prophecy. It tells the story of a brilliant author and public speaker who uses his wonderful oratorical powers to defeat the evil dictator of a Middle European country, a dictator who tears up treaties, stabs his political rivals in the back, murders prisoners of war, does not hesitate to use torture, and recklessly seeks an armed confrontation with the British Empire . Once again, Churchill's politics followed his literary imagination. He recognized and resisted Hitler largely because the Fuhrer so closely resembled the fictional villain he had created years before . Churchill actually made his novel come true. In 'Savrola,' as Disraeli had done in 'Tancred,' he described a political crusade that he carried out as prime minister forty years later."

Although connecting "Savrola" to Churchill's staunch resistance and oratorical skills when Britain stood alone in 1940 is less risible than linking Disraeli's novel about reconciling Judaism with Christianity to his accomplishments as premier, it is tenuous enough.

To invert the adage, this book is, in the final analysis, less than the sum of its parts, by which I mean that although it is full of intriguing tidbits about Churchill's reading, writing and fascination with drama, its thesis — that "his political goals and methods were shaped by what he read in books and saw on the stage" — doesn't really hold up. To Mr. Rose's credit, he prefaces his work with these cautionary words:

"Every historical study should begin with these cautious words: 'This does not explain everything.' I emphasize here the literary and theatrical dimensions of politics because they are neglected and important, but not all-important."

True enough, but isn't it possible that what Churchill chose to read and watch on stage reflected his essential character rather than molding it? The good thing about "The Literary Churchill" is that readers can enjoy and benefit from what it contains without buying into its author's hypotheses.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.