The last enemy is not death, but fear. Richard Hillary was fearless to the point of arrogance, and he was among the finest prose writers of his generation, many of whose lives were cut short by the Second World War.
This book charts most of Hillary's life: staring down his Oxbridge colleagues on matters of religion; touring Europe as a rowing Blue; qualifying as an RAF pilot. Hillary was a clever young man who was reportedly hard to like, possessed of a cold determination to thrust his way forward in the world on his own terms, using the strength of his formidable intellect.
Hillary joined the RAF, and was to be shot down in flames, suffering terrible burns, during the Battle of Britain. Fished from the sea barely alive with his skin hanging in tatters, he soon became one of the "Guinea Pigs," burns patients of the pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe.
Hillary would have us believe that he reacted to pain with irony, that he flouted death and laughed in the face of disfigurement. But this smacks of bravado. He seems determined to show that fear and pain may be conquered by the intellect alone. In all events, he returned to operational flying - against all advice - and shortly afterwards lost his life. Victory or waste? Who can say?
Hillary was a brilliant writer and this is a fine book. Both ascetic and heroic, lofty and accessible, it bears comparison with the best of T.E. Lawrence. Hillary was well connected in Great Britain and indeed Hollywood, and he would have become a household name had he backed away in time from his obsessive confrontation between mind and death.