Ten years ago, a friend and colleague suggested that I write “The Great Vatican Novel.” I quickly declined, not just because the truth about life behind the Leonine Wall is often stranger than fiction (and more so since the suggestion was made), but because the idea of writing a novel terrifies me. Writing large books — no problem. Sitting in front of a keyboard or a pad of paper and making it all up out of my head — characters, plot, dialogue — is beyond my imagination.
Which is one reason why I was delighted to meet Herman Wouk, who died this past May 17.
Having won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with the 1951 bestseller, The Caine Mutiny, Wouk never took his foot off the authorial accelerator for more than a half-century thereafter, reaching the pinnacle of his popularity with two more World War II novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance (for which he subsequently wrote screenplays). But while fiction was on my mind when we first met, it wasn’t on Herman’s. He was writing a companion volume to his famous introduction to Judaism, This Is My God, and the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, suggested to Herman that he might want me to brief him on developments in Jewish-Catholic relations since This Is My God was published in 1959.
So over lunch at Washington’s Cosmos Club, Wouk and I spent an hour going over Vatican II’s teaching on Judaism and its deepening by Pope John Paul II; the advances recently made in the Jewish-Christian theological conversation by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Rabbi David Novak, and an unofficial group of Jewish and Christian scholars; and what the official terrain of Jewish-Catholic dialogue might look like in the future. As host, Herman could not have been more gracious, so when we were having coffee, I decided to pop the question that had been on my mind from the moment we sat down: How on earth do you write a novel? And specifically, where did Captain Queeg, the principal character in The Caine Mutiny, come from?
Wouk didn’t miss a beat. There had been several mutinies in the U.S. Navy during World War II (all in port, incidentally), and the author had gotten permission from the Pentagon to read the transcripts of the trials that followed. Herman certainly drew on his own naval experience in giving The Caine Mutiny its verisimilitude and its array of characters; but the captain of the fictional destroyer-minesweeper USS Caine, Philip Francis Queeg, “emerged” from the testimonies of various officers at the real trials, Wouk said. OK, I replied, what about Armin von Roon, the aristocratic Wehrmacht general who gives readers the view from the other side of the hill in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance? The answer was about the same: From Wouk’s extensive reading in the memoirs of German officers, von Roon “emerged.”
It may sound simple. What was really at work here, though, was disciplined talent informed by considerable human insight.
One of our last conversations reminded me of the regularity of Herman’s Jewish practice. He’d had his publisher send me the proofs of his penultimate novel, A Hole in Texas, which anticipated nuclear physicists’ discovery of the Higgs boson while lampooning scientific hubris and governmental craziness. I’d read the galleys in a single sitting and called the author on a Saturday evening, Washington time, to congratulate him. But I’d miscalculated sundown in California, and the housekeeper who answered the phone said, very politely, that “Mr. Wouk will be happy to take your call after the Sabbath.”
Herman Wouk’s gift for storytelling was matched by his seriousness and it would not be a mistake to think that he imagined writing as a vocation. Shortly after a lot of America began watching the televised adaptation of The Winds of War in the early 1980s, he reflected on a deep irony of his craft: “It is the paradox of my career that, though I have won recognition as a creator of war literature, I regard war and the preparation for war as the primal curse now afflicting the human race. Some serious writers have understandably averted their eyes from the skull that grins at them from current events, so as to create art from their private preoccupations. I have looked straight at the grinning skull and written about it.”
This gifted, purposeful storyteller died at 103, still writing. May he rest with his forefathers, in the bosom of Abraham.