Philip Roth: I Married a Communist

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 (1998) – 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.

i-married-a-communist

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.

10 thoughts on “Philip Roth: I Married a Communist

  1. I think this review hits the nail on the head — Roth is at his weakest when he strays from being a novelist to becoming a journalist, or even worse, a polemicist. McCarthyism was terrible, but far better journalists than Roth chronicled it — and the disappointing thing about this novel is that Roth ignores what he is good at (characters and their environment) in exchange for taking cheap shots that just don’t land, even though they should.

    The Plot Against America may be an even worse example as you work through Roth — although in no way am I suggesting these books are typical of his work. The good thing is that they are not. John Updike did the same thing with The Terrorist; Don Delillo with Falling Man. All books that, in my humble opinion, editors should have said “Let’s not publish this one.” I Married a Communist is not that bad and should have been published because of its place in the trilogy, but it is not up to the rest of Roth’s good novels.

    The good news, of course, given your goals, is that you now get to move on to a truly excellent novel, The Human Stain — I think my favorite Roth. I am willing to bet a lot it won’t take you five months to get to that one.

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m glad to get your encouragement about The Human Stain, Kevin! I didn’t know it was your favorite Roth, so I look forward to it – and it definitely won’t take me too long to get to it.

    I’m sad, however, to hear that The Plot Against America is in the same vein as I Married a Communist. I’ve had a lot of people recommend that book to me, though I have steered clear just because I’m not usually one for alternate histories. From what I had heard, however, Roth pulled it off. It’ll be a while before I get to that one, but I am interested to see if I feel the same way you did.

  3. Hello Trevor
    I have long been a reader of your comments on John Self’s Asylum blog and have finally made it over to your own. There’s a lot here (!) but I’ll start by thanking you for an excellent review here. This was one of the first of Roth’s books I read and having been told all about the acrimonious personal relationship behind it I found that it completely dominated my reading of it. The person who recommended it to me was impressed by the fact that whilst Claire Bloom had written a dirt-dishing memoir, Roth had created a work of art with which to settle the score. I think that the score settling may have detracted from the art and have been far more impressed with other books of his; American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theatre, The Counterlife and The Ghost Writer particularly.
    He remains one of my favourite writers and as an actor I’ll be interested to read his take on stage fright in the upcoming The Humbling
    See you around Trevor…

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for stopping by, William. I actually just went over to your blog before I moved my content to this site, so I’ll look forward to getting to know your views on books better.

    From my review, I’m sure you can tell I agree with you about the lack of art in this book. Sure, Roth has some great passages – those seem to come fairly natural to him – but this one just didn’t stand up to his other work. I’ve tried to decide how I would feel about it had I not already read Roth. Was my reaction based on the comparison to his better works? I’m sure some of that is the case, but hopefully – like you – I would have been able to see that this was more reactionary than artistic.

    I’ll be anxious to hear an insider’s perspective on The Humbling.

  5. John Self says:

    Oh dear, now I’m worried about this one too! Like Trevor, I’d heard that The Human Stain was the biggie, and wanted to read them in order. Maybe I shouldn’t bother, as a disappointment from a great novelist lands a lot heavier than a disappointment from a middling one.

    Again, like Trevor, I’d heard good reports about The Plot Against America so I’m perturbed to hear Kevin’s views – but will not let that put me off, as I understand he didn’t like Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia either. Maybe it’s just an alternate history thing… ;-)

  6. Trevor says:

    John, I was going to say in this comment that you shoudl read I Married a Communist anyway, just to complete the Zuckerman books. But then I thought that might not be a good recommendation. While there were good parts, as a whole it contributed very little. Worse than that, it appears quickly written and reactionary rather than ponderous and well crafted. And the absolute worst part, it felt like someone mimicing Roth by slopping together some Rothian phrases and some underdeveloped Rothian themes.

    (Now that we’ve lowered your expectations for the book absolutely, you should read it because it’s better than we’ve made it out to be, and you might be pleasantly surprised!)

  7. John is right in one sense — it is an alternate history thing. If Roth wants to comment, he should impose the same discipline a journalist does, not write a novel. (I do have every bit as much a problem with journalists who don’t respect novelists and write ‘kiss-off’ fiction.) The shot about Sputnik
    Caledonia
    has definitely landed — those who like badly-written, badly-constructed novels simply because they are set strangely must be tolerated.

  8. Rob says:

    I always thought this was the weakest in the trilogy. So much so that I’ve been known to refer to “his America trilogy—you know, American Pastoral and The Human Stain.”

    The Plot Against America was the moment when I stopped reading Roth altogether.

  9. Trevor says:

    Another vote against Roth’s The Plot Against America! Frankly, I tend to think I’ll agree with Kevin and Rob, but Roth is one of those authors I think I’ll keep giving a chance. You know those bands who haven’t come out with a good album for ten years but because you loved an earlier album you still buy everything they produce? I think Roth is that kind of author for me. I Married a Communist was his only work that I was thoroughly disappinted in. Then again, I’ve only read nine of his boooks. If the next nine are not that good . . . well, then it might be hard to convince myself to read the next ten.

  10. Ron Price says:

    AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Philip Roth and Me–
    A Personal Retrosepctive

    Philip Milton Roth(1933-), for those who come to this post and don’t know who he is, is an American novelist who first gained fame with his 1959 novella Goodbye, Columbus. The book was an irreverent and humorous portrait of Jewish-American life and it earned him a National Book Award. I was only 15 at the time, in grade 10 in a small town in southern Ontario, had just joined the Baha’i Faith, and only read what I had to. I memorized everything on the curriculum and its several syllabi because that was the way, then, to get the highest possible marks at high school. I was an ace in my studies as well as in baseball, even a home-run king back in the pee-wee baseball league.

    In 1969 Roth became a major celebrity with the publication of the controversial Portnoy’s Complaint the humorous and sexually explicit psychoanalytical monologue of “a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor,” filled with “intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language.” By 1969 I had had my own experiences of lust as well as psychiatry due to my bipolar disorder. But I was no longer a bachelor, having got married in 1967. That same year I moved to Baffin Island to teach Inuit children.

    Since those late 1950s Roth has become one of the most honoured authors of his generation. His books have twice been awarded the National Book Award, twice the National Book Critics Circle award, and three times the PEN/Faulkner Award. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral, which featured his best-known character, Nathan Zuckerman, the subject of many other of Roth’s novels. His 2001 novel The Human Stain, another story of Nathan Zuckerman, was awarded the United Kingdom’s W.H. Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year.

    Roth’s fiction is set frequently in Newark New Jersey. It is known for an intensely autobiographical character, for a philosophical and formal blurring of the distinction between reality and fiction, for a “supple, ingenious style,” and for its provocative explorations of Jewish and American identity.(1)

    Since those late fifties and late sixties, I have become a successful, but quite ordinarily ordinary, teacher and lecturer of my generation. I have received no honours for my writing although, in the last three decades, I have written and published several million words. My writing is also intensely autobiographical, but the main character in my writing is me and I do not blur the line between reality and fiction. I would like to think my writing is, like Roth’s, supple and ingenious in style and provocative in its explorations of life, mine and society’s. I would like to think that, but I must leave such judgements to readers.-Ron Price with thanks to 1Charles Simic, “The Nicest Boy in the World,” The New York Review of Books, 9 October 2008.

    I’m intensely autobiographic, too,
    Philip; but I go about it in a very
    Different way that you. And fame
    is not part of my story…..my life-
    narrative…..We go after reality in
    our own unique ways and I went
    after it in writing much later in life
    than you. I was just getting into my
    profession in my twenties and you
    were on your way to fame and glory.

    Ron Price
    12 November 2011

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