Books: The Wouk Mutiny

  • Share
  • Read Later

(8 of 9)

The boss was Betty Brown, a trim, pretty redhead and a Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Southern California. For Wouk, it was a clear case of love at second sight. Betty was a Protestant, but not a practicing one. She thinks now that part of Herman's appeal for her was that he made her see "that one didn't have to be a stupe to be religious." When Herman went back to sea, Betty Brown began studying Judaism, and a year later, on her 25th birthday, became a Jewish convert. Betty's Hebrew name is Sarah Batya: Wouk picked Sarah, and Batya (chosen for its resemblance to Betty) means "daughter of God." When Herman broached the idea of marrying Sarah, "Mama thought the end of the world had come," but "Grandfather understood."

Through the years on shipboard, Wouk had been pecking away at a novel. Aurora Dawn was written in an 18th century style as quaint as a minuet, but it dealt with a 20th century subject, "the contrast between the rat-race values of the radio-advertising world and the stable values of an Old Testament hillbilly prophet who gets mixed up with it." Wouk thinks of it as "a compendium of first-novel errors," but the Book-of-the-Month Club grabbed it. From that day to this, Wouk has pursued "the hard, borderline trade" of writing with monastic dedication.

The Craftsman. His day does not begin at his desk, but in prayer, for which he dons the traditional black-and-white prayer shawl and straps phylacteries (small leather cases containing texts from the

Pentateuch) to his left arm and his forehead. He prays twice more each day, just before and just after sundown. He also reads from the Pentateuch for an hour daily. He tries to start writing by 9 o'clock, takes a lunch break at i, sometimes naps for a while, but gets back to his desk in time to turn out about 1,500 words a day. He rarely rewrites.

Wouk, a meticulous researcher,* tries for "plain style, clarity of expression, as I'm not a poet, and not a high stylist." He shuns obscenity in his books: "You don't use dirty language in someone's home. When a reader holds my book, we are in an even closer relationship than a guest's." Pinpointing his own faults, he says: "I overwrite. I fail to achieve the standard of excellence I strive for, and fall into mediocrity." He reads and rereads Shakespeare, but Dickens is his all-time favorite author ("He could create reality with a stroke").

At day's end Wouk relaxes with a martini and a long Havana cigar ("They are like lollipops"), plays with his boys Nathaniel, 5, and Joseph, 17 months. The

Wouks' first son, Abraham, was drowned in a Mexican swimming pool in 1951, when he slipped out of the house early one morning to sail a toy boat his father had given him.

Built-in Engine. One night a week Wouk gives a course in advanced rhetoric at New York's Yeshiva University to a class of rabbinical students. He owns no car and no boat ("Possessions are disastrous"), but he does own two homes. In addition to the Fire Island summer place, he has a fashionable cooperative apartment in Manhattan's East 60s. He and his wife are homebodies; they love to read and listen to records.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9