As a keen admirer

As a keen admirer of Winston Churchill I was sad to see this article in today’s New York Times announcing that William Manchester will probably never finish the third installment of his three-volume Churchill biography.

Actually it’s probably wrong to say I’m a Churchill admirer. Admiration is too equivocal a disposition. Confronting Churchill, one is quickly forced to a rash and drastic decision: either bow down before him or find him an archaism and a pompous fool. Probably a combination of the two responses is the most sensible, but I’ve always inclined toward the former. In any case, Churchill doesn’t engender sensibility. Too moderate a virtue.

There are stacks of Churchill biographies, including a seemingly endless (but quite good, in its own way) official one by British historian Martin Gilbert. There are fascinating books on out-of-the-way aspects of his life or very detailed, even belabored narratives of key periods in it. But of the full-fledged biographies none captured my imagination quite like Manchester’s The Last Lion. A few years back I read the first and second volumes which bring Churchill up to the brink of his moment of greatness when Neville Chamberlain’s government falls and the King calls upon Churchill to form a new government.

Here the second volume ends. And since the first two volumes were a gift to me from some friend or relative — I can’t remember who — I assumed finishing the story was simply a matter of heading to the bookstore to find the anticipated final tome.

But no such luck. I quickly determined that no third volume existed. And after confirming that Manchester was still alive I assumed that he was laboring away on the last volume.

According to the Times article, I wasn’t the only one. And the expectation was accurate. But after completing perhaps a third of the last volume, Manchester suffered a series of strokes which have left him not incapacitated but seemingly too diminished in acuity and mental functioning to finish the task.

It’s hard to describe how frustrating it is to read a masterful Churchill biography and have it leave off as the clouds are darkening in 1939, never to continue. I could illustrate the predicament with a sexual analogy but — don’t worry — I won’t.

There is apparently some chance that the final volume will still be completed, with the aid of a collaborator. But Manchester — I guess understandably — seems unwilling to let another writer finish, or help finish, what he himself apparently cannot. He’s agreed to the idea of a collaboration in principle, but has turned away each potential collaborator.

Today’s article included a link to what was to me a surprising 1983 review of Manchester’s first volume by Michiko Kakutani. The essence of the review was that Manchester used heady, grand rhetoric — somewhat in the manner that Churchill himself did — but that Manchester was no Winston Churchill. “Perhaps such passages,” Kakutani wrote, “represent a kind of homage to Churchill’s own heady language, but an important distinction should be made: whereas Churchill’s luxuriant use of words was capable of stirring an audience to great passion, Mr. Manchester’s simply produces a yawn.”

I have to disagree. I thought Manchester was particularly well-suited to the job.