Here’s a story of movie star vanity. In 1998, word appeared that Al Pacino had optioned the rights to Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar (1955). Sporadically over the next few years, reports came out linking the actor with various actresses who wished to play the title role of a woman, barely out of her teens, who becomes involved with a charismatic and charming but amoral and unreliable songwriter in his mid-thirties. Pacino was 58 at the time.

Six years later, stories ran linking the project to Scarlett Johansson, who expressed her desire to play Marjorie, saying that the novel had special meaning for her. But the movie, which would have been a remake of a 1958 adaptation, was not shot. Might this have been because, at the time, Johansson was 19 and Pacino was 64?

Whatever the cause, it is probably best that the film was never produced. It’s an axiom that great novels make bad movies; and, although Marjorie Morningstar has been written off by most critics as a cleverly composed specimen of “popular” writing, it is a great novel. Indeed, in my view, no other American work of fiction has so successfully told the story of a young woman’s coming-of-age. So why is it not taken seriously among the cognoscenti? If critics of the 1960s and ’70s could be persuaded that Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal were not only important artists but thinkers as well, how could they have dismissed one of the best and most readable novels written by an American in the 20th century?

Not long ago, I went to Herman Wouk’s house in Palm Springs to visit the author, now 98, and try to get some answers. I was met by a shrunken, not entirely ambulatory man with the thick white beard of a biblical patriarch. Smiling and gregarious, Wouk was sometimes open and sometimes evasive, but he was entirely lucid. And plainly apparent was his continuing hostility towards the “Partisan Review crowd” and the avant-garde.

Undoubtedly, this played a role in the general depreciation of his work. For in all of Wouk’s work there is an expressed admiration, oftentimes an overt celebration, of the values and ideas that the left intelligentsia deplores. In The Caine Mutiny (1951), the object of veneration was the military, as it was in his two-volume, million-word take on World War II, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978). In his final two large-scale novels, The Hope (1993) and The Glory (1994), Wouk went still further by lionizing the Israeli Army for its valor and steadfastness during Israel’s war of independence and the three wars which followed.

Yet Marjorie Morningstar, arguably his best book, stands at an even greater remove from contemporary orthodoxy. For here, Wouk is questioning the idea that sexual initiation comes without a potentially large cost and that the pursuit of fame and career at the expense of family and home is worthy of the expense. This is not to say that Marjorie Morningstar is programmatic, or without ambiguity. But much of its power comes from its fidelity to the life of Wouk’s older sister, Irene, as well as its wealth of detail about Manhattan’s Upper West Side of the 1930s. The reader gets precise descriptions of Depression-era bar mitzvahs and weddings, the faded passenger seats in vintage automobiles, the unmade beds in ocean liner cabins.

Wouk always aimed to appeal to a wide audience—and to entertain—and when Marjorie fails in verisimilitude, it is most often through its dialogue, which is consistently witty and diverting, if not precisely faithful to actual conversation. Wouk wanted not only to amuse but to build the story’s pace and convey the characters’ thoughts, even if this meant being “on the nose.” This habit reflects his training as an author, first for Columbia University’s annual varsity shows, and then as a top radio joke writer for, among others, Fred Allen.

Wouk’s initial ambition was to write not fiction but plays, and Marjorie Morningstar started as a one-act drama entitled “Crisis Over Marjorie,” the story of a pretty, articulate, would-be actress and a bohemian/man-about-town seducer of whom her parents disapprove. In rereading the script, Wouk was struck that its stage directions were more compelling than the dialogue.

Wouk was a naval officer during World War II, serving as executive officer of a minesweeper-destroyer, and it was military service that pulled him out of his circumscribed life as a New York Jew to a broader knowledge of America and its people. It also gave him time to read and write. It was during sea duty that he composed his first novel, Aurora Dawn (1947), a good-natured satire of the world of radio advertising, also based on an earlier draft of a play. Its modest success persuaded Wouk to concentrate on novels, and gave him confidence as well. Wouk told me that it occurred to him during his time in the Navy that the conflict deserved a work akin to War and Peace—but that couldn’t possibly be accomplished by “a lowly gag writer.”

Still, Marjorie Morningstar is a novel of professional, as well as emotional, skill. There is a pair of compelling central characters, and a plot which is at all times organic, never forced or contrived. It is further heightened by a technical feat: There are only two scenes from a point of view other than the heroine’s; as in life, many of the surprises come not from the outcome of events but from the central character’s abrupt recognition that she has misunderstood or misperceived her choices. Although clever and beautiful, Marjorie is young, unworldly, and naïve, and we can see that she has limited social skills and modest talent.

In the course of her young adulthood, she assimilates away from her traditional Jewish upbringing and, as one critic has noted, picks up a series of bad habits without acquiring any compensatory virtues. It is this last quality—virtue—which sits at the heart of the tale. For, although Marjorie falls in love with the hedonistic Noel, she won’t sleep with him without a ring. If this sounds especially dated today, it struck a discordant note in 1955 as well. Wouk told me that it was the intervention of no less than his fellow novelist John P. Marquand, serving on the board of the Book of the Month Club, which led to its selection, and that both his agent and his publisher regarded Marjorie as hopelessly uncommercial.

That Marjorie Morningstar went on to rank among the biggest sellers of the 1950s, and that so many women continue to rank it as their favorite novel, is testament to how vital it can be, reflecting the complex and ambivalent reactions of readers. The “happy” ending, set in the years long after the central events of the novel, suggests a certain unease, a lack of fulfillment in its heroine. Marjorie Morningstar, willfully reconstructing and reinterpreting her own life, finds that time has allowed her to forget her pain. But the reader cannot.

Jonathan Leaf, a playwright in New York, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties.

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