Herman Wouk will likely be remembered as one of the greatest epic novelists in American literature; rightly so, given the 14 years of intensive World War II research this meticulous writer put in for “The Winds of War” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance.”
But stripped away of his fictional characters, Wouk himself provides an amazing study of a man who spent his life torn between two worlds: those of the religious and secular Jew, one keeping the faith in a higher omnipotent creator, the other eschewing Judaism for the new religions of science, reason and humanism.
A man who lived the life of a secular Jew, who has traveled the world and witnessed life in the raw, Wouk is one of the few 20th century Jewish American literary giants to return to his religion, and he did so while rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest scientists, philosophers and writers of his day who couldn’t quite understand why.
Now in the twilight of his career, Wouk, who turns 95 this month, attempts to answer that question for himself in his latest book, “The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion.” It’s a bold statement to make, but this thin, 180-page memoir might be the most honest book Wouk has ever written, and he’s written many.
It is so honest because the book is Wouk unfiltered. This is not a work of fiction. This is a man who is digging deep within to explain himself. Ask any psychotherapist — that’s not an easy thing to do.
As he writes, Wouk was challenged in part to write the book by his own nephew during a visit he made to the great writer’s home in Palm Springs, Calif.
“I was telling him an idea I had for a future book,” Wouk wrote, “when he broke in to this effect, in his old hard-charging style: ‘Uncle Herman, since you’re asking me, let me tell you the book you should write. You’re a unique character and you know it. You’re a total secularist in your thinking and your range of reference. It’s self-evident in your writings. Friends ask me, ‘What gives with that famous uncle of yours? Is he actually religious? What is that shtick?
“‘You fitted elements together in a way I don’t grasp. That’s what I want to understand. That’s what you should write. I would read such a book.’ ”
So Wouk is fitting the elements together for us in this read. He writes familiarly about the astronomy, calculus and physics.
He’s awed by the work of Edwin Hubble, which led to the discovery of galaxies and proved that the universe is expanding. He’s awed by such accomplishments, but not enough to turn away from his God, not enough to stop studying Talmud, not enough to stop being that observant boy from the Bronx.
“The Language God Talks” is a seminal read. There is no sex or violence in this book (unless you count the Big Bang Theory), but there is a true to life drama: It is Wouk himself, torn between two words, and reconciling them both.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)