By David Nilsen
I arrived at a connection with Herman Wouk’s writing from an oblique angle, and the connection has remained tenuous. Reader, I’ll be honest, I’ve read none of his fiction, for which his fame has been earned. Since the man has been celebrated as one of the great popular novelists of the twentieth century, claiming any connection to him at all without reading a word of his fiction seems absurd, I’m aware.
My connection to the esteemed centenarian’s work came through a largely obscure nonfiction book of his, a footnote in his long career: This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life, which he wrote in 1959. I read the book in my mid-twenties when I was processing my own religious faith (Christian and no longer extant, if you’re curious), and Wouk’s emotionally earnest, intellectually honest, and spiritually fervent chronicle of his own faith was deeply affecting for me, and diverged enough from my own religious experience to be a breath of fresh air in the midst of the stifling voices I was choking on at the time. It wasn’t till after I’d read the book I found out he’d written the novel that had become a movie I’d adored as a teenager, 1954’s The Caine Mutiny starring Humphrey Bogart. Who knew.
Wouk was, of course, one of the giants of popular American literature in the last century, my limited knowledge as a twenty-something notwithstanding. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny, and wrote many other beloved books, several of which went on to become successes on the big screen, such as Marjorie Morningstar. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance are epic sagas of World War II, the latter detailing the horrors of the Holocaust and existing for this Jewish author as, “the main tale I have to tell.” He went on to tell the story of Israel’s first three decades after reunification in The Hope and The Glory. In 2008, at the age of 93, he was awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction. He turned 101 the week I read Sailor and Fiddler.
Wouk explains in the introduction his reason for writing the book: “When I passed my ninetieth milestone going hell-for-leather down the nonagenarian grade, I figured I had better cobble up what was left to write while I could.” Sailor and Fiddler is a slight volume, and reads as though Wouk were sitting across from the reader under an umbrella by the pool, telling the stories that come to mind from a century of life and writing. When you’ve had the career Wouk has had, occasionally this leads to amusingly unrelatable statements like, “One’s Broadway hit is a harmless pleasure to revisit now and then.” For the most part though, Sailor and Fiddler shows us the life of a writer who did nothing outlandish or exceptional in achieving his fame beyond writing diligently, one sentence after another. The segments in which Wouk speaks about the planning of his longer novels was humbling for me as I look at writing long fiction. Wouk would do his research and outline his novels, and then make honest and accurate assessments of how long it would take to write them; sometimes five years, sometimes seven. Whatever the answer was, he put his head down and set about the work until it was finished. If it was worth writing, it was worth taking as long as it took to write it wholly and well. When asked by a room of physicists if the process of writing included anything like the “aha!” moment of scientific epiphany, he responded, “Absolutely. It comes about thirty years after you’re dead.”
The book includes a loose account of his personal life, paying special attention to the role of his wife in his writing career. She was his best friend and his best (and, often, most brutal) critic, accepting nothing less than his best. She was sparing in her compliments, her esteem for his talent implicit in her ongoing investment in his work. She passed away at 90, and he looks forward to rejoining her, “to rest on the other side of our firstborn son, Abe,” a child whose death by drowning at age five the couple never fully recovered from. Wouk has kept a daily journal since 1937, which he references throughout Sailor and Fiddler, and though he does not wish for them to see the light of day while he is still living, he states in the book’s epilogue he hopes his living sons will edit and publish his diaries when he is gone, a tantalizing prospect for readers.
In the epilogue, Wouk has this to say:
“The view from 100 is, to this centenarian, illuminating and surprising. With this book I am free: from contracts, from long-deferred to-do books, in short, from producing any more words. I have said my say, done my work.”
Wouk has amassed a phenomenal volume of writing, most of it celebrated beyond what any writer could hope. His failures he has shaken off by writing the next book. He has always written the next book, head down, one word after the last. After a century, he’s looking back. Of course, for the writer, looking back means writing just one more. We should be grateful for the gift of Sailor and Fiddler.
Sailor and Fiddler is available now at GPL.