Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author
After my mom died my dad took on more charitable activities. Already involved in Parish Outreach, he adopted, seriatim, a string of what he sometimes referred to as his “old ladies.” The first of these was Ida.
Ida lived about 5 blocks from my dad, in a tiny house on a neat lot that I remembered from my childhood because my grandparents lived across the street. I have no childhood memories of Ida although I can remember the neighbors on either side–the Scottos and the DiCastros–and the crazy Sicilian widow down the block, Lucy, ever-dressed in 19th century widow’s weeds.
At the time my dad started helping Ida she’d just turned 100. I made her dinner once. She ate heartily in my dad’ s kitchen and told stories of scaring horses while she was learning to drive in Prospect Park in 1915. She had all her wits about her, told a lively story and kept my dad in his place. But what I remember most vividly is that as she left the house to be driven home, she said, “It was nice having met you.” Her use of the past progressive knocked me out.
Ida is the only centenarian I have ever met.
Until now. Ever since I started reading as a child I’ve felt I was meeting whoever wrote the book I was immersed in. It may be why I sometimes find it hard to finish; I don’t want the social interaction to end.
But I do finish, eventually, and often enough I feel as though I’ve had an enjoyable visit. I’ve just passed such a time with Herman Wouk, now 100, and , like Ida, still going strong with his wits about him. Wouk was born in the Bronx, Ida in Brooklyn. It must be a boroughs that start with ‘B’ thing.
As a child rushing to get ahead of myself I tore through ‘adult’ books. Some I dropped because I could not grasp them (Dante). Some I think I acquired just to be seen carrying them (Solzhenitsyn). Some I read and understood there were things adults had been keeping from me.
The Caine Mutiny, Wouk’s first major success, was among the latter.
I’ve written before about pigeonholing, We all do it and I’m no different. Later I read Wouk’s two-volume World War II magnum opus and although I knew he’d written other novels (I may even have tried starting Marjorie Morningstar) I had a place for him–historical novel guy, Navy in World War II division.
From my days working in the library I also knew he’d written a book about religion. I may even have vaguely understood it was about his faith as a Jew. But I read The Caine Mutiny as a parochial school child of twelve and Willie Keith, the character who tells, the tale, was, as I recall, an Episcopalian. The limits of my preadolescent imagination I applied to the writer at hand.
This slim volume of reminiscence has set me straight. Typically I’m not a fan of memoir. Nor do I read biographies or autobiographies of writers. Setting words down is a struggle, especially for an amateur like me. I’m not sure knowing what truly talented scriveners go through can help.
Wouk, though, is a master. When his working shows up here it’s at once central and peripheral. For example, at some point after the success of The Caine Mutiny the Wouks spent several years living in St. Thomas as he worked on the novel Youngblood Hawke.
Here’s what we learn of that idyll: The Wouks build a house overlooking Magen’s Bay. The pages pile up. They live there four years. The pages pile up. They drink a lot of martinis. The pages pile up. They decide to repatriate to Washington, D.C. where more pages will pile up.
There’s no suffering and doubt although there is the more than occasional mention of how well a particular book sells. Wouk is always quite clear that he is making a living as a writer and he willingly accepts the realities of the publishing industry. As he says early on, “Writing for a living is something else entirely.” (p. 9)
I don’t want to sell Wouk short. He spends more time talking about the people who helped him. From radio’s Fred Allen, who gave him his first job, to Charles Laughton putting his work on Broadway to the military men and women who helped him research his longer books. Sometimes Wouk’s self-effacement is so great that I wondered if he was really in the room.
Wouk did confirm something I used to believe deeply of all authors–much of his writing drew on familiar experiences. And you should read familiar in a narrow way. His sister provided inspiration. He served on the same type of ship as the Caine with a difficult captain (although no Captain Queeg). He moved to the Caribbean and set up shop. Clearly there was great imagination and storytelling ability but he built from what he knew.
I had not known of Wouk’s Bronx origins, which I share. In this telling, though, it’s merely a geographic location for a rich family life and an introduction to the joys of reading. Still, the borough stands up well against Brooklyn in the writer’s department.
One thing puzzled me. In the course of the book he speaks of his parents, who were both immigrants, as hailing from Minsk. Later, I think either in Israel or in researching The Winds of War, he meets a man he describes as speaking similar Yiddish (or was it Hebrew?) because he was a Litvak, too.
I know that word. I grew up hearing it used about my father’s maternal side. In my family it meant Lithuanian and in more common usage it means Lithuanian Jews. Either way it’s a long way from Minsk. And from a culturally Irish Catholic kid who also hails from the Bronx.
Maybe my reacquaintence with Herman Wouk is telling me to relook at my own story.