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
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.
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 Aaron’s 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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Between stops on a world tour, Alisa Weilerstein remembers the late Elliott Carter and plays us some Bach