Books: Wouk’s Latest, Plus a Biography of Ariel Sharon
Herman Wouk’s new novel, The Lawgiver, will not be ranked among his best but it is an enjoyable read, despite its unorthodox style. The work is a mixture of memos, faxes, letters, e-mails, biography and some narrative as well as Wouk’s appearance as a character in his own work. The story revolves around the effort of an Australian Jewish multibillionaire, Louis Gluck, to finance a motion picture about Moses, “Moshe Rabbenu, the Rav of mankind.”
When he was writing The Caine Mutiny, Wouk informs us, it occurred to him that there was no greater novelistic theme than the life of Moses the lawgiver, without whom Christianity and Islam become meaningless. Yet, he says, he never found a way to overcome the difficulties in writing such a novel and became increasingly frustrated until “a bolt of lightening struck”: “Write a lighthearted novel about the impossibility of writing a novel about Moses.”
Determined to create a realistic depiction of Moses that was absent from Cecil B DeMille’s kitschy epic, The Ten Commandments (both versions), the novel describes the search for a screenwriter, director and actor who could create a believable Moses screenplay. The novel’s conceit, however, is that Gluck demands that once the script is written, Wouk (and his wife, Betty Sarah Wouk) would have the final say in approving the project. Enter Margo Solovei. a graduate of the frum Bais Yaakov school for girls, whose father is a Bobover rebbe. Margo, however, broke with her strict Orthodox upbringing and is now a brilliant film writer-director, who is commissioned to direct the film.
Making the film means making deals, and machinations include the selection of a non-Jewish Australian actor to play Moses. Secondary themes involve Margo and her reunion with her first love; her growing relationship with a Columbia University professor, who is also a Bais Yaakov graduate; and a “fade-to-black” wherein the novel ends, too abruptly, with Margo’s apparent reconciliation with her father wedding.
Also running through The Lawgiver are a number of biographical details about Wouk such as his relationship with his wife, referred to as BSW, who died in March 2011. Wouk writes of their 63-year marriage: “[B]efore we met I wrote nothing that mattered. Whoever reads a book by Herman Wouk will be reading art deeply infused with her self-effacing and inclusive brilliance, books composed during a long literary career managed by her common sense.” In the novel, BSW, a convert to Judaism, advises and sometimes scolds her husband as the script goes through many rewrites.
Although The Lawgiver lacks the quality of such earlier novels as The Caine Mutiny, Winds of War or even Marjorie Morningstar, it is not a failure and, what’s more, at age 97, Wouk promises that he plans to write two more works of fiction. —Jack Fischel
How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old by Marc Agronin, M.D. (DaCapo Press, 302 pp. $25)
In his illuminating and deeply humane book on aging, Dr. Marc Agronin posits that older people have to have hope and become engaged. As resident geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health Systems—the facility where Isaac Bashevis Singer spent the last two years of his life—Dr. Agronin is in a unique position to observe, counsel and treat older patients, many of whom are Holocaust survivors.
A central thesis that the author develops is that old age does not necessarily equal decline, and that despite the stumbling blocks of aging, there is also room, given the right circumstances, along with helpful family members and caregivers, for joy and pride, satisfaction and growth.
The mission of the book is to offer a more balanced perspective on aging, to “honestly explore” old age through the lives of his patients and to highlight some of the beneficent aspects of growing old. Agronin offers the example of George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic candidate for president, who reflects that now in old age (mid-eighties) he can see opposing views more clearly and is less impetuous.
The author also tells of the 98-year-old Emma, who had lost her husband and three children in the Holocaust—then, after the war, miraculously discovered that her youngest son, Chaim, had been saved. Yet she was still haunted by her past and wanted to die. Dr. Agronin sensed that such survivors needed extra attention and time—and not an extra dose of antidepressant medication. Just listening to them pour out their hearts and sympathizing could be beneficial.
Then, another small miracle occurred. Emma’s sister-in-law, Rachel, whose husband (Emma’s brother) had just died, came to the same Miami facility and moved into Emma’s room. Since Rachel spoke little English, Emma became her mentor, translator and caregiver. By helping another person, her own despondency was mitigated and Emma now kept all her own medical appointments with a renewed lease on life.
One of the most touching stories in How We Age is the Holocaust survivor whose husband had died after 60 years of marriage. The woman became depressed, thought of suicide. The author asked her how did she have hope in Auschwitz when she knew each day might be her last. She replied that girls helped each other. “We were desperate but never alone.”
She soon joined a social club for people with mild memory problems. One day, Agronin stood unobserved in back of the room and heard another woman bemoaning her failing memory. Then the Auschwitz survivor said, “We have to have hope. We’re in the same boat here, together.” And tears began to form in the doctor’s eyes as he witnessed “a beloved patient begin to heal herself.”
Dr. Agronin’s book shows his skill, patience and wisdom. The Miami facility is fortunate to have such a mentch on its staff as are we to have How We Age. —Curt Leviant
Gilad Sharon, the youngest son of the sadly incapacitated former prime minister, and Hirsh Goodman of Tel Aviv University’s Bronfman Program on Information Strategy, are the authors of vastly different texts which, nevertheless, offer the reader an enhanced understanding of the dilemma that confronts contemporary Israel.
Gilad Sharon has written a memoir, rather than a biography, in which he re-creates, with intimate detail, the life of his dynamic father, a life that is virtually inseparable from the Zionist parents, survivors of East European anti-Semitism. Ariel Sharon had initially intended to become a farmer but Jewish destiny thrust him into a career in which he would defend the land rather than till its soil. During the prestate era marauding Arabs threatened Zionist settlements; with his unique knowledge of topographical features, his ability to observe a landscape and recognize avenues of approach and retreat, Sharn was swiftly recognized as a military genius. He fought with distinction in the War for Independence, enduring an ambush that forced him to abandon the wounded, a wrenching decision he deeply regretted. That regret resulted in the maxim that still guides the Israel Defense Forces: A vulnerable soldier must never be abandoned. The Gilad Shalit experience is an apt example of that philosophy, forged by Sharon and unique to the Army of Israel. During the Sinai Campaign, he ordered his men into the Mitla Pass, a necessary maneuver if the Suez Canal was to be reached. During a fierce battle against an enemy entrenched in the walls of the pass, his troops suffered great losses but Sharon persisted. It could be effectively argued that his determination in the face of the severest challenges translates into the determination to survive against all odds that Israel demonstrates today in a time of nuclear threat.
The author does not ignore his father’s role as a statesman and a politician. There are decidedly undiplomatic accounts of his judgment of other leaders, including Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres among others. His interchanges with foreign leaders duplicate the resolve he showed in battling Arab enemies. As prime minister, he gave no quarter when the security of his beloved country was at stake. —Sheldon Horowitz
Opposed to Indifference: Poems of Memory and Conscience
by Rosemarie Waldrop, Lea Graham and Nine Others, illustrated and edited by Ed Colker, in Limited Edition of 125 copies. Color linocut frontispiece printed on handmade St. Armand Caribou. Printed in letterpress by Bradley Hutchinson on acid-free Stonehenge. Accompanying color vignettes laser printed by Graphics from Mylar plates. Bound in Italian Canapetta cloth by a Portfolio box. Ribbon tie closure. 30, 8.5 x 11 pages. Haybarn Press, Millwood NY, $175.
For nearly six decades graphic artist and poet Ed Colker has been producing abstract “illuminations” of poetic texts that affirm universalist values and protest against injustice or exploitation. In a limited edition of 125 portfolios, Opposed to Indifference is one of Colker’s most resonant collaborations with poets–over the decades, the 15th by my count—most of whom Colker has befriended. Like this current portfolio, around half are essentially thematic anthologies while the rest have been devoted to individual poets whose work speaks to Colker’s austere aesthetic. Of the latter, portfolios devoted to Egyptian Jewish poet Edmond Jabès and Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever are particularly compelling.
A representative sampling from this latest collection, is Jeanne Murray Walker’s “A Sign.” A truncated excerpt follows:
This painting is from my early work, he told me—
the stubble-faced art professor from Westchester State
whose wallet had been stolen, car broken down
on the way to his gallery. He needed twelve bucks
to get there. Oh I’ve been taken. Plenty. It’s not
the money, it’s the song you can’t get out of your head:
When is it too late to go back?
Can the heart close up shop forever?
All right, I thought, if a red Chevrolet goes by,
I’ll take it as a sign. A sign of what?
At the bottom corner of the heavy Stonehenge sheet, as if hellishly emanating from below, Colker has positioned turbulent, overlapping violet masses, one of them hand-like, stretching upward. Powerfully evincing inner conflict, these are bisected, hemmed in by a 1/4 inch, ruler straight red line that extends horizontally from the poet’s name across to the edge of a white frame. Behind this organic, violet tumult appears to a black, humped, vaguely humanoid figure–the illustrator himself?–out of whose “head” a lime-colored limb thrusts upward along the righthand side of the sheet, bestriding the text of the poem itself. It is topped by an assertive, green “finger” which suggestivelyparallels “What I decided” at the precise middle of the sheet, the mid-point of the poem. Another ironic, self-referential gesture appears to be a green, triangular eye peering out uncertainly from a mass of furry blackness.
The perennial query addressed to songwriters regarding the temporal priority of lyric or tune is patently inappropriate with respect to Colker’s graphic riff on Walker’s poem. Regardless, the result is an organic, expressionist fusion of word and color in which each seems not merely to reflect the other but in equal measure to shape it.
Ed Colker founded the Hayburn Press to produce these state of the art, limited edition portfolios as a non-profit enterprise. As a result (and a matter of principle), he has kept prices uncommonly low, thus making work more accessible both to savvy individuals but to the nearly 100 libraries and museums that collect them including Harvard, the Library of Congress, New York’s MOMA, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At 85, Colker remains as impatient with aloof disinterestedness as ever and is still at the top of his artist’s game. His elegant portfolios testify not only to the taste of both giver and recipient but are, in fact, a helluva bargain. —Haim Chertok