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Another Powerful Roth Take On The Human Condition
on 30 October 2012
This 1998 novel by Philip Roth is another in the series featuring his most prolific fictional protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman. Here, Zuckerman has reached late middle age (his 60s), and following a career as a playwright, is now something of recluse. The entire I Married A Communist Novel consists of an extended account of a meeting between Zuckerman and his erstwhile college teacher and fellow Jew, the 90-year old Murray Ringold, as the two reflect (primarily) on the life of Murray's brother, one time Zinc miner and latterly radio theatre star and notorious communist Ira Ringold (otherwise known as Iron Rinn). Predominantly set in Roth's home territory of Newark, New Jersey, what on the surface may sound like the transcription of a relatively dry, second-hand life-story is transformed by Roth's masterly prose and skill at characterisation into a devastating commentary on the fallibilities of the human condition, as exhibited across a range of compelling cast members, and fictionally related during a key period of US history, in the immediate aftermath of WWII.
Indeed, although some commentators have interpreted the character of Ira Ringold's wife, established film star Eve Frame, as a fictional incarnation of Roth's ex-wife Claire Bloom, I prefer to think of the novel's characters as being firmly based in (and formed from) its post-WWII setting, when US paranoia (predominantly around Communism, but also Jewishness) was at one of its (many) periods of peak intensity. Roth again uses a 'semi-fictional' approach (as in Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America), whereby the novel's fictional events are depicted in relation to real-life developments (e.g. the anti-communist HUAC investigations and Richard Nixon's resignation), thereby enhancing the novel's sense of realism.
But, again, it is important to stress that I Married A Communist (Roth's novel's title being taken from the title of the scathing memoirs attributed to Ira's wife Eve) is no history reading, but rather a passionate and insightful account of misplaced idealism, self-deception, hero worship, promiscuity, guilt and betrayal, as the mercurial tough man Ira finds himself ostracised from his wife Eva (and from her cold, calculating musician daughter, Sylphid) and from his erstwhile role model, radical thinker and activist Johnny O'Day, and in the process suffers a career-ending literary character assassination at the hands of Eve's acquaintances, the gossip columnists Bryden and Katrina Van Tassel Grant. Roth has also created for the novel one of his most beautifully realised endings, following Nathan and Murray's parting at the end of their meeting, as Nathan discards painful past memories and, scanning the night sky, instead reflects on the perfection and permanence of the stars.