article 86: HERMAN AND THE HARPSICHORD (Wouk, not Woke)

I’ve been a devotee of the late (at 104) Herman Wouk since watching “The Caine Mutiny” (Humphrey Bogart as Capt. Queeg! José Ferrer as the Jewish lawyer who baits him to his ruin at the court martial!) repeatedly, as The Late Late Movie on local St. Louis MO television back in the early 1960’s. The first of his books I read, without really comprehending a tenth of it, was my father’s hardbound copy of “Marjorie Morningstar”. How that missed getting a Nobel Prize I’ll never understand. I re-read a used paperback of it a few years ago and was startled to come across a passage which must have meant nothing to me at first perusal: a woman enters a room “like Wanda Landowska flouncing onstage.” I wanted to write Wouk in Palm Springs and ask which of the famous wartime recitals by the exile from St.Leu he had attended, but the author of “The Winds of War” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance”, died on May 19, 2019, before I got around to it.

Wouk’s first successful novel was called “Aurora Dawn” (1947), a brilliant satire on radio and advertising – a world he knew intimately from working in it as a young gagwriter before the war. According to the preface, he wrote it while on duty on destroyers in the Pacific 1943-5, the period which later furnished the material for “Caine”. After a fairly serious bout of illness, recovery from which requires familiar comforts, the other day I ordered a used copy of “Aurora”. (I had thrown out all my tattered Wouk paperbacks in a Covid-era cleanup.)

A second edition of “Aurora” a decade later has another preface, which includes some remarks about how television has unexpectedly crushed radio, how eventually some new technology will kill TV, and how that will be just as “unworthy of an adult audience” (his words) as the previous two mass media. That the internet and smartphones would prove so destructive of civilization, no one could have possibly predicted.

That edition included some line-drawn illustrations. One is shown below. It fleshes out, with ‘50s frivolity, the following fragment of a long description of a gorgeous girl: “Softly, softly, on viol, harpsichord and flute, play the sweetest crystal melody that Mozart ever wrote.” The artist apparently didn’t know what a viol was, nor how a flute is held. The harpsichord comes off best, with its putti in the lid painting.

Wouk was universally interested in culture and history; hence his eyewitness knowledge of Landowska and the harpsichord, which trickled down into “Aurora” as a meme for feminine beauty. Oddly enough, he thinks the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is buried in Mecca. (Recte: Medina.) That error made it into a second edition, along with the flawed drawing. But the book is a splendid prelude to a career that produced so many masterpieces, and only went into decline with lesser work when Wouk was in his 80s.

I can’t close without quoting another passage, referring to a successfully self-promoting painter:

“In most careers...the aim of a man is to give an impression of reliability, steadiness, and a sense of propriety. Artists – in all the arts – are exempt. Successful artists today must be crowd pleasers, and it’s the opinion of the crowd that artists are a little crazy, so a man of talent who plays up that opinion will unquestionably make more money than one who doesn’t. He’ll be talked about and gain stature...Nobody can commit the impropriety of public self-praise without losing personal dignity and integrity, but, in the field of the arts, it’s a common sacrifice...A man of moderate talent proclaims, “I am a genius,” a backs his assertion with colorful social and artistic eccentricities. These have nothing to do with genius, but the crowd thinks they do, and so his claim is improved. Shakespeare, Bach and Blake didn’t find it necessary to use the technique.”

So here is Bach as a member of Wouk’s Holy Artistic Trinity. And again: he could never have predicted today’s celebrity cult. At least he was spared the worst of it by a timely demise.

April 19, 2023

PS: In Wouk‘s last first-rate work, the autobiographical “Inside, Outside” (1985), it appears that the author took “Music Appreciation” at Columbia University in the early 1930‘s. And he describes an attractive girl‘s voice, rather oddly, as “Scarlatti on harp strings.”

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