American Tolstoy

The obituaries for Herman Wouk, who died a few days short of his 104th birthday last May, were respectful. They noted the Pulitzer Prize he won for his third novel, The Caine Mutiny, published in 1951; the millions of copies he sold, and the two television miniseries made of his 1970s World War Two duology, The Winds of War and War And Remembrance. But there was little sign that here was a figure of literary greatness, to be mentioned — at the very least — in the same breath as the enduring stars of his generation of American writers, such as William Styron, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.

If there was any uptick in interest occasioned by Wouk’s death, it has faded. As I sat down to write this piece, I checked how Caine was doing on Amazon. It was at number 198,537 in the paid-for Kindle charts and 192,271 among paperbacks — not great figures for a title that spawned a hit movie starring Humphrey Bogart and spent 122 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, 48 of them at its top. A year after his passing, Wouk seems headed for obscurity.

Until he died, I’d never read Wouk at all. It might have been my distant recollection that the miniseries were at times a little cheesy. But something about those obits made me try, starting with The Winds of War, and from the start, I was captivated. Since then, I’ve read almost all of them — a vastly pleasurable, but also a considerable endeavour, for several of his novels are more than 1,000 pages long. I will only be sorry when I finally reach the end.

There is, as Wouk himself often said, nothing fancy, let alone experimental, about his work. “I write a traditional novel, which is rather unfashionable, and I’ve taken a lot of kicking for it,” he once told an interviewer. “But the strength of my work comes from this intense grounding in the eighteenth and nineteenth century novelists.” To put it another way, he wrote gripping stories, peopled by sympathetic, believable characters, often set against titanic historical events, which he researched and grasped with extraordinary precision. He had a cinematic ability to convey both the panoramic sweep and the unwavering close-up. And his best books, of which I would number at least half a dozen, leave an unforgettable impression, haunting the reader’s mind.

The Economist got it right in its review of The Winds of War when it came out in 1971, suggesting that it was “as serious a contribution to the literature of our time as War and Peace was to that of the nineteenth century”. A big claim, but it was, I’m convinced, justified.

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