The Book Club

Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been?

Dear Philip,

Here’s a funny thing: The more we discuss this book, the less I like it, retroactively. Sort of the opposite of emotion recollected in tranquillity: readerly pleasure destroyed by analysis. You praise the very elements that irritated me, and that I let myself slide past as I read. But now I have to reckon with those pages, and the book I liked is getting shorter and shorter! Take Nathan’s father: I feel like I’ve spent half my life with this man! Under various names, he is all over Roth’s oeuvre, most recently in American Pastoral, in a more aggressively overbearing and invasive guise: the smothering, hyperemotional, controlling, guilt-tripping, aggressive,brusque, domineering, know-it-all–but also earnest, moral, serious, loving, liberal blah blah–Jewish family man of my grandparents’ generation. Roth portrays this character with great feeling and subtlety, but I wish for once he’d give his hero a different dad. And a different mom than the docile second fiddles he’s been writing since Portnoy’s Complaint. Now that was a pair of parents to remember! Do you think the Zuckermans are his way of saying “Sorry” to all those Jews who called him an anti-Semite over Portnoy?

The scene you mention was orchestrated for intensity, yes. But I found myself a little exasperated. We’re meant to think Ira did such a terrible thing, not confessing to CP membership when asked directly after he invites Nathan over for a visit. But you know, Ira had a right to be suspicious as well: These were days when Communists and fellow travelers and even just good liberals had their lives ruined because of gossip and whispers and anonymous letters. You may have seen Jon Wiener’s article in The Nation about Groucho Marx’s FBI file, which was picked up in the New York Times. People–nuts, paranoids–wrote the FBI when they thought Groucho said something un-American on “You Bet Your Life”! And the FBI kept it all on file. So I thought Ira was being self-protective in a way that was completely understandable. Of course, he wasn’t being a hundred percent protective of Nathan–although he was, in a way, protecting him, giving him “deniability” if Nathan was ever interrogated about his relationship with Ira. But from Ira’s point of view he was offering Nathan something pretty valuable in return for the risk–communism, show business, life experience, knowledge, Truth, the opportunity to participate in a world-historical movement, not to mention his father-like love. So–as with our prez–lying is bad, but some questions should not be asked.

I mean, imagine (mutatis mutandis lots of things) a German dad, circa 1935, insisting on knowing if his son’s new mentor had any “Jewish blood”? His motive might be the same–protecting the precious child in dangerous times. He might himself be free from prejudice but only responding to practical fears. But don’t you think he should have tried to rise about his fears? And do you think he had a right to a true answer?

But then, you know, I was brought up to believe that “Are you now or have you ever been?” was just a question you didn’t ask. Very bad form. Low, base, ignoble.

Cheers, Katha

p.s. Don’t beat yourself up over Pol Pot. Our own government supported the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge against the Russian-backed Vietnamese, remember? And the US fought for the Khmer Rouge to retain Cambodia’s UN seat after it was overthrown, against most of the rest of the world. So you were really just being a good Republican all along.