Sailor and Fiddler by Herman Wouk, Simon and Schuster, 142 pages, $20. Here’s a pleasure between covers that you wouldn’t expect: a slender, hugely companionable book of tiny autobiographical sketches by one of the inventors of the modern-style middlebrow blockbuster best-seller. And it’s being published in honor of what was its author’s 100th birthday last May.
Herman Wouk, then, now becomes a trailblazing centenarian charmer along with the author of “The Caine Mutiny,” “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” “Marjorie Morningstar,” “Youngblood Hawke,” “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” Except for the play “Court Martial,” any one of those books dropped on your toe in a dark room might be cause for a visit to the emergency room. And here’s this slender and completely unexpectely beguiling book of barely 142 pages, all separated into tiny thoughts and vignettes that are peppery and often lovable.
Wouk tells us that he always tells “aspiring writers” that “literature is a mug’s game. The author of ‘Moby Dick’ died in his seventies utterly forgotten, everything he wrote long out of print. Not one newspaper notes his obituary. Some thirty years after he died ... the academic field of American literature was swamped by a tsunami of second thoughts about (Herman) Melville. ... A mug’s game, I say, a crapshoot. The stake’s one’s heart’s blood. Young aspirers to literature who face the stakes open-eyed, yet roll the dice, have my grandfatherly blessing and a ghostly kiss. Writing for a living is something else entirely.”
So here’s Herman Wouk, an authentic whale of writing for a living telling us that it was Isaiah Berlin for who first told him to write his autobiography, that he once wrote radio gags for Fred Allen under the influence of his father “convulsing us kids with” Shalom Alecheim’s “drolleries.” John P. Marquand wanted to warn him that ill repute from critics awaited “Marjorie Morningstar.” Charles Laughton directed “Court Martial,” and now-forgotten novelist Calder Willingham encouraged “Hawke” but excoriated “The Winds of War.” Wouk’s late-life “Inside and Outside” was an all-out hit, even among “mugs.” Herewith the life of a “professional writer,” who’s now 100. Bless him. – Jeff Simon