Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk
By Herman Wouk
Doubleday. 565 pp. $4.95.
Marjorie Morningstar is so obtrusively doctrinal that most reviewers have plunged headlong into moral issues without so much as a by-your-leave to the literary quality of the book. Almost everyone senses that Marjorie is negligible as a novel, but judging by the newspapers and Time magazine, there seems to be a notion that Wouk has important things to say, important enough to make us overlook his defects. This is no easy matter, for the defects take a lot of overlooking. Here is an example of the indigestible prose Wouk’s admirers have to swallow:
The redheaded singer Adele, with whom Marjorie shared her bungalow, dropped her patronizing air, offered her scotch from the bottle in her suitcase, and began confiding to her all the daily twists and turns in her affair with a waiter. The office-girl actresses, now that she was sleeping with Noel (as they thought), talked more freely about their love problems in her presence, as well as about the romances of other staff members.
Wouk doesn’t always use six “her’s” in a single sentence, but the ugliness, the gaucherie, and the simple rhetorical barbarity of this passage are characteristic of his writing throughout. The lyrical Wouk is even worse—impoverished and inept:
He really sounded like a Mexican. In the plaintive slow songs the melancholy shaking of his head, the reedy quaver of his high notes, made a melting effect that she loved. She did not applaud, but was dreamily grateful when waves of handclapping kept him at the piano.
This tour de force of cliché is a fair sample of Wouk’s imaginative helplessness. Utterly incapable of rendering the feel of an emotion or a mood or a conversation, he points vaguely into space like a blind man trying to locate an object in an unfamiliar room. His only felicitous strokes are themselves ugly: “In the dismal routine of the free city colleges, which squeezed out graduating classes like sausages every six months. . . .”
That Wouk should pass for a serious writer is perhaps no more an occasion of surprise than the success of a dozen other inconsequential novelists. But an error of taste alone obviously cannot account for his reputation. The people who enjoy Wouk, I would guess, read him earnestly, with a reverence they never feel when confronted by, say, Thomas B. Costain or Sloan Wilson. His books are not “mere entertainment,” time-killers to carry on the subway; they “stimulate the mind,” they “provoke thought.” Marjorie, like The Caine Mutiny (which is, incidentally, a better novel), gives its audience a satisfied sense of having grappled with difficult questions, of having made an honest, painstaking effort to examine both sides of a problem before reaching a mature decision.
It is worth looking closely at the way Wouk creates this impression. Large sections of the book are given over to descriptions of Jewish customs and ceremonials—a seder, a Bar Mitzvah, several weddings. For the purposes of analysis we can take a small manageable incident concerning the loss of Marjorie’s dietary purity—an issue Wouk makes much of on several occasions. He begins portentously by announcing: “That was the day he persuaded her to eat a lobster.” When Noel—a bohemian intellectual with whom Marjorie has fallen in love—first suggests lobster for dinner, she instinctively recoils. But he works on her desire to look sophisticated and enlightened. “Come,” he says, “it’s the twentieth century.” As always when her religious habits are challenged, Marjorie has no defense and falls back on apology. “Oh, I know it’s a ridiculous prejudice. Conditioning.” But Noel points out that according to “those queer laws,” no food served in a non-kosher restaurant can be kosher, and Marjorie capitulates. She is disgusted by the appearance of the lobster, doesn’t much like the taste, and makes a fool of herself trying to extract the meat from its shell. Nevertheless she pretends to enjoy the meal, and even ridicules the dietary laws while violating them (“Those Bible laws were just for hot countries in the old days”).
Now Wouk wants us to agree that Marjorie should not have eaten the lobster. But he also wants us to think that he understands why she did: he is no benighted fanatic; after all, he knows perfectly well that there are inconsistencies in his point of view and arguments against his position. By acknowledging the inconsistency he establishes his fairness with the reader—and saves himself the trouble of finding reasonable explanations. But instead of coming to terms with the arguments, he merely discredits them by making it appear that their only proponents are irresponsible bohemians, half-baked Freudians, and pimply adolescents, all in cowardly flight from their Jewishness.
So it would seem that Marjorie is seduced from within by an unfortunate impulse to conform and from without by fashionable ideas whose silliness she is too young to recognize. The fact that the dietary laws have little meaning in her life never occurs to Wouk as an explanation, because that would drive him to wonder whether there might not be something to question in the dietary laws themselves—that would force him really to grapple with the issue. The crucial dishonesty here is Wouk’s refusal to recognize that the kind of Judaism which involves dietary laws and certain other observances is in a crisis—and not simply because the Noel Airmans of this world jeer at them. (Each time Wouk wants to say something positive about religion, he finds himself using the same vague adverb: “The Bar Mitzvah was oddly impressive after all”; “In recent years she had found the seder oddly appealing.”) Similarly he asks us to accept chastity as an absolute virtue because there are foolish people in our midst who make promiscuity a standard of sophistication. (After resisting Noel for many, many months, Marjorie finally goes to bed with him and finds that she enjoys premarital sex about as much as lobster.) You would never suspect from Marjorie that customs and principles die of their own irrelevance: Greenwich Village cannot be indicted for the murder of chastity.
The American mind has been much preoccupied with maturity of late. The word maturity itself has become an honorific, descriptive of some extraordinary achievement, and we commend those who reach it (though no one, we feel, ever quite does), as for courage above and beyond the call of duty. We conceive of ourselves as a nation of children incorrigible in our refusal to become adults, and shamefully we accept this description of us by foreign critics, resolving to do better in the future. But the fact is that Americans make virtually no effort to prolong their youth—if by youth we mean recklessness, an appetite for diverse areas of experience, an unwillingness to settle into the common routines, a refusal to surrender one’s demands on the world without a fight. Was there ever a youth which married so early, chose careers so sagely, got along so well with its elders, faced life so soon with a sober countenance, a steady hand, and a resigned knowledge of human limitation? It is to this nation that Marjorie Morningstar addresses itself. If, as some claim, Wouk is the voice of an age, what he expresses is not at all the “glorification” of bourgeois life, but the Weltanschauung of America’s young adults.
From the tone of the book one has an image of Wouk as an old man with a twinkle in his eye, asking us to accept him as a reliable witness because, like us, he is so worldly and good-humored, because he has been through it all and come out with the truth. Like you and me, he is the mature man par excellence who has flirted with the life of risk and given it up for submission to law, who has felt the lure of promiscuity and yet chosen chastity, who has seen Montmartre and settled in Mamaroneck. And he speaks rather sadly, as befits a man who understands so well that not everything can be had in this imperfect world of ours. It is a little humiliating, he admits with a rueful smile, to find as you grow up that Momma-Momma who had such banal ideas and refused to take your dreams seriously and always wanted you to play it safe—that Momma was right all the time. But then you mustn’t feel too broken up over it; all of us are the butt of the same joke. The main thing to remember is that you and I are mature, real adults who accept their responsibilities, while those others are mere children, the more ridiculous for their gray hair and wrinkles.
This, I think, is the general appeal of Marjorie, but there is a more specifically Jewish moral to the story. Marjorie is, after all, a Jewish book, perhaps the first novel to treat American Jews intimately as Jews without making them seem exotic. (In my opinion, this is the best thing about Marjorie, though it is still far from satisfactory in its dealings with Jews.) The prudence advised by Wouk takes rather a strange form when you consider that it comes from a sophisticated Orthodox Jew. Why is it that all the vulgarities and accidental accretions of American Jewish life are urged upon us as part of the burden a Jew must carry—as though weddings at the Pierre and catering by Lowenstein and the suburban kaffeeklatsch have achieved the status of mitzvot? Does the survival of Judaism in America depend on Lowenstein? Wouk seems to imply that it does.
He writes out of a strong sense that Jewish life as such is severely constricted in its possibilities, out of a feeling that the Jewish personality can only disintegrate and wither away if it ventures beyond the moral and spiritual confines of a Judaic bourgeois style. And this too accounts for the sad tones of the novel. Wouk sees three alternatives for the American Jew: one represented by the middle-class Marjorie, another by the bohemian Noel Airman, and the third by Mike Eden, the heroic unhappy man who works underground rescuing Jews from the Nazis. In the last chapter of the book, Marjorie, fortyish and the mother of three children, receives a visit from an old rejected suitor, Wally Wronken, who is now a popular librettist on Broadway. Wally’s dreams have apparently been realized, but cut off from the sources of his being, he is no less disappointed than Marjorie, though she became Mrs. Milton Schwartz of Mamaroneck and not Marjorie Morningstar of Broadway. The days of Noel mean nothing to Marjorie now, but she still remembers Mike Eden fondly and nostalgically. This is the only legitimate yearning left to her—but then not everyone can be a hero.
Wouk falsifies the alternatives here as elsewhere (does a Jew really grow into a warped creature by eating lobster?). But it must also be admitted that this particular falsification is not so flagrant as some of the others. If the Jewish personality can indeed only flourish by rooting itself in a parochial, insulated way of life, and if the suburbs of New York are to become another kind of ghetto to protect the Jew from the assaults of Greenwich Village, then Wouk has a right to his sadness—and then, too, the rest of us can begin weeping along with him.