I Married a Communist
by Philip Roth
Hardcover, 323 pages.
Published by Houghton Mifflin
Publication date: October, 1998
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 10/16/1998
Philip Roth, one of America’s most prolific and talented authors, adds another volume to his subjective, personalized history of the country with his latest, 23rd novel. I Married a Communist is several different kinds of novels at once. On the one hand, it is a historical novel, which tells the tale of an archetypal progressive activist caught in the web of McCarthyite persecution. Ira Ringold, alias Iron Rinn, is a larger-than-life self-educated Communist radio actor/Abe Lincoln look-alike whose career is eventually destroyed by the Red Scare politics that perverted the American social landscape during the 1950s. Roth does an excellent job of capturing the environment of the time, and of illustrating the negative impact of McCarthyism as experienced in individual lives.
On the other hand, the novel is a bildungsroman. The narrator of the novel, Nathan Zuckerman, is the teenage prodigy and protégé of Iron Rinn. The frame of the novel is that Nathan, now an older man, has sought out his old teacher Murray Ringold, through whom he originally met Ira. Murray is at this point 90. Over the course of six nights, the two men piece together Ira’s life, and in the process expose his many human failings. For Nathan, Ira was a second father figure. In a way he is “married” to this hero figure, Iron Rinn. Nathan grows up when he recognizes that Ira, the indestructible, has his own flaws.
The frame gives the novel a somewhat distanced feel. The narration shifts between Murray and Nathan. While Nathan is easy to sympathize with as narrator, neither of the two really surfaces as a very complex character in their own right. The story is focused on Ira, the dedicated Communist who marries into a much different political milieu when he marries Eve Frame, a famous actress and New York socialite. Ira’s family life, which gets much of Roth’s narrative attention, is miserable. He moves in with Eve and her 23 year-old daughter, Sylphid. The three of them get along miserably together. Ira is constantly ruining Eve’s high-society gatherings by confronting well-heeled socialites with Marxist rhetoric, and Sylphid detests her stepfather. An anti-Semitic harp player, she refers to Ira as “The Beast.”
Never exactly accustomed to this kind of family life, Ira carries on a couple of affairs, first with one of Sylphid’s friends, Pamela, and then, rather mechanically, with Helgi, a masseuse who comes to the house to massage the giant and perform oral sex on him. Ira’s home life is essentially loveless. None of the three in that triangle is a particularly likeable personality though, not surprisingly given the narrators, Ira comes across as just slightly more tolerable than the women that surround him.
This novel is also, undoubtedly, somewhat of a roman á clef. Roth’s former wife, Claire Bloom, recently wrote a memoir, which painted the novelist in an unflattering light. I haven’t read that memoir, but its shadow nonetheless obviously hangs over I Married a Communist. I’m not sure if this is a strength or weakness of the novel, but, particularly in the later pages of the book, it is clearly evident that it is payback time for Roth. Eve Frame (pun?) hangs husband Ira out to dry when she publishes I Married a Communist, a memoir that exposes not only Ira but also most of his associates, young Nathan included, as Communists.
What saves this book from being a pure “revenge drama” is that Roth does not make the mistake of writing any of his principle characters as “good.” If Eve Frame is a correlate for his own real-life ex-wife, Claire Bloom, and Ira a partial correlate for himself, then it’s difficult to say that this is any way a one-sided portrait of a marriage gone horribly wrong. Each of the two characters is despicable in their own way. Ira, the man of action, the larger-than-life ideologue, is also a murderer, who took revenge on a bigot as a teen by murdering him with a shovel in the alley. Ira’s is an Old Testament brand of retribution. And he’s clearly also not the most understanding husband on the face of the earth. His biggest strength appears to be as a mentor for Nathan, who is the other partial correlate for Roth, the author. Roth has a history of inviting the reader into these kinds of questions, into asking where “Roth is” in the novel.
There is a definite taste of sour grapes to the way that Eve is handled by Roth, particularly later in the novel. After publishing the I Married a Communist exposé at the urging of two right-leaning friends who use the occasion for their own political advancement, Eve becomes for a while a poster-girl for McCarthyism, and then she is roasted in the media, abandoned by her friends and even her precious daughter. She eventually dies bitter, drunk and alone.
I Married a Communist is a satisfying novel for all the different kinds of books it is. I wouldn’t say that it really hangs together in all parts; sometimes the narrative seems overly tangential and the narrative voice sometimes drifts indistinguishably between Murray and Nathan, but on the whole it is a compelling and worthy read. It can go up there on the shelf with Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman, another chapter in the anxious history of early Cold War America.