Showing posts with label Herman Wouk. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Herman Wouk. Show all posts

22 May 2019

War & Remembrance

David Edgerley Gates


The Caine Mutiny put Herman Wouk on the literary map, among the war writers Norman Mailer, James Jones, Gore Vidal, John Horne Burns, and Irwin Shaw. Wouk and Shaw were the most commercially successful, by far, which drew a certain amount of snobbish condescension. I'm a big fan of Irwin Shaw's, as it happens, but today it's Herman Wouk, who died just this week past. 


The Winds of War was published in 1971, War and Remembrance came out in '78, and somewhere in there I remember my dad and a friend talking about Wouk's authenticity. Both of these guys were Navy vets, WWII, and while they admitted it was a little convenient that Victor Henry or somebody in his family circle managed to be present at so many historical turning points - Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and a host of lesser lights, all had cameos - they were impressed by the fluency and momentum of the novels, the gathering darkness, the furious consequence. They thought Wouk had gotten it right, that the books were absolutely convincing. (My dad thought Catch-22 was pretty accurate, too, if for different reasons.)


For me, that was a strong recommendation, and when I got around to reading The Winds of War not long afterwards, the fact that it was so resolutely old-fashioned worked very much in its favor, and I read War and Remembrance because I wanted to see how the story came out. My dad used to joke that he and his crew must have seen Part V of Frank Capra's Why We Fight a dozen times, but he never found out how it ended. We know now that they Allies beat Hitler and the Japanese, but Wouk is skillful enough that we want to know whether Natalie and her uncle Aaron survive the Nazis. You could do worse as a writer.


Wouk's model is of course Tolstoy; his title gives it away. It might be worth pointing out that Tolstoy's title in his native Russian is Vojna i Mir, and the second word, mir, means both 'peace' and 'world.' You could almost translate it as Repair, or chaos made whole again. There's a lot of this in Wouk. The narrative and moral arc of War and Remembrance is return. We're delivered from an unnatural order, entropy or chaos, its power over us denied, the balance restored. You could almost call it biblical unity, if not for being reminded how little comfort history is.


The best obit was the Hollywood Reporter, and there was an extraordinarily clear-eyed piece by Anna Waldman in the New York Times. Wouk was a guy who deserves consideration.





22 April 2014

Back to the Carnival

by Dale C. Andrews

       Next month author Herman Wouk turns 99.
Herman Wouk
     
       In a writing career that has spanned over 70 years Wouk has produced an impressive array of literature. His first novel, The Man in the Trench Coat, was published in 1941. Wouk’s specialty has been the historical novel, particularly war tales and military-based fiction. We know him for Aurora Dawn, published in 1947 when Wouk was still an officer in the Navy. We know him for The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance. He wrote both the Pulitzer prize winning The Caine Mutiny and the theatrical version, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. But Wouk is equally at home in other settings. Marjorie Morningstar focuses on the aspirations of a would-be actress, and Young Bloodhawk (with some autobiographical underpinnings) chronicles the rise and fall of a young writer. Wouk’s latest work, The Lawgiver, published in 2012 when Wouk was 97 -- a Hollywood tale of an attempt to film the life of Moses told through an epistolary array of letters, memos, articles, and text messages -- prompted high praise from the Washington Post:
in some essential way, this book about a movie about a book is also about the very act of writing books. Wouk reminds us of the eternal value of storytelling while he shows 30- and 50- and 80-year-old whippersnappers how it’s done.

Sunset Point, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
     All of this, however, is not strictly intended as an homage to the incredible career of Herman Wouk. Rather, it is an homage to one particular novel, which you may have never heard of unless you (like I) frequent the Caribbean. And yes, we are about to head south again -- this time to the Turks and Caicos (specifically, to Sunset Point on the island of Providenciales) for a family reunion with my brother Graham and his wife Nik.  We'll get back to that Herman Wouk novel in a little while, but first some background.

       There are very few islands in the Caribbean that Pat and I have not visited over the years. This trip we are settling down in one place, but most of the time we island-jump.  As you head south in the Caribbean it is like going back in time.  The further you go, the more apt you are to stumble upon the West Indies of the 1950s or 1960s -- small towns, secluded beaches dotted with small locally-owned beach front hotels, restaurants and bars. These are islands where large cruise ships never anchor and couldn't tie up even if they wanted to.

Island Windjammer's 24 passenger Sagitta
       For almost 25 years we cruised the small islands of the West Indies on the tall ships of Barefoot Windjammers, until the company went under back in 2007. Since 2009 we have continued to sail on the tall ships run by Island Windjammers, a small company founded by stalwart fans of Barefoot Windjammers. Island Windjammers ships, Sagitta and Diamant, arose from the ashes like phoenixes and now visit the same islands that have always been Windjammer favorites -- including many out of the way places like St. Vincents, Bequia, Statia, Carriacou and Union Island, where secluded Chatham’s Bay is about as great as it gets. Following the trade winds to these unfrequented islands -- mesmerized by the shimmering turquoise, watching for that illusive flash of green at sunset, walking the cobbled streets where activity slows under the sun -- who wouldn't begin to dream, just a little, about chucking it all; about pulling up  roots and heading south for good. Ahh, yes. For good. 

Bequia Book Shop
       And that is what Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival is all about: The Caribbean. You might have to look pretty far to find a copy of Carnival on the shelves of a bookstore in the United States. But it’s everywhere in the Caribbean. If you are walking down the sidewalk street that runs along the bay in Port Elizabeth on Bequia, just duck into the shade of the Bequia Bookshop. You will find a stack of copies. The same will likely be true at the Gaymes Bookshop on St. Vincents or at Nathaniel’s Book and Sports Supplies on St. Lucia. Or try the gift shop at any island hotel. At each of these you will stand a good chance of securing a copy of Wouk’s hilarious, sad and cautionary tale of what ensues when Norman Paperman, blinded by the beaches, breezes and bougainvillea, takes a deep breath and decided to forsake New York to run the Gull Reef Hotel on the mythical (but oh so familiar) island of Kinja. 

       Wouk was not the first author to set a story in the Caribbean. Alec Waugh did it in the 1955 bestseller Island in the Sun, set in Grenada, but now remembered mostly for the title song sung by Harry Belafonte in the 1957 movie adaptation. Ian Fleming used the Caribbean in several novels. Agatha Christie “went” there for A Caribbean Mystery in 1964. Even Stieg Larsson opens The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest with Lisbeth Salander idling the time away on Grand Anse beach in Grenada. But you are unlikely to find any of these tales at “down island” book stores.

       So what is it about Don’t Stop the Carnival that keeps it on the shelves and next to the beach chairs of the tourists and expats who populate the beaches of that magical string of islands to our south? Several things, I think. First, the central character in the book is really the Caribbean itself -- its beauty as well as the rickety, thrown-together nature of its governments and infrastructure. Wouk portrays the alluring charm of the islands (embodied in his fictional Kinja) while also showing the dark underbelly. We understand both why we want to live there as well as why actually doing so might drive us crazy. Second, Wouk accomplishes all of this while walking gracefully the thin line between comedy and tragedy. I laugh my way through Don’t Stop the Carnival every time I read it, but the message of the book is ultimately a sad one of failed and unrealizable dreams. The book, written in 1965, is both dated and timeless -- despite its setting, now 40 years ago, it continues to resonate because of its understanding and love of how the Caribbean works (and doesn't work). 

Ruins of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.,
which later became the Royal Mail Inn on Hassel Island
       Like many other of Wouk’s works (pardon my alliteration!) Don't Stop the Carnival is premised on real life experiences. In the 1960’s Herman Wouk and his late wife Betty managed the Royal Mail Inn, a small Caribbean hotel located on Hassel Island, which is directly across from the ferry depot at St. Thomas' Charlotte Amalie Harbour. If you find yourself taking the ferry from St. Thomas to Tortola, visit the Petite Pump Room (upstairs above the ferry depot) for a drink and gaze across the harbour -- what you will see is Hassel Island.  And those abandoned buildings and ruins are what used to be the Royal Mail Inn, a real life dream that proved unrealizable for Herman Wouk. So, just as his war novels were based on his experience in the Navy during World War II, so, too, Don’t Stop the Carnival rings with authenticity simply because Herman Wouk wrote what he knew all to well. 

The Jimmy Buffett album
       Unlike Island in the Sun, Don’t Stop the Carnival was never filmed.  It did, however, spawn a musical adaptation written by another hero of all Caribbean expats and wannabe expats, Jimmy Buffett, in collaboration with Herman Wouk himself. I recommend that album, where Wouk cameos as narrator, as heartily as I do the original book.  The score and libretto are more operetta than musical -- taken together they "tell" Wouk's tale in its entirety.  It’s all there in song, from dream to disillusionment. You will, however, have a difficult time tracking down the album. It’s a little out of the ordinary for Buffett, and like the original book by Wouk caters best to the fanatical few who return whenever possible to the islands.  That tends to be a narrow (but deep) market.  

       Don’t Stop the Carnival ends with Norman Paperman’s wife Henny telling him “time to go home, Norman.” We all get there. But where we love to be is at the beginning, when Wouk sets the stage: 
Kinja was the name of the island when it was British. The actual name was King George III Island, but the islanders shortened that to Kinja. Now the names in the maps and guidebooks is Amerigo, but everybody who lives there still calls it Kinja.
The United States acquired the island peacefully in 1940 as part of the shuffling of old destroyers and Caribbean real estate that went on between Mr.Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill. The details of the transaction were, and are, vague to the inhabitants. The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he's not much inclined to believe in it.
Meantime, in a fashion, Amerigo was getting American-ized; the inflow of cash was making everybody more prosperous. Most Kinjans go along cheerily with this explosion of American energy in the Caribbean. To them, it seems a new, harmless, and apparently endless, carnival.
       Want to try that again with music, pictures, and Herman Wouk narrating?  No problem, Mon.  Just click here

17 January 2012

Gone South

by Dale C. Andrews


To my old friend John Cruickshank Rose
With happy memories of my visit to the West Indies
                            Agatha Christie
                            Dedication, “A Caribbean Mystery”


     The regular contributors here at SleuthSayers have an on-line staging area where we can compose our articles, and then edit and tweak them before they are finally scheduled for publication.  There we each can see not only our own articles as they develop, but also the titles and publication dates for upcoming articles by other SleuthSayer contributors.  If you were to look at this collection of works in progress you would come away with some basic information about the various authors.  Principally you would note that some schedule articles way in advance – sometimes three or four are sitting in the queue, just waiting for 12:01 a.m. of their designated day to arrive so they can strut and fret their day in the sun. 

    That, my friends, is not me.  I usually spend the days just before my every other Tuesday posting looking (sometimes frantically) for an idea that will grow into an article.  I mention all of this because I am going to be battling some challenges over the next few months.

     Let us back up.  My wife Pat and I live in Washington, D.C.  Summers are nice here.  Not so winters.  January is depressing enough, but February – no matter that it only has 28 days – is the longest month of the year.  So we decided years ago that if we were lucky enough to celebrate early retirements (which we did in 2009) we would absent ourselves from Washington every winter for as many weeks as possible.  Lucky for us we have adult sons who can be left behind to take care of the house and the cats.
   
Royal Clipper
    All of this leads up to the fact that this is being written in early January, but by the time it is posted, on January 17, we will already be six days into a three week trip, including two weeks on board the tall ship Royal Clipper, sailing from Barbados to the leeward islands and then down to the Grenadines.  We have other less grand southerly sojourns scheduled for February and March, but more on those later.
   
The library on Royal Clipper
    Whenever we head south in January I try to go armed not only with a good deal of reading material (made easier now that I read almost exclusively on my Nook, which tucks nicely into carry-on luggage) but with a plot outline as well.  So my hope is to make the trip a bit productive.  . 

    Even though I am every bit as retired at home as I am abroad, I still seem better able to adhere to the discipline of writing when we are away.  The Royal Clipper works well for this – while it is a sailing ship, it is very well equipped, and has a nicely appointed library where I can find a desk for my laptop.  There I follow Ian Fleming’s model – I write for an hour or two and then take the rest of the day off. 
      
Goldeneye -- Ian Fleming's Jamaican home
     Thinking of Ian Fleming brings to mind authors who have retreated to the Caribbean not only for inspiration but also in search of a conducive place to write.  Fleming, famously, wrote all of his James Bond novels at Goldeneye, his vacation home in Jamaica.  He refused to write any fiction elsewhere.  It was at Goldeneye that he died of a heart attack in 1964, just after finishing the first draft of The Man with the Golden Gun.

      On at least one occasion Agatha Christie also sought out the Caribbean for literary stimulation and found there  the inspiration for A Caribbean Mystery, as the above dedication indicates.  Apparently she was looking for something of a jump start when she headed to the West Indies.  Christie had received lukewarm reviews for her previous two novels, The Mirror Crack’d  and The Clocks.  The jinx was broken with A Caribbean Mystery, however.  In its December 11, 1964 review of the novel The Guardian  noted
 "Mrs Agatha Christie has done it again. In A Caribbean Mystery she tells the reader explicitly what is going to happen; and yet when it does, nine out of ten will be taken completely by surprise – as I was. How does she do it? For the rest, it is Miss Marple this time who is in charge of the story; and all one can guess is that the setting is a Caribbean island."

    Herman Wouk also went south for the inspiration for his cautionary serio-comedic classic Don’t Stop the Carnival.  The novel tells the story of the hopeless and hapless Norman Paperman, who deserts the bright lights of Broadway to purchase and then attempt to run a small hotel on the imagined Island of Kinja (short for “King George Island").  The book inspired a musical by Jimmy Buffett (sound track highly recommended) and on a more personal note provided the name for our cat, Kinja, who is wandering around my ankles as I type.  The model for Norman Paperman's Gull Reef Hotel in the book was the Royal Mail Inn, now long gone, but which was once was located on Hassell Island in St. Thomas across from Charlotte Amalie, and which Wouk managed for a short time in the early 1960s.  While it can be hard to find Don’t Stop the Carnival in State-side bookstores (and the book has yet to come out in an e-publication) you will find it everywhere in the Caribbean – even in convenience stores.  In the Caribbean it is the ex-patriot’s Bible.

    Who else can we add to the list?  Certainly Graham Greene, who wrote Our Man in Havana after a prolonged visit to Cuba.  And The Comedians, one of the finest novels I have read and a brilliant and scathing send-up of the Duvalier government, was written by Greene following his numerous visits to Haiti.  Reportedly the owner of Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, where Greene frequently stayed, named a room in his honor.   

    I do not know for certain that the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson frequented the Caribbean, but I suspect that he must have as evidenced by the beginning section of the second book of the Lisbeth Salander trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire.  There, in a rather strange stand-alone prologue to the book, Salander has traveled down the leeward islands until she reaches Grenada, where we find her, at the beginning of the book,  lounging on Grand Anse beach -- surely one of the finest beaches in the Caribbean. The descriptions of Grenada there, and in the action that follows before the actual book kicks in, are wonderful, and ring true.  Certainly Larsson must have walked Grand Anse himself before he allowed his greatest creation, Lisbeth, to do so.

    We can also add to the list James Michener, who returned frequently to the Caribbean and who lived for some months on the island of  St. Lucia, which is the counterpart for his fictional island of All Saints in his 1989 novel Caribbean.

St. Lucia is also where I will be on the day this article posts.  I should make it to Grenada and Grand Anse the next week. This list of authors who have retreated to the West Indies could go on, but I need to pack!

    It is now several days later. Updated material follows:

Sea U Guest House, Barbados  January 14, 2012