Monday, July 21, 2014

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk (1971)

I love a big, bloated, fact-driven historical epic.  Anything under 800 pages isn't worth it (except for Edna Ferber's Giant).   Gone with the Wind sort of falls in this category.   Michener was the king of this genre;  Edward Rutherfurd drops one like a ton of bricks - well, at least five pounds of bricks - every couple of years or so.  Interestingly, if you look at the "Authors Like James Michener" list, Rutherford is included, and most of the other authors are dead.  Apparently, this is a dying genre, which is sad.  I don't think an author can churn these out very quickly; the research must be incredible and take a long time.  Hilary Mantel is definitely carrying that flag though.

The Winds of War is definitely and gloriously and deliciously big (888 pages), and historical fact-driven (it even has a fake nonfiction book written from a German general's point of view between chapters).  It's slightly lighter than a brick, but slightly bigger.  Unlike a Michener, I didn't like every single bit of this book.  I thought the first half or so was really good, but the last half felt sort of half-assed and rushed, like he had HAD IT with writing the book and just couldn't wait to get to the end (the last page has the dates 1964-1971, which probably refer to length of time he spent writing the book - so who can blame him?  That's a long time).  


In Wouk's foreword, he referred to The Winds of War as a romance, which I thought was an interesting word to describe the book.  Of course, a romance book has certain connotations today that it perhaps did not have in 1971; Wikipedia describes the romance genre as placing their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”  That definition does not fit The Winds of War; There is much love in the book, but it does not end in a particularly satisfying way; and although we all know who won the war, it's not particularly optimistic - Pug and Rhoda are on the cusp of getting a divorce, Natalie and Aaron are Jews trapped in Fascist Italy.  

However, if you place it against another definition of romance, the chivalric romance of the Middle Ages, then calling the book a romance makes more sense.  To quote Wikipedia again: "They were fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, often of a knight errant portrayed as having heroic qualities, who goes on a quest, yet it is "the emphasis on heterosexual love and courtly manners distinguishes it from the chanson de geste and other kinds of epic, in which masculine military heroism predominates."   Now that describes The Winds of War.  What are Pug, Warren, Byron but knights on a quest?  Pug is all manners and morals.   The Winds of War  has an Arthurian soul!

There is some frothy writing here, and some bloated writing, and some boring writing.  But the start of Chapter 45 is beautiful, and I wish I could quote it in full.  It starts with "The players in our drama were now scattered around the earth.  Their stage had become the planet, turning the solar spotlight that illumined half the scene at a time, and that moved always from east to west."  It's the first day of the surprise German attack on the Soviet Union, and Wouk follows the sun to tell what each of the players, as well as the countries at war they represented, were up to.  It's a really cool way to describe the day, and writer-wise sort of out of blue.  

I know I read this before, sometime in the misty past.  I also know I read War and Remembrance.  I have to admit something - I don't think I can read War and Remembrance again. I'm not a fan of the Holocaust genre; it's too sad and upsetting.  My trip to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. was Holocaust enough for me in a lifetime.  I don't need to see it or read about it to understand how terrible and disgusting and evil people can be to each other.  I also know that Aaron and Natalie get caught up the horrors of Holocaust, and I read The Winds of War with that fact always haunting the back of my mind.  I already know what happens to them; I found out 25 years ago.  I don't remember what happens to anyone else is the whole damn book, just them.  I can't skip the parts about them to read War and Remembrance and find out what happened to everyone else.  So I'm just going to put The Winds of War down and go on to the next book that's not about the Holocaust, thank you very much.

The Winds Of WarThe Winds Of War by Herman Wouk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Winds of War is definitely and gloriously and deliciously big (888 pages), and historical fact-driven (it even has a fake nonfiction book written from a German general's point of view between chapters).  It's slightly lighter than a brick, but slightly bigger.  I didn't like every single bit of this book.  I thought the first half or so was really good, but the last half felt sort of half-assed and rushed, like he had HAD IT with writing the book and just couldn't wait to get to the end (the last page has the dates 1964-1971, which probably refer to length of time he spent writing the book - so who can blame him?  That's a long time). In his forward, Wouk calls the book a romance, but if you think you're getting a steamy hack-written paperback with manly chests of stone on the cover, you probably ought to pick another book.  If you want something that has hints of Arthurian romance though, grand quests with brave knights and courtly manners, then you may hit closer to the mark you are aiming for.  This isn't an exact parallel of Camelot, but instead Pug Henry and his family are players in a game that includes soldiers (knights), much romantic love mixed with high morals and manners, and several quests of various sorts. Like all good historical epics, this one is a pepperpot full of cameos by the famous and infamous names of the Greatest Generation - the whole club from FDR to Uncle Joe Stalin make one appearance or more.  There is some frothy writing and some heavy handed writing and some beautiful writing as well.  If not exactly fun, it's a great read.



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