There’s been a bit of a break, but welcome back to my “live-blog” of the Herman Wouk novel The Winds of War. My “Literary Summer” with books and wine actually got a jump-start during the time I was on vacation. I was at the Oregon Coast and while there I was able to read You Are A Shark and another book that I hope to do a blog article on. But right now it’s time to go back to the early days of World War II. Wine suggestions for this series have been provided by Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog, though as you’ll see in this particular installment I happened to find an excellent wine on my own in a little shop on the coast near my hotel and I couldn’t resist incorporating it into the series. (It turned out much better than the last time I tried to find a wine on my own). So fill your glass and let’s get back to the war.
In the last segment, Poland had just been conquered and Byron Henry, son of U.S. Navy attaché Victor “Pug” Henry, was temporarily separated from his love Natalie Jastrow while Byron recuperated in Berlin with his parents. This next section picks up in a curious phase of the war: the “Phony War,” or what the Germans called Sitzkrieg, an interlude during which Britain and France were still technically at war with Germany but there was no active land fighting although there was action at sea. As soon as I begin this section I sense that Wouk is going to use the lack of splashy set-piece events to get some plot and character stuff out of the way, which is a nice change of pace after all the tense battle and siege scenes.
One event that did happen during the “Sitzkrieg” was the USSR’s war against Finland in the winter of 1939-40, which did not go well for the Soviets. It is mentioned in the book.
Here, in fact, is where the “soap opera” aspect of The Winds of War gets started. Wouk clues us in that Rhoda, Pug’s long-suffering wife, started having an affair in Berlin with an American engineer, Palmer Kirby, who’s drifted in and out of the story and who we (the readers) suspect is working on the atomic bomb project. Pug, of course, has no idea. Rhoda’s very irritable and bored in Berlin and constantly nags her husband to take her to social events. What she doesn’t realize is that he goes to these events to spy on high-placed Nazis, which is, after all, his job. Thus we have an awkward situation where Pug and Rhoda are invited to the country hunting lodge of a rich banker, Wolf Stöller. Pug knows that Stöller has made his fortune by expropriating the assets and businesses of Jews who are now being driven into ghettos in Poland–in history, the next stage of the Shoah (Holocaust). Rhoda is charmed by the Stöller’s hospitality, and even begins thinking that the bad things people say about Nazis are exaggerated, until an American war correspondent at a U.S. Embassy Christmas dinner sets her straight. Clearly Wouk is showing us there’s tension between Rhoda and Pug.
In the meantime, Byron goes back to Siena, mainly to spend time with Natalie. She gets a letter from her (technical) boyfriend Leslie Slote, asking her to marry him. In a very long scene with excellent dialogue, where Byron and Natalie share brandies in Natalie’s room in the Siena villa, she confesses that she no longer loves Slote and is in fact in love with Byron. Byron impulsively proposes on the spot. Natalie demurs, but Byron isn’t daunted. Unfortunately their romance is interrupted yet again when Natalie’s father, home in Miami Beach, falls ill. She hastily leaves Europe–and leaves Byron hanging.
Sumner Welles, a friend and distant relative of FDR, went on a mission in the winter of 1940 to talk Germany and Italy into making peace with England. Obviously it didn’t work.
There then follows a curious subplot which I enjoyed, although it doesn’t fit well in the rest of the book. For some reason Pug is chosen to go to Rome as a temporary aide to a banker, Gianelli, who is secretly an unofficial envoy from Franklin Roosevelt. His mission is to persuade Benito Mussolini to let a U.S. diplomat, Sumner Welles, come to Rome and Berlin to try to broker some sort of peace deal between the European powers. In Rome, Mussolini agrees, and then Gianelli, with Pug in tow, goes to Karinhall–the estate of Hermann Göring–to see what Hitler thinks of the idea. In a small atmospheric room with a huge fireplace, Hitler walks in abruptly. Göring has told the Americans that they’ll have only seven minutes with the Führer. However, Hitler ends up giving a wild-eyed harangue that lasts over an hour–and still doesn’t make clear whether he’ll receive Sumner Welles or not. When he walks out, none of the diplomats have any clue what he really said, and they squabble amongst themselves as to whether Welles should come or not. (In real life, he did, arriving in February 1940, but his peace proposals came to nothing).
I actually like how Wouk portrays Hitler as a character. This is the third or fourth time we’ve seen him in the book. At first he starts out seeming like a rational, but tough, German politician. Then suddenly a switch gets thrown and he turns into a hysterical shrieking madman. Here’s a passage from this part:
[Hitler] paused, his face tightened and changed, and the pitch of his voice all at once began to rise. “How can they be so blind to realities? I achieved air parity in 1937. Since then I have never stopped building planes, planes, planes, U-boats, U-boats, U-boats!” He was screaming now, clenching his fists and waving his stiff outstretched arms. “I have piled bombs, bombs, bombs, tanks, tanks, tanks, to the sky!”
Hitler definitely remains an enigma to history: how someone so twisted, evil and crazy could rise so high in a supposedly modern and civilized nation. Sitzkrieg is an enigma too: the calm before the storm, which of course will be the German attacks on Norway, the Low Countries and France in spring 1940. That’s coming up.
While at the coast I went to a lovely little wine shop and was tempted by the label of a California wine, a Cycles Gladiator Lodi Zinfandel, 2011 vintage. I’m a total sucker for Lodi Zins, and this one was quite interesting, a rather subdued taste for a Zinfandel but still unmistakably the oaky perfection of Lodi vines. Rather than super fruit-forward I tasted chocolate and pomegranate. My husband enjoyed this wine too. I drank a glass in my hotel room with the crashing surf outside my window while reading the scene involving Hitler that I just described above. This is possibly the most relaxed I’ve felt all summer!
Keep reading this blog for more updates from The Winds of War. The summer’s not even close to over.