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Herman Wouk’s Last Shot

With The Lawgiver, the best-selling novelist takes another stab at the kind of Hollywood fame he’s always coveted

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Herman Wouk, 1955. (Walter Sanders//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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Modern Times

Herman Wouk wrote a foundational text for American postwar Modern Orthodoxy, and for the emancipated Jewish literature in its wake

What is fascinating about this ending is not Wouk’s blunt endorsement of conformity as the highest human destiny, but its total discontinuity with the rest of the novel. “She is dull, dull as she can be, by any technical standard,” observes her old friend Wally Wronken, a playwright, about the grown-up Marjorie. “You couldn’t write a play about her that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies. There’s no angle.” And he is right—which is why the novel begins and ends where it does. The only narratable phase of Marjorie’s life is the brief window of sexual freedom between 17 and 25. The rest of life, as in a fairy tale, can only be summarized with a “happily ever after”—but, Wouk makes clear, not too happily. In this way, Wouk can both tease the reader with Marjorie’s nubility and her sexual explorations and reassure the reader that her sexuality will be punished and kept under control by a husband. No wonder the novel was a best-seller.

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Probably the most interesting thing about Wouk’s new novel, The Lawgiver, is the contrast it offers with Marjorie Morningstar. Formally, the new book is a return to the 18th-century classics Wouk loves: It is an epistolary novel, like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Wouk has updated the format for the 21st century, displaying a surprising degree of familiarity with the way people communicate now—the “letters” through which we follow the plot include e-mails, text messages, and Skype chat transcripts. That plot has to do with the machinations of various film people who are trying to make a movie about Moses—with the help of Herman Wouk, who is a character in his own book.

Wouk, however, appears mainly in the margins of The Lawgiver. The real protagonist is Margolit Solovei, the hip young writer-director who is hired to make the Moses movie come to life. We see Margo navigate three overlapping sets of challenges. First, there is Hollywood, where deals are made and broken overnight, and no one seems to mean what they say. Second, there is her relationship with Joshua Lewin, a lawyer who was her high-school sweetheart, and whom she is plainly destined to marry. And finally, there is Margo’s guilt toward her ultra-Orthodox family: She is a product of the Bais Yaakov school of Passaic, and her secular career has involved cutting off all relations with her pious father.

With a skilled hand, Wouk prolongs all these difficulties just long enough to leave the reader gratified by their inevitable resolution. Margo ends up making the Moses movie, marrying Joshua, and even reconciling with her father: “In short, Mashie, my daughter, about moving pictures I know nothing, but I see you are doing a Kiddush Hashem, and I have come to tell you this, face to face,” he tells her, in a scene straight out of The Jazz Singer.

Margo, plainly, is a latter-day Marjorie. If their names didn’t make it obvious enough (and they do), one of her boyfriends, indignant at her refusal to sleep with him, dismisses her with, “Good riddance, Marjorie Morningstar!” For this Hollywood prodigy, we are supposed to believe, is still enough of a Bais Yaakov girl to be a virgin in her mid-twenties. This is implausible, but it’s a sign that Wouk is aware of how much society has changed since the 1950s. He realizes that today, only a very religious woman would be as vigilant about chastity as the secular Marjorie was 60 years ago.

At first it may seem that Wouk, too, has softened a bit. He allows Margo and Joshua a night of premarital bliss, after keeping them apart for most of the book on one pretext or another. It is, Margo rhapsodizes, “the bursting of a dam … the dammed-up love of years cascading through a few wild hours, lovemaking, laughing, endearments, more lovemaking—an orgy, I tell you, we didn’t sleep at all.” You can see the fireworks, hear the orchestra swelling. But in the end, it turns out that piety triumphs after all. Before bedding her, Joshua recited a Hebrew formula of betrothal, so that they were Jewishly married before the dam burst. This satisfies Margo’s father and allows Wouk to square the circle once again: Premarital sex can be good, he allows, as long as it is actually marital sex.

In a similar way, the character of Wouk himself is allowed to enjoy both the aura of piety and the fruits of worldliness. In the novel, Wouk is brought in as a script consultant on the Moses project, at the insistence of its main backer, an Australian Hasid. In exchange for his imprimatur, he is offered “a percentage of box office receipts off the top”—and as he goes out of his way to tell us, “Only mega-superstars ask for that and rarely get it.” It is an innocent piece of wish-fulfillment, Wouk’s recapturing of the days when his name was worth a fortune. At the same time, he feels guilty about getting involved with the Moses film at all, since he has long been at work on his own novel about the story, Aaron’s Diary.

There is, one might say, a tug of war in Wouk’s soul between Judaism and Hollywood, art and money. And the fact that the book he produced is The Lawgiver, rather than Aarons Diary, suggests that Mammon has once again proved a more tempting fictional subject than God. In Marjorie Morningstar, Noel Airman has a long monologue explaining his life philosophy, which is that people are essentially motivated by the pursuit of “hits”—successes, self-gratifications, ego-fulfillments. This is meant to be a sign of his worldliness and insatiability; but Wouk himself has had enough hits to know how addictive they can be. The Lawgiver is probably his last shot at a hit. But Wouk himself deserves to be remembered, as an example of the strange shapes American Jewishness can assume when it tries to honor both parts of its hybrid identity.

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Victor Olefson says:

Wouk is highly underrated. I just reread ‘The Will to Live On’, sequel to’This Is My God’, and it is a powerful, moving record of a serious Jewish writer.

Boychic says:

Ah the joys or irony. Here is the writer predicting that Wouk’s writing will not last and then reviewing a novel by Wouk written six decades ago. Kirsch is a fine writer but a bit of a snobbish twit without much grace. He should have celebrated Wouk for his sheer creative endurance. One wonders what Kirsch will be writing when, hopefully, he hits the ripe old age of 97.

I was excited to read that Herman Wouk is still writing. Indeed, his books both fiction and non fiction are very good. I read the headline and thought well, Adam Kirsch probably didn’t write that cheap shot so I read through this long winding road of an article that is more a retrospective than a book review. I agree with “boychic” the first comment above. And I would add two points, first, Mr. Kirsch would do well to hire Wouk’s editor. Second, I think these quotes from Kirsch make the point:
1. “I don’t know if Roth ever said anything about Wouk—probably he thinks of Wouk’s novels as beneath or beyond criticism,which in some ways they are.”

2. “…….today, no one would, and few even read him (Wouk)”

3. “It is still in print and, as Tablet’s Alana Newhouse has written, still commands a hardy following, especially among women readers.”

Beneath criticism, few even read him, still commands a hardy following. And I won’t even go into the comment about American Jews eschewing the neurotic Roth stereotype for Wouk’s Jewish heroic and tragic figures.

Fred Campbell says:

As a goy, I have read many of Wouk’s books. Much of what I “know” of Jewish culture I learned from his writings.

I have deep respect for those who “live” their religion. Much of the respect that I have for for Judaism, as a religion and culture, I gained from Herman.

I also resent supercilious criticism of this man and his works. I am not a “writer” and do not understand the nuances that are used to judge writings such as his. I only know he has entranced me for many hours.

I am happy that he walked the earth and chose to share his insights into this rich culture (and religion). I am a better person because he walked the earth and chose to write.

May our mutual God bless and keep you, Mr. Wouk.

Jim Palmer says:

I’m also slightly bothered by the elitist thread running through this article. Mr. Wouk, though his style might leave a little to be desired, grapples with the same themes that Mr. Roth does–assimilation, alienation, the Jew’s place in the modern world–and while he may come from a different perspective and reach different conclusions, that doesn’t automatically relegate his work to the realms of the disposable.

Before dismissing Mr. Wouk’s work as too “popular” for serious consideration or criticism, he might wish to reflect on the work of one of our leading contemporary Jewish novelists, Michael Chabon, who gleefully shatters the boundaries of genre and the artificial delineations between highbrow/lowbrow and literary/popular. Just because it’s accessible doesn’t mean it sucks.

And, as Mr. Chabon also says, “I write to entertain. Period.”

fred capio says:

I enjoyed the article until I hit the sentence: “…and the main effect of reading Marjorie Morningstar today is to be deeply grateful for feminism and the sexual revolution…” Pure liberal cliche! It is true that feminism and sexual revolution changed the life of many (or maybe even all of us) but it has improved the life of none. Just follow the life of a teenager today and you will find problems much more serious than “a house full of children”

KaKa Khan says:

Touche’ ! Had comments like that been directed at something I had said I would have immediately found the nearest bridge and swan dived into oblivion…. Ouch indeed…

KaKa Khan says:

My first introduction to Herman Wouk was when I read his “The Lomokome Papers” The only science fiction work he ever wrote. A great read..

julis123 says:

To be honest I’ve read several books by the contemporary crop of Jewish writers that you mention and frankly due to their lack of substance I don’t remember much about them. Wouk’s books on the other hand, although not great literature stay with me to this day.

Andrew Marc Caplan says:

I’m actually surprised and rather beguiled by how affectionate Mr Kirsch’s review of Wouk’s new novel is. I don’t think Kirsch needs to apologize for his “highbrow” tastes–anymore than Wouk needs to apologize for having written best sellers–but it seems to me that he has rather enjoyed Wouk’s latest novel, probably more than he expected to!

Guilty pleasures, when all is said and done, still count as pleasures–and this is a lesson that both Kirsch’s review as well as Wouk’s more worldly characters are capable of affirming.

I’m happy that Herman Wouk is still around and writing at 97; for the record, I hope Kirsch will still be at it when he achieves the same age (in, what, 75 or 80 years?!). And while we’re hoping, I wouldn’t mind hitting the same milestone myself, given the available alternatives….

Robert Starkand says:

There is no need to compare Wouk with Roth. One is high brow and one is middle brow. You can bring up Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow as well. I enjoyed reading Wouk’s books. One lesser known novel by Wouk I read as a boy was “City Boy”, which not coincidentally was about a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn. I enjoyed it very much.

bobschwalbaum says:

“The Caine Mutiny” had a profound effect on me.. about a Jew serving as an officer aboard a naval ship.

It inspired me to do likewise.

I truly believe Wouk belongs in that category of vastly underrated novelists.,.. underrated mostly by intellectual snobs.

I read your article on herman wouk and it is interesting to compare him with phillip roth and woody allen for that matter, three artists who not only use their background, culture and religion to infuse their work with meaning, but are stories that anyone can pick up and read, and enjoy, since they can identify themselves in this story. That is the heart of why the jewish bible, their history and development with god, was taken up by all religions in the west, although they went elsewhere with it…Wouk from his early years was known as an orthodox jew, and what a grace it is to have the luxury of such a book from him at this ripe age. At the start in the first few pages he points out and gives a dedication of sorts to book readers, a vanishing breed..and thats unfortunate! Roth’s books for the most part deal with the outside Jew as he encounters the world outside..do Jews see themselves in the inward(having said that I have read all his books, and enjoy him and his books/novels on suffering and the person in society..I just see a difference)where a sWouk I see is showing the laws as they are inscribed as in lawgiver from the penteteuch(sic)..the laws as they are inscribed on our hearts…can a modern liberal match such religosity..or god centered awareness..although Roth certainly is amore polished psychologically astute writer

Natan79 says:

Excellent point. Take Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is illuminated” – all the old scenes are pure garbage cliché showing the author knows nothing about Eastern European Jews, JSF sounds like he saw some musicals with Hasidim and few postcards too. JSF is dirt compared to Herman Wouk, and Adam Kirsch should know better.

brynababy says:

Oh my God, what a beautiful homage- and one I agree with wholeheartedly. I also had the joy of attending an intimate ‘lecture’ by Wouk at the National Library when I was working at a theatre in Washington, DC in 1979! I was transfixed by this handsome, articulate, elegant writer.

One might not know from reading Mark’s most interesting essay that Wouk had a good Jewish education, attended Orthodox synagogues in NY and DC and gave his kids a Jewish Day School education. I have clear memories of him chanting the haftara at New York’s Cong. Kehillath Jeshirun. One of his sons was my classmate at Ramaz.

jbirdme65 says:

Adam, do you dislike Herman Wouk?

CITY BOY sparked my entre to literature – I found myself in his pages as a Jewish kid in the Bronx in the depression years of the 30s

disqus_wefb6Xz2V7 says:

Adam, you were either too rough on Wouk or not honest enough with yourself. Your high-brow-ness felt like a screen against your guilty pleasure in daring to enjoy the “pedestrian” wouk.

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Herman Wouk’s Last Shot

With The Lawgiver, the best-selling novelist takes another stab at the kind of Hollywood fame he’s always coveted

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