Books: The Lawgiver

I had heard of Herman Wouk but never read any of his books. When I saw his latest book, The Lawgiver, in the library, I couldn’t even think of the title of any of those books of his I hadn’t read. But the name meant something, and I decided this looked like a good book to read to see if I wanted to read more.

I saw from the cover that Wouk had always wanted to write a novel about Moses, and he had finally found a way to do so by writing about the making of a movie about Moses. I enjoy reading novels about Biblical characters, so that was another reason to read it. And it’s short – even without knowing any of his books I remembered that they were long.

The Lawgiver is even shorter than its page count of 240 would indicate, being composed not of narrative chapters but a series of emails, letters, memos, transcriptions of Skype conversations, etc. It is very easy reading, although I did sometimes have trouble keeping track of who some of the people were who were writing/receiving this correspondence.

Besides its epistolary style, another interesting characteristic of this book is that its author is one of the characters, as well as his wife. From what I have read about the book, Wouk apparently depicts both of them fairly realistically.

The story is an interesting one, but it’s really not about Moses. For me, the most interesting parts were those that did relate to Moses – the writing of the script itself to depict him in a manner faithful to the Scriptural record, and then finding the right actor for the role.

Moses’ character certainly does defy easy description. Strong leader? Yes – but what about his apparent self-doubts when God calls him at the burning bush? The fictional scriptwriter, Margo Solovei, wants to capture that contrast.

One part of his story that particular bothers Margo is what she refers to as Rock II, near the end of his life, when Moses is instructed by God to speak to the rock and water will come out. Instead he strikes the rock with his staff, as he had done on a similar occasion many years earlier – but that time, he was striking the rock per God’s instructions.

As a result, God denies him the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. This seems unreasonable to Margo, has since she was nine years old. The discussion of that scene in her script doesn’t give any details, certainly doesn’t resolve the question of why the punishment was so harsh. Nor should it – much of the time, good writing doesn’t answer questions so much as get readers to think about them.

The rest of the Wouk’s book is about the people involved in the movie project – disputes over money, various couples and how well – or poorly – they’re getting along in their relationships, and Wouk himself trying to write a novel about Moses (told from Aaron’s point of view) and not making much progress, especially when the movie project keeps interrupting him.

I think I’ll have to check out one of Wouk’s other books – sometime when I have a lot of time for reading.

2 Responses to Books: The Lawgiver

  1. modestypress says:

    “Is Wouk still alive,” I asked myself in astonishment. I don’t know if I will read the book, though I have read some of his earlier books. I recently watched a History Channel show about great warriors of the ancient world. Perhaps one had to be there in Moses’ time, but if the Biblical chronicle is correct, what Moses and Josua did sounds a lot like what we today call ethnic cleansing. Maybe it all comes out in the wash.

  2. Karen O says:

    Herman Wouk is still alive. He is 98 years old!

    I very much enjoyed Wouk’s Winds of War & its sequel, War and Remembrance.

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