Herman Wouk, storyteller

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.

COMING UP: Icons on ammo boxes

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Throughout the 20th century — the greatest period of martyrdom in history — persecuted Christians used the dross of this world to make religious artifacts.

Rosaries were constructed from bits and pieces of this-and-that. Crucifixes and Mass vessels were forged from scrap metal. Bibles and missals were handwritten on scraps of paper from memory. The Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan wore his pectoral cross suspended from a chain he made from the barbed wire of the Vietnamese communist concentration camp in which he was confined for years. Many such relics are displayed at the shrine of the New Martyrs in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Rome’s Tiber Island — a place where the usual bustle and buzz of Roman churches is replaced by a hushed reverence, as if even the least well-catechized visitors realize that they’re in the supernatural presence of great witnesses.

This deeply Catholic instinct for transforming what is dead or death-dealing into something life-affirming and life-giving continues today in Ukraine, through a remarkable project known as “The Icons on Ammo Boxes.” I discovered it in Philadelphia in early June, while speaking at the celebrations marking the enthronement of my old friend Borys Gudziak as Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholic archeparchy of Philadelphia. During my remarks (which can be found in full here, I spoke of Eastern Catholicism’s “gift of iconography” to the universal Church. Whatever impact my words may have had, however, it was likely less than the thoughts and emotions stirred in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception by an extraordinary display around the cathedral’s perimeter: icons written (painted) on the wooden lids of ammunition boxes by a husband-and wife team of two young Ukrainian artists, Sofia Atlantova and Oleksandr Klymenko.

Icons written on wood using various types of paint are nothing new, of course; many of the greatest icons in the history of Christian art were written that way. Oleksandr Klymenko’s brilliant idea was to use a different kind of wood: not a polished and treated panel, but the rough-hewn tops or bottoms of the boxes in bullets, grenades, and artillery shells were once stored. The icons he and Sofia Atlantova wrote, and which were displayed in Philadelphia, included wood from ammo boxes dating back to Soviet times. But they also included newer wood panels recycled from the battlefront of eastern Ukraine, where a Russian-led and Russian-financed war has been underway since 2014, taking over 10,000 lives, ruining the local economy, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

The icons turn trash, redolent of death, into life-affirming art in several ways. First, by their very existence: for they transform materials that stored munitions intended to kill and maim into celebrations of faith and life. Icons are not “representative” art in the western sense; an icon does not say, “This is what Christ looked like” the way Rembrandt’s famous self-portrait says, “This is what I, Rembrandt, looked like.” Rather, icons are one of those permeable borders or membranes between this world and the supernatural world; icons are intended to “make present” that which they depict. Icons are thus an invitation to leave the death-dealing world and enter the world of resurrected life, the world of divine life — and to do so through the medium of an ammunition box drives the point home in an especially powerful way.

Second, through the sale of Sofia Atlantova’s and Oleksandr Klymenko’s work, the “Icons in Ammo Boxes” project supports the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, which brings medical professionals into the warzone of eastern Ukraine to treat wounded soldiers and civilians. Since its inception, the mobile hospital has served some 50,000 patients, saving or repairing many lives broken by Russian aggression.

Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, who teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, has described the “Icons in Ammo Boxes” project as a kind of transfiguration: “The icons…demonstrate how violence and pain can be transfigured to peace and relief, and actually contribute to this transformation through the work of doctors.” That image strikes me as exactly right. As the transfigured glory of Jesus on Mt. Tabor opens up a vision of human transformation in the Kingdom of God, where “death shall be no more…” (Revelation 21:4), so these icons suggest the transformation of the lethal into the life-giving, even as they support healing here and now.

More about this remarkable mission, and the icons that support it, can be found at http://www.medbat.org.ua/en/buy-icon-save-a-life.