- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

HERMAN WOUK: THE NOVELIST AS SOCIAL HISTORIAN

By Arnold Beichman

Transaction, $24.95, paperback, 141 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF

A good man has written a good book about a good man who has written many good books. Her-

man Wouk is not exactly the Rodney Dangerfield of American literature: Over the past half century, he has certainly gotten his share of appreciation and a quite phenomenal and lasting popular success. But it is all too easy to overlook or underestimate him.

Mr.Wouk is certainly not an influential giant pioneering new styles or perceptions of reality like a James Joyce or, for that matter, a Joseph Heller. Even in the American Jewish tradition that has engaged him more than any other, he is certainly not an Isaac Bashevis Singer though it would not at all surprise me if wears better than Saul Bellow. On the contrary, it is Mr. Wouk’s disdain for what was intellectually fashionable — clearly and remarkably articulated as early as “The Caine Mutiny” in 1951 — that continues to make him so timeless and remarkably relevant and refreshing.

In this slim but informative and stimulating study first published more than 20 years ago and now updated, Arnold Beichman does a first rate job of giving this so often overlooked literary craftsman and serious historical novelist his due. He has done a marvel of distilling a doctoral thesis’ worth of scholarship into an elegantly written little volume. It is a lasting resource for critical students of Mr. Wouk.

The two lasting moral and intellectual influences on Mr. Wouk — either of them unusual for any serious American literary figure over the past century — have been his Orthodox Judaism and the U.S. Navy. To find these two profoundly different traditions sympathetically melded and channeled by a serious and talented writer makes for a unique perception on the world. The weltanshauung that emerges from this confluence, as Mr. Beichman discerns, is deeply conservative, humanely and sensitively so.

What one finds in Mr. Wouk is an earnest, dedicated and honest seriousness that cuts no corners and delivers lasting, satisfying and thoughtful legacies. Characters are shaped by their experiences and interaction with the unexpected surprises of life. Willy Keith in the “The Caine Mutiny” must unwillingly learn that the unattractive and ridiculous little martinet he despised is a better and more valuable man than he is; Marjorie Morningstar discovers that following her youthful heart unwisely will stain her soul with a regret that will quietly last a lifetime.

“The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” to which Mr. Beichman wisely devotes much appreciative attention, is that rarest of achievements, a huge historical novel on the conceptual lines of Tolstoy, that actually succeeds. Nothing better of its kind has yet been written about World War II, nor may ever be. “War and Remembrance,” indeed, as Mr. Beichman dryly notes, “is really seven novels in one … . It is about Washington in wartime, the birth of the atomic bomb, about human frailties, love affairs, marriages, divorces, the death of loved ones.”

Mr. Beichman also does well to focus on one of the most extraordinary achievements in modern historical fiction, Mr. Wouk’s “book-within?the-book” — his fictional memoirs of Arnim von Roon, a fictional German general who starts off admiring Hitler and finishes anything but. Here, indeed, Mr. Wouk achieves a perfect pitch in tone comparable to Tolstoy’s renderings of Marshal Kutuzov and Napoleon Bonaparte in “War and Peace” or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s classic comic portrayal of Josef Stalin in “The First Circle.”

Parallels between Mr. Wouk and Mr. Solzhenitsyn are seldom made but they deserve to be: Both men are deeply religious, Mr. Solzhenitsyn, a devoted Russian Orthodox Christian, Mr. Wouk an Orthodox Jew. Both of them have spanned the gamut from social satire to profound , angry revulsion at the most colossal crimes against humanity of the 20th century — Hitler’s genocide of the Jewish people in Europe and Lenin and Stalin’s creation and maintenance of the Gulag concentration camp empire. Both have met the greatest challenges of the historical novel genre, transporting their readers back into perfect recreations of past worlds while creating convincing characters shaped by and responding to them.

Both men even dedicated their later years, though Mr. Beichman charitably does not raise the issue, to ambitious projects that proved literally unreadable: Mr. Wouk’s two novels on the modern history of the state of Israel, “The Glory and “The Hope”, and Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s endless “Red Wheel” cycle that reads like thousands of pages of John Dos Passos with a hangover.

Yet in neither case should these embarrassing megaliths be allowed to obscure the tremendous achievements that preceded them. In Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s case, there is no danger that this will happen. As the cycles of fashion and time unfold, it could all too easily happen with Mr. Wouk. Thanks to Mr. Beichman’s welcome and most valuable study, there is now good reason to hope it will not.

Martin Sieff is Chief Political Correspondent for United Press International.

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