on 25 February 2002
I thought this was a wonderful novel. It throws light on a subject not much understood (left-wing politics in the USA) but its key themes are those of betrayal and (typically for Roth) the difficulties in really understanding others and their motives. I found the ending almost breathtakingly beautiful. Roth is up there with Shakespeare in his ability to mix the sacred and profane. I doubt there is a better contemporary writer.
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.
on 3 May 2016
This is one of the good Roth books (I really hate some of them) – well written, and with several important subjects addressed; McCarthyism, the failure of the American Left, and relationships between people with…um…issues.
Still, it’s a mixed bag. It has a weird structure, with a youngish narrator being told most of the events by an older man recalling them…only the narrator was there for some of the narrative so can provide his own perspective – and sometimes it becomes hard to remember who is talking or what they are saying. It’s a bit muddled and confusing, and not strictly necessary.
It starts out exploring the impact of the blacklist on people’s lives, and the impulses that drove good people into first the Henry Wallace Progressive movement and then to the Communist Party. It covers well the fine impulses that drove people there, and also the sheer misery of the CP’s twists and turns and what they meant for those people. It explains how the New Dealers and liberals were the real target of the red-baiters, and how much nasty score-settling went on.
But two thirds of the way it seems to change tack and sentiment; the liberal and communist characters are suddenly driven not by personal or political conviction but by their own emotional flaws. Some of this is revelation of the plot, and some of it feels like Roth changed his mind and started to write a different book.
And the portrayal of the mutually destructive relationship between the main protagonist and his wife, and her previous destructive relationships with men and with her daughter, are really horrible. It’s put into the mouths of those characters who are generally reliable and insightful witnesses, so we are supposed to take it as a true and honest account.
This is just misogyny, spiced up with some racial and class awkwardness. The knowledge that this is really about Roth’s relationship with Claire Bloom, and that many of the facts map on to the real story, makes it skin-crawling.
At the end Roth brings it back to the historical events covered in American Pastoral – the failure of liberalism in the face of Black-led riots and urban degeneration. It’s all hopeless and depressing, and the moral is that those who pursue political or civil goals based on the possibility of change are fools who waste their own time and put themselves and those they care about in harm’s way. There is some ‘bracketing’ of the view, but the argument against it which is offered doesn’t feel strong or deeply felt.
Very painful to read much of the time, although it is a mostly good book.
on 9 October 2005
Roth is an outstanding prose writer, and "I married a Communist" shows him at his best. Illustrating the conflicts of McCarthy-era American through the tale of pugnacious Communist Ira Ringold, Roth creates a panoply of interesting characters set in a powerful narrative with a slow-building, satisfying storyline.
One reservation: Roth is occasionally carried away by his own writing skill. Result: his otherwise excellent dialogue sometimes goes on at excessive length: the book would be more readable edited down by 30 pages.
Conclusion: excellent heavyweight literary fiction with a few dull patches.
on 21 May 2000
Let it first be said: Philip Roth is a genius. His writing is astounding, both for its gorgeous display of language and, just as important, for its truth of character and humanity corruption.
"I Married A Communist", the second in the author's trilogy about the huge political movements shaping post-WWII American history (Vietnam, McCarthyism and, with his latest, "The Human Stain", the Clinton era and p.c.-ness), is a very, very good book. However, "American Pastoral" it ain't.
In this second volume, Roth tells the story of Iron Rinn, a militantly naiive political figure of the post-war generation. The themes are typically Rothian: definitions of success, alienation, what it means to belong, what it means to separate. And, while the plot is fascinating and there are portions of the book that are written so magnificently you'll want to weep, there is a remote quality --- a third-person-ness and therefore an aloofness --- that detracts from the overall effectiveness.
Still, the book deserves four stars because it's part of the Roth canon. He's always worth reading and always astounding and delightful and depressing and devastating. Even when he's merely being a bit more mortal than we've come to expect of a writer with his gifts.
on 2 February 2016
Not as impressive as "American Pastoral" - but still a fantastic book. The prose is as good, the structure likewise. And Roth just about pulls it off, with a quite beautiful piece of writing at the end. The problem for me is that Ira, the central character, is not interesting enough to carry the dominant role he's given. His dark side was rushed and not that convincing (or interesting) - especially the violence. Worse, the horror caused by ideological monomania (again Roth's concern) is defused by those revelations. Ira's brother - the effective narrator - is a more intriguing and ambiguous character, and should have been the focus. His story is far more affecting, especially at the end. So maybe that retrieves things.
Philip Roth's I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, 1998, is one of his Zuckerman books, but one in which the author's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman simply narrates: the story of Ira Ringgold, whom he had known since his Newark Jewish childhood, as Ira was the brother of one of his favorite teachers, Murray Ringgold. Ira, perhaps defined by the fact that he was big, and rough, coming from a rough neighborhood as the Ringgold brothers did, began life as a teenage ditch digger in 1930s Depression Newark. Rode the rails, worked all over the country, as a miner, a steel worker. Joined the Army and fought during World War II. Improbably became a big radio star, and married an even bigger radio star, Eve Frame, who had been a very very big silent film star. (People who are familiar with the lives of some celebrities may well feel that Eve, a self-hating Jew born Brooklyn's Chave Fromkin, who climbs the social ladder by imitating her betters, including their anti-semitism, strongly resembles the beautiful British actress Claire Bloom, one of Roth's ex-wives. And that Roth is here further pursuing his quarrels with her.) At any rate, the fictional Eve delivers Ira into quite a desirable lifestyle, based in a Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York townhouse, beautifully furnished, where she frequently entertains glittering figures in the arts and literature. But he can't get on with her daughter from a previous marriage, Sylphid.
And Ira is a confirmed, dedicated Communist, bullying everyone around him with his political views, furthermore using his radio show to put forth the party's views. Then, in the early postwar years, comes the House Un-American Activities Committee, with its Inquisitional hearings intent on driving so-called Communists and fellow travelers from entertainment, and any other influential positions in American life. Demanding that its victims `name names' of other political undesirables. Creating various abominable blacklists that prevented its victims' employment, and hounded them into suicide and exile. The House hearings to be followed, in the 1950s, by the even more damaging Senate hearings of "Tailgunner" Joe McCarthy. Initially, Ira is protected by his relationship to Eve, but soon enough, his unstable marriage starts to crack up. And she publishes a bestselling exposé that identifies him as "an American taking his orders from Moscow." He is destroyed, personally and professionally. Because of him, even his brother, the teacher, loses his job; the McCarthyite witch hunters don't hold with Red schoolteachers, either. Ultimately, Zuckerman will be told that the witchhunt even reached out to him: he failed to receive the Fulbright Scholarship he was expecting, as he was thought to be a nephew of the Ringgolds.
In the 1990s, Roth won America's four major literary awards in succession: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony: A True Story,(1991); the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock: A Confession, (1993); the National Book Award for SABBATH'S THEATER, (1995), and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for American Pastoral, (1997). He won the Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union for I MARRIED A COMMUNIST. This greatly-talented, multi-award winning, world famous American author is, however, probably best known for his massively popular earlier books, Goodbye, Columbus;Portnoy's Complaint and When She Was Good. This book, told in long, dull, improbable flashback by Zuckerman and Murray, is probably best only for his more devoted fans, and/or those particularly interested in this dark period. But make no mistake about it; despite its flaws, here, in the guise of social history, Roth has created a vivid portrait of a bad time long gone.
on 23 September 2014
Good to have some light shed on an era and subject I know little about. I was not wholly satisfied with the novel, however, since it is engrossing on some occasions and then drags on in other places. So, although the book is of average length, it felt much longer.
on 4 October 2000
Philip Roth is a wonderful writer and a major contemporary voice. I was disappointed with this book, however, because I felt that Roth's vision was blurred by his obvious fury and bitterness towards his ex-partner. I kept feeling that he had just made a really clever observation that would cut to the heart of Ms. Bloom and it kept distracting me. This book was written by a man who was fighting for his reputation and he leaves no prisoners. I have no idea of this position is morally justified by what happened between them, but I think it spoils what might have been a very good book. Roth is a writer who normally takes my breath away. He is sharp,witty,evocative,perceptive and nobody writes better about the American Jewish experience (or on the subtle British undercurrents of anti-Semitisim.) 'I Married a Communist' is part of what perhaps should have remained a private quarrel.
on 16 December 2011
The ageing novelist Zuckerman meets his now 90 year old English teacher and they recollect the English teacher's life, blighted by blacklisting in the McCarthy era - and his personal demons.
The novel reflects deep study of the McCarthy era in US politics - the biography in the Library of America edition of Roth's novels explains that he himself followed very closely the 1948 election, which saw the Democrats split three ways - and win with Harry Truman (you feel, no more the young Roth's choice than the young Zuckerman's).
Of course there's much to admire here, notably in Roth's treatment of the passage of time and old age. But for me this novel bogged down a bit in the historical detail; and the 'personal demons' bit of the story, when revealed, casts a certain doubt over the integrity of the English teacher and his wife (that somehow just doesn't strike Zuckerman the narrator).
And overall, this is not the Roth I'd come to love and admire in his earlier books - no longer so wildly inventive, exuberant or comic (as even in his earlier book covering US politics, Our Gang, which is hilarious), but rather seriously lamenting the human condition through a very well research - and rather slow-moving - historical novel. Not the best of Roth, then - at least for this reader.