I first met Herman Wouk (in print, never in life) through Herbie Bookbinder, the fat, clever, put-upon "General Garbage," who is the hero of City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder. Set over half a century before I was reading it (1980-ish, I'll guess), it made me laugh, made me wince with familiarity, and enter into a world of New York City that was already gone, and yet which Wouk brought back to human, humane, life.
Adelle Waldman has an appreciation of the late Herman Wouk that is in fact a strong defense of just two of his books--The Winds of War (1971)and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1978). She doesn't discuss his other novels, and that's just fine. Because Wouk's books, especially Winds and War, are often, as Waldman notes, dismissively "often grouped with middlebrow writers of popular historical fiction — James Michener and Leon Uris." One of my favorite literature professors, Nick Loprete, dismissed him with a glib one liner--"too much wind," he said, "and too much war."
But I'm with Waldman, especially where she writes:
Although sweeping, the novels aren’t melodramas. They are the kinds of books in which an attractive young woman in a doomed love affair comes down with a cold — and doesn’t die. She doesn’t even become seriously ill. She takes some aspirin and goes to bed early.Yes, very true--and Waldman's exegesis of Wouk's depiction of the slow corruption of people of good will through normalization of the abhorrent by its repetition, as exemplified by Rhoda Henry's slow acclimatization to Nazi Germany during her stay as an attache's wife, is especially resonant today, as long-held norms are fragmenting in law (good-bye, stare decisis) and politics (around the globe).
These are also novels in which you can’t immediately tell whether a character will turn out to be mostly admirable or mostly not. With Wouk, it takes hundreds of pages of seeing the character in action before you can decide — and even then, your verdict is liable to remain uncertain and subject to change. Even in literary fiction, this kind of authorial restraint and fidelity to human complexity is surprising.
Waldman touches on the character of Aaron Jastrow, the scholar who found fame in America, is caught up in Fascit Italy, and, ultimately, dies in a concentration camp near where he studied as a boy. She is very good on Jastrow's glib sophistication that leads him into the trap, but I value even more the passage I have previously cited, in which a wiser Jastrow, returns to his roots as a talmudic scholar, even though heh is imprisoned in the "paradise ghetto" of Theresinstadt. Jastrow lectures on the Book of Job in contrast to the Iliad, and points that:
In Job, as in most great works of art, the main design is very simple. His comforters maintain that since one Almighty God rules the universe, it must make sense. Therefore Job must have sinned. Let him search his deeds, confess and repent. The missing piece is only what his offense was.It is a chilling indictment, and yet Jastrow has returned to his faith, despite--or because of--the insanity and horror of his situation, but he doesn't return blindly--he later says that as he must answer to God for his apostasy, God must answer to Jastrow for Auschwitz.
And in round after round of soaring argument, Job fights back. The missing piece must be with God, not with him. He is as religious as they are. He knows that the Almighty exists, that the universe must make sense. But he, poor bereft boil-covered
skeleton, knows now that it does not in fact always make sense; that there is no guarantee of good fortune for good behavior; that crazy injustice is part of the visible world, and of this life. His religion demands that he assert his innocence,otherwise he will be profaning God's name! He will be conceding that the Almighty can botch one man's life; and if God can do that, the whole universe is a botch, and He is not an Almighty God. That Job will never concede. He wants an answer.
He gets an answer! Oh, what an answer! An answer that answers nothing. God Himself speaks at last out of a roaring storm."Who are you to call me to account? Can you hope to understand why or how I do anything? Were you there at Creation? Can you comprehend the marvels of the stars, the animals, the infinite wonders of existence? You, a worm that lives a few moments and dies?
My friends, Job has won! Do you understand? God with all His roaring has conceded Job's main point that the missing piece is with Him. God claims only that His reason is beyond Job. That, Job is perfectly willing to admit. With the main point settled, Job humbles himself, is more than satisfied, falls on his face. So the drama ends. God rebukes the comforters for speaking falsely of Him, and praises Job for holding to the truth. He restores Job's wealth. Job has seven more sons and three more daughters. He lives a hundred and forty more years, sees grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and dies old, prosperous, revered.
Satisfied? A happy ending, yes? Much more Jewish than the absurd and tragic Iliad. Are you so sure? My dear Jewish friends, what about the ten children who died? Where was God's justice to them? And what about the father, the mother? Can those scars on Job's heart heal, even in a hundred and forty years? That is not the worst of it. Think! What was the missing piece that was too much for Job to understand? We understand it, and are we so very clever? Satan simply sneered God into ordering the senseless ordeal. No wonder God roars out of a storm to silence Job! Isn't He ashamed of Himself before His own creature? Hasn't Job behaved better than God?
Wouk's later novels--with the exception of the under-appreciated Inside, Outside (1985) (both touching and wonderfully, ruefully funny. Philip Roth must have felt the burn in that one, too.) don't hit the same high point, but his fertile mind teemed with lesser novels in different genres, from science fiction to Hollywood comedy. But he never failed to interest me, to enlighten me, and to do so while thoroughly entertaining me.
Vogue la galère, O teller of tales; let your ship sail free!