Herman Wouk

Book Review – War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk

But these Germans are different. Orders do not seem merely to guide their actions; orders, as it were, fill their souls, leaving no room for a human flicker in their faces or eyes. They are herdsmen, and we are cattle; or they are soldier ants, and we are aphids. The orders cut ties between them and us. All. It is eerie. (Loc 11365)

This chilling paragraph serves as a good summation of Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance. While the sequel to The Winds of War took readers along the Henry family’s continuing journey, the ‘remembrance’ portion focused on the Holocaust. That made reading this novel much more uncomfortable than perusing its predecessor.

As in the book’s precursor the war’s impact on the Henry family played a key role in the overall narrative. I enjoyed reading about Victor Henry’s ascent to two-star admiral. Aside from the Second World War’s effect on his career, Mr. Wouk described how the conflict generated much disturbance in his private life.

The tales of his son Byron’s development into a proficient submariner made for engaging reading, as well. I liked the character’s continuing transition from a carefree, directionless kid into a mature leader of men. The author enhanced this portion of the drama by adding a personal conflict for him to battle, as well. His wife Natalie—a Jewish woman, no less—and newborn son found themselves stranded in Fascist Italy at the war’s outbreak.

The author crafted extraordinary secondary characters for this novel. I’ll refrain from giving away spoilers. I will note that both Leslie Slote and Aaron Jastrow would have made for great protagonists in a shorter tale.

As in The Winds of War, the author inserted the German perspective on the war. This gave the story more balance than I’m used to reading in historical fiction. Mr. Wouk utilized the histories of fictional General Armin von Roon as one source. To allow readers a sense of how trustworthy this member of the German General Staff, one comment in his book read, “From Adolf Hitler alone proceeded the policy regarding the Jews.” (Loc 2876)

In War and Remembrance, the author took the German point-of-view even further. He added a priest’s thoughts on the German mindset.

 You must understand Germans, Herr Slote.” The tone was calmer. “It is another world. We are a politically inexperienced people, we know only to follow orders from above. That is a product of our history, a protracted feudalism.” (Loc 2730)

The author also included actual historical figures in the book. Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, appeared as a character. Mr. Wouk used his point-of-view in expressing this figure’s thoughts regarding efficient means of execution.

No, the poison gas in rooms of large capacity has always been an idea worth trying; but which gas? Today’s experiment shows Zyklon B, the powerful insecticide they have been using right along at the camp to fumigate the barracks, may be the surprisingly simple solution. Seeing is believing. In a confined airtight space, with a powerful dose of the blue-green crystals, those three hundred fellows didn’t last long! (Loc 2310)

To provide even sharper insight into the character’s mind, the very next paragraph opened with the words: “Well, time for Christmas dinner.” (Loc 2323)

Mr. Wouk added some exceptional use of language throughout the narrative. Some notable examples included, “Laughing into each other’s eyes” (Loc 4598), “…Things happen once then roll away into the past, leaving one marked and changed forever.” (Loc 3412) “Forbidden fruit has its brown spots, but these are not seen in the dusky glow of appetite.” (Loc 6953) “A look like a long conversation passed between them.” (Loc 9807)

My favorite occurred in these poetic thoughts regarding the British Empire’s dissolution.

When an empire dies, it dies like a cloudy day, without a visible moment of sunset. The demise is not announced on the radio, nor does one read of it in the morning paper. The British Empire had fatally depleted itself in the great if laggard repulse of Hitler, and the British people had long since willed the end of the Empire, by electing pacifist leaders to gut the military budgets. (Loc 1936)

Mr. Wouk performed exceptional research on the time period. I found many of his descriptions very realistic; at times, frighteningly so. At one point the author crafted a passage that depicted the scene from inside a gas chamber as the poison filled the air. He wrote it in such detail that I felt like I was in the room suffocating. It bothered me so, I can’t bring myself to quote it here.

I had two criticisms of War and Remembrance. One involved its scope. I read the digital version of its nearly 1400 pages. The inclusion of so many characters involved in so many events of the Second World War necessitated the book’s size. This segues into my other issue.

To hook readers, the author used an exceptional technique; perhaps too well. Mr. Wouk often concluded chapters by placing his characters in horrible situations. Of course, I wanted to know the outcomes. He would follow such scenes with several chapters concerning the other characters’ stories. Those would also leave off at their own harrowing endings.

I understand that a writer must keep his/her readers engaged. Because of the nature of the character’s peril, this became annoying at times. I don’t mind the “cliff hangers.” I do have a problem when I have to wait several hours to discover their resolutions.

Mr. Wouk did something extraordinary in War and Remembrance. In it, he crafted both a great sequel and a fantastic work of historical fiction. It’s difficult to do either of those things. This author did them in the same book. That’s why some have referred to him as “an American Tolstoy.” That’s quite an encomium for a Jewish kid from the Bronx who simply wanted to be a writer.

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Book Review – The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk woke me up to the concept of the epic American novel. The Winds of War traced a naval family’s experiences from the summer of 1939 through the Pearl Harbor attack. A magisterial work of historical fiction resulted.

In the process, Mr. Wouk created the most unique literary character I’ve ever encountered in Captain Victor Henry. In a way, he reminded me of Forrest Gump. The captain always seemed to find himself in the middle of many major historical events; at least the ones leading up to the Second World War. While he longed to command a battleship, the brewing “winds of war” swept him up into a fascinating series of positions. At the book’s beginning he received the post of US Naval Attaché in Berlin. Later he travelled to the UK where he “observed” a bombing raid on Berlin. Following that he received reassignment to Moscow during the German invasion. While serving in these varied locales, he met the war’s most influential figures including Hitler, Churchill and Stalin. Interestingly, of all the people he encountered, he only experienced nervousness prior to meeting Churchill.

Of course, Captain Henry’s interactions with FDR served as the sine qua non of the book. In fact, he first met this iconic historical figure during one of his first naval assignments. Here are the captain’s recollections of that encounter prior to meeting Roosevelt the President.

He was wondering whether the President would remember him, and hoped he wouldn’t. In 1918, as a very cocky Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt had crossed to Europe on a destroyer. The wardroom officers, including Ensign Henry, had snickered at the enormously tall, very handsome young man with the famous family name, who made a great show of using nautical terms and bounding up ladders like a seadog, while dressed in outlandish costumes that he kept changing. He was a charmer, the officers agreed, but a lightweight, almost a phony, spoiled by a rich man’s easy life. He wore pince-nez glasses in imitation of his great relative, President Teddy Roosevelt, and he also imitated his booming manly manner; but a prissy Harvard accent made this heartiness somewhat ridiculous. (Page 148)

The descriptions in this passage showed that the author performed significant research while writing this book. This attention to detail continued in the scenes describing the German invasion of Poland, the discussions over America’s support of the British prior to Pearl Harbor and the Nazi occupation of Russia.

In an acknowledgement to the time period, Mr. Wouk referenced the plight of Europe’s Jews. In the most disturbing quote in the book, a Jewish historian presented his thoughts on why Christians persecuted Jews.

“He’s a Jew’s Jesus,” said Jastrow. “That was my point.”

“Then tell me one thing,” said Rabinovitz. “These Europeans worship a poor murdered Jew, the young Talmud scholar you wrote about so well—to them he’s the Lord God—and yet they go right on murdering Jews. How does a historian explain that?”

In a comfortable, ironic, classroom tone, most incongruous in the circumstances, Jastrow replied, “Well, you must remember they’re still mostly Norse and Latin pagans at heart. They’ve always chafed under their Jewish Lord’s Talmudic morals, and possibly take out their irritation on his coreligionists.” (Page 818 – 819)

            The author related most of the story through the exploits of various Americans. He still cleverly fit the German perspective into the novel. Mr. Wouk created a fictitious book titled World Empire Lost written by a German general of his creation, Armin von Roon. He wove it into the narrative through Captain Henry’s postwar translation. He entered the German frame of mind through comments such as, “the one war crime is to lose” (Page 859) and “Churchill was a Hitler restrained by democracy.” (Page 247) He contrasted this with lines such as the following that Captain Henry delivered to FDR, “Mr. President, the quality of mercy is mightiest in the mightiest.” (Page 149)

The Winds of War ended following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Wouk resumed the Henry family saga in the sequel, War and Remembrance. With that acknowledgement, while I enjoyed the reading, I didn’t find the book strong enough to stand on its own. I’d classify it as more of an adventure story since I didn’t get a sense of the characters changing during the course of the story. I detected shades of submariner Byron Henry maturing at the end of the book, however, but not to the point it would justify concluding it.

I applaud the author for crafting a novel this complex and making it reasonably realistic. All of the major characters possessed involved story lines. These multifarious elements help explain why The Winds of War came in at close to 900 pages. While lengthy, I enjoyed the book so much it inspired me to read War and Remembrance. That tome contains close to 1500 pages. If that one’s as good as the first volume, I hope I still remember The Winds of War when I finish.  

 

Book Review – The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk crafted the most brilliant bildungsroman I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The Caine Mutiny traced Willie Keith’s development from his pampered beginnings, his commissioning and early years as a naval officer through his participation in the most insubordinate act an armed services member can commit. To add even more drama to the later incident, it took place in the eye of a typhoon during World War II. If there’s a better war novel out there, I haven’t experienced it.

While the novel traced Mr. Keith’s maturation, three articles delineated in the Navy Regulations served as the cohesive theme holding the story together. These rules described the conditions under which a subordinate may relieve his superior of command. One has to credit Mr. Wouk for combining these disparate elements into a single story.

It would be hard to imagine more serious topics than those chosen by the author. I found it quite interesting that he began his career as a comedy writer. The entertaining way he managed to add humorous quips to the narrative made the reading much more enjoyable. Here’s Mr. Wouk’s depiction of Willie’s first meeting with the then skipper of the Caine, Captain DeVrees.

“Collared him did you? Nice work,” said a voice full of irony and authority, and the captain of the Caine came to the doorway. Willie was even more startled by him. The captain was absolutely naked. In one hand he carried a Lifebuoy soap, in the other a lighted cigarette. He had a creased old-young face, blond hair, and a flabby white body. “Welcome aboard, Keith!”

“Thank you, sir.” Willie felt an urge to salute, to bow, in some way to express reverence for supreme authority. But he remembered a regulation about not saluting a superior when he was uncovered. And he had never seen a more uncovered superior than his commanding officer.” (Location 1437)

Thomas Keefer, one of Willie’s shipmates and a budding novelist, observed: “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” (Location 2020)

When Willie expressed his admiration for Keefer’s writing ability, the later provided him with a tutorial on how to write an official Navy report. It read like a passage out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

“Are you kidding?” said the communications officer. “I wrote that as fast as I could type it. Probably a minute and a half. You just have to develop an ear for Navy prose, Willie. For instance, note that split infinitive in paragraph three. If you want a letter to sound official, split an infinitive. Use the word ‘subject’ very often. Repeat phrases as much as possible. See my beautiful reiteration of the phrase ‘subject man.’ Why, it’s got the hypnotic insistence of a bass note in a Bach fugue.” (Location 3398)

The author included one conversation with semi-comic effect. Here’s part of an exchange between Willie and Ed, the captain of another ship, regarding the rules governing a commanding officer’s removal.

“…Want me to tell you something? One night down in Noumea I got drunk with the exec—under the Iron Duke (Captain Sammis), this was—and he quoted Article 184 to me by heart. And he said he was just waiting for the Duke to do that one really impossible thing, and he’d nail him. But he never mentioned it to me again. You should have seen the way Sammis made him crawl, too—“

“They never do that one thing, Ed. That’s the catch.” (Location 9703)

Mr. Wouk crafted the novel in a way that stimulated my curiosity for what would happen next. He wrote the events leading up to the mutiny against Captain Queeg brilliantly. The subsequent court martial also read well. I found myself wavering on whether or not the captain deserved to be removed. In the events leading up to his displacement, I agreed with the officers’ analysis of his behavior. During the court martial I agreed with the JAG that Willie and the executive officer acted improperly. Now I’m not sure. That makes me want to re-read a book I just finished.

I found Willie’s development absolutely outstanding. His father wrote him a letter stating:

It seems to me that you’re very much like our whole country—young, naïve, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock. (Location 1237)

The author did an exceptional job animating these traits in his protagonist throughout the novel. Marcel Proust once wrote, “We don’t receive wisdom. We must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us, or spare us.” Willie embodied this sentiment. I liked the ways he came to discover and struggle with his personal shortcomings on his own.

I’d classify this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel as a masterpiece of historical fiction. Willie Keith’s development amidst the backdrop of real events made an outstanding read. At the book’s conclusion, I found myself wanting to learn about the next stages of Willie’s life. Mr. Wouk celebrated his 101st birthday in May. Would he be open to writing a sequel after all these years?