RIP Herman Wouk, z”l (1915-2019)

Just days shy of his 104th birthday, the great Herman Wouk peacefully passed away in his sleep. Here is a brief interview with him from 2017.

Below is the author reading from his own work at the Price Center at UCSD.

Mutiny on the Caine (his breakthrough, inspired by his wartime experiences on the minesweeper USS Zane) and the monumental epics The Winds Of War and its sequel War And Remembrance“”,… need no introduction: they are just his best-known works of fiction. (I am quite partial to “The Hope” and “The Glory” as well.) He would occasionally venture into nonfiction as well, notably “This is my G-d”, an eminently readable layman’s introduction to Orthodox Judaism.

But one book I personally cherish especially was the half-hilarious, half-poignant novel “Inside, Outside” — the closest thing to an autobiography this giant of modern American literature ever wrote. Many characters and events around the first-person protagonist, I. David Goodkind, closely parallel people and occurrences in Wouk’s own life. Like Wouk, Goodkind’s parents were Orthodox Jewish immigrants from the Minsk area [then part of Tsarist Russia, now the capital of Belarus], and his “Zaide” (Yiddish for grandfather) was a rabbi of some note back in “The Old Country” who never quite took root in the USA. Goodkind’s father (like Wouk’s) ran a laundry business, and Goodkind/Wouk got his professional start as a gag writer — in real life for Fred Allen, in the novel for the impossibly foul-mouthed, Falstaffian “Harry Goldhandler” (loosely based on David Freedman).

Goodkind goes through a rebellious phase where he gradually turns his back on religious observance and lives as a bon-vivant, until (after a stormy but doomed romance with a showgirl of great beauty and less great brain) he meets “Jan”, the love of his life, whom (like the real-life Betty Sarah Brown Wouk, z”l) he credits with putting some sense into him. Unlike Wouk, Goodkind settles down as a lawyer, while Wouk becomes a professional writer. One legacy of Wouk’s early beginnings is the humor with which he leavens the sometimes dead-serious subject matter of his books: not just verbal wit, but occasional (especially in Inside, Outside) slapstick comedy and even ribaldry.

I do not know if the never-do-well Uncle Yehuda with his ever more bizarre ‘get rich quick’ schemes is based on a real relative. The real Wouk had an older brother, Victor Wouk, who was a pioneer in the development of electric and hybrid vehicles.

Two of Goodkind’s foils were classmates from school: the scoffing, self-centered, sex-obsessed novelist Peter Quat (a thinly veiled Philip Roth) and the physics professor Mark Herz, some of whose ruminations on science and faith were inspired by discussions between Wouk and Richard P. Feynman, his onetime neighbor in Aspen, CO. This passage from the novel hit me like a hammer when I read it:

[Goodkind:] “What can you know about G-d? You either believe or you don’t.”
[Herz:] “[…]You can know almost anything about G-d, provided you put the right questions to Him. You have to learn how to put the questions, and they have to be accurate and airtight. […M]y father, for instance, doesn’t know that two atoms of hydrogen bind with one atom of oxygen to form a water molecule. Yet it’s G-d’s truth, and an important one. You don’t know it […] you believe it because you read it somewhere, or a teacher told you. I know it. I’ve put the question, and He answered, straight out. G-d will answer a high school boy. He asks only that you use common sense, pay very close attention to Him, not be sloppy, and count and measure correctly. G-d ignores sloppy questions. Sloppiness is the opposite of G-dliness. G-d is exact. He is marvelously, purely exact. Theology is all slop. Moses gave the best answers you could get, three thousand years ago, and he was no theologian.” 

In the video below, Wouk’s son Joseph recites Kaddish for him. Yehi zikhro barukh — may his memory be blessed.

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