Remembering the Complex Moral Fiction of Herman Wouk

The novelist died this week at the age of 103.

Two Herman Wouk novels
Author Herman Wouk died this week at 103.
Hachette Book Group
By Tobias Carroll / May 18, 2019 11:31 am

Novelist Herman Wouk died this week at the age of 103. Wouk is perhaps best-known for sprawling historical novels like Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. And he remained active for much of his long life: his most recent book, the memoir Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, was published in 2016. In it, he juxtaposed his life as a writer with his reflections on spirituality, revealing another side of a long and complex literary career.

Writing for the New York Times, novelist Adelle Waldman makes the case that Wouk’s fiction was far more nuanced in his handling of morality than one might expect. “Wouk’s best books have aged surprisingly little,” Waldman writes early on. Later, she notes that “his novels are better understood as pointillistic character studies in historical settings.” The implications of that, she contends, are vast.

In her essay, she largely focuses on The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance, and how Wouk used both to explore profound and unsettling questions about humanity. “Wouk wanted to know how so many people in Europe and America allowed the Holocaust to happen,” Waldman writes. “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.”

In a 2016 interview with Vulture, Wouk was asked about how he thought his own books might be viewed after his death. “If you’re a serious writer you don’t worry about that — you write the books the way you feel; you write the things you see,” he replied. “I don’t know if they’ll be around 50 years from now. I hope so.” Reading Waldman’s detailed exploration of his work, one suspects that Wouk’s books will be read for a long time to come.

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