Reprinted from Bookslut, March 2016
I always thought of Herman Wouk as my own personal Virgil, and as much as I like to think my relationship was special, I suspect there are many of me out there, wayfarers who have depended on Mr. Wouk to show the way. Those of us born to families devastated by the tragedies of the Second World War, whose parents chose not to talk about their experiences, who felt the force of their survivor guilt without knowing from whence it came found succor in Wouk’s work.
He welcomed us with abiding love, guided us down to the darkest circles of the hell they’d escaped, showed us the purgatory of their immigrant experience, and then he illustrated their view of heaven for us. For me, because my mother, like many survivors of the horrors left behind in Europe, hid her Jewishness, which disappeared into my father’s very American blue-blood WASP persona, Wouk was an essential source. He led me to my deepest roots and taught me how to love them.
I learned about the tenets of Judaism and prepared myself to study more formally by reading This is My God, a straightforward, unembellished explanation of the beliefs, rites, holidays, festivals, law, and the many variations of the religion. From Inside, Outside, I learned that many of the idiosyncrasies I thought were unique to our family were, in fact, universal to the experience of first generation Americans. In Winds of War and War and Remembrance, I got close to characters who had suffered the fear, loss, separations and dislocations my mother and her loved ones endured, and I found a way to be more empathetic to and less judgmental of that same mother.
What Herman Wouk’s books also offer is insight into the nearly 101 years he has lived on this planet. His fictional characters, only minimally masked and altered, are the people he has loved, hated, known, observed, dreamed about, and the events he has chosen for set the action of his novels against are mostly events he lived through or had some relationship to. In a way, the body of his work is his autobiography, his memoir in fiction.
Which is essentially what he tells the reader in Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-year-Old Author, his rumination on the sixty-four years of his career as a bestselling author. Sailor and Fiddler is not so much a memoir as a remembrance of things past, a paean to the good fortune that has accompanied his professional life and a nod at the tragedy he prefers not to talk about. He identifies himself as a sailor, having spent World War II in the Navy, and a fiddler, a character from the Sholem Alecheim stories his father read to his children in Yiddish, stories that fueled Wouk’s desire to write.
Wouk chooses to minimize the memoir. He says his beloved wife, to whom he refers as “Betty Sarah Wouk, the beautiful love of my life,” discouraged his writing any memoir, saying that a writer’s life is not all that interesting. He agrees, and so instead, he zips his reader past his journey from working class Brooklyn to fame and fortune in mainstream American culture. He sketches out some of the milestones of his life, glosses quickly past the mention — the first, he says, in anything he has written — of his first son’s death by drowning, concentrating on his the frequent reiteration of the amazing charm his life has seemed to have.
From the moment he was accepted to Columbia College’s Class of 1934, every project Wouk took on succeeded beyond his own expectations. He worked as a gag writer for the giant star of radio Fred Allen, went to Hollywood to write screenplays and, by the way, wrote a hit play, published a series of bestselling novels beginning with his first, Aurora Dawn, which he says was actually enabled by his Navy salary. He credits his gag writing with keeping his novels snappy, funny, and easy to read, even when the material was dense and meandering, and he credits his Judaism with keeping him focused, earthbound.
Whether living in Hollywood or sequestered on an island in the Caribbean, Wouk remained tenaciously religious. He refused to eat non-kosher food, and he never missed a Shabbat service. Thanks to his religion, he was able to anchor himself in his family and remain circumspect, diligent, and, most importantly, grateful for his great good fortune.
For readers who haven’t met Wouk in his novels, this minimal volume will perhaps provide an incentive to explore the literature that consistently remains on bestseller lists of all kinds. But it will not enlighten those who seek to learn about the private Wouk, the personal encounters. What it will do is provide a key to how Wouk relates to his work, how he came to write what he wrote, what some of his influences were. It will introduce the reader to the novelist’s relationship with his creations, what he especially likes and what he dismisses, what he is most proud of, and what he discounts. Imbedded in the book is a glimpse into the times and events that shaped Wouk’s sensibilities — his birth into a family of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the post-WWI years in Brooklyn, the cataclysms of WWII, the McCarthy era, to mention a few. But everything that the book mentions is examined perfunctorily; Wouk writes neither for therapy nor to provide himself and his readers with profound revelations. The book is merely an old man’s musing on a long and prosperous career amid world and life events that the author assumes his reader knows plenty about.
What he hopes is that the “gentle readers” of this little book have already read and/or will soon read his work, and thereby know everything there is to know about him. He has recorded in his books all that seemed important to him, all that shaped his personal and professional life, and he wants to be known through those books.
As he says at the end of his discussion on writing The Hope and The Glory: “I told Ben Bradford I wanted to write two books before I died, one on Israel, one on my life’s story. By God’s grace, I have done both. And in this reminiscent glance, I have sketched how I did them.”
Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author by Herman Wouk
Simon & Schuster