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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This does not exactly signal “the end of men,” but it is a refreshing transformation within the career of a novelist that Time Magazine once called “a Sinclair Lewis in reverse,” for his championing of traditional values.

At one point in “The Lawgiver,” Margo self-consciously signs a letter as “Almost Marjorie.” With a Wikipedia entry that describes her as a “phenom” in the film industry, it is Marjorie who doesn’t quite measure up to Margo.

Put this way, Margo might seem like literary evidence for our contemporary debate over whether women can “have it all.” But fiction reveals subtler realities. Each of Margo’s choices comes with a cost: a rift with her family after her abandonment of religious practice, a barren love life while she is in the trenches of her career. When Margo is invited to work on a movie about Moses, the consultant with whom she must meet is none other than Wouk himself.

“I didn’t know he was still alive,” Margo tells her mother, but she is hopeful that her association with the famous writer will help redeem her in her father’s eyes. “Tatti’s never read a novel in his life, and never will, but he did read a God book Wouk wrote back in the ‘50s,” Margo writes, referring to Wouk’s 1959 “This Is My God.”

Wouk has met his match in Margo. Her ideas about Moses as a character “at once holy and pathetically human and yet formidable as Caesar” emerge from a childhood of learning with her father. Another thing Margo hasn’t shed is an old flame, Josh Lewin, who — as a senior partner in an international law firm and a Modern Orthodox Jew — would have won many points from Marjorie Morgenstern’s parents.

Margo and Josh eventually make their way towards each other and the strains of Hava Nagila and Jewish wedding dance music are heard in the novel’s closing scene. So, how exactly is this love story different from all other love stories? For one, only Wouk would use Talmudic law as a means of drawing his plot to its joyful close. There is also the surprise that the 2012 ending will strike readers as more unambiguously happy (in a sweet, 1950s sort of way) than that of the original. The difference is where we leave Margo. As a writer, she is much nearer to her dreams than Marjorie. By dint of learning and creative powers, Margo has even achieved a certain insight into Moshe Rabeinu.

Meanwhile, by the end of the story, the character Herman Wouk is still struggling to write his own novel about Moses. That may be a topic for a future Wouk book.

Rachel Gordan is a post-doctoral fellow in American Jewish Religion and Culture at Northwestern University.


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