What happens when you turn 100? You get a letter from the President, you gum a little cake, maybe you talk to your grandchildren—the ones who are still alive, anyway.
And if you’re Herman Wouk, the author of massively best-selling works of mid-century fiction such as The Winds of War and Marjorie Morningstar, who turns 100 today? You commemorate your own centenary birthday by publishing Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100 Year Old Author, a forthcoming memoir that focuses on Wouk’s World War II service in the Navy, which will also contain reflections on his abiding Jewish faith, a recurring theme in all of his work.
And good for him. If, Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, Wouk never quite got the respect of his contemporaries—his point of view was too conformist, too duty-bound, too orthodox for the age of the literary enfant terrible he inhabited, with its gleeful and uninhibited portrayals of sex, rebellion, and bourgeois hypocrisy—then he’s won a final, if somewhat Pyrrhic victory by outliving them all.
And even though his previous books become one of those enormous doorstoppers one finds in the book section of the National Council for Jewish Women Thrift Shop (where, incidentally, I seem to spend an increasing amount of free time), they do in fact contain a few indelible characters. Aaron Jastrow, the brilliant and cultured author and professor murdered by the Nazis in War and Remembrance. Commander Queeg, the eccentric and disciplinarian captain in The Caine Mutiny. And most of all, Marjorie Morgenstern, the beautiful and talented Jewish girl determined to not become just another “Shirley” (her paramour Noel Airman’s pejorative term for a privileged and incurious Jewish housewife, whose main concern in life is having a nice house in a nice neighborhood and an extensive wardrobe of furs), who is, of course, the title character in Marjorie Morningstar.
An aspiring actress, Marjorie is vibrant, unusual, and determined to achieve what she believes to be a great artistic destiny, which she pursues with single-minded focus, even when it means leaving the values of her family and culture behind. Her Svengali/manipulator in this is, of course, Noel Airman, the self-important summer stock director who coaxes her into what might be the most emotionally undermining sexual relationship in history: he encourages and ridicules her dreams of fame, and constantly tests her so-called “conformity” by means of her willingness to sleep with him outside of marriage, which for Wouk, who was never one to seriously question the prevailing morals of the time, is a dangerous proposition—after all, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
To Wouk’s credit, however, he allows Marjorie to be her own character with her own perspective. The story is hers, her perceptions–of Noel’s own fears of failure, of the stultifying safety into which she was born, and is expected to maintain–take center stage. This female primacy of thought is so lacking in so many other canonical portrayals of the post-war Jewish America Princess (Brenda Patimkin, I’m looking at you), which is what makes the final nine pages of Marjorie Morningstar–in which an old male acquaintance observes Marjorie, now a dreaded “Shirley” with all her individuality erased by marriage and motherhood, and concludes that somehow, she’s all the better for it–feel like such a betrayal.
Marjorie, this moralistic ending seems to posit, got lucky in finding a man who would still have her, artistic pretensions, lack of virginity and all. It’s a heartbreaking ending, and not necessarily in the way Wouk intended. But it’s easy to forget about when contrasted with the previous 500 or so pages that treated Marjorie Morgenstern not as a packaged, nose-jobbed product of the suburbs, but as a living, breathing, human being.
Besides, if Wouk’s longevity and continued productivity has shown us anything, it’s that a true creative mind never gives up. Who’s to say Marjorie might have gone to a feminist consciousness-raising group fifteen years later, left her husband, and started a glorious career as a middle-aged character actress or Warhol superstar?
It’s not out of the question. And as long as Herman’s alive, neither is a sequel.