I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) Vintage (1999) 323 pp
After binging on Philip Roth, reading seven of his books over a period of a few months, I haven’t read anything by him since October. Partly that’s because I’m reading his Zuckerman books in order and the next book on my list was I Married a Communist — I’ve been much more excited to read The Human Stain. It’s also a bit discouraging after reading so many Roth books where the cover proclaims the awards it garnered that this one simply says, “Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Pastoral.” I guess I had low expectations of this book and viewed it as something I needed to get through (a self-imposed barrier, I know) in order to move on to better Roth pastures.
But why should I have approached this book with trepidation. After all, I Married a Communist capped off a great decade for Roth. In the 1990s, Roth won the National Book Critics Circle Award (nonfiction) for Patrimony (1991), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock (1993), the National Book Award for Sabbath’s Theater (1995), and the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral (1997). And I Married a Communist is the middle part of Roth’s highly acclaimed America Trilogy and the greater Zuckerman series. Yet still I had low expectations of this book and put my Roth project on hold until I had the gumption to just get it done.
Then the other night my son was awake and sick. I picked up this book and began reading while I rocked him. So much for that night of sleep. Roth’s prose begins as seductively as usual.
The book opens differently than American Pastoral. Where American Pastoral opened with an excellent framing device for the overtly solipsistic narrative to come, I Married a Communist has the rather mundane framing device of memory. The narrative structure here is, in a way, a sort of late-night-on-the-back-porch interview Nathan Zuckerman has with his former high school teacher Murry Ringold. The discussion takes place in the late 1990s but looks back nearly fifty years before to America during the era of McCarthyism. The topic of their six-evening-long discussion is Murray’s now-dead brother Ira, a devout Communist in a time when America’s zealous hatred of Communism was so great that even acquaintances of alleged communists were tainted.
Rather than delve into Ira’s story right away, the book begins with Murray’s own run-in with the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), a committee set up to investigate potential threats to American security — in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the perceived threat was Communism. Paranoid, HUAC, with the help of a sinister family foe, investigates and interrogates Murry Ringold, mainly because he is Ira’s brother. As a result of his ultimate noncompliance, Murray loses his teaching job. Turns out that Nathan’s own life was affected by Ira’s political beliefs, though he remained ignorant of this until this back-porch discussion nearly fifty years later. Murray says that when Nathan applied for the Fulbright Scholarship he was denied only because of his connections to Ira Ringold, connections that we readers do not know much about yet. (I’d actually like to thank HUAC for whatever they did to deny Nathan the scholarship because instead of doing whatever he would have done with his Fulbright, Nathan goes to the University of Chicago — The Ghost Writer is only a few steps away.)
One of the compelling aspects of this early part of the novel is how well Roth evokes the nuances of an age that we now think of only in the vague yet absolute term McCarthyism. Today we look back on this time period as excessive government feeding on mass paranoia. I’m not saying we’re wrong to call it this, but Roth manages to make the time period become a bit more difficult to map in black and white. And again, Roth is not saying McCarthyism was good — far from it — but he allows his characters to be more than mere symbols of an age. Well, all of his characters except for the main one: Ira. Though I’m sure this was not Roth’s intent, things went down hill for me when I finally met Ira through Murray and Nathan’s memories and long-winded talk. The book became heavy-handed — so much so that Ira was flattened quickly.
For me, after reading about a third of Roth’s books, Ira Ringold is Roth’s weakest character yet. Unlike the Swede in American Pastoral, Ira never feels like he has his own voice. We learn of him from two sources fifty years in the future. In Ira’s long-winded (thirty, forty, and fifty page segments) recounts of the past, his fraternal interests are to set up Ira as a martyr. Sure he says Ira is to blame for some things, but he always passes off Ira’s actions as just part of this innocent man’s nature. Had things been different, Ira could have succeeded in life. In these segments, Ira feels like someone capable only of reaction.
I’d never known anyone so immersed in his moment or so defined by it. Or tyrannized by it, so much its avenger and its victim and its tool. To imagine Ira outside of his moment was impossible.
While this idea is compelling, and this is not the only book where Roth looks at how history can steamroll over individuals, it didn’t work here. Ira never fully comes alive in Murray’s narration.
Nathan as narrator is only a fraction more successful. While the young Nathan is still doting on Ira’s ideological stamina, we get a few more glimpses of Ira in action — getting kicked out of a house at gunpoint while accompanied by the young Nathan, ranting about America to people interested only in taxidermy (again while accompanied by the young Nathan) — but even these are a bit over the top when they occur. It seems that Ira is not a character so much as a symbol, someone whom Roth can use to represent disillusionment, wrath, and injustice. Indeed, to a limited degree Ira even becomes one of Roth’s alter egos while at the same time appearing to be one of Roth’s own attempts at revenge: after Ira’s marriage falls apart with the actress Eve Frame, Eve writes an unflattering, best-selling book (I Married a Communist); after Roth’s marriage to actress Claire Bloom ended in 1994, Claire published an unflattering depiction of Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House, in 1996 — in this book, Eve is not depicted in a particularly flattering light.
Though at the beginning of the book I was fascinated by the evocation of the 1950s and McCarthyism, ultimately I cared less for Ira and Communism than for the tangentially developed idea of Nathan’s own pursuit of a father figure. Of the 325 pages, the best ones, and the ones I will remember, are the ones where Nathan’s character develops. I was particularly pleased every time Nathan’s father entered in the narrative.
The moment when you first recognize that your father is vulnerable to others is bad enough, but when you understand that he’s vulnerable to you, still needs your more than you any longer think you need him, when you realize that you might actually be able to frighten him, even to quash him if you wanted to — well, the idea is at such cross-purposes with routine filial inclinations that it does not even begin to make sense.
We come to find out in this book one of the first events that begins to strain Nathan’s relationship with his father; it’s not just because Nathan writes an offensive story while at Chicago.
I was also enthralled when Nathan’s character developed from the idealistic, politically active youth (who saw that in “Zuckerman Bound”?) to the more familiar, apathetic Nathan I’ve come to love. Another surrogate father who enters Nathan’s live during the 1950s is Leo Glucksman, one of Nathan’s humanities teachers at Chicago. Some of Roth’s quintessential aesthetic ideas is expressed during these pages, and we see why Nathan ends up a recluse in his later life.
“Art as a weapon?” he said to me, the word “weapon” rich with contempt and itself a weapon. “Art as taking the right to stand on everything? Art as the advocate of good things? Who taught you all this? Who taught you art is slogans? Who taught you art is in the service of ‘the people‘? Art is in the service of art — otherwise there is no art worthy of anyone’s attention. What is the motive for writing serious literature, Mr. Zuckerman? To disarm the enemies of price control? The motive for writing serious literature is to write serious literature. You want to rebel against society? I’ll tell you how to do it — write well. You want to embrace a lost cause? Then don’t fight in behalf of the laboring class. They’re going to make out fine. They’re going to fill up on Plymouths to their heart’s content. The workingman will conquer us all — out of his mindlessness will flow the slop that is this philistine country’s cultural destiny. We’ll soon have something in this country far worse than the government of the peasants and the workers — we will have the culture of the peasant and the workers. You want a lost cause to fight for? Then fight for the word. . . .”
So there are some great parts that didn’t serve to strengthen the overall story. I am glad I read it because I am deeply interested in Roth’s depictions of Nathan Zuckerman. However, I’m not sure it’s for anyone interested in seeing Roth at his best. The last few pages of the book, however, are beautiful, and maybe just for them the book is worth it.