January 8, 2013
Herman Wouk, ever faithful
In his review of Herman Wouk’s latest book, “The Lawgiver” Julian Levinson writes in the Jewish Review of Books about a genre he calls the “Jewish Hollywood novel.” Included in this canon he counts various works from Leon Zolotkoff’s 1932 novel “From Vilna to Hollywood” to Nathanael West's “Day of the Locust” (1939) to Budd Schulberg's “What Makes Sammy Run” (1941) to Leslie Epstein’s more recent, “San Remo Drive” (2003).
They each function at some level as fable, Levinson writes, with the underlying moral that “financial success is precarious and often gained at the price of one's soul.” Indeed, many of these works feature Jewish characters who abandon their roots for fame and fortune and must ultimately pay a price.
“Jews are not alone in their fascination with the mythical allure of Hollywood, of course, but they have been among the most adept at crafting moral fables that decry its corrupting force,” Levinson writes.
He counts Wouk’s latest in this camp, since it has overtly Jewish content and is squarely set in Hollywood. The plot hinges upon the wishes of an Australian uranium tycoon named Louis Gluck, a Hasidic Jew, to finance a movie about the life of Moses. Exacting in his vision, he enlists the help of a writer named Herman Wouk to oversee the screenplay. Wouk, meanwhile, is at work on his own Moses project, so rather than guide the young screenwriter hired to write Gluck’s movie, (the fictional) Wouk is instead intimidated by her scope and speed. Margot Solvei, it turns out, isn’t just any enterprising, young screenwriter; she possesses a “deep intimacy with Torah” which, we are to assume she inherited from her father, the esteemed Bobover Rebbe of Passaic.
Solovei’s roots have added significance here because they signal a shift in perception of the Hollywood-Jewish hero(ine). In the past, Jews who endeavored to succeed in Hollywood typically abandoned their roots, so as to become more fully American. But here, though the heroine distances herself from her former religious life, it continues to act upon her psyche, informing and enriching everything she writes without serving as a source of shame.
Levinson is not alone in drawing parallels between Margot, Wouk's 21st century Hollywood screenwriter, and Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk's 1930's aspiring actress (a character that real-life Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson exclaimed to Charlie Rose, "I am Marjorie!"): "Margot is in many ways a more talented and scholarly Marjorie Morningstar," Levinson writes,"or, even better, a kind of Herman Wouk in reverse."
Though in "The Lawgiver" Margot is the hero and not (the fictional) Wouk, she is the real Wouk’s triumph because she is his revelation; the product of his dizzying journey through the labyrinth of Jewish American life. It is through Wouk’s own struggle with Judaism that he is able to write such a clear-minded Jewish character, one who learns to use her Judaism rather than forsake it. Between sacred and secular, there need not be such a struggle, Wouk seems to be saying. Deep Jewish engagement -- whether intellectual, spiritual or communal -- has a role to play, even a "place" in secular life. The two need not be separated, but integrated.
At 97-years-old, Wouk has let faith triumph. He is finally able to see it as the core of his character (and his characters). When Vanity Fair recently interviewed him for their famous Proust Questionnaire, he was comfortably self-revealing:
The poet Marianne Moore once wrote that the deepest feeling always expresses itself in silence. Though Wouk’s legacy is hardly a silent one, he has quietly revealed his abiding passion for faith -- faithfulness in tradition and faithfulness in love.
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