The Greatest Story Ever Retold
Simon & Schuster
2012, $25.99, pp. 232
The Lawgiver, a new novel by the 97-year-old, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Herman Wouk, is about a new novel that fails to get written by a 97-year-old, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist named Herman Wouk.
It is honest, highly readable, entertaining and more than a little silly. But above all, what any respectful reader takes away from this book is a sense of awe that this colossus of 20th-century American fiction is still at it in his 10th decade.
What is particularly impressive is the manner in which this nonagenarian delivers his narrative—in short, almost epigrammatic bits, most via the current media of electronic messaging: texting, emails, phone and Skype conversations between the characters. This from the author who was heralded as the last important writer still composing in the sumptuous, leisurely and textured tradition of the great 19th-century novelists!
Usually, when an old writer attempts to be au courant in both style and references, he ends up sounding even more out of date than if he had continued writing in his old fashion. Think of a geezer tottering on a skateboard. But not so with Wouk in The Lawgiver. He sails blithely on, wisps of white hair streaming from his balding pate, as he skates figure eights around us. He carries off this electronic-age rendition of an epistolary novel with youthful aplomb. Very impressive indeed.
The novel within the novel about which Herman Wouk (that is, the fictional character who is a doppelganger for the living author of the same name) has been ruminating for decades is the story of the biblical Moses. It is tentatively titled, of course, The Lawgiver. Wouk sees this towering Old Testament figure as the ultimate challenge. Once completed, Wouk’s Moses book will be his literary non plus ultra, the one for which all his other estimable novels—from The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar to The Winds of War and War and Remembrance—were mere warm-ups.
But the Moses novel, started and stopped in frustration over the years, again gets sidetracked, this time by a film project being developed by a variety of colorful Hollywood folk, plus a wealthy Australian-Jewish investor who has always wanted to produce a film about the very same biblical titan. The aim of the proposed film is to give the Moses story its full Talmudic due as compared to that given in the bogus Cecil B. De Mille blockbuster, The Ten Commandments. For reasons that Wouk is never completely comfortable with (one of them is an astoundingly high fee), he signs on as consultant and final arbiter of the script being written for this film. Needless to mention, the film is also tentatively titled The Lawgiver.
Enter the screenwriter of the Moses film, a young Barnard graduate by the name of Margolit Solovei who has a string of art house succès d’estime behind her. Wouk thinks she is intriguing and rather fetching, particularly because Margolit is the disaffected daughter of a Passaic, New Jersey, Bobover rebbe and was a promising Hebrew scholar herself before the celluloid sirens pulled her devilward. Margolit dives into the project by rereading the Torah in Hebrew—feh on the King James version; that’s for the goyishe likes of Cecil B.
Ms. Solovei thus becomes the central character in The Lawgiver (again, the book about both the novel and the movie, if you’re still keeping score). Through memos, text messages, emails, etc., we are privy to her struggles with her writing and with the movie magnates, her friendships with her old Hebrew school pals, her on-again, off-again romance with an old suitor, and her relationship to her mentor and judge, Herman Wouk. This last-mentioned relationship provides much of the novel’s humor; Wouk’s wife, to whom he refers with the cutely ambiguous initials BSW, finds her 97-year-old husband’s interest in young Margolit more than a bit foolish.
From a Wouk memo in the book:
“BSW took half a day to read the pages [of Margolit’s Moses treatment]. Handing them back to me, she made a face. ‘Shallow. Shallow.’
‘What attempt at Moses wouldn’t be shallow?’
‘Yours, if you’d ever write it.’”
Indeed, the opening pages of Margolit’s screenplay treatment provide pretty much the sum total of this novel’s Talmudic portrait of Moses. In it are references to the rabbinical “Seventy Faces of the Torah,” and it is sprinkled with decidedly non-Cecil-B-De-Millian lines such as, “The man Moses was humbler than all men on earth,” but we cannot say we feel as if we are getting the complete 70 faces of The Lawgiver; more like two or three.
Wouk is all too aware of both Margolit’s and his own limitations in getting the Moses story right. At one point in the story, Wouk once again scraps a draft of his magnum opus, having decided to start over by recasting the whole story as the diary of Aaron, Moses’ older brother, to make the book more personal and less hagiographic. Yet this too turns out to be another false start. To himself, Wouk continues to refer to the work as “that impossible novel.”
Thus, what we end up with is a light-hearted, trendy, rather glossy novel, just the opposite of Wouk’s dreamed-of serious and profound masterwork about Moses. And we have to wonder why he bothered. Why, in his very old age, did this venerated virtuoso decide to bookend his highly respected opus with a trifle, albeit a tasty trifle?
I happen to believe Wouk had an admirable reason for offering us this novel and that there is a clue to his intention at the very beginning of the book when, before he even begins his story, he writes:
“A scuffed file in my desk drawer labeled ‘The Lawgiver’ contains a few typed yellow pages turning brown with age. When I was writing The Caine Mutiny, it occurred to me that there was no greater theme for a novel, if I could rise to it, than the life of Moses…The years have rolled over me. I have not quailed at large tasks…[But] ‘The Lawgiver’ remains unwritten. I have never found a way to do it.”
Herman Wouk was 36 when he wrote The Caine Mutiny and he was already a literary celebrity. But 60-plus years later, his place in American fiction assured, his life well-lived, he acknowledges his youthful ambition with this mirthful jibe at his younger self. The wise old writer accepts his limitations in the face of an “impossible novel” and offers those limitations to us as an entertaining romp.
It is an act of consummate humility.
Daniel Klein’s latest book is Travels with Epicurus—A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life. He is co-author of Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar.