'The Last Lion': A roaring conclusion
Winston Churchill-philes are a voracious lot. We can never get enough of the 20th century's greatest leader, the man of so many brilliant words who -- to put it simply -- saved Western civilization from the forces of evil. We will greedily devour any book that comes our way about this pugnacious, mercurial, heroic World War II leader. But for much of the past two decades, we've been feeling a little -- hungry.
Now, finally, comes the feast: The conclusion of William Manchester's "The Last Lion," brought to fruition by Paul Reid, enlisted as collaborator and co-author before Manchester's death in 2004. This third and final volume, "Defender of the Realm," picks up in 1940 as the once-reviled Churchill at last strides out of the political wilderness into greatness and history.
As such books go (and there are about 650 Churchill biographies out there), Manchester's have always been regarded as the best of their kind. The first two volumes -- "Visions of Glory: 1874-1932" (1983) and "Alone: 1932-1940" (1988) -- were best-sellers. Anyone who remembers how she felt after finishing "Alone" -- exhilarated by Manchester's addictively readable prose and deep understanding of his subject -- will feel sated, at last.
Little, Brown ($40).
And yet "Defender of the Realm," as wonderful as it is, doesn't really seem to be written by the same William Manchester who enthralled readers with "The Death of a President" -- the authorized account of John F. Kennedy's assassination -- and 17 other highly regarded books, including "The Glory and the Dream," an early 20th-century history, and "American Caesar," a biography of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Then again, the first 200 pages or so of this enormous volume (1,100 pages) contains many of Manchester's writerly touches: Many horrors lay ahead for Britain in 1940, the book notes on page 37, but the spring that year "was that rarity, a genuine idyll, a blessed time of crystal-clear air, of radiant mornings, gentle twilights, and of soft, balmy evenings, when a delicate bluish moisture fell on orchards and gardens."
Then, on page 164, the sights and sounds of a Luftwaffe air raid: "the odd crumping of the discharged bombs, their whistling as they fell, the stench of cordite, and, later, the odor of gas escaping in the shattered buildings -- and then the buildings burning in the quenchless flames of hell."
If that isn't William Manchester's writing, I'll eat my hat.
Then again, we'll never really know, and therein lies a tale: After four years of writing the second volume of "The Last Lion," the 66-year-old author was exhausted. He took a break and wrote a terrific history about the Middle Ages ("A World Lit Only by Fire"), even as he struggled with writer's block.
By 1998, after the death of his wife, Manchester was crippled by two strokes. His publishers tried to get him to complete "The Last Lion," but it was too late -- he had completed the research but had neither the strength nor focus to continue. He auditioned other authors -- Pulitzer Prize-winning author Diane McWhorter ("Carry Me Home") was briefly considered but discarded after Manchester decided she wasn't sufficiently worshipful of Churchill.
He decided to tap Mr. Reid, a friend and an award-winning reporter at The Palm Beach Post, who, initially began as a collaborator but who bravely carried on alone after Manchester's death, at great financial sacrifice. The task was daunting: Mr. Reid confronted boxes and boxes of material left to him by Manchester -- "clumps" of notes stapled together, reams of original and secondary research, organized in a code that took years to decipher. Mr. Reid has told interviewers that his attempts to write like Manchester were quickly shut down by his own editor, who told him to be himself -- and after some false starts, he found his own rhythm.
Some critics say the book's novelistic sweep is more Herman Wouk than Shakespeare (not that there's anything wrong with that). Some professional historians will take issue with the history, much of it research from the 1980s, although Mr. Reid has updated it where he could. He also made conclusions about Churchill that differed from Manchester, who believed the prime minister nursed a weak scotch all day and was clinically depressed. Mr. Reid, on the other hand, found plenty of evidence of heavy drinking, every day, but no chronic, long lasting depression.
As popular history, "Defender of the Realm" succeeds where it needs to, making familiar facts seem fresh: Churchill, an unreconstructed imperialist, reveled in 19th-century idiom (Istanbul remained Constantinople, Peking was Peiping, rifles remained "muskets"). He was a bad boss, an unreliable judge of character, a not-so-skilled-military strategist with a penchant for quixotic campaigns (his plan for an invasion of Norway was successfully deflected by his advisers -- although Hitler sent some of his strongest German divisions there for the war's duration when they were needed elsewhere). But he was also a master of spin, whose fight-on-the-beaches declamation turned the retreat from Dunkirk into an exemplar of British indomitability.
One great wordsmith deserves another, and Churchill got his with Manchester, whose gifts came in triplicate. As storyteller, dramatist and analyst, he could set the reader into the scene and on edge -- but also step out of the narrative at critical junctures to add perspective and let the story breathe. That doesn't happen enough in this book as in the previous two. The narrative gallops along at a breathtaking pace, although there are some great lines to savor -- "Churchill arrived on the scene like a summer squall at a sailboat regatta" -- and compassionate analysis.
"Nothing -- not his moods, not Britain's defeats, not the slow strangulation of the U-boat blockade, not his reluctant generals -- impeded Churchill's capacity to inspire his countrymen and to fight for their salvation. Nothing diminished his love for his family. Nothing undercut his love of life. If one accepts Freud's dictum that mental health is the ability to love and work, Churchill possessed his full mental health."
Perhaps the reader shouldn't be blamed for wondering who wrote these words: Were they Manchester's? Mr. Reid's? Mr. Reid's-as-Manchester? In the end, it really doesn't matter, because this is a big, rich savory stew of a book, not as subtle a dish served up two times previously, but deeply satisfying for those of us who have waited so long to be told -- again -- how the last "Last Lion" finally ends.
First Published December 9, 2012 12:00 am