Wouk at 97

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Rachel Gor­dan

An­other cen­tury, an­other mas­ter­piece? Her­man Wouk and his new novel.

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 best­selling 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 wide­lyread 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

Wouk’s novel is a trip down mem­ory lane for those who know his work.

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 mid­dle­class 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 mid­dle­class 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.

The Winds of Wouk: The Pulitzer Prize-win­ning au­thor as seen to­day and in his hey­day in 1955.


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