Monday, June 24, 2019

Herman Wouk's True Subject Was Moral Weakness

An excellent essay, at the New York Times Book Review, "Herman Wouk Wrote Historical Novels But His True Subject Was Moral Weakness":

At the beginning of Herman Wouk’s novel “The Winds of War” (1971), the book’s hero, Victor “Pug” Henry, is offered a post as the United States Navy’s attaché in Berlin. The year is 1939.

Pug discusses the job with a fellow naval officer, a man named Tollever who previously held the position. “Hitler’s a damned remarkable man,” Tollever says over drinks in Pug’s elegant Washington, D.C., living room. “The Germans do things in politics that we wouldn’t — like this stuff with the Jews — but that’s just a passing phase, and anyway, it’s not your business.”

Tollever tells Pug that the worst of it was Kristallnacht, “when Nazi toughs had smashed department store windows and set fire to some synagogues.” But, he says, “even that the Jews had brought on themselves, by murdering a German embassy official in Paris.” Besides, the whole thing was exaggerated by the press; as far as Tollever knew, “not one” Jew “had really been physically harmed.” In sum, Tollever had enjoyed the post immensely: “I haven’t drunk a decent glass of Moselle since I left Berlin.”

When I read this, I wanted to throw the book at the wall.

That an American, a person of some authority, could be so cavalier about the Nazis in a story set after the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of equal rights, not to mention after Hitler had imprisoned his political opposition and eliminated the free press — was both mind-boggling and infuriating.

Of course, this was the point. A canny novelist, Wouk — who died on Friday, just shy of his 104th birthday — had the good sense to let his characters hang themselves with their own words.

Wouk’s best books have aged surprisingly little. Among these are his impeccably researched World War II novels, “The Winds of War” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance” (1978). Even decades after they were published, these novels continue to have something to teach us.

Wouk is often grouped with middlebrow writers of popular historical fiction — James Michener and Leon Uris, say — but his novels are better understood as pointillistic character studies in historical settings. The World War II books follow the Henry family — Pug, his wife, Rhoda, and their three grown children — through the war years, providing a framework in which the era’s most prominent figures, from F.D.R. and Churchill to Stalin and Hitler, plausibly make cameos. 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.

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.

But the main reason the novels still feel urgent has to do with the nature of Wouk’s ambition. He didn’t set out merely to write a family saga or to smuggle a history lesson into a story. Wouk wanted to know how so many people in Europe and America allowed the Holocaust to happen. He uses the tools of the novel to anatomize the various psychological mechanisms and sociopolitical rationalizations that enabled intelligent, generally well-meaning and well-informed individuals to justify or ignore what was right in front of them.

As a novelist, Wouk could do things a historian couldn’t: enter not only the living rooms but the minds of a diverse range of characters. Take Rhoda, for instance. She is a little frivolous, easily distracted, occupied more by her private life than by politics. In other words, she is a lot like many of us. When she and Pug arrive in Berlin, she at first refuses to walk in the Tiergarten: “It was far more clean, pretty and charming than any American public park, she admitted, but the signs on the benches, juden verboten, were nauseating.” But with time, her resistance wears down: “Day by day, she reacted less to such things, seeing how commonplace they were in Berlin, and how much taken for granted. … It seemed silly to protest … she insisted that anti-Semitism was a blot on an otherwise exciting, lovely land.” As such, her resistance primarily took the form of playfully chastising high-ranking Nazis at booze-filled dinner parties.

This feels sadly right to me, the way someone with good intentions, someone not consciously monstrous, becomes nonetheless inured to cruelty and injustice in a context in which these evils are normalized. This is also the way we tend to feed our self-esteem but accomplish nothing, by railing against an injustice from a position of personal safety...
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