I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

Downfall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of Ira Ringold, a Jew from Newark who becomes a big star on radio and then is destroyed in the period of the McCarthy witch-hunts. This is the story of a failed marriage; of toxic family relationships; of male adolescence and male role models and masculinity; of morality and its lack; of ageing; of literature; of anti-Semitism; of politics; of fanaticism; of hypocrisy; of betrayal. This is the story of a particular America in a particular time and place; a story that presages the America of today.

I Married a Communist is the second volume of what is known as Roth’s American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral, which I declared to be The Great American Novel, and followed by The Human Stain. They are not a trilogy in the sense that the word tends to be used today – each of these stands complete on its own, connected only in the sense that the three together are Roth’s attempt to make sense of America at the end of the 20th century by looking back over the decades of the mid-century. In each the story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a barely disguised alter-ego of Roth himself.

When Murray Ringold, once Nathan’s English teacher and later friend, and now an old man, attends a summer school at the university where Zuckerman, himself now a man in his 60s, teaches, they spend the evenings together, and over the course of the week Murray tells Zuckerman the story of his younger brother, Ira. Nathan knew Ira too once, when Nathan was young and impressionable and Ira was at his peak as a star and as a man. Ira was a formative influence on the young boy, a second father figure, and for a time he was the most important person in Nathan’s life. But as Nathan grew up he grew away from Ira, so although he knew in broad outline what had happened to him, this is the first time he has heard Ira’s later story in detail. As Murray fills in the gaps of Ira’s earlier and later life, Zuckerman also tells the reader of the man he knew, looking back with the eyes of age and experience and reassessing his youthful judgement of the man.

The story is simple and we are told near the beginning how Ira’s downfall came about. At the height of his stardom he married Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage was disastrous, for which Ira placed the blame squarely on Eve’s grown-up daughter Sylphid and on Eve’s weakness in letting Sylphid domineer over her. Eve may have felt that Ira’s penchant for infidelity had something to do with it, though. When Ira leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir of their marriage in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. Part of what Murray will tell Nathan is how Ira reacted to his downfall and how the rest of his life played out.

But the story is to a large extent a vehicle for Zuckerman/Roth to dissect the various characters and the wider society. The question is not whether Ira was a communist – we know that he was – but why. He too, as Nathan with him, was influenced by an older man that he loved as a friend and mentor. But there’s a feeling that to him being a communist was an ego thing – something that separated him from the common herd, that allowed him to feel superior. Yes, he cared about those in society who were disadvantaged, but he also enjoyed the luxury and celebrity that came with his marriage to Eve even as he ranted against her and her friends. Nathan’s outgrowing of him is beautifully observed – as Nathan matures and goes off to college where he spends time with really educated and intelligent men, Ira diminishes in his eyes. Perhaps Ira’s tragedy is that he never outgrew his own mentor.

It has been claimed that Ira’s marriage to Eve is based on Roth’s own failed marriage to Claire Bloom, and that the book is a vicious response to Bloom’s memoirs in which she painted an unflattering picture of Roth. This may be so, but I don’t think it matters – it works at a literary level and in truth the reader – this reader, anyway – sympathises slightly more with Eve than with Ira, although both are weak and selfish. Through Eve, Roth goes into the question of Jewish self-hate – anti-Semitism practised by Jews themselves. I found this aspect fascinating – it was something I’d never considered before. Roth shows how this is a response to society’s anti-Semitism, where some Jews find it easier to try to hide their identity and join in rather than spend a lifetime battling prejudice. It made me think of African Americans “passing”, which in fact is the subject of The Human Stain.

Philip Roth
(Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Overall, this book doesn’t have quite the power or broad scope of American Pastoral. In some ways it feels more personal, as if it reflects Roth’s own life more intimately. The depiction of Nathan’s journey through adolescence feels lived – some at least of these reflections surely arise from Roth’s experiences as much as his alter-ego’s. Although Ira is the main focus, Zuckerman is very much central too, which isn’t really the case in American Pastoral. The young Nathan is an aspiring writer, allowing Roth to digress into his formative literary experiences, while the older Zuckerman is rather reclusive – an enigma left unsolved. It’s always dangerous to make direct links between fictional characters and their creators, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that the literary aspects of Nathan’s development at least are drawn from Roth’s own, and they are full of interest and insight. I came away from it wishing that Murray Ringold, or Zuckerman, or Roth, had been my English teacher.

And I came away from the book wishing that Roth were here today to make sense for us of what has happened to bring America to its current state. This book goes some way to that, showing already the faultlines that have now become a gaping chasm into which the moderate centre seems to have fallen. A great writer, and an excellent book. It may not be The Great American Novel, but it’s certainly a great American novel.

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45 thoughts on “I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

  1. I know you can be quite harsh on self-indulgent middle-aged men in fiction, so I wasn’t expecting you to be quite so keen on Philip Roth. I have to admit this is one of his books I have not read – probably it wasn’t available (for obvious reasons) in Romania at the time when I was reading Roth.

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    • I haven’t read much of him – just the American Trilogy which work for me because they’re kinda political. I have a suspicion that I’d find some of his other books very self-indulgent – even his great writing wouldn’t win me over to wanting to read about middle-aged male sex obsession! He’s such a huge talent, though – he makes me feel more intelligent just by reading him… 😉

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    • I think I was lucky to come to Roth relatively late in life, and to start by reading his later books. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed this at all when I was young – he requires a certain world-weariness or something… no, not that, exactly, but a certain feeling that youthful optimism doesn’t last. Hmm, which makes him sound pessimistic but it’s not exactly that either – I’m not really explaining this very well, am I? I think you’ll just have to read him… 😂

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  2. While I think Philip Roth’s books seem too serious for me, this is a fascinating review. More than a little tempted, particularly by your comment that you wish he was writing today and making sense of today’s America.

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  3. I’m so glad you liked this one, FictionFan. It’s hard for an author to a sense of time and place, as well as tell a personal story, and I’m glad you thought Roth achieved that here. You make a really interesting point, too, about what we mean by ‘trilogy.’ People do mean something quite specific by that word; and, yet, as you say, there are other ways to look at it. I’m going to have to think about that… That and your insightful question about what Roth would think of modern America. Much ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

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    • I haven’t read any Roth apart from the American Trilogy and I’m rather glad that I accidentally started there because I have a feeling there’s lots of his stuff I wouldn’t enjoy nearly so much. But these three have so much to say about America and always make me feel I understand it a little better. Looking forward to re-reading The Human Stain and then I’ll see if I dare risk any of his earlier stuff…

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  4. Very interesting distinction at the end that this is not a GAN but a great American novel. You make a good case for that. Great review!

    I have never read one of Roth’s books. This one doesn’t tempt me to break that streak. But I enjoyed your review.

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    • Thank you! Yes, this one is too specific to be The GAN, I think. To be honest, this wouldn’t be one I’d recommend as an introduction to him – that would be American Pastoral, which I think has a much stronger and more emotionally powerful story…

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  5. While I haven’t read any of Roth’s books, I’m quite impressed at your review. Not so impressed, mind you, that I feel compelled to rush right out and get a copy of this book, but impressed nevertheless. Thanks for pointing out that this “series” is connected, but that each is a stand-alone novel.

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    • Haha – I’ll keep working on it! 😉 I must admit this wouldn’t be the one I’d recommend to people new to Roth – American Pastoral has a much more powerful and emotional story and is a better book all round, I think.

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  6. I’ve not read anything by Roth, but your review makes me wonder if I should. I enjoyed looking back at your GAN posts, too. (makes me think of the PBS Great American Read)

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    • If you do decide to try him, I’d definitely recommend American Pastoral rather than this one to start with. It has a much more human and powerful story – one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. This is great too, but in a different, rather colder, way. I still do a GAN post occasionally if I happen to read a book that I feel comes close to fitting the criteria… 😀

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  7. I found your review of Roth’s American Pastoral so much easier to read than the original, which I never got through. Perhaps I should give this one a try, for the subjects — the McCarthy hearings and the broader Red Scare — are so timely these days, in America and elsewhere. I’ve read a few other Roths, and my favorite so far is Everyman.

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    • Hahaha – isn’t it odd how differently we all react to books? I loved every word of American Pastoral – it blew me away totally, even more on second reading. This one is great too, but is a rather colder, more intellectual read, I think, whereas for me Pastoral was all about the emotional power. I’ve still not read any Roth other than the Trilogy. I plan to re-read The Human Stain next, and then venture on – though I have a feeling some of his books will have me snorting about middle-aged white men with first world problems again… 😉

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    • Why, thank you, kind sir! 😀 This one wouldn’t be my recommendation as an introduction to Roth, to be honest – I’d pick American Pastoral as a more emotionally powerful story…

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  8. I almost didn’t want you to give this a good review. I did read, and really appreciated reading, American Pastoral, but found I had some hesitancy to bring the focus and commitment necessary to read another great American Roth novel. However, thank you for your inspiring review, I am now motivated and feel that picking up I Married a Communist is well worth the reading commitment!

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    • He is hard work, isn’t he? This one doesn’t have the same emotional impact as American Pastoral, I think – it’s a rather colder, more intellectual read in a lot of ways. But I certainly found it worth the effort, and am looking forward to re-reading The Human Stain, although of the three it’s the one that stands out least in my memory from my first read of them. I think my immersion in Great American Novels over the last few years has helped me to understand Roth better this time round though – and his writing is so wonderful… 😀

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  9. I need to read more Philip Roth, that I know for sure. I can’t remember the one book of his that I read, but I remember it having some weird sexual stuff in it, and overall ‘weirdness’ between a married couple. That seems to be a theme for him haha

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  10. You make this sound so interesting even though I feel like I don’t like Roth’s work. I read American Pastoral when I was about 19 and didn’t like it but I am curious as to whether or not my view of it would be different now.

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    • I think I was quite lucky to come to the American Trilogy relatively late – I must have been forty-something when I first read them, I think. I suspect I’d have hated them when I was young because they’re rather fatalistic about life, which isn’t something we usually are when we’re young. I haven’t read anything he wrote when he was young, so I don’t know if that attitude came on him as he aged…

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      • Fatalistic is a good word for Roth. I’m not sure how I’d feel about him now. At the time, a lot of the racial stuff felt outdated but it seems like we’re coming back to that (or admitting that it never actually went away).

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        • Yes, there was a period when I thought we were past the worst too, but it seems to have all got out of control again. Can’t believe the rise in anti-Semitism particularly – you’d think we’d have learned – so that made this one seem only too relevant, sadly.

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          • It’s terrible. I can still remember learning about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism for the first time in elementary school and it seeming so strange and arbitrary to treat people differently because of race. And yet here we are, no further along and maybe worse off than we were twenty years ago.

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            • Definitely worse here. Which is very odd since our Jewish community is actually quite small, since a lot of younger Jews left to go to Israel in the 70s and 80s.

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            • Most of the outright racism in our part of the world seems directed at Asians, particularly those from China and India. There is a Jewish community in Vancouver though I don’t think it’s large. In grade 6 we took a field trip to the Jewish museum and viewed an art exhibit centred around World War 2 and I’ve never forgotten some of the images there.

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            • Here it’s mostly Muslims from Asia and the Middle East that are the targets at the moment, although that’s more about religion and culture (and terrorism) than race. As always, a few extreme Muslims have provided an excuse for the vast majority of them to become the objects of hate. But I really have no idea why anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head again here recently – people baffle me!

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            • Yes, there’s a lot of international fear about “terrorism” and Muslims and ignorance that those two go hand in hand. But I haven’t a clue what the rise of anti-Semitism is based in.

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