Sailing Beyond the Sunset: Herman Wouk’s “Sailor and Fiddler” Reviewed

Herman Wouk is a thoughtful raconteur and, at one hundred years old (101 as of May 27, 2016), a keen witness to twentieth-century history. Wouk seems like a man out of time, as he has mastered the computer and talks to his son weekly via Skype, but he also is a man very much shaped by his career as a 1930s gag writer, 1940s naval officer, and 1950s-onward public intellectual. The press regards Wouk as a recluse, but he comes across as anything but a hermit, as he recounts his world travels with his beloved wife, Betty Sarah, and their children. With only a few words, he conveys the heartbreak of losing his first son to a terrible accident and the joy of watching his surviving children grow up. Recluse is too reductive a word to describe Herman Wouk, who has lived, loved, and grieved for a century, as relatively few humans get the chance to do.

This fluidly structured and witty text reveals a sage of American literature not resting on his laurels, but rather chewing on them and pondering what he thinks of the taste. The “Sailor” chapters provide the main trajectory of the narrative, as Wouk explains his picaresque journey through success and failure in American letters. A sudden left-turn takes us into “Fiddler,” as Wouk steps backward in time to document his burgeoning Zionism and his desire to examine Israel through his later novels, “The Hope” and “The Glory.” Wouk’s Judaism and love of Yiddishkeit weaves through the entire text, from childhood stories to eulogizing his father through novel form. Yet we realize in the “Fiddler” passages how Wouk’s research into Israeli culture, even more than writing his blockbuster “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” gave his later career direction and purpose. Wouk approaches his vocation like an artistic historian, mining real-life acquaintances and oral histories to provide the verisimilitude of his historical novels. Reading “Sailor and Fiddler” allows the Wouk fan to learn that so many of his beloved characters were once real people, even if their actual experiences were less flashy than their mythologized counterparts. Amid these anecdotes, the author takes time to reflect briefly on the Palestinian crisis, while still being unabashed about his Zionism. We criticize the ones we love because we care; so it is, I think, with Wouk and Israel.

Herman Wouk ascended from the wastelands of 1930s radio to 1990s softcover fiction acclaim, thanks to Sarah’s guidance, a few good friends and editors, and a generous helping of good luck. At the closing of his life, he caps off his career with a heartfelt and pensive book, which has some hilarious interjections amid its serious analysis of disappointments and twentieth-century calamities. If Wouk is a recluse, then he is a recluse who wants us to be on the inside with him, looking outward (and often askance) at the wild twentieth century, the fate of the Jewish people, and the artist’s life. “Sailor and Fiddler” allows Wouk to preserve some of the people he met and the fragments of the knowledge he accrued. May we all live so long, and so wisely! A marvelous book.

Cover Photo:
Cover for “Sailor and Fiddler” by Herman Wouk, in: Michael Schaub, “‘Sailor and Fiddler’ Is a Lovely Coda to a Literary Career,” NPR, December 29, 2015, accessed May 28, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2015/12/29/461281423/sailor-and-fiddler-is-a-lovely-coda-to-a-literary-career. 

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