The Book Club

Becoming an Orphan

Dear Katha,

First, a confession. A couple years back I read Claire Bloom’s book, Leaving a Doll’s House, then threw the galley away, which is something this packrat almost never does. While I accepted Bloom’s portrait of Philip Roth as mean, neurotic, self-centered, it didn’t make a book for me, and I was put off by her passivity and failure to integrate her experience, though as I write this I wonder if I’m confusing it with the Mia Farrow book (Didn’t like that either; though in the same genre, call it Fucking Genius. I enjoyed the Joyce Maynard, thought your recent review in the Times was spot-on.). Anyway, then I read I Married a Communist but it wasn’t till an editor, lunching, said he thought the work was contaminated by its personal agenda that I finally got what everyone else has: the book’s interior narrative, the marriage of Ira and Eve, echoes Roth-Bloom. I rate a Duh sticker for that.

But then, what difference does it make? Writers have always cannibalized their associates, and Roth is (apparently) doing so in a highly traditional manner, cloaking his enemy in a different time and place. I feel as if memoirs have so disrupted the life of the novel that this technique now feels sneaky to some.

The real problem with the Ira-Eve-Sylphid story is, as you said, it’s tiresome. At one point Ira is described as a savage bore. Who was it who said a great writer can be interesting about something boring? Wilde, James? I forget. Roth can’t. I didn’t care what happened to Ira.

But I loved this book, and here’s why.

First off, as you noted, it has tremendous purpose. The narrator grabs us, Ancient Mariner style, because he has an important story to tell us. And boy is this serious material. Consequently, the style is rarely self-indulgent; it’s headlong. American Pastoral, which I didn’t finish, seemed flaccid, Updikean. The voice of this book is Bellow electric, with bursts of irony. On Ira’s sudden fame: “Don’t think he minded becoming someone of enhanced importance. That’s an adaptation people seem able to implement in about seventy-two hours, and generally the effect is invigorating.”

Second, and maybe you and I part company here, is the narrator’s wisdom.

Nathan Zuckerman is now an aging hermit. Having spent his life trying to manipulate the world and being manhandled by it, he’s retreated to the woods with worn nerves. To act is to err, he says. Life is a process of moving from one pitfall to another. One doesn’t know one’s own life story, let alone control it. To me these themes are humane and wonderful, and Shakespearean. (I just read Twelfth Night for the first time, I’m in a weeklong high of discovery; there, too, the characters are helpless).

Nathan wants to understand his progress. As a youth he had needed to separate himself from his Truman Democrat father. And so found a new father in the foolish but compelling Ira, lover of the worker. The redbaiters are hateful but the Communists are idiotic. (And in a promotional interview that Houghton Mifflin sent me, Roth says the left was wrong about Alger Hiss).

I think of my own youthful errors, the simplistic father figures I found to take me away from my father’s accommodations. In the 70’s I supported the NLF, naively underestimating their despotism. Becoming a man is about becoming an orphan, Roth observes. And while you are right to anticipate my masculine identification with this narrator, I don’t see this theme as patriarchal. It resonates with a great work about a girl’s intellectual and political independence, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

So. Did you see any of your own political progress in Nathan’s? And could you elaborate on your aside about today’s informers?