I’m so looking forward to discussing Philip Roth’s new novel, I Married a Communist with you. From the writing of yours I’ve seen in Slate and the New York Observer , I imagine he must be a writer you’ve thought a lot about: similar concerns with Jewishness, masculinity, politics, excess of all sorts, literary ambition. So I’ll start, and then you fire back.
I Married a Communist is set in the late l940s and 1950s, the McCarthy era, and I can’t tell you how exhilarated I was by the novel’s opening chapters, which evoke, with an accuracy that borders on hallucinatory vividness, the world of the Communist Party of that era, and the whole anti-Red hysteria: the blacklisting of real and imagined party members and sympathizers, the utterly sordid workings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the role of the yellow press, rightwing no-nothing papers like the Journal-American , which fomented panic and slander. (Not the sort of stuff today’s defenders of informing like to talk about.)
Roth gets so many things exactly right there were times I thought he was describing my own childhood memories, except that he paid more attention to them than I did: Paul Robeson, schoolteachers fired for unionizing, the UE (United Electrical Workers, one of the unions expelled from the CIO in a purge of reds)–my father was a lawyer for the UE! My friend Alan’s father went crazy when he was blacklisted from his school-teaching job only months before he would have retired with full pension! Roth even gets right a fascinating thing that isn’t commented on much these days, which is the seriousness with which the Communist Party took black civil rights and fighting racism, both politically and at a personal level. He has such an ear for the mid-cult popular-front baloney the CP pushed, and the way it connected to a kind of patriotic Americanism to which so many good Party members were devoted: novels like Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine , the cult of the straight-talking (not to mention straight) working stiff and Little Guy, the way Communists, whose own ideology held that the Constitution and civil liberties and due process were mere bourgeois conventions, nonetheless were completely blindsided when the system worked exactly according to their own theory and those conventions were thrown to the winds.
As a portrait of an era, I’d put I Married a Communist right up there with E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and the excellent, underrated movie The Front . Even the title is a tiny work of genius–the shrill gossip-column pseudo-confession that is really a vicious attack, served up to a mass audience of paranoids.
The novel is the story of the rise and fall of Ira Ringold, who surmounts a horrendous childhood in Newark’s slums and an adolescent as a street tough and laborer and becomes a radio star, stage name Iron Rinn. The means of his transformation is Communism: through his army friendship with the working-class intellectual and organizer Johnny O’Day, Ira educates himself, channels his aggression (so we are told), finds a purpose to his life and a way of being in the world. (I loved the way he comes to acting: impersonating Abraham Lincoln at union outings.) His story is narrated in flashbacks, partly by Roth’s ongoing alter ego, the now-reclusive writer Nathan Zuckerman, and partly by Ira’s now 90 year old older brother, the humanistic Murray, Nathan’s high school English teacher, who stood up to HUAC and was blacklisted and had to sell vacuum cleaners, an experience which he movingly says taught him a lot about people.
For me, the aspects of the novel that worked best were the political and historical ones. I loved the vigor of Roth’s writing, his scornful-of-all-pieties energy–there’s a wonderful set piece about Nixon’s funeral toward the end: “then the realists take command, the connoisseurs of deal making and deal breaking, masters of the most shameless ways of undoing an opponent, those for whom moral concerns must always come last, uttering all the well-known, unreal, sham-ridden cant about everything but the dead man’s real passions. Clinton exalting Nixon for his “remarkable journey”…Dole and his flood of lachrymose clichés…sparkly Dan Quayle, looking as lucid as a button.” Lucid as a button! Perfect. Hard to accept this ferocious, brilliant onrush of inspired invective from the mouth of 90 year old Murray (or indeed anyone without photographic memory and total recall)–but then in Roth’s novels, everyone sounds like Roth.
Unfortunately, what worked less well for me was what we are meant to see as the more important job of the book, the transformation of a political story into a story about character, life trajectories, intimate matters between men and women. As a character, Ira isn’t that compelling: he’s too stupid, for one thing, too impulsive, too simply summed up as the Iron man with feet of clay. His Shakespeare quoting brother is too patly his opposite: the humane, freethinking liberal and family mensch with one of those nice mild unsexy Jewish wives Roth awards such characters–always being careful to show the reader that they are not as limited as they seem to be. Murray is the other model of manliness, the vita contemplativa, the effort not just to experience but to understand experience. (“Manly” and “manliness” are recurrent words–Roth makes much of Murray’s ability to make literature resonate with masculinity. Wonder how the girls in his class took that?) Murray’s elderliness is beautifully handled–the strength he draws from intellect, from the effort to face life without illusion.
The big problem is Ira’s marriage to radio actress Eve Frame, the former Chava Fromkin, now a fake-English-accented high-toned anti-Semite and emotional hysteric, who is utterly dominated by her 23-year-old impossible, cruel, harp-playing daughter, Sylphid. This Sylphid–even her name expresses a kind of horror, it sounds like an entomological term, like “aphid” or “nymph”–is conjured up with energetic viciousness: her weight, her unappealing face, even her table manners are loathingly detailed. She forces Eve to abort her wanted pregnancy with Ira, she physically abuses her, she destroys the marriage.
When Eve betrays Ira to the Redhunters, it is to save her daughter’s musical career.
I take this is Roth’s reply to his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s memoir Leaving a Doll’s House . It’s his version of some of the more memorable stuff in the book, and also an accusation of betrayal. I’m reading that book now, and if I were Roth I’d be upset too. But this attempt to set the record straight has too many preposterous elements, it’s too over the top. And in the end it pulls the center of gravity of the novel away from major themes of American history, about which Roth is brilliant, to another old Roth theme–the dangerous irrationality and craziness and self-centered troublemaking of women.
What did you think of the book, Philip? Is it I Married a Communist or I Married Claire Bloom ?