THE THING YOU HAVE TO REMEMBER about Herman Wouk, the solemn, novelistic sage of World War II history ("The Winds of War," "War and Remembrance," "The Caine Mutiny"), of Israeli history ("The Hope," "The Glory") and of various Talmudic musings, is that he used to be a show business gag writer.

He's never totally shed that particular skin. Nor does he want to.

So on this particular day in his Georgetown study, as he sits for a rare interview, wearing his yarmulke, surrounded by entire walls of rabbinical texts in Hebrew, you have to slap yourself to remember that this 85-year-old theological recluse had just flown to Nassau and back the previous day to confer about the musical he's written with Jimmy Buffett.

"It's not really that hard a trip," he says, breezily. "About two hours each way in Jimmy's plane."

Buffett wasn't aboard. He was out on tour, hymning the joys of "Margaritaville" to convocations of Parrotheads who've probably never heard of his somewhat more austere--not to say elderly--show business collaborator. "But Jimmy found this theater in one of those huge new hotel-casino complexes in Nassau and he wanted me to see it. We may launch a road company of 'Don't Stop the Carnival' there next year."

"Don't Stop the Carnival" is the title of their show, built on the ultimate comic novel of tropical island escape and illusion that Wouk first published in 1965. The book has never been out of print, has sold untold millions of copies (there have been 12 trade paperback editions alone since 1992) and is not infrequently the only novel available on island newsstands from Antigua to Huahine.

If you can fathom the genesis of that novel ("farce laced with tears," said Time magazine), you can almost get your mind around the unique literary dimensions of Herman Wouk. He wrote it on St. Thomas after writing a treatise on Judaism ("This Is My God") while simultaneously researching the most horrific aspects of the Holocaust for "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance."

He wrote the libretto for the show in Palm Springs, Calif., 30-odd years later while simultaneously working on another treatise on Judaic history, his 13th book, published last year, titled "The Will to Live On."

"My aim was to give pleasure through laughter," he sort of explained about such juxtapositions while being heaped with literary honors at the Library of Congress five years ago. ". . . I think of laughter as a rare gift from God, to help us through our brief, baffling, sometimes terrible time here on this small Earth."

Making His Mark

With a still-trim body and a face lined more by laughter than by life, Herman Wouk looks and acts at least 20 years younger than his age and appears to retain instant recall of everything he's ever done or read. He still hikes the trails of Palm Springs, studies the Talmud at least 30 minutes every day and, in addition to writing four hours, six days a week, keeps a diary that now runs to 77 volumes. His one concession to his years is a 45-minute nap after lunch ("I learned that from Winston Churchill") followed by "a jolt of coffee and a single piece of chocolate for energy" before picking up his pen.

While many novelists have written or sold more books, it is difficult to think of another in the past half-century who has achieved such repeated success with books of such radically different character.

Like Joe Gibbs taking the Redskins to the Super Bowl with five different quarterbacks, Wouk has hit the bestseller lists big time with historical novels, war novels, an urban memoir-novel, a comic novel, a business novel, a theological treatise and "Marjorie Morningstar," the ultimate Jewish American princess novel. "The Caine Mutiny" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952. "Morningstar" was such a phenomenal bestseller three years later that its publication amounted to a cultural event, putting Wouk on the cover of Time magazine.

Wouk's books have been memorably adapted to film ("The Caine Mutiny," "Marjorie Morningstar") and television ("The Winds of War," "War and Remembrance"). In addition, stage productions of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," which played on Broadway for years, are still appearing in repertory. Charlton Heston directed a Chinese version in Beijing.

But far beyond the commercial success of Wouk's prose has been its enduring quality. "Caine Mutiny" not only still sells, its central character--the ball-rattling Captain Queeg--has entered the English language as a virtual archetype of paranoia.

Likewise, Marjorie Morningstar remains a wistful prototype of every woman determined not to be like her mother but who ends up opting for the same suburban life.

Even Norman Paperman, the hapless hero of "Don't Stop the Carnival," lives on, the embodiment of every man who ever fled to a tropical island and discovered the quirky price of paradise.

What has the cheerful fellow in the yarmulke discovered about storytelling that trendier, more ephemeral novelists have not?

Defined by War

Wouk has maintained a house in Georgetown since 1965, but he leads so private a life he's known informally to many as "Hermit" Wouk. He surfaced briefly last month to plug "The Will to Live On" at a synagogue-sponsored appearance with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and at the 35th annual convention of the Association of Jewish Libraries. Then he was off to Palm Springs, where he spends most of each year under what amounts almost to self-imposed house arrest.

It is not, he says, that he's antisocial. It's just that he's discovered over the years that "the persona necessary for a public figure is one I never have bought into. It just isn't me."

Furthermore he decided many years ago to structure his life around his work and his Orthodox faith in a manner that leaves relatively little space for anything else.

It is an existence--and an outlook--much at odds with the conventional wisdom of contemporary publishing. And it's led more than an occasional critic to dismiss him unfairly as some sort of defender of the unquestioned life--a middlebrow writer ranked above pulp churners like Tom Clancy and John Grisham but below academic darlings like Saul Bellow and John Updike.

"I think [Wouk] is taken as dignified, important, but not avant-garde enough, not cutting-edge enough," Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse said recently.

To Wouk, it all depends on the edge one is cutting. "It seems curious," he wrote in "Aurora Dawn," "that life 'as it really is,' according to modern inspiration, contains a surprising amount of 'fornication, violence, vulgarity, unpleasant individuals, blasphemy, hatred, and ladies' underclothes.' "

He has sought, he says, to examine deeper truths.

"I set myself some fairly serious tasks some years ago," he says, "and I had no idea whether I'd live to finish them."

Intellectual heavy lifting like that was not part of his original game plan. He was born of Russian immigrant parents in a Bronx then so intensely Jewish "there was a synagogue almost every three blocks." But by the time he was 17, his father was prosperous enough to move the family to the Upper West Side and send his son to Columbia to major in philosophy and comparative literature.

Wouk had been drilled in the Talmud by his rabbi grandfather, "but my greatest literary influence, without question, was Mark Twain. My mother bought his complete works from a door-to-door salesman and I'd read them all by the time I was 12. Like Twain, I wanted to make people laugh. At Columbia, when all my friends were dabbling with communism, I was editor of the Columbia Jester and had written a couple of varsity shows. After school I went right to work in a gag factory and from there to Fred Allen," then one of the leading comedians on radio.

The result, he says, was that at a time of great national economic hardship, he sort of floated through the Great Depression, "making a very good living as a feckless young man . . . seeing shows . . . traveling to Hollywood." He never dreamed of becoming a novelist. Instead of the "serious study" his grandfather had wanted for him, "my greatest ambition was to write farces for the Broadway stage."

What changed his life forever was World War II. It found him in Europe, to which he had traveled for the first time in July 1939, virtually on the eve of Hitler's invasion of Poland.

"Looking back now through the Holocaust, that looks impossibly naive," he says. "But no one [in America] thought war was imminent. We all knew about Hitler, of course. We'd seen him on the newsreels and we knew he was a madman, particularly about the Jews. But we didn't dream he could last in power. We thought the Germans would come to their senses and he'd be gone."

Not altogether feckless, Wouk had raised money for anti-Nazi causes in the United States and had actually read "Mein Kampf" all the way through. "That was part of being a thoughtful person in those days. And on the ship over, there was a wealthy man with a portable shortwave radio--very unusual then--and he switched it on and there was Hitler raving away in real time right on the radio. That was incredibly chilling. But I remember it as just a momentary chill. He was in Germany, after all, and I wasn't going to Germany. . . . I was going to England and France."

Reality caught up with him in September on the French Riviera. He and one of his fellow writers on "The Fred Allen Show" had agreed to meet in Cannes and pile up several skits for the show's new season. "And one day he came in and said, 'We've got to get out of here. Hitler and Stalin have signed a nonaggression pact and everyone's leaving.' "

They fled to Rotterdam, soon to be flattened by the Luftwaffe, thinking they'd be safer in neutral Holland, and managed to escape the war zone aboard the SS Staatendam, dodging U-boats en route to New York.

Wouk went back to writing jokes. But realizing war was now inevitable, he looked into getting into the Navy.

"I had read a lot of naval books as a boy and they had fascinated me. But I had also taken several cruises and just loved being at sea. . . . And nobody wanted to be drafted. So I looked into getting into midshipman school."

Having no immediate need for a gag writer, the Navy told him he would have to go to engineering school first to get accepted. "But the week after Pearl Harbor, there was an ad in the New Yorker calling for midshipman applicants. Engineering school wasn't mentioned."

That was how a nice 26-year-old Jewish boy from Manhattan ended up in the South Pacific aboard a destroyer-minesweeper called not the USS Caine but the USS Zane. It was, he says, the defining experience of his life.

The Accidental Novelist

There is no way, he says, to adequately convey the mental and spiritual transformation produced by moving suddenly from the rarefied world of Manhattan show business to a small ship in combat on the other side of the world.

"I was the only Jew aboard. I was commanding Americans from all over the country of a sort I had never met . . . living with them, fighting battles with them . . . betting my life on them and having them bet their lives on me." He came back determined to lead a different sort of life, he says, "because of the intensity of that experience. It made me as a writer."

But it made him a novelist almost by accident.

"I had taken books to sea with me, but had soon exhausted the supply. So when we lost a propeller in the invasion of Rendova and had to go to New Zealand for repairs, I searched out a bookstore in Auckland and suddenly there I was back in the 19th century. There was almost nothing there but Victorian novels, and I came back with a whole footlocker full of people like Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes . . . Fielding, Richardson. . . . I read them all, and that was not an unimportant experience."

Still planning to be a playwright, however, he took counsel from Somerset Maugham's declaration that writing a play should take three weeks. "I figured if I was going to be at sea for three or four years I could write a bunch of plays in the off hours and get a real head start on my postwar career. So I wrote one, then I wrote another. Then I started a third one called "Aurora Dawn," about the ad business. But it kept coming out with long character and action descriptions. Finally I said to myself, 'Maybe I should try writing this as a novel.' "

He'd never thought of writing a novel, he says, never even gone through the stage of sending off short stories to magazines. So he mailed off several chapters to his old philosophy professor at Columbia to see if he thought they had any promise. The professor mentioned it during lunch with an editor at Simon & Schuster. The editor liked the sound of it, so the professor turned the chapters over to "some girl in the Columbia bookstore who worked as an agent on the side. The next thing I knew, I'm floating around off Okinawa when I get a letter from the girl who says Simon & Schuster has bought my novel. And that, so help me, is how I became a novelist."

"Aurora Dawn" sold reasonably well after the war, and he followed that with "City Boy," a boyhood novel inspired by his love for Mark Twain. Then came "The Caine Mutiny," his breakthrough book. It sold slowly at first, but snowballed into a huge success that had a second life as "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" on the Broadway stage.

It also stamped Wouk as a novelist of a different contemporary mold. It is ultimately a book about the conflict between duty and personal freedom, and unlike many of his fellow writers from the war, Wouk appeared to come down on the side of duty.

"I think that made me a bit suspect in some quarters," he says today. "We were in the general postwar period of disillusion and I wasn't quite following the crowd. There were still some things I believed in. And believe in still."

One of those things is the God- and ritual-studded lifestyle of Orthodox Judaism, to which he returned after the war at the very time so many Jews his age were heading in the other direction.

"I was gambling my whole existence on one hunch," he writes in "This Is My God": "that being a Jew was not a trivial and somewhat inconvenient accident, but the best thing in my life; and that to be a Jew, the soundest way was the classic way." He knew he might be wrong, but "living this way on a gamble, I learned . . . that one can observe the laws of Moses and lead a life in the everyday world. Judaism presents steep difficulties, intellectual and practical . . . [but] for all that it is on balance a delight, a path of integrity and of pleasure."

In "The Will to Live On" he further buttresses his case with the famous theological "wager" of the classic French philosopher Blaise Pascal: Either God exists or He does not. "The believer, by betting on the Creator's existence, gains in his brief time under the sun a rich tradition and a strong value system and, for all he knows, a reward beyond life. The nonbeliever, by rejecting the idea of God, is betting on a zero which, in the roulette of human experience, has no payoff here or hereafter. Hence, the smart money bets on God."

The Magnum Opus

By about 1960, Wouk was in his middle forties and one of the most successful living American writers. He had found both wealth and spiritual rebirth. But he was haunted by unfinished business.

"When I finished 'The Caine Mutiny,' I wrote in my diary, 'This is a good novel . . . but it is not the war book.' It was just one story from the war. It was not the whole tapestry. And I told myself one day I would write that."

But by 1960 or so, he says, he was coming up against "what Ibsen called the 'life lie,' the notion that someday one's life will get organized enough to complete the great project that will justify one's self-image. Most of us wake up when we're 70 and discover that will never happen. I didn't intend that fate for me."

He had never been much on history, so he started his research by reading Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War. That taught him, he says, that history was not dull as he had thought, but a great drama of conflict. Soon he was devouring volume after volume of World War II history.

But he also read "War and Peace" four or five times to see how Tolstoy unfolded Napoleon's invasion of Russia in the process of telling his tale. What he discovered, he says, was that the skeleton of "War and Peace" was provided not by Thucydides but by Thackeray. It was not all about Napoleon. It was all about who gets Natasha.

"Well, I thought, then here we go. If the idea is to create a story that will entertain and grip the reader, and project the history through that, maybe the big war book is doable after all."

It took him almost 15 years and the perusal of roughly 1,100 books, and it turned out to be not one mammoth book but two. But through Wouk's epochal "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," it's safe to say, more people have learned more about World War II than they have from any historian.

Five years ago, Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, paid Wouk perhaps the ultimate compliment. Recently, Gilbert said, he had unearthed a long-classified memo of which Wouk could not possibly have known while writing his books. In it, Gilbert said, Churchill says word for word what Wouk had imagined him saying at one point in "War and Remembrance."

Wouk, however, treasures a compliment of another kind. Several years ago in Beijing, he says, an elderly Chinese scholar told him that the world's most populous nation--cut off from so much during its long years of communist rule--first learned of the Holocaust via pirated translations of Wouk's two great books.

"I think that's the single most rewarding thing anyone's ever said to me," the author says. As long as people keep reading his books like that, he says, he doesn't care what they say about them, now or after he's gone.

"Because if they're reading, then I've done what I set out to do. . . . And so far, so good."