If you’ve been keeping up with my blog lately, you may have noticed that I’m reading a lot this summer, and I’m eager to share my literary discoveries with all of you! I am continuing to read Edward Rowe Snow’s curious 1962 volume Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast, which I’ll do another chapter of soon, but I’ve also delved back into the umpteenth rereading of what may be my favorite novel of all time, The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. I reread it just about every year, usually in the summer, and this time I thought I would “live-blog” it–well, maybe not live, but write down my thoughts and maybe make some historical connections as I move through this elaborate, 1000-page story set during the early years of World War II. In doing so I also have a secret weapon: wine! Michelle Williams, who writes the wonderful RockinRed wine blog, has graciously agreed to supply me with wine suggestions to match the moods and ambience of whatever I’m reading. Since the best way to read a book during the summer is on your patio with glass of wine in hand, I think this literary and wine pairing is a very appropriate match.
Herman Wouk, a Jewish author and veteran of World War II, turned 100 only a few weeks ago. In 1962 he began writing an immense work of historical romance set during the war, which consumed him for the next 16 years, telling the story of the Henry family, an American family with three members in the U.S. Navy and whose wartime adventures span the globe and involve lots of heartbreak and passion along the way. The first volume, The Winds of War, was published in 1971 and covers the period from the pre-war era to Pearl Harbor. The second and larger book, War and Remembrance, came out in 1978 and covers the rest of the conflict. They’re both good, but I think The Winds of War is far superior. Both novels were famously turned into lavish TV miniseries in the 1980s, but my blogs are going to be about the books, not the movies.
In March 1939, the Nazis occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia, breaking one of Hitler’s pledges at Munich. The beginning of The Winds of War occurs just after this event.
For this article I read the first couple of chapters. The story begins quietly enough. The first line of the book is, “Commander Victor Henry rode a taxicab home from the Navy Building on Constitution Avenue, in a gusty gray March rainstorm that matched his mood.” The March in question is in 1939, and Victor “Pug” Henry, a naval officer stationed in Washington, is hurrying home to talk to his wife Rhoda about some new career move, which Wouk doesn’t immediately identify. Interestingly, the first few pages focus mostly on Pug’s personality and his relationship with Rhoda. He’s a bit of a cold fish, a penniless kid from California who wooed Rhoda, the daughter of a wealthy family, with bluntness and directness. That was during World War I. Now, as a new war threatens, Pug tells his wife that the Navy brass wants to send him to Berlin as U.S. naval attaché to Nazi Germany. Should he go? Should he refuse? What’s Germany really like, and what are the implications of moving to a fascist country? This is the book’s opening dilemma.
We’re also quickly introduced to Pug and Rhoda’s kids. Warren, also in the Navy, is kind of a frat boy gone bad, cavorting with women, driving fast cars etc. Madeline, age 19, wants to get out from under her parents’ thumb and see New York. And Byron, age 24, a privileged drifter who exhibits shades of Holden Caulfield, is in Europe studying fine arts. He’s written a letter to his parents which greatly troubles Pug, for it mentions a girl, Natalie, whom Pug assumes Byron is in love with. She’s American, the daughter of a famous author living in Siena, but the problem is she’s Jewish. Actually a surprising amount of The Winds of War is told in letters, the first two by Pug–one from the past, requesting an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, and one from the present, where he tries to discourage Byron from marrying Natalie.
Siena, one of the most charming towns in Tuscany–seen here in this panorama–is a romantic setting for any novel.
The action suddenly shifts to Siena, telling us the story behind Byron’s budding romance. Actually Pug has the wrong idea: he’s not thinking of marrying Natalie, though he is obviously smitten. Wouk writes of a lunch scene set in the Tuscan villa of Natalie’s uncle, Jewish author Aaron Jastrow, with wonderful details that perfectly communicate the ambience of Italy. Byron has come there on the recommendation of a professor to see about a job with Jastrow. Wine is consumed and politics discussed, by Jastrow, by Natalie (who is gorgeous, of course), and by Leslie Slote, Natalie’s boyfriend. Oops. So much for romance! The political talk is interesting. Is Hitler a threat to Europe? Will he start a war? Is it dangerous living in Siena, especially as a Jew? Jastrow thinks it’s all overblown and Hitler’s bag of tricks is exhausted. Slote disagrees. Byron is mostly interested in checking out Natalie. He takes the job with Jastrow, as a research assistant, mainly to hang around her. And here’s our setup going forward: two American romances projected against the backdrop of fascism and impending war, which will provide much of the tension in the next parts of the book.
I love the scenes set at Jastrow’s villa. Wouk’s details are sparse but evocative. “It was a spare lunch: nothing but vegetables with white rice, then cheese and fruit. The service as on fine old china, maroon and gold.” Later, we see a picnic where Byron and Natalie get to know each other while drinking wine and overlooking the hills of Siena. This is a short scene but it’s so romantic, capturing perfectly the mood and feel of young love in Italy (a theme I myself am exploring this summer). It’s all the more bittersweet precisely because the backdrop is so ominous: war threatening, Hitler’s ugly repression of Jews in Germany, Mussolini’s inscrutable belligerence, and the world quivering on the brink of a new disaster even more terrible than that of 1914-1918.
Michelle’s wine suggestion helped me lose myself once again in this wonderful book. For these early scenes, especially Siena in 1939, she suggested an Italian wine evocative of boldness and romance: a Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano, 2011 vintage. I have absolutely zero familiarity with Italian wine, so I was absolutely at Michelle’s mercy with this one. I did find boldness and romance in this wine–she chose very well! Here are her tasting notes for it:
Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2011 Red Dry Wine: This wine was crafted from 100% Montepulciano grapes and poured a deep violet into the glass. It opened with bold aromas of black and blue fruit with spice notes. On the palate it delivered rich flavors of blackberries, black plums, leather, spice featuring black pepper and dried herbs. This full body wine offered round acidity and tamed tannins with a lingering vanilla, earthy finish begging for another sip. SRP $14.
While drinking this very robust Montepulciano, I could almost imagine myself sitting on a hillside in Tuscany, drinking it with a pretty girl (or guy). Many years ago, not long after the first time I read The Winds of War as a teenager, I had a terrible crush on a “dusky Jewess” (Herman Wouk’s words) whom the character of Natalie reminds me very much of. This wine and this book brought it all back to me, and in such a wonderful and personal way.
Stay tuned for more Winds of War in coming days and weeks!