Continuing my “Literary Summer,” here is the second in my “live blog” of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel The Winds of War, which I’m rereading and thought I would share my thoughts on, if anyone’s interested. Since there was a great response to my first article, I guess there must be! Tonight, however, while there will be wine in tonight’s article, I went a little off the reservation and picked my own, as opposed to following one of the fantastic suggestions from Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog (who is also giving me wine suggestions for my series on Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast). However, I’m not flying totally solo. My friend Karl, whose musical projects I’ve featured on this blog before, is working on a “theme song” associated with The Winds of War specifically for this article series. That too may be a work in progress.
In the first installment, U.S. Navy commander Victor “Pug” Henry and his wife Rhoda were getting ready to travel to Germany to Pug’s new assignment, U.S. naval attaché in Berlin. It’s the spring of 1939. Pug and Rhoda board the sleek superliner Bremen, opening a sequence of the book that I really enjoyed. (I’m a huge fan of luxury liners, and in fact even wrote a book about them). A transatlantic voyage on the eve of World War II was certainly an interesting thing, full of luxury as well as mystery and political intrigue. On the ship Pug meets a garrulous British radio correspondent, Alastair “Talky” Tudsbury, and most importantly, his attractive 28-year-old daughter Pamela. Pug is 49 and married, but without saying it explicitly Wouk plants a seed of attraction between the two of them. Pamela has a great opening scene where she slyly insults Hitler while seated at the captain’s table aboard the Bremen, by employing a cinematic analogy–“the Little Tramp”–that the Germans at the table don’t get. In the next scene she turns up strolling on the deck in the morning, where Pug joins her. It’s clear their association, whatever it turns out to be, is going to be a big part of the story.
The SS Bremen, a passenger liner originally commissioned in 1929, sailed the Atlantic during the Weimar and part of the Nazi era. Early scenes in The Winds of War take place aboard her.
There’s some interesting talk here, mostly between Pug and Tudsbury, about the rise of Hitler and the curious predicament in which Europe found itself in 1939. A recurring theme in The Winds of War is how Hitler and Nazism arose from the cradle of such a cultured, civilized and previously admirable people as the Germans. It’s a fair question. German culture, music, food and wine have anchored the heart of European civilization for over a thousand years. Yet this society produced the monster Hitler with his twisted ideology and his lust for power. When this subject comes up, as it does often in The Winds of War, characters tend to have one of two views (suggesting that Wouk sees two possible answers). Some, like Tudsbury, seem to think it came as an unexpected reaction from modern conditions: industrialization, advanced capitalism, and a world increasingly dominated by liberal democratic nation states, as the U.S. was founded and Britain and France became. Others, like Aaron Jastrow, argue that civilization is a thin layer of paper stretched over a heart of savage barbarism that is the true Germanic character, and that Hitler was merely a modern reflection of what the Germans always were. This question haunts The Winds of War.
It’s an interesting question. I have been to Germany many times, mainly for the Wacken Open Air metal festival. I love Germany. The Germans I know, including my friend Karl, are kind, noble, fun-loving people. Read my account of going to a German wine festival just before Wacken last year and you’ll get a sense of the Germany I know and love. Historically speaking, 1939 isn’t that long ago, not long enough for a fundamental national character to change. It’s as hard for me to imagine Germany creating something as monstrous as the Nazi regime as it must have been for people back then. But perhaps the image of a “national character” is itself a fallacy. Is the “national character” of my own country, America, defined by our democratic principles, our art, literature, music, technology, wine, and culture? I’d like to think so, but could it just as easily be defined by reference to rapacious capitalism, our rampant and tragic obsession with guns, our institutionalized racism, or our ill-advised foreign misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq? I could easily see a modern writer, perhaps from the developing world, writing a modern Winds of War that poses the “national character” question in ways that would make me uncomfortable. This is definitely food for thought.
How did a civilization that has produced such great wine for hundreds of years do the things Germany did in World War II? It’s hard to fathom.
How about some wine for thought? Here’s where I’ve gone off the reservation. Without Michelle’s help, at Trader Joe’s I found an inexpensive German white, a Rhinehessen Auslese, from a winery called mysteriously “Dr. Beckermann.” Sounds like a character from The Winds of War, maybe someone Pug meets on the Bremen. Anyway, I’ll pour a glass, briefly fill in the plot for the rest of the section, and give you my verdict.
The Henrys arrive in Berlin, where Pug rents a mansion that is owned by a Jew, Rosenthal, who’s getting squeezed out of his property by a Nazi-run bank. The Tudsburys are also in Berlin. By chance they’re invited to a reception to meet Hitler, who Wouk describes almost whimsically as having a “prison haircut” and a thing for women wearing pink. Meanwhile, Byron Henry, in Siena, continues stoking his attraction for Natalie Jastrow. At a famous Siena horse race called the Palio, Byron saves Aaron Jastrow from getting trampled by a horse. In his new role as unofficial guardian, Aaron is delighted when Byron says he will accompany Natalie on a very ill-timed trip to Warsaw to visit her fiancé, Leslie Slote, who works in the foreign office there. Of course the reader knows they’ll arrive just as the “Little Tramp” begins his infamous invasion. Stay tuned for the next installment!
Dr. Beckermann’s Auslese is a mixed bag. Here I thought I was being so smart and appropriate by finding a German wine to go with this chapter, all by my big-boy self! It’s not Germany’s most auspicious export, to be sure. Sweet, very fruit-forward, but tastes a bit artificial. Behind the sweetness is sort of a blank waxy taste. It has no complexity, though its sharpness decreases the longer it’s open. On one sip I got an intensely sour aftertaste, but thankfully it did not recur. This strikes me as a very “businesslike” German wine, made cheaply for export. It’s not necessarily bad, but it doesn’t rise above the sameness that characterizes inexpensive white wines, both European and American varieties. Possibly its makers (Dr. Beckermann?) never intended it to.
I think I’m going to retreat back to the safety of Michelle’s wine suggestions…I’m not sure I’m ready to do this myself!
So now I’m going to introduce the musical aspect of this blog series. I asked Karl if he wanted to be a part of this collaborative effort, and he responded with the following: an original musical composition that is his first take on a sort of unofficial “theme” for The Winds of War. So here it is…you may hear it again!