Herman Wouk’s ‘The Lawgiver’ Marks Return to Form

At 97, a Writer Remembers the Past

By Rachel Gordan

Published November 26, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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Readers on both sides of the Atlantic were very willing to say. “Damned nearly the great American Novel; certainly it’s closer to that illusory target than anything since Dreiser,” The London Spectator wrote of Wouk’s story of “almost Middlemarch length and certainly with all of George Eliot’s seriousness.” The American novelist John Marquand called Marjorie, “As much a part of American tradition as Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone.”

Closer to home, critiquing Wouk’s story about the bourgeois of New York’s Jewish society became popular sport. Both Jewish intellectuals and leaders of the American Jewish establishment voiced their misgivings. They either felt, as Saul Bellow did, that Wouk glorified a vacuous and mindless Jewish middle-class or, as New York’s Rabbi Louis Newman sermonized, that Wouk had mocked American Jewish religious practice. (A bar-mitzvah scene in “Marjorie,” with its thousands of dollars worth of food and drink and mounds of chopped liver, foreshadowed Philip Roth’s 1959 depiction of a Jewish wedding in “Goodbye, Columbus.” Both scenes met with rabbinic disapproval.) Ten years later, in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth had drastically altered the standards of parodying American Jews.

The battle lines of American Jewish fiction have shifted over time, and for a couple of decades, the women’s movement cooled readers’ ardor for Marjorie — a character who did not jibe with feminist aspirations. But around the turn of the century, Marjorie won her readers back. In the early 2000s, Scarlett Johannson spoke enthusiastically about the possibility of starring in a remake of the original movie. The actress explained her attachment to the story in terms that made Scarlett seem every inch the every-girl that Wouk had set out to create. After her mother gave Johannson a copy of the book at age 17, “I read it and thought, “Oh my god, this is me.”

With some important adjustments to the original, Wouk’s current portrait of a young Jewish lady returns to his trademark 19th-century style of storytelling. The book is composed mostly of emails, texts, and Skype conversations between Wouk, his wife (who died while Wouk completed this novel and whose photograph appears at the end of the novel), and movie producers, directors, and writers. Replacing Marjorie, the aspiring actress and Hunter college graduate, is a slightly older writer-director and Barnard graduate, Margo Solovei, who has broken from her religious background (but continues to draw her best material from it, like so many of today’s fine Jewish writers). In Marjorie, Noel Airman and Wally Wronken were the novel’s artists; in “The Lawgiver,” it is Margo.


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