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14 November 2012

Herman Wouk: The Lawgiver

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An amazing and satisfying book
Herman Wouk (HW throughout the book) has written a clever, and amusing story with a strong Jewish American background.  I have long been an admirer of his major "factional" works about WWII, the creation of Israel, the 6 Day War and the Yom Kippur War. I read this book on its release because I wanted to see what HW could offer at the age of 97 when so many other authors have reached their "sell by date" many years earlier.

I was surprised by a short and satisfying novel that reeks of modernity in its epistolary format using only letters, tape recordings, e-mails, text messages, fax and even Skype between the main characters (including HW and his wife) to tell the story.  The prose adapts to each method of correspondence and is as sharp, and probably more learned and philosophical than his more action-packed stories from earlier days.

This may not be a book for everyone as it is essentially Jewish, and especially American Jewish which, as a Protestant Australian, is far outside my cultural and religious comfort zone.  But the writing and the passion for the subject, and especially for the characters kept me mesmerised and fully entertained.

Basically, the initial plot is that HW (in the book) has long dreamed of writing a novel about the life of Moses, the prophet who is at the foundation of all three of the world's the major monotheistic religions and "the most humble man in the world". The project had only got to the stage of a yellowed, almost empty folder at the bottom of a drawer when HW is approached by a leading Jewish filmmaker to write a screenplay about the life of Moses, to be financed by a Jewish billionaire from Australia. HW compromises by agreeing to vet the work of Margo Solevi, a successful young Jewish filmmaker with a great knowledge and understanding of the story of Moses drilled into her by her estranged Rabbi father.

The life of Moses is really peripheral to the main plot which revolves around the sometimes very amusing machinations of the Jewish dominated US film industry and more importantly the lives of several younger Jewish Americans who are struggling to come to terms with the legacies of being brought up in strict Jewish household. To me it is essentially a clever personal and professional romantic coming-of-age story with a Jewish background.

I could be picky at some of the Australian background which HW's editor's should have improved (for example Fair Dinkum means real or genuine, not OK) but that would be uncharitable to HW's work. It was great to me to see HW use the legendary background of Uluru (Ayers Rock) for a romantic interlude and to cast a humble and honest Australian bloke (or "mensch" - a good man) as Moses in the movie.

The ending was especially emotional as HW's wife, and mentor of 63 years didn't see the end of this book.  A few years ago HW said to his wife that he had 3 more books to write. "Is one of them fiction?" "Yes" "Then write that one." "Why?"  "Because we're living it up (her brand of Zen)". The last page of the book has a small photo of Betty when HW met her - what a beautiful woman.

A recent New York Times interview with HW tells that this lovely picture is framed on his desk. He told the NYT that his next book is already well under way. "I have written a large section, of which I will tell you nothing," he said, smiling.

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