Wholly Moses

The Lawgiver, by Herman Wouk, Simon & Schuster, RRP£18.99/$25.99, 240 pages

Philip Roth recently confessed to an interviewer that old age had beaten him and that Nemesis (2010) was his last book. Roth is 79. Herman Wouk is 97 and made of sterner stuff. The Pulitzer winning author of The Caine Mutiny (1951) and The Winds of War (1971) refuses to give up the game. The Lawgiver is merely the latest work in a 70-year career and there are hints of more to come.

Wouk is committed to his Jewish faith and has long wanted to write a novel about the life of Moses but has never found a way in. Now that time is undoubtedly pressing, he finally has. Up to a point. There is no bobbing among the bulrushes or parting of the Red Sea here but, instead, Wouk offers an account of the making of a Cecil B. DeMille-style epic film about the prophet. This is Moses in the promised land of Hollywood, where the chosen people he leads are directors, screenwriters, agents, producers and even Wouk himself.

The idea and the money for the film come from a Jewish Australian uranium billionaire who contacts the fictional Wouk for script help. The project also involves a producer with a sideline in making oil from algae, a director of big budget hits, an art-house auteur and an Australian actor rather more fond of his father’s sheep farm than the big screen.

(Non-fictional) Wouk’s way of bringing this motley tribe together is through emails, texts, Skype and phone transcripts. In this world, God would send the Ten Commandments via his Twitter feed.

Underneath this gloss is a very traditional love story. As the (fictional) Wouk plays hard to get and the money men fly around in private jets, the film’s writer, Margolit (Margo) Solovei, a lapsed Jew, makes contact with her school-days boyfriend Josh. He is now a successful lawyer, though in the intervening years he has been in the wilderness, maintaining a steadfast and puppy-eyed love for Margo.

The story whips along as one-line texts ping in followed by a rattled-off page of film script and, amid the flurry, there are brief insights into why Moses has such a hold on them all. It is all very innocent: the producers use faxes and the hunk actor is given to very un-Australian sentiments – wishing Margo “could see the hundreds and hundreds of little white lambs leaping and dancing all over the farm”. There’s not a swear word to be heard and Wouk also believes sterling comes in £1,000-notes.

The Lawgiver is endearing and light-hearted but, inescapably, an old man’s book. The wisdom of Wouk’s years seems to suggest it is impossible to get his Moses down on tablets of stone, so he has written on something softer instead.

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