Forgetfulness, by Ward Just

This 2006 work is another unexpected novel from Ward Just, a novel with little external drama but considerable internal tension. It is about an American in Europe, a successful portrait artist named Thomas Railles who in the past has made life more interesting by taking on odd jobs from two boyhood friends working for the CIA. But, now in his fifties, he has given up such dalliances with international intrigue, has moved to southwestern France, has married a local woman, Florette, and has settled down to sketch and draw portraits of the locals.

As the novel opens, his wife is injured while hiking alone in the nearby foothills of the Pyrenees, and we experience Florette’s fear and doubt as four mysterious men, speaking an unknown language, encounter her and at first seem to want to help. It is a beautiful introduction to this novel, for in her helpless condition she is prompted to review her past life and her contentment with her second marriage to this American artist. Here is a chapter that stands alone as we share this 54-year-old woman’s uncertain future, her inability to balance the intentions of her “rescuers” with their frustration, and yet her conviction that her absent but loyal husband will soon rescue her.

The remainder of the novel, however, is from her husband’s viewpoint, as Thomas, mourning the loss of his wife, now finds it difficult to survive in a distant corner of the world, with no close friends and unable to find the usual satisfaction in front of a sketch pad or an easel. What is he to do with his life?

But then another option confronts him, as his two CIA friends, Bernhard and Russ, return. They commiserate with him and offer to use their back-channel contacts to find the men responsible for his wife’s death. And thus “bring closure,” they say, to Thomas’ pain.

Except, Thomas is not interested in that type of closure, or in any type of revenge. He just wants to survive, to find meaning again in his life and in his art. And for much of this novel, the reader is inside Thomas’ mind, as the novel revolves around those concerns. Which means there is far less action and far less dialogue than in most novels. And yet there is no lack of drama. Even a walk home through driving rain offers Thomas a brief challenge. For, even then, his mind is reacting to nature’s unexpected onslaught; and we are learning more and more about this American abroad who is trying to survive, for he needs to adjust to both the lost of certainty that occurred after he lost his wife and to his county’s loss of innocence at the hands of the terrorists who razed the World Trade Center.

Thomas is forced to confront a further uncertainty when his CIA friends return to tell him that they have arrested four Moorish men whom they say killed his wife; and they invite him to witness the next interrogation. But as he witnesses a torture session at the hands of a policeman named Antoine, it does not offer Thomas the “closure’ his friends had promised him.

And so, he insists on confronting the men alone, showing them a portrait of the woman they killed, appealing to their humanity, and asking them why they did what they did. He takes this approach because to anticipate further violence, such as he has just witnessed being done to the prisoners, seems fruitless. Indeed, it has helped both Thomas and the reader understand better the failure behind the atmosphere of revenge that has recently permeated the American psyche. And it confirms both the author and his hero as being among those who believe that to be human requires that one forget any idea of revenge.

The word “forget” and its variations, appear frequently in the opening stages of this novel, but its implications are not emphasized, and it does not become an early theme. Instead, author Just seems more confortable in letting the idea slowly develop, until the final chapter, when Thomas retires to a sparse, foggy island off the coast of Maine. He is far from his Midwestern upbringing and his expatriate life in France. And his lonely life there, with little human contact, enables him to forget his espionage capers and the loss of his comfortable life abroad with his wife. He can at last concentrate on his art.

Whereupon, a visit from his former colleagues enforces, for him and for us, a final determination to forget the past. It is perhaps ironical, in fact, that this entire novel is built around Thomas being forced to remember his bachelor past, his espionage past, and his expatriate past, even as he seeks a world without that past.

This is a world, Harvey Freedenberg says in Bookpage, “where actions have consequences and moral debts must be repaid.” And this is what raises this novel for me to its true literary level. For it is about more than Thomas Railles. It also personalizes his and the author’s concerns about the change that terrorism, whether in the Pyrenees or in New York City, has introduced into all our lives.

But what is interesting is that the decision for revenge that Thomas faces is never itself addressed as a moral dilemma. Rather than the concept of there being a moral debt, which does exist, what he addresses is the practicality of revenge. To inflict pain on the four men will not relieve him of his own pain, he decides, nor of the loss of his wife. So why do it? Instead, relieving himself of his pain becomes a psychological decision—between forgetting and not forgetting. And he refuses to be swept up in the revenge atmosphere required by not forgetting. Because he is better than that. And we admire him for it. Indeed, we seem to admire almost any American hero who values his own independence above worldly concerns.

Every Ward Just novel seems to be far different from his companion novels. This novel has been no exception, which is why this reader looks forward to catching up with still more of his work. (November, 2019)

The Translator, by Ward Just

This 1991 work is not the novel I expected from this author. It is not about the Mid-West. And not about Washington, DC. Nor is it about the newspaper business. It is about being German, being a German after World War II. And it is excellent. It is a true literary work, as if Just sought not only to work outside his comfort zone but also to explore his subject matter to an even greater depth than previous, and also subsequent, work. As if there is a German heritage in the Just background.

This is the story of Sydney Van Damm. He is the translator. After a quick memory of growing up in northern Germany during the war and enduring the horror of Allied bombing raids, we learn he has rejected his homeland, even though his mother has warned that he would never escape his nationality. But he has fled to Paris, where he joins its expatriate world and soon meets and marries an American girl, Angie Dilion. He makes his living in Paris as a translator, working between English and German or French and German. He earns an excellent reputation, but he does struggle to earn the comfortable life that Angie is used to. He thus becomes open to renewing a friendship with Junko Poole, a former intelligence officer with an elusive reputation and no scruples, who is also living in Paris.

What makes this novel a literary work is that it is not driven by its plot, such as each new development in Sydney’s life. But it does engage the reader, by exploring the richness of each new experience. After Sydney marries Angie, their happiness is interrupted by tragedy, for they have a son, Max, who is brain-damaged, and they must adapt their lives to his. They live in an old Paris apartment house, where they also meet its various tenants, especially one German stewardess, Milda, and two others. These stewardesses enliven the setting through their adventures with Arab sheiks. He also meets for the first time a famous German author, Josef Kaus, whose work he has been translating. Indeed, to better understand the hero of Kaus’ current book, Sydney projects himself into the mind of Herr Hoerli, the German hero of that novel.

It is in Sydney’s memories of his mother, in his probing the mind of Herr Hoerli, and in heart-to-heart talks with both Milda and the novelist Kaus, that this expatriate translator engages in conversations that open up the exploration of the German character. How the war changed them, how they survived postwar poverty and then adapted to in the powerful economy that now flourishes around them in the late 1980s, whereupon how this has changed them, as well as how they have reacted to the freedom that now contrasts to the world of their German youth. Here is where Just truly explores the German character, the German psyche, each person seeing this new world differently but each one also revealing, despite the changes, how much they have in common.

Tying the novel together is the Van Damm family need for economic security, and the proposal of Junko Poole for a risky adventure that will resolve those economic needs. For me, it is the one artificial element of this novel, an element introduced by the author rather than by Junko himself. This is because the scheme is so nebulous. We know that material, or items, are to be shipped, without authorization, from one location to another, beginning in East Germany. But we do not know why they are being shipped, who has agreed to their being shipped, or even where it is being shipped from and where it is being shipped to. And this nebulousness is going to lead, for me, to a conclusion that is far from satisfying.

Despite this one caveat, I agree with the overall conclusion reached in the Detroit News and Free Press, that this novel “is a capricious and serious work—part love story, part political allegory….As the title indicates, it is a rumination on the nature of language, as well as that of national identity.”

Indeed, it is. It is an exploration of postwar Europe on one level and of the Parisian expatriate life on another. But it is also an exploration of the uses of language and of the different ways language is used by different cultures. And it is always focused on people, on their nationality, rather than on their politics, and on their struggle to survive more than on the economy they live in. And, of course, it is focused especially on individual Germans. On Sydney’s German mother who despises the Americanization of West Germany and flees to the comfort of her hometown in East Germany. As well as on the shady characters who arrive from the East. But it also compares, on the opposite shore, Angie’s father, who had inherited great wealth at home in Maine, but who has carelessly, incompetently, lost it, and who now wallows in self-pity.

And yet in the background is politics as well as people. Why does Sydney flee to Paris after the war, and turn to translation? Because he wants to escape the history of modern Germany. And he compares translation with his own move to a different culture; that is, “the moving of things from one condition to another; it was the same thing but changed utterly.” For that is what he wants, to escape from the German nationality, German politics, and especially his own history. And yet, inevitably, one cannot escape one’s past, one’s memories, nor, the author suggests, the tragedy that waits in the wings.

George Stade offers another summary of this novel in The New York Times. He says that Sydney and Angela “are also, after all, stand-ins for whatever in us is private, for that part of us that believes the matters of consequence in human life are family and work, for all in us that is threatened by the political waste that kills.” He also calls for an expression of hope, “though not because modern history warrants it.”

Yes, one wants to find more of Just’s work, more of these novels that immerse you in an interesting life in an interesting world. With the value of the work being in the interpretation of that life and that world, rather than in the events that these characters encounter, events that then sweep the reader along from one development to the next. (February, 2019)

Echo House, by Ward Just

I have long been a fan of Ward Just. Not least because he often writes about Washington, about the government, politics, and the people who serve in that interesting world. In this novel, it is the Behls, a truly insider family, who lead the reader through a complex behind-the-scenes view of how Washington works.

We meet first Senator Adolph Behl, who anticipates being nominated as a vice-presidential candidate, and feels betrayed when he is not. Then we encounter his son, Alex, a military hero in World War II after he parachutes into occupied France to help the underground and is later co-opted by Patton’s army and severely injured. He recovers to become a power broker in Washington, but patriotism ignites a moral fervor that becomes corrupted by arrogance. With both these stories bringing one to the edge of history, one anticipates a powerful novel.

Then onto the scene arrives grandson Alec Behl, a lawyer who also works behind the scenes and who becomes the main character in the book. The game of politics also subverts him, as codes of duty and loyalty are sacrificed as the cost of doing business. Like his grandfather and father, Alec lives in the family home, Echo House, a mansion overlooking Rock Creek Park just outside downtown Washington. The novel’s many scenes in that house, including the first with Adolph and the last, a birthday party with Alex and Alec, serve also to support the work’s unity.

The main problem with this novel is that as it moves into Alec’s longer story, it tries to portray too much, presenting two dozen characters in the foreground. Initially, Alex’ generation acts to achieve either good or power, but then son Alec’s generation, in addition to their own political plotting, resorts to commenting on the activities of their predecessors. While in the background looms the context of most of 20th century history, such as the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, JFK, the Vietnam War, and then Nixon and Reagan. An accompanying problem is that as many of the two dozen characters age in the second half of the novel, and as they lose power, they become observers more than power brokers. As a result, they both comment on the action, rather than influence it, and are subjects, as I said, of comment by the younger generation—all of which inhibits the novel’s momentum, even as it enriches the Washington scene.

Just captures this lost power very well, and through these men and women offers interesting commentary about the ambitions and the foibles of the past. But the novel, as I said, loses the drive it once had. For the real action occurs offstage, and the reader is no longer a witness. Moreover, the personal lives of two of the Behls, their loves and their failed marriages, offer no substitute. Perhaps this is because of the women they meet, Sylvia and Leila, the wives of Alex and Alec. They seem as interesting to us on being introduced, as they do to father and son, but they do not become part of their husbands’ involvement in the Washington scene, or even, as their marriages collapse, let us see the emotional side of these Behls, father and son.

The novel’s other failure is its ending. It features a highly dramatic birthday celebration, with an unnamed President attending. But the event becomes merely a dramatic scene that substitutes for an ending. Instead, the novel needed to bring closure to a story line, for example an issue that Alec is facing. But Alex’ friends are out of power, and there is no major issue that his son Alec has inherited or is facing.

What the novel has going for it is that extended portrait of Washington life. We meet lawyers and bankers, senators and staff, journalists and adventuresses, diplomats and spies. They are young and old, male and female, honest and dishonest. And they all bring reality to this portrait. They all discuss what is happening behind the scenes in the political world the general public never sees. They comment on how power is used, how reputations are destroyed, how people are manipulated, how image is paramount. But, as David McCullough says in his New York Times review, their comments reflect a disconnect: “The new generation sees their predecessors—the Venerables, Mr. Just calls them—only as a tedious reproach, while the Venerables see the new people as self-absorbed money grubbers. The generations face each other, immobilized, across a great gulf.”

What does re-enforce the truth of these Washington conversations is the actual historic environment that these fictional characters are dealing with. There is no encounter between Just’s fictional characters and actual historic characters—except for the brief presence of Adlai Stevenson early on. But Just’s characters do convey the atmospherics of the FDR, McCarthy, Kennedy, and Nixon eras.

There are, fortunately, no fictional characters here who seem to stand in for actual historic figures. These characters have their own lives. If only, by the third generation, they had become more interesting. If only we had known more about not only their marriages but also their failures or accomplishments as power brokers. If only there had been less insider conversation and more action. We were there in the room when Adolph anticipated his nomination, and on the ground in France when Alex encountered the results of a massacre. But the manipulations and power moves in Washington are commented on rather than dramatized.

Just as the President joins in honoring Alex Behl at his birthday party, but does not know what Behl has actually achieved on the Washington scene, so the reader feels he must honor this portrait of Washington even though he does not really experience it from within. He hears the talk, and it is convincing, but he does not see the action. This reads like a work by an author who has heard all the conversations, all the gossip, of his fellow observers, but has not been in the rooms when actual power was exercised. Which describes the limits that even an esteemed journalist must work under.

Yes, I shall read more Just. But I enjoy his novels more when he takes me inside his characters, inside journalists, for example, rather than uses his characters to explore and comment on a world in which he is more an observer than a participant. (March, 2018)

Jack Gance, by Ward Just

This 1989 work is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite come off. It is too episodic as it portrays the world of politics. It is most effective when its hero Jack Gance is young and naïve, and discovering the mysterious, hidden compromises behind the conflicts in Chicago politics. He also discovers the road his own life will take, when the Chicago machine hires him as a political pollster and he becomes fascinated by the power and intrigue in a world he never knew existed.

Like many youth in politics, Jack starts out as an idealist. The idea of polling appeals to him because in the Kennedy era ”hope, not fear, animated America at that time; and a campaign needed a narrative as much as a movie did, and for the same reasons.” And, in an apt metaphor, the human political reactions that polling reveals creates the novel’s narrative—that is, Jack’s rise in the political ranks. Ward here introduces the moral richness that lies deep within that political life. Indeed, as Judith Martin summarizes in her New York Times review, this novel “is about the difficulty of weighing loyalties, strategies, and principles in the not-always-successful attempt to achieve an accommodation of conflicting demands in public and private life.”

Jack also has a personal life that makes us interested in these career decisions. His parents are not happy with those decisions, particularly his father, a worldly man who tries to teach him about political life but then mysteriously lets himself be a fall guy. The IRS sends to prison for a crime neither Jack nor the reader understands. The only explanation is that his father has stood for a certain uncompromising standard that Jack himself cannot relate to. And this will later be contrasted with the compromises that Jack himself makes with E.L. Mozart, a Chicago lawyer deep inside the Chicago political machine.

Jack’s personal life also includes two affairs, one a true love affair and one a merely physical affair with a married women, Carole Nierendorf, when she is ignored by an ambitious husband also in the political world. Her presence seems intended to underscore Jack’s commitment to politics rather than to any personal life. He also somewhat falls into this affair on a rebound from the serious affair, which is with a refugee student, Katrina Lauren, who carries to Chicago the scars she endured in Berlin during World War II.

Except for these two women and his mother, the daily lives and career decisions of all the characters early in Jack’s career revolve around the world of Chicago politics. And, indeed, it is a valid presentation of Chicago and that world. Martin, however, suggests in her review that Jack is portrayed at a deeper level: “One sees a man without malice or inflated ego trying to do his duty to people and institutions but finding it all immensely complicated.” But for me the result is too arbitrary a portrait, because of the novel’s short length.

What I mean is that after the learning experiences of Jack’s youth, the author jumps ahead from career step to career step, without detailing for the reader how one step led to the next. Jack has simply moved up—to the White House as an aide to the president, then back in Chicago running for the U.S. Senate. It is as if Just has wanted to describe two worlds, that of Chicago politics and that of national politics, and the compromises that are required to take each step. But until the final approach to Jack by lawyer Mozart on a Chicago golf course, Just offers no connection in terms of those steps. He simply leaps ahead to a new decade, letting the reader fill in the gaps. As if he did not want to double the length of this novel in order to spell out what often takes a lifetime in politics to achieve.

Instead, his primary connection is more thematic. Thus, he introduces a conversation much earlier in the book in which Jack’s mentor, Professor Karcher, a Jewish refugee, tries to awaken Jack from what he calls the innocent hypocrisy of their university. He wants Jack to get out and discover the realities of real-world politics, and recommends a first step, which Jack takes. “City Hall is your graduate school,” he says. “That’s where the fieldwork is.” Which we are intended to recall, as we review the final practical decisions Jack needs to make to advance his career.

Finally, Just ends with a chapter whose idealism offers an ironic contrast to the corruption and deal-making that Jack bought into in order to achieve his final success. That Washington and national politics does work, he says, because of compromise and the art of dealing. But it too obvious an irony, underlining too strongly for me the author’s message that real politics does not preclude the ambition, selfishness, and aggression of political human beings.

Christopher Lehman-Haupt disputes that irony is suggested by this ending, saying that Jack’s words “seem more wise than ironic….He has accepted his figurative castration. He reflects the truth of recent American history.” But this final scene does not work for me because of the obviousness of the message, which is given to a visiting group of receptive, naïve high school students. While their bored teachers, who represent the standard disbelief in politics, respond with yawns.

Most of the individual scenes of this novel do work however. They cover Jack’s visit to a summer lake with his family, the dissolution of his casual affair, deal-making in Chicago restaurants, trading news with a Washington columnist, a phone conversation while looking into the Rose Garden, or making a career decision on a golf course. Author Just captures the atmosphere in each case, and, more significantly, what is not being said directly but which is nevertheless being communicated.

I am ready to read more Just novels, despite my disappointment here. He is one of the few novelist willing and able to portray the world of politics, with all its conflicts, its ironies, its moral issues, and its human ramifications. (October, 2016)

The Unfinished Season, by Ward Just

This 2004 work is an unusual novel for the author. It is not about politics, not about war, not about Washington, DC. It is a coming-of-age novel, and a fine one. An excellent one. A literary one, beautifully written.

It is also a paean to Chicago and the Midwestern life.

This is the story of the teenage Wilson Raven. It begins as a family story, a story of his relationship with his distant father, an altruistic lawyer who becomes a victim of commerce when he inherits a stationery printing company. A liberal who considers himself fair to his employees, he becomes disillusioned when his employees don’t think he has been fair, and go on strike. All of which occurs in the 1950s, when Republicans ran Washington and his father’s fellow businessmen fear the big Red scare.

But this is not to be a political story, even one far from Washington. It is to be the story of 19-year-old Wils, who fills the summer before entering college with a day job as a newspaper copy boy and his nights cavorting at debutante parties given by Chicago’s high society. The heart of this novel is to be a love story, a love between Wils and Aurora, a girl he meets at one of the dances, and a girl with whom he immediately clicks in a brilliantly created (by Just) conversation.

Wils meets Aurora about one-third into the book, and just as there has been no story line in his relationship with his aloof father, or his father’s tenuous relationship with his mother, and we have been completely enthralled, so, too, even as nothing dramatic happens when he starts courting Aurora, we continue to be enthralled. This is Just in complete control of his material, as well as the technique of the novel.

Indeed, in the relationship between his father and mother, he is foreshadowing Wils’ coming relationship with Aurora. For both the women seek the adventure that back East offers, while the men see themselves as Midwesterners. Dreaming Midwesterners at that.

In the absence of drama, what makes this novel work for me is Wils’ observations about the people he meets and the Chicago life he encounters, from the debutante dances to the city room to the jazz clubs that he frequents.

Finally, the drama arises when Wils meets Aurora’s father, Jack, a famous psychiatrist, an aloof man with a mysterious past who watches with pride over his daughter. He likes Wils, and there is no immediate dramatic conflict, but an adversarial relationship between his daughter and his mistress Consuela suggests the inevitable confrontation that will change Wil’s life.

But before that confrontation there is a wonderful section two-thirds into the novel, when, without Aurora, Wila spends a day alone in Chicago. Again, nothing happens, but it is beautiful writing. Its purpose seems to be to reflect the title of this novel that has an ending but no conclusion, which is why it is Wil’s “unfinished season.”

It is Wils’ last day at the newspaper, and he has a wonderful conversation with his boss, in which his boss says he will never make a good reporter because he loves the mystery, the romance of an event, especially when it is inconclusive. He cites Wils’ fascination with a women who was found frozen, who was revived, and who then disappeared. Whereas a good reporter, he says, digs until he finds the facts and comes up with a conclusive ending. In fact, as we finish this novel we realize the inconclusiveness to Wils’ love story is again being foreshadowed here.

Then Wils kills an afternoon at the Chicago Art Institute, where he is entranced by the Impressionists and how their style suggests the lives behind the characters being portrayed. Whereas, the works of Edward Hopper are hard-edged, with anonymous figures filled with melancholy, and no suggestion of what waits them beyond the picture frame. It is, again, a metaphor for the “unfinished season” Wils is about to endure.

In the final scene of that afternoon, there is a finely drawn wake, and then the book’s only dramatic flare-up. Which changes Wils’ life and leads to a deeper inconclusiveness. And yet we as readers do not feel cheated. There is a completeness here, not least because Wils accepts what has happened, is not resentful, realizes it is part of entering manhood. And also because the author brings together two adversaries, has them holding hands, has them also accepting the ending of their relationship.

Just concludes his novel with a scene set 40 years later, a technique many authors use to reveal the final fate of their characters. I often dislike those chapters; they become a cop-out. But not here. In part because this final chapter is beautifully written, and in part because it brings contentment to two lives but no clear answers about what caused Wils’ life to change.

Ron Charles’ review does not accept the narrative. “The moment you stop reading,” he writes, “the spell breaks and you’re left with the aftertaste of pretentious thought.” He cites “slippery comment from this maddening narrator, who oozes earnest sincerity and weighty import.” He cites a “most treacherous of friends (and narrators), the humble, self-effacing observer who wants only to witness and understand the challenges other people face.”

Which is precisely why I loved this novel. I identify with this sensitive boy who does not understand himself or the world he inhabits. Whereas Charles does not. Which suggests that what the reader brings to the novel, his life experience, can determine the novel’s effect on him. What I do find, as consolation, is Charles’ summing up: “If you fall in love with that voice, as the author did, The Unfinished Season is a moving and beautiful reminiscence of a time of great change.” And fall in love I did.

To sum up, this is a wonderful change of pace for Ward Just. He was clearly writing out of his love for the Midwest, and yet is aware that that love often cannot be reconciled with the dreams, the ambitions, of the loved one. He is also writing about the romance of youth, when all seems possible, when endings are not needed. And yet the voice of one writing 40 years later frames this story with reality, with the realization that this was the story of the youth he no longer is. (May, 2014)