The Library of Congress's Center for the Book once hosted a conference commemorating the work of Herman Wouk. The occasion was the author's donation of the manuscripts ofThe Winds of Warand War and Remembrance, two sweeping historical novels centered on a Zelig-like naval officer named Pug Henry during World War II. If the two books had been his only achievement, they would have made for an impressive career; Henry Kissinger once called the novels "the war itself." But at the symposium, Robert Caro described the impact of reading Wouk's Pulitzer Prize–winning The Caine Mutiny on the subway as a teenager. William Safire marveled that Wouk's depiction of U.S.-Israeli relations during the early 1970s in his novel The Glory was so eerily accurate that Wouk had understood what most historians had not—not only events, but motivations. Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia professor, mentioned Wouk's rendering of issues of urbanization and assimilation in his novel Marjorie Morningstar. At the end, Wouk stood up and said that he was grateful for such commemoration, but also somewhat troubled to be at what felt like his retirement ceremony. "There is a spectral gold watch floating somewhere here in the air," he said to laughter. He was nearly 80 years old.
That was 15 years ago. Since then, Wouk has published The Will to Live On, a nonfiction book about Jewish heritage; A Hole in Texas, a novel about a scientist embroiled in the search for the Higgs boson particle; and, this month, The Language God Talks, about science and religion. In 2008 the Library of Congress honored him yet again, giving him its first Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction. It might have waited. He is at work on yet another novel.
Still, Wouk, a month away from his 95th birthday, knows he cannot write forever. He has described The Language God Talks as a "summing up," even if he is toying with the idea of writing a sequel. Earnestly written and very brief, it is an unusual work—partly a quick trip through developments in cosmology, partly an episodic memoir, partly an essay on faith and science. At the end, it portrays an imagined conversation between Wouk and the scientist Richard Feynman: historical fiction about the drama of the believer and the skeptic. In real life, Wouk met Feynman while researching the atom bomb for War and Remembrance. Feynman wasn't interested in fiction; he called calculus "the language God talks." But during a summer at the Aspen Institute, the two men spent hours talking, and Wouk has been thinking about his exchanges with Feynman and other scientists ever since. He even tried to learn calculus.
Feynman was a secular Jew, and yet something about the way he saw the world resonated with the observantly religious novelist. One day Wouk came across an interview in which Feynman said, "It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe … can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil—which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama." The huge stage and the human drama: "This is the subject I've been thinking about my whole life," Wouk says.
Born in 1915 in the Bronx, the son of Jewish immigrants from Minsk, Wouk grew up loving Mark Twain and chocolate milkshakes, but he was aware that his family's identity extended beyond America. When Wouk was 13, his grandfather, Rabbi Mendel Leib Levine, arrived from Eastern Europe. Levine had never departed from the Halakha, the Way—he had never seen a movie or heard of Socrates; he would not eat a chicken unless he had witnessed its slaughter. One day Levine sat Wouk down in front of a large book filled with columns of an unfamiliar script. It was the Talmud. "Za rabotu!" commanded Levine—to work.
Wouk did work at it. But his real initial ambition was to make people laugh. At Columbia, where he studied philosophy and comparative literature, he edited the humor magazine and wrote variety shows. He still studied the Talmud, but for the most part, he recalls thinking, "To hell with that noise. I'm going to be a funnyman." After graduating, he got a job writing jokes for comedian Fred Allen. It was a nice life; he lived in a penthouse and spent a lot of time chasing girls. But there was something unsatisfying about it, too. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy. He was in training school when he learned that his father had died. Wouk approached his commanding officer and told him that he had to go home to sit shiva.
While mourning his father's death, he introduced his grandfather to his mentor and professor from Columbia, and he realized that the two men embodied something true and important: secular, humanist skepticism on the one hand, and the inherited truth of religion on the other. The challenge for him was to respect and understand both those ways of life. His father had done that, he thought—had lived fully in the present, in America, and yet found strength and meaning in tradition. Wouk still wanted to make people laugh, but he wanted to make them think, too.
One day during the war, Wouk's destroyer limped into Auckland, New Zealand, with a bent propeller. When he went ashore to hunt girls he came across an old bookstore. One of the books he bought there was Don Quixote. He read it and his eyes opened. "That's when I said, maybe I can do this," Wouk says. He had been working on a play, but he turned it into a novel. Aurora Dawn was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. But it was his third novel, The Caine Mutiny—about the misadventures of a destroyer-minesweeper led by a neurotic captain during World War II—that brought him real attention. Published in 1951, the story, based on Wouk's own experience aboard the USS Zane—his captain rolled tooth-picks, not ball bearings—won the Pulitzer Prize and sold millions. Wouk turned it into a play, and Humphrey Bogart starred in the film adaptation. Time put the 40-year-old Wouk on the cover.
His next novel, Marjorie Morningstar, was a big bestseller, but it perplexed a lot of people. Wouk had followed a war book with a long social novel about a girl growing up on the Upper West Side. What's more, other novelists at the time were experimenting with prose, but Wouk was writing in the tradition of the 19th-century novels of Dickens and Fielding. He was knocked for his traditionalism and his commercial viability, "sold as detergent is sold," sniped one reviewer. Success, in a sense, obscured his huge ambition.
Wouk kept writing, and with range—plays, movies, novels, and two books about Judaism. In the 1960s he started researching a novel about the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a little-known World War II naval conflict. "My worst subject by far in high school and college was history," he says. "A veil of boredom would descend." But he came to see that history was not what he had thought—that it was driven as people are driven. He made a list of about 300 books to read. "I started with Thucydides—which is the place to start, always will be." As he read, he came to realize that the story he needed to tell was about the whole war, and especially the Holocaust. One book became two, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, written and researched over a decade and a half. It was story about romance, about the deaths of sons and betrayals of husbands and wives, about great and evil leaders leading countries into battle, about the murder of a people.
On a midmorning at the end of March, Wouk sat in his lush garden in Palm Springs, Calif., wearing a crisp white shirt, pale khaki pants, and a baseball cap. Fearsome ophthalmological-looking sunglasses shielded his eyes from the high and hot sun. Around him, songbirds did battle with a distant leaf blower. "The desert has a magic of repose and stimulation at the same time," he said. He waved at the steep hills that shot up from the desert like a stegosaurus's spikes. "You see the hills up there? They've been there forever." He gestured in the other direction, toward a trafficked road behind the garden's wall. "Here are these cars … It's a setting of truth."
Wouk first visited Palm Springs half a century ago. He returned often, sometimes for months at a time, to write, and now lives there full time. If it is a setting of truth, it is also a place of juxtapositions—the garden of gaudy geraniums and snapdragons among the dry brush of the desert hills; the gnarled olive tree next to leafy fig. Early in the morning, while he waits for a cab to take him to synagogue, he likes to bring a cup of coffee into the garden. When the timing is right, the highest ridge of the hills by his house catches the rosy dawn and glows in the lightening darkness. There is a prayer that Jews say during an astronomical event—a shooting star, or an eclipse. "Every morning that light appears," he said, "I make that blessing." He paused and grinned. "That's going to make me sound very religious. Mostly, I'm just a guy trying to write a book."