By BIBI MARTÍ
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk spoke about literature, particle physics and Judaism, among other topics, during an informative and inspiring conversation with New York Times' columnist William Safire at the Library of Congress on April 21. The event was co-sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book and the Science, Technology and Business Division, which assisted Wouk with research for his latest novel, "A Hole in Texas." Their discussion featured anecdotes and personal ruminations by Wouk about his inspirations and influences.
"A Hole in Texas" is Wouk's 12th novel, the latest installment in a long and storied literary career that has seen Wouk's novels interpreted on stage and screen and his work awarded prestigious awards.
Wouk was born in 1915 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents and grew up in the Bronx, New York. He graduated from Columbia University and wrote for comedian Fred Allen's radio shows from 1936 to1941. He served in the U.S. Navy and took several tours of duty in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. In 1946 Wouk began his career as a writer full time; he published his first novel, "Aurora Dawn," in 1947.
Among Wouk's most popular books are his epic war novels about World War II and the Holocaust, "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," which became television miniseries in 1983 and 1988, respectively. Several of Wouk's books have been made into films, such as "The Caine Mutiny," the 1951 novel for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1952. The book was subsequently made into a play and adapted for a film, starring Humphrey Bogart, in 1954.
William Safire is also a novelist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He has written 13 books on grammar, usage and etymology and spent time as a White House speechwriter for President Nixon before joining The New York Times in 1973 as a political columnist. In 1978 Safire won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. Safire writes the Sunday column, "On Language," which has appeared in The New York Times since 1979. His novels include "Freedom" (1978), "Sleeper Spy" (1995) and "Scandalmonger" (2002).
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington introduced the author and interviewer, calling them the "powerhouse team of Herman Wouk and Bill Safire, two of the most literate craftsmen of the English language alive today."
The room was filled with Wouk admirers, many holding copies of Wouk's books to be inscribed by the author at the end of the program.
Safire began the talk with an anecdote about a visit to Wouk's home library: "There I noticed hundreds of books about World War II and asked Herman if he had read all of them. He answered, ‘some of them twice,' which I thought was a nice evasion!"
Wouk's newest novel, "A Hole in Texas," is a story centered around the controversial 1960s federally funded Superconducting Supercollider, a science experiment intended to create the elusive Higgs boson particle.
In answer to Safire's question, "What is a Higgs boson?" Wouk read an excerpt from the author's note in the novel, which noted that "99.999 percent of all Americans don't know what the hell a Higgs boson is; nevertheless, when Congress voted several billion dollars to fund the search for the thing, American taxpayers footed the bill. Then, when this gargantuan project, the Superconductor Supercollider, the largest basic science project in world history, was well underway, Congress abruptly pulled the plug, killed the project and voted another billion dollars just to close it down. That left some two thousand particle physicists high, dry and unemployed on a forlorn plain outside of Dallas … the sole residue of their miscarried quest for the Higgs boson was a hole in Texas. An enormous, abandoned hole. It's still there."
Wouk looked up from his book and addressed the audience: "That's no answer, but it's a good evasion!"
When asked where the idea of writing about the Higgs boson came from, Wouk answered that he was not sure where the idea of the Superconductor Supercollider came from. Aspects of the Superconductor Supercollider project struck Wouk as a comical intersection: the irony of the fact that incomprehension on the part of the politicians who funded the project originally also fueled its demise.
Wouk described the subject of the novel, the intersection of politics and science, as "very heavy," but he used humor to deal with the subject. Wouk mentioned that many such "heavy" issues hang over us today, and he named nuclear war, atom bombs and arms races among his concerns. Humor, he said, helps him cope with the seriousness of these issues.
Safire noted that this was not the first time that Wouk has used humor to counter serious themes and named "Inside Outside," a novel about a Nixon speechwriter, as one of the funniest books Wouk had ever written. Wouk replied that he considered that book the closest he has ever come to writing an autobiography; in it the main character explores and fully realizes his identity as an American Jew.
Switching subjects, Safire wondered aloud about the state of the historical novel today and described Wouk's narrative style: "It has a beginning, a middle and an end, which, as we all know, is old-fashioned. Isn't it easier to take the road of multimedia than the old-fashioned book?"
Wouk replied that after World War II, there was "a serious stirring in the
literary world that ‘the novel is dead,'" and a movement began to abandon
the storytelling novel. Wouk posited, however, that "whoever said that is
a guy whose novel died!"
In Wouk's estimation, today's novel is flourishing , evidenced by his grandson's interest and enthusiasm for J.K. Rowling's series on Harry Potter.
"Why isn't the novel dead?" Wouk asked. "Because the enduring power of the novel is that the reader does the work." Books, after all, are a "bunch of black marks on paper," he said, "but the reader does about half the work—and I have done some work, but the [reader] does the work. That's why I think the novel isn't dead, and I don't think it's going to die. I think the competition is serious, [but] the competition is good for the soul and good for art." The audience responded with a spontaneous round of applause.
Safire and Wouk then discussed Mark Twain's influence on Wouk's work and compared Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn." Wouk called "Huckleberry Finn" "the supreme American novel" and "Twain's Civil War novel." Wouk pointed out that during Twain's lifetime, writing about race relations from a boy's perspective was the only way that the subject of race could be broached at that point in American history. Twain, Wouk said, wrote about the relationship between the white man and the black man, about their relationship as brothers, but he could not say that directly; he could not speak about the Civil War with such candor.
Wouk pointed out, "Twain wrote, I and Jim we are brothers." Twain spoke his mind about slavery and race relations "in the mouth and in the mind of an illiterate 11-year-old boy. Jim is one of the greatest human creations in all of literature. And so is Huck. But Huck is more than that. Huck is the source of the modern American writer, of which Hemingway is an example. Huckleberry Finn … inspired the modern American novel."
Safire then "got personal." After naming mutual friends who currently produce work in their 70s, 80s and 90s, he asked Wouk, "What keeps you going at the age of 89?"
Wouk answered that several factors play into his ability to work continually: a supportive partner, namely his wife, Sarah, with whom he has three sons, who has enabled him to work without distraction; and his commitment to the study of Judaism.
Finally, Safire asked Wouk if he had anything in mind for his future. "Thinking?" Wouk replied. "I'm about seven chapters into it. It's as close to impossible as anything I've taken on. And I'm going to get through it or they'll carry me out feet first, saying ‘the guy was working on this.' I just have things to keep going on, all the time, thank God."
To which Safire responded, "Herman, you're, to put it mildly, a goddamn inspiration."
Bibi Martí is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.