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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 31 May 2000 22:30:09 EDT
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Excerpt from Associated Press interview:

The son of Russian Jews, he was born in New York in 1915. The household was
religious - his mother was a rabbi's daughter - and also devoted to books.
His father read to him from the works of Sholem Aleichem, the great Yiddish
writer. The works of Mark Twain entered his life thanks to a traveling book
salesman who sold them to his mother.

A lifetime later, Twain remains his favorite writer, despite Twain's
irreverence when it comes to matters of faith.

``I found it all very stimulating,'' Wouk says. ``His work is impregnated
with references to the Bible. He may be scathing about it, but they're there.
He's making jokes about religion, but the Jews are always making jokes about

Full text of the article:
At Last, Herman Wouk Speaks

.c The Associated Press


PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) - At the gate of Herman Wouk's house you'll see a
sign that warns of guard dogs. It might well read ``MEDIA BEWARE.'' For the
author of ``The Caine Mutiny,'' ``The Winds of War'' and other million
sellers rarely bothers with the press, a luxury of writing books that speak
so well for themselves.

But a generation has passed since his last blockbuster, ``War and
Remembrance.'' It's unlikely young readers of Stephen King or John Grisham
know his name, or know much about his books. His recent fiction spent
relatively little time on bestseller lists and a few of his novels are out of

Wouk has never operated like a ``commercial'' author; his works follow no
proven formula. But his current publication, ``The Will to Live On,'' would
be a hard sell for any writer. Neither fiction nor memoir, it's a text about
preserving Judaism that resides quietly in religion sections of bookstores
around the country.

So Wouk, concerned the book itself won't be preserved, has invited a reporter
inside his home.

``It's going to take time to get out there and it may never get out there,''
he says. ''`The Will to Live On' is about the survival of the Jewish people,
and how to harness that power for the centuries to come. It's not something
to pick up at an airport.''

The setting here makes it hard to worry about anything. Wouk's home is the
very picture of Paradise: palm trees and watered lawns; swimming pool and
tennis court; a spacious, ranch-style house with hand-carved doors and floors
of Mexican tile.

It's a typically dry desert day, a beautiful day, the heat tempered by a near
invisible coating of clouds. Wouk writes whenever possible, but right now he
cuts a nice figure as a man of leisure: khakis and soft white hat, a can of
Dr. Pepper in hand, his legs stretched across the verandah that hangs in the
shade to the side of his house.

``I have no complaints,'' comments the author, speaking a few days before his
85th birthday. He lives well and knows it. He has prosperity, long-term
companionship (his wife of 55 years, Sarah, who also serves as his agent),
many friends and the blessing of good health.

Wouk doesn't look his age, or even close. He stands straight and trim and
walks with just the slightest hitch. His face is rugged, yet thoughtful,
warmed but not burned by the desert sun. And he can converse for hours, his
expressions ranging from unblinking concentration to - reminders of his days
as a gag man for Fred Allen - a boyish smirk.

He may no longer be famous among general readers, but he's a giant in the
Jewish community. His friends and acquaintances include Nobel laureate Elie
Wiesel, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Sen. Joseph Lieberman. He's
given many speeches on Jewish issues and has received several prizes,
including a lifetime achievement award from the Jewish Book Council. He
attends synagogue both in Palm Springs (where he occasionally gives sermons)
and in Washington, D.C., where he first lived in the 1960s and still
maintains a home.

``I was a bit in awe when I first met him,'' says Lieberman, a Connecticut
Democrat. ``When I first came to Washington and settled in Georgetown and
began to go to the synagogue there it was described by more than one person
as `Herman Wouk's Synagogue.'''

``He doesn't think success should change your values. He doesn't make any
compromises when it comes to religion,'' says another Washington friend,
Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst for National Public Radio and a somewhat
less religious man.

``I remember when he went to my son's Bar Mitzvah. It was on a Saturday (the
Jewish Sabbath). He would not drive there. He walked, about 8-9 miles. And
after the service broke up he started to leave. I said, `Aren't you going to
stay for lunch? It's kosher.' And he said, `Yes, but not kosher enough.'''

Wouk appears an odd fit both in Palm Springs - better known for golf than for
synagogues - and in the literary world. From Ernest Hemingway to James Joyce,
major authors of the 20th century were considered either anti-religious or at
least highly skeptical. But Wouk is part of a smaller group that includes
C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor, those who openly maintained
a traditional faith.

Wouk is an Orthodox Jew whose books virtually all include some kind of
religious theme. ``Marjorie Morningstar,'' published in 1955, was one of the
first bestselling novels about Jewish life; two recent novels, ``The Hope''
and ``The Glory,'' are set in Israel. He's also written two nonfiction books
about religion, ``The Will to Live On'' and ``This Is My God,'' a widely read
publication released 40 years ago.

''`This Is My God' was a much revered text in my home growing up,'' Lieberman
says. ``It was a work of someone who was proud to be Jewish, and was using
his gift of communication to explain why it had such meaning. I was growing
up an observant Jew in Connecticut and it was encouraging to me that a man
who had achieved such success also held on to his faith.''

Beyond his religious views, Wouk has an uncertain status as a writer. Although
 some of his manuscripts are now stored with the Library of Congress, few
critics see him as a canonical figure. Like his old friend, the late James
Michener, he's been placed above writers like Michael Crichton but below
literary figures such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Wouk is a deeply read
author of serious subjects who has rarely received serious acclaim.

``As a writer, he doesn't seem to me very gifted, although I wouldn't say
he's inept,'' says the award-winning critic Leslie Fiedler, author of ``Love
& Death in the American Novel'' and many other books. ``He reflects the
milieu he came from, radio comedy. He has that certain level of skill, but he
can't get to that next level.''

``I think he's taken as dignified, important, but not avant-garde enough, not
cutting edge enough,'' adds Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and
comparative literature at Harvard University.

Wouk himself has presented modest assessments of his craft. Back in the 1950s
he told one reporter he was not a ``high stylist.'' In ``War and
Remembrance,'' a writer notes in his journal: ``I could contribute nothing
new; but writing as I do with a light hand, I might charm a few readers into
pausing, in their heedless hurry after pleasure and money, for a look at the
things that matter.''

Few authors have so well met their own standards, and so enjoyed themselves
along the way. Wouk has had a classic 20th-century life, from childhood among
immigrants in New York City to his years at sea during World War II to this
resort for celebrities where he now spends much of his time.

The son of Russian Jews, he was born in New York in 1915. The household was
religious - his mother was a rabbi's daughter - and also devoted to books.
His father read to him from the works of Sholem Aleichem, the great Yiddish
writer. The works of Mark Twain entered his life thanks to a traveling book
salesman who sold them to his mother.

A lifetime later, Twain remains his favorite writer, despite Twain's
irreverence when it comes to matters of faith.

``I found it all very stimulating,'' Wouk says. ``His work is impregnated
with references to the Bible. He may be scathing about it, but they're there.
He's making jokes about religion, but the Jews are always making jokes about

A star student in high school, Wouk majored in comparative literature and
philosophy at Columbia University and edited the college's humor magazine.
After graduation, Wouk followed the path of so many bright, clever New
Yorkers in the 1930s: He headed to California, where he worked five years on
Allen's radio show.

``Fred was very individualistic. It was his style - a hard-bitten, New
England satirical buzz-saw kind of wit,'' says Wouk, who recalled a piece he
wrote for Allen.

``It happens in the zoo and Fred's a new guy coming to work with the animals.
A zoo manager takes him over to the hippopotamus and says, `This hippopotamus
has a problem. There's something in the back of his mouth and you need to
reach your arm in and get it out.'

``And Fred says, `I'm not going to put my arm in the back of his mouth. The
keeper says, `You don't have to worry about that. He's a vegetarian.' Fred
says, `Well, he can taste it and spit it out, can't he?'''

If not for the war Wouk might have stuck to comedy sketches. After the
bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy and served as an officer in
the Pacific. There, he received a writer's most precious gift - free time. He
read and read, from the Bible to Victorian fiction, and wrote what became his
first published novel, the radio satire ``Aurora Dawn.''

``I was just having fun. It had never occurred to me write a novel,'' he says.

By the time ``Aurora Dawn'' came out, in 1947, Wouk was married and living in
New York. He was also studying the Talmud, and would soon release the novel
``City Boy,'' a coming-of-age story highly influenced by Twain.

Next, he wrote about the Navy. In 1951, Wouk published the novel for which
he's most remembered: ``The Caine Mutiny.'' The now classic story of the
unstable Captain Queeg and his unhappy crew sold slowly at first but
eventually topped bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize. It was made
into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and has been performed as a play
everywhere from China to the White House.

``I first read `The Caine Mutiny' when I was in high school. I was on the
subway in Manhattan and I was so caught up in it I found myself in
Brooklyn,'' says author Robert Caro, whose books include ``The Power
Broker,'' his acclaimed biography of Robert Moses. ``Nearly 50 years later,
the book remains fresh in my mind.''

For a time, Wouk was compared to other World War II novelists: Norman Mailer,
Irwin Shaw, James Jones. But his next book looked into more domestic matters
- a young Jewish girl who dreams of acting and ends up in the suburbs. Her
real name was Marjorie Morgenstern. Her stage name provides the novel's
title, ``Marjorie Morningstar.''

``My agent was absolutely appalled,'' Wouk recalls. ``He submitted it to the
editor of a women's magazine and the editor said, `Herman Wouk has destroyed
himself. He's a man who writes big, sweeping dramas about men in action. Then
he writes about this girl and nothing happens. He should burn this book and
forget it.'''

But like ``The Caine Mutiny,'' the novel sold millions and was made into a
movie, starring Natalie Wood. Wouk was famous enough to appear on the cover
of Time magazine, even as some Jews complained his book perpetuated
stereotypes, and critics like Fiedler complained he was too old-fashioned.

``Wouk and Bellow came at the moment when Jewish-American literature was
moving from the periphery to the center, but appealing to two completely
different audiences,'' Fiedler says. ``Bellow, like most writers critics take
seriously, attacked the basic values of middle-class Americans: easy piety,
marriage, life in the suburbs. Wouk challenges nothing.''

Over the years, Wouk has responded two ways: He doesn't judge the characters
in his stories, but tries to tell the truth; and whether he really
``challenges nothing'' depends on what you think needs challenging. (Bellow,
meanwhile, is an admirer of Wouk.)

Wouk believes that among writers, anti-conformity is a kind of conformity.
``It seems curious,'' he wrote in ``Aurora Dawn,'' ``that life `as it really
is,' according to modern inspiration, contains a surprising amount of
'fornication, violence, vulgarity, unpleasant individuals, blasphemy, hatred,
and ladies' underclothes.'''

He knows others don't share his views and he doesn't necessarily expect them
to change. For example, both ``This Is My God'' and ``The Will to Live On''
take a similar approach to ``Mere Christianity'' and other works by C.S.
Lewis. They preach not to the converted, but to the curious. They anticipate
arguments about religion and try their best to answer them.

``There is no use in talking about religion with anybody who is sure that God
does not exist,'' Wouk wrote in the introduction to ``This Is My God.''

``My book will irritate such a person and give him no light.

Wouk challenges himself above all. He recalls when he began work on ``The
Winds of War,'' his epic World War II novel. It was the 1960s, he was living
in Washington and adjusting to middle age and had never written historical

``It had always been there - first of all as a dream - this book about the
whole war. Ibsen said somewhere that sooner or later every man comes against
his `life lie,' that he thinks he's going to do a certain thing and then he
realizes that he's never going to do it,'' Wouk says.

``And when I was getting toward my 50s I thought, `This is your life lie,
this book about World War II.' And I had no confidence I could do it, but I
thought, `OK, if you've got a story to tell you go and tell it.''

His ambition these days is still greater. As stated in ``The Will to Live
On,'' Wouk is exploring how the Jewish people can continue. He worries about
assimilation, the Melting Pot. ``Dying is a terror, an agony, a strangling
finish,'' he writes in his current book. ``Melting is a mere diffusion.''

After reviewing Jewish history, Wouk concludes the answer is education:
scripture, history, culture. Even today, he participates in the process. This
interview began midmorning, after his daily reading of the Talmud. It will
end midafternoon, so he can prepare to lead a Talmud class that night.

``The only break I've had in my study was when I was at sea, because I
couldn't bring a Talmud,'' Wouk said. ``But I went through the Hebrew Bible
completely and every day I would put on tefillin (small black boxes
containing biblical passages that are tied around the arms and above the
forehead). It was taken for granted by everyone else.

``Once the ship was wrecked in a typhoon in 1945, off Okinawa. There were 125
ships driven on to the beach, and with some loss of life. We were hung on a
reef all night, but had no loss of life.

``And I noticed among the crew a new sort of respect and affection. I was the
executive officer, always Mr. Bad Guy. But here were the sailors, saying,
`Hello, Mr. Wouk,' `Good morning, Mr. Wouk.' I asked someone what this was
all about and he said the guys were convinced they were saved by Lt. Wouk's
black boxes.''

AP-NY-05-31-00 1227EDT

 Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.  The information  contained in the AP
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distributed without  prior written authority of The Associated Press.

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