What kind of author writes himself into his own novel? One with a great deal of hubris, it would seem. But if that writer is a 97-year-old Pulitzer Prize writer, with over 60 years of best-selling books behind him, we might judge him more sympathetically. His story, after all, amounts to literary history. And in the case of Herman Wouk, it is a highly unusual history.
Wouk’s life work presents some unusual literary statistics. How many writers have the opportunity to update one of their best-selling novels, 55 years after its original publication? How many have contributed to American literature on the scale of Herman Wouk? Approaching his centenary, Mr. Wouk has been writing for the majority of that time, showing considerable range in style and subject. A strong candidate for the “most widely-read American Jewish novelist,” Wouk won a Pulitzer for “The Caine Mutiny,” appeared on the cover of Time. His books, including “Marjorie Morningstar,” “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” have been made into movies, Broadway plays and television miniseries.
Highlights of Wouk’s past books are on display in his latest novel, “The Lawgiver.” The story follows the making of a movie about the biblical figure, Moses — a topic that the character of “Herman Wouk” just happens to be trying to tackle in a novel. Although it is a fine place for Wouk beginners to start, “The Lawgiver” offers a trip down memory lane for those familiar with his oeuvre. In particular, Wouk looks back to his 1955 “Marjorie Morningstar.”
“Marjorie,” a novel with a long gestation period, caused Wouk much anxiety, coming as it did after the Pulitzer prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny.” In 1952, Wouk wrote in his journal (portions of which are now housed at Columbia University’s Manuscripts and Archives): “At the moment I’m all muscle bound — rusty, aware of the Mutiny, vague, unsure of where or how to get going. But all this will pass and the cork will come out of the bottle, and Marjorie will let live. She does live. She asks only ink and paper and some honest sitting at the desk.”
Wouk first wrote Marjorie into fictional life in a 1940 one-act play produced by the United Jewish Appeal. “Crisis Over Marjorie,” (recently performed in a reading at the Library of Congress and available for viewing on YouTube) portrayed the same newly middle-class immigrant parents concerned about their pretty daughter’s dates that appeared in Wouk’s 1955 novel. The play turned out to be a milestone in Wouk’s career. In 1952, while in the midst of sketching.
“Marjorie Morningstar,” Wouk wrote in his journal, “Crude and flat though it was, it surely contained a vital spark, to haunt me for 12 years and force itself up again as a novel — though how good a novel I can’t yet say.”
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.
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.