When I quickly first read the Wall Street Journal’s brief note that Herman Wouk had written a new novel, “The Lawgiver” (Simon & Schuster: $25.99), about making a film about the life of Moses, my synapses apparently misfired. It isn’t about the “life” of Moses, as I first misread it.
Still, the bigger question, at first, had to be whether in publishing the work, Simon & Schuster had just been kind to a surely past-his-prime icon (e.g. “Marjorie Morningstar,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “War and Remembrance” and “This Is My God”). After all, Wouk is 97. Yes, Moses did live until 120 — but wasn’t age calculated differently then? How can a current 97-year-old write any novel with any meaningful message, particularly in the digital age?
To boot, the Wall Street Journal reported that “The Lawgiver” is an epistolary novel. A what? So we dial up the root of all knowledge — Wikipedia. Before the obligatory deeper fact checking, we learn that the epistolary genre (most famously used in “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “Herzog” by Saul Bellow and “Letters of Two Brides” by Honore de Balzac), is a novel written through a collage of documents, typically letters, diary entries, news clippings.
When I finally got my hands on “The Lawgiver” — the very title is the tantalizer Wouk probably intended — I found that the author’s literary growth certainly wasn’t stunted by old age. Most writers 60 years his junior wouldn’t have the imagination to do this.
Wouk’s epistolary includes the usual — letters, memos, aide-mémoires. But, surprisingly, there are e-mails, voicemails and texts, too. Imagine a nonagenarian who probably, for most of his astonishing career, wrote his masterpieces on foolscap or even a hunt-and-peck typewriter from a day gone by, writing a novel composed largely of e-mails and text messages. Importantly, the unique literary style the master employs doesn’t distract the reader one bit from digesting the story. And just so the reader gets the magnitude of all this effort in weaving different threads into a cohesive narrative, these various communications are presented in different type fonts and even cursive handwriting.
The narrative tells the story of a writer, filmmaker, lawyer and movie producer, along with Wouk himself and his now-late wife — apparently, his creative inspiration for all — who appear as themselves as a part of the artistic process. The Wouks surface because, any false humility aside, bringing Wouk into the process of producing a film about such a great biblical figure would be an obvious “get.” And what they collectively try to produce is a credible film about maybe the most important force who ever lived — albeit not the god-like Moses of Charlton Heston (“The Ten Commandments”), the humanized Moses depicted by Ben Kingsley (“Moses”) or even the marble sculpture by Michelangelo. Probably, it’s Wouk’s own Moses — but we never come to really know.
So, where is that Moses? In 2000’s “The Will to Live On,” quoted at the outset of “The Lawgiver,” Wouk said, “I still hope against hope for a bolt of lightning, which will yet inspire me to pen my own picture of Maysheh Rabbenu, the Rav of mankind.” So I myself breezed through the new book’s quick read, quickly flipping through easily readable pages and hopelessly looking for a glimpse of that bolt of lightning.
But no. Instead I found, as will you, an extraordinary, aging writer like Moses himself — with eyes not dimmed and vigor undiminished (Deuteronomy 34:7). Wouk is a modern storyteller still vigorous enough to write, teach his art and tell a captivating Jewish (sort of) love story. It is the story of a young woman film-writing “phenom” — Margolit Solovei, aka Margo, aka Mashie, depending on the world in which she is defined at a particular moment in the story’s telling. She has abandoned the derech (“path” in Hebrew); longs for the approbation of her observant father, “Tatti,” despite that road not taken to which she surely still connects; and remains drawn in some indefinable way to the road’s magnet in the person of her still-smitten former love, whom her father reluctantly sees as the vehicle to pull his daughter back. All this with mixtures of Wouk, his wife, a money guy, a producer and others. All in a marinade of e-mails, text, letters, memos to file, news clippings, etc.
But still, although incredibly worthwhile in its own right, this was not the story I looked for. As someone Moses-obsessed, hoping still to learn who the biblical leader really was through the eyes of a truly gifted writer, I longed — still do — to read that “authoritative” novel. “The Lawgiver” offers something else. It teaches, at day’s end, that a man, no matter his age, should encourage his creative juices to continue to flow.
Again, though, not a story about Moses.
And so, this review is maybe not a review at all. Rather, see it as a plea to the man who teased us with his title: Mr. Wouk, you didn’t write the novel about the lawgiver sui generis, which surely takes a writer sui generis. Not yet!
Mr. Wouk, lest it go unsaid: Ad meah v’esrim — may you live to be 120. You still have time!