(Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

American Tolstoy

Time to proclaim the greatness of Herman Wouk, once feted for the sweep of his historical novels

Books Features

The obituaries for Herman Wouk, who died a few days short of his 104th birthday last May, were respectful. They noted the Pulitzer Prize he won for his third novel, The Caine Mutiny, published in 1951; the millions of copies he sold, and the two television miniseries made of his 1970s World War Two duology, The Winds of War and War And Remembrance. But there was little sign that here was a figure of literary greatness, to be mentioned — at the very least — in the same breath as the enduring stars of his generation of American writers, such as William Styron, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.

If there was any uptick in interest occasioned by Wouk’s death, it has faded. As I sat down to write this piece, I checked how Caine was doing on Amazon. It was at number 198,537 in the paid-for Kindle charts and 192,271 among paperbacks — not great figures for a title that spawned a hit movie starring Humphrey Bogart and spent 122 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, 48 of them at its top. A year after his passing, Wouk seems headed for obscurity.

Until he died, I’d never read Wouk at all. It might have been my distant recollection that the miniseries were at times a little cheesy. But something about those obits made me try, starting with The Winds of War, and from the start, I was captivated. Since then, I’ve read almost all of them — a vastly pleasurable, but also a considerable endeavour, for several of his novels are more than 1,000 pages long. I will only be sorry when I finally reach the end.

There is, as Wouk himself often said, nothing fancy, let alone experimental, about his work. “I write a traditional novel, which is rather unfashionable, and I’ve taken a lot of kicking for it,” he once told an interviewer. “But the strength of my work comes from this intense grounding in the eighteenth and nineteenth century novelists.” To put it another way, he wrote gripping stories, peopled by sympathetic, believable characters, often set against titanic historical events, which he researched and grasped with extraordinary precision. He had a cinematic ability to convey both the panoramic sweep and the unwavering close-up. And his best books, of which I would number at least half a dozen, leave an unforgettable impression, haunting the reader’s mind.

The Economist got it right in its review of The Winds of War when it came out in 1971, suggesting that it was “as serious a contribution to the literature of our time as War and Peace was to that of the nineteenth century”. A big claim, but it was, I’m convinced, justified.

Like Tolstoy, Wouk sucks readers into the maelstrom of war through portraits of two families — that of Pug Henry, a brilliant US naval officer, and Aaron Jastrow, a Jewish historian who emigrated from Poland to America and is writing his next great work at an idyllic retreat near Siena, while choosing to ignore the portents that were all too visible in Mussolini’s Italy.

Early in the first volume, Pug’s restless son Byron falls in love with Jastrow’s assistant and niece, Natalie. And then, at a highly inconvenient moment, when the couple happens to be visiting the Jastrows’ ancestral shtetl near Cracow, the storm breaks. The Nazis invade Poland, and the epic begins.

One of the few to have publicly recognised Wouk’s greatness in recent years is David Frum, the Atlantic writer and editor who once did time in George W. Bush’s White House. “Give Wouk’s books to someone who knows little of the Second World War, and when they finish, they will feel almost as if they had lived through it,” he wrote in an appreciation for Wouk’s 100th birthday. With unobtrusive skill, Wouk shows how the disparate, global fragments of the conflict interlocked, supplying a complete strategic picture.

Meanwhile, as Frum noted, the books “pulse with the everyday details of 1940s America: what it felt like to wait for a letter in the post, the passage of time on a transcontinental railway trip, the crinkle of the carbon paper between two copies of an army report, the uncertainty of knowing who would win the war, and when, and how.”

The books also contain writing about the terror, uncertainty and sacrifice of combat which attains a hypnotic, hyper-realistic intensity. Wouk spent much of the war as an officer on destroyers in the Pacific, and nothing in these books is quite as vivid his depiction of naval warfare. There are scenes which make the palms sweat, such as Byron’s experience of coming under attack from Japanese depth charges as a submariner, as the converging sonar pings suggest the hunter is finding its prey, and Pug’s ill-advised ride-along with the RAF on a night-time raid on Germany. And then, dominating the second volume, there is an inexorable descent into Auschwitz, where Natalie, trapped in Europe by her attempt to save her uncle, winds up.

Shining through all Wouk’s work is a profound understanding of human nature, and his characters ring true because of their flaws

Of these passages, suffice to say that the Holocaust has never been more powerfully evoked. Offsetting this is Wouk’s chilling, fictional memoir by a professional soldier member of the German high command, Armin von Roon, extracts from which appear throughout both books. Von Roon comes to justify the death camps as merciful, a way of sparing the victims of the Final Solution from the mass shootings perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen as the Nazis advanced east. There is a sizeable literature examining how “ordinary Germans” became, in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s words, “Hitler’s willing executioners”. Through the words of von Roon, Wouk provides as satisfying an answer as any historian I’ve read.

Wouk called this duology “the main tale I have to tell”, and ultimately, it is his monument. However, he was by no means only a war novelist. Somehow, he managed to write his first novel, Aurora Dawn (1947), a rollicking satire about the New York media, while serving in the Pacific. Fifteen years later he returned to similar territory with Youngblood Hawke, a blockbuster rake’s progress about a writer of genius who emerges fully-formed from hillbilly country, the coalfields of Kentucky.

Among the most enjoyable of all Wouk’s novels, it still provides a virtually complete, sometimes hilarious picture of the intertwined worlds of American letters, film and broadcasting, with their thrills, passions, and shallow, tawdry duplicity. The technology has changed, but their essentials are the same. The book’s set pieces aren’t battles but glittering publishing parties, while the eponymous Hawke’s main struggle isn’t to save the world from fascism, but to try and make as much money as he can while — he hopes — retaining his vision and artistic integrity. Yet here too, Wouk’s technique and story-telling power are formidable. More than 20 years before Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Wouk gave us an account of Manhattan highlife which is every bit as rich, and anticipated many of Wolfe’s literary techniques. Unlike Wolfe, he added in the dark pall cast by McCarthyism, and a savage exposé of the ruthless barons who created America’s postwar boom.

Shining through all Wouk’s work is a profound understanding of human nature, and his characters ring true because of their flaws. Wouk himself was a devoted husband, married for almost 66 years until his wife Betty’s death in 2011 (she was also his literary agent). But just as in the real WW2, adulterous liaisons do crop up in even the best-regulated fictional families, while poor Youngblood Hawke finds himself badly damaged by a long entanglement with an older, married, sexually alluring socialite.But the thing about Wouk is that although he wasn’t merely uxorious but deeply religious, the scion of a distinguished rabbinical line who studied the Talmud every day, he was never judgmental. He knew how people behaved, and why, but he didn’t condemn them — unless, like Adolf Eichmann, portrayed in some of the most dramatic scenes in War and Remembrance, they were truly evil.

This points to another key feature of his literary make-up: he was, above all, a Jewish writer, steeped not only in the culture of the American diaspora in the manner of a Roth or a Bellow, but Judaism’s intellectual and spiritual traditions, which also provide the subject matter of his principal non-fiction books. More than anything, what distinguishes Judaism from Christianity, especially in its more deterministic, evangelical variants, is its attitude to sin, repentance and redemption — something whose origins lie in the flawed lives of its patriarchs.

Meanwhile, Judaism prefers to focus on the here and now, the world in which we live, not the world to come: in that sense, it is a uniquely existentialist religion. These ideas run through Wouk’s books indelibly. His characters have free will and make choices, and even when they make bad ones, they retain the chance to redeem themselves with better ones next day.

He was also an unabashed zionist, who spent much time in Israel and got to know figures such as David Ben-Gurion who are portrayed in his two Israel novels, The Hope and The Glory, published in the 1990s, which cover the history of the state’s first 40 years, using the same approach of the WW2 duology. As a frequent visitor to Israel, I recognise everyone and everything in these books. Read now, they also seem freighted by a layer of tragedy. Wouk’s Zionism was idealistic and forward-looking, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he wrote and published these books when the prospect of permanent peace still seemed tangible. Were he to approach the subject today, I suspect their tone would be less optimistic.

Nowadays, Zionism is even less fashionable in bien pensant circles than literary fiction that consciously builds on the methods of nineteenth-century novelists. Maybe that also explains why Wouk’s reputation is suffering — if it’s still being considered at all. But who writing now dares tackle such vast themes, or emulates his ambition? It’s time for a Wouk renaissance.

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