November 20, 2019

The world according to Wouk

Herman Wouk is one of our living masters, the author of “Marjorie Morningstar,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “This Is My God” and other novels, plays and works of nonfiction. Yet, when British philosopher Isaiah Berlin suggested Wouk write an autobiography, Wouk’s wife encouraged him to stick to fiction, as he writes in “Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author” (Simon & Schuster). 

“ ‘Dear,’ she responded, ‘you’re not that interesting a person.’ ”

“Sailor and Fiddler” attests not only to the interesting life Wouk has led, but also to the remarkable fact that he has reached the age of 100 with his storytelling skills fully intact. At 139 pages, his memoir may be brief, but it is full of adventure, wit, color and detail, and populated with savants, celebrities and historical world figures ranging from Kurt Weill and Charles Laughton to David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.

Wouk reaches all the way back to 1927 — “the year ‘Lucky’ Lindbergh flew over the ocean nonstop to Paris” — to describe how he was first inspired to pick up a pen after reading a novelized version of a movie that was, in fact, borrowed without acknowledgment from “Moby Dick.” And, as he looks back over his 10 decades, he always makes a journeyman’s distinction between literature and the output of a working writer: “Young aspirers to Literature who face the stakes open-eyed, yet roll the dice, have my grandfatherly blessing,” he writes. “Writing for a living is something else entirely.” 

Thus does Wouk acknowledge that his work has not always been praised by the critics. “For some of last century’s literary elite, mostly Jewish, my books were outside their ‘canon’ of protest and alienation,” he writes. “They were entitled.” After all, he started out as a gag writer for radio comedian Fred Allen, and he concedes that his writing carries the tool marks of his dues-paying years: “If there is a trace of Fred Allen’s art in my books, that is all to the good.” 

Yet the memoir has something illuminating to say to Wouk’s readers and to writers who aspire to books of their own. He deconstructs the novels that are arguably his masterworks, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” and shows us the moving parts and how they fit together. Like many novelists, he experienced the hard work of writing as faintly miraculous: “I woke from a seven-year creative trance, as it were, to tell my wife that it was time to submit the manuscript for publication.” But the sale of movie rights brought him back to the here and now. “The cushion of those earnings has enabled me to publish books at five-to-ten-year intervals under no pressure, right down to this book, which I had better get on with,” he cracks.

The most poignant moment in the book comes when the centenarian author lays down his burden in our presence. “With this book I am free: from contracts, from long-deferred to-do books, in short, from producing any more words,” he writes. “I have said my say, done my work.” These words literally brought tears to my eyes. But all of his readers will be comforted to know we can reread his books, which are now a part of our literary legacy, in the light that he has cast on them in the pages of his last book.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.