What the hell happened?

Alexander Star

  • I Married a Communist by Philip Roth
    Cape, 323 pp, £16.99, October 1998, ISBN 0 224 05258 6

Some time ago, Philip Roth remarked that his novels investigate ‘people in trouble’. Though much about his work has changed over the years, his fictional landscapes are still littered with human wreckage. Rage and lust, anxiety and melancholy are the dominant emotions, and all human impulses, even loyalty and affection, tend to career wildly out of control. Disorder is the norm; and self-understanding a bitter joke.

If Roth’s characters discover that ‘the direction of life is toward incoherence,’ their creator appears to believe that the direction of writing is towards coherence. The slovenliness of living is matched by the severity of thinking. Few writers have striven so hard to wrest intellectual clarity out of inner chaos, or to put the rhythms of argument – of manic argument and patient argument – to use. There’s a precise geometry to his characters’ turbulent lives: ‘for every thought a counter-thought, for every urge a counter-urge.’ Even in the midst of utter insanity, his narrators find that ‘clarification remained a vital need.’

In his most recent novels, Roth has assembled a gallery of mysterious troublemakers who are in considerable need of clarification. The puppeteer of Sabbath’s Theater declares: ‘I am disorder.’ He is full of rancid desire; his only source of ‘authority and amusement’ is his own ‘waywardness’. In American Pastoral, the protagonist’s daughter ‘is chaos itself’; protesting the Vietnam War, she visits ruin on her family’s suburban paradise with an act of murderous violence. And in I Married a Communist, Roth’s most recent novel, the three protagonists of the book’s venomous revenge drama are all at the mercy of their escalating and rather operatic emotions. Ira Ringold – husband, Stalinist and radio star – is driven by ‘five hundred things’, yet he never knows what they are or how they add up. His wife, an ageing actress, hysterically imposes ‘the magnitude of her misery’ on those around her. His stepdaughter provides a ‘first-class education in the pleasures of spite’.

In all of these roiling dramas, Roth typically dispenses with joy and delight: his characters are less familiar with ‘effortless tranquillity’ than with ‘effortless anxiety’. And yet there is a logic to all this ill-feeling. In novel after novel, his prose, like the relentless speech of his heroes and counter-heroes, is a rationalist’s struggle with his own irrationality, a moving tableau of ‘primal emotions and indecent language and orderly complex sentences’.

With its block letters and scarlet colouring, the cover of I Married a Communist suggests the lurid melodrama of an American paperback of the Fifties. A mood of hysteria and paranoia is set from the start, as if the book carried an endorsement from someone like J. Edgar Hoover. You do not expect to find many orderly complex sentences or emotional subtleties.

And yet I Married a Communist turns out to be another of Roth’s intricately arranged performances. As in American Pastoral, his familiar alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, presents himself as an observer rather than a participant. At the beginning of the novel, he is living alone in the Berkshire woods, where he enjoys a visit from his old high-school English teacher, Murray Ringold. As the 90-year-old Murray passes several martini-flavoured nights on Nathan’s porch, their conversation returns again and again to Murray’s long dead brother Ira, who was blacklisted and disgraced during the McCarthy era. Murray’s monologue and Nathan’s reminiscences combine to tell the story of Ira’s rise and fall: his flight from Newark to the zinc mines of western New Jersey; his conversion to Communism while serving in World War Two; his impersonation of the gangly Abraham Lincoln at union events and his subsequent employment on popular radio shows in New York City; his marriage to the fading Hollywood actress Eve Fine, and the dreadful combustion of that marriage in a series of mutual betrayals that lead to the exposure of Ira’s party membership and the publication of Eve’s tell-all memoir, entitled ‘I Married a Communist’ (a memoir that inevitably calls to mind Claire Bloom’s score-settling memoir of her marriage to Philip Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House).

Ira’s biography is a gripping tale, but it is hardly presented as one. The story is broken into pieces, drastically rearranged, and draped in layers of memory and digression and analysis. As the novel proceeds, the accelerating disaster of Ira’s life seems beside the point; it is taking place on a stage far away. More immediate are the voices of the two ageing narrators as they reckon with the troubles of the past and with their own mortality. Where Ira’s story is seemingly inexorable in its lunge towards madness, the voices of the two eminently sane narrators establish an entirely different rhythm: their entwined monologues are digressive, lyrical, occasionally bitter and angry, more often sober and ruminative. As a result, I Married a Communist is less the chronicle of a flawed American hero than a collage of narrative tones: wistful nostalgia for working-class Newark and a precocious boy’s anticipation of life; lurid, tawdry melodrama set in the intrigue-laden world of mid-century Manhattan’s cultural élite; and the cool, sober detachment of a hermetic writer – Zuckerman – in the winter of his life, seeking refuge from the uncertainties and inflammations of experience. The novel, in short, is a kind of triptych of youthful hope, middle-aged passion and elderly stoicism.

Of those three panels, the first and third are the most painstakingly wrought. Few people are likely to associate Roth with the earnest idealism of the Popular Front, but the memory of that idealism, a memory that is both affectionate and scornful, runs like an underground current through his work. Henry James and Lenny Bruce are often taken to be Roth’s improbably paired patron saints, but it is possible to add Eleanor Roosevelt to the gallery – or at least Henry Wallace and Paul Robeson, whose names are murmured half-reverentially throughout Roth’s fiction. In Letting Go, Gabriel Wallach’s father organises a group of Manhattan doctors and lawyers in support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential campaign. And in My life as a Man, Peter Tarnopol’s brother Moe offers his children edifying bedside stories: ‘Instead of Pinocchio, Joe McCarthy; instead of Uncle Remus, tales of Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King.’ Even Alexander Portnoy is a trusted aide to New York City’s liberal mayor John Lindsay, a tribune of the Great Society. In the thick of his erotic adventures, he can’t help remembering how he spent his childhood listening to ‘marching songs by the gallant Red Army Chorus’.

Still, I Married a Communist addresses the culture of the old Left more directly than any of Roth’s earlier works. In its first chapter, Nathan fondly recalls the long ago day when he met Paul Robeson at a Newark rally, and the great man instructed him: ‘Don’t lose your courage, young man.’ From that point of departure, the book examines both the stirring idealism and the ruthless idiocy of mid-century Communism. Though the novel has no truck with serious political debate, it cannily reproduces the excited sound of political indignation.

Many of the best passages evoke the inspirational rhetoric that united the Popular Front and wartime patriotism. Young Nathan is captivated by the idealism of ‘heroic suffering’ and ‘highly charged rhetorical flourishes’ he finds in the writing of Howard Fast and Thomas Paine (as well as in his favourite books about baseball). He is also moved by the very same passages of ‘high demotic poetry’ from World War Two that once affected Alexander Portnoy: ‘So they’ve given up/They’re finally done in, and the rat is dead in the alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse./Take a Bow, GI./Take a bow, little guy.’ Zuckerman’s own first writings are dreadfully bad radio plays, composed in a similarly ebullient vernacular idiom: ‘You remember Torquemada. The hatchet man for Ferdinand and Isabella. Ran the Inquisition for the King and Queen of Spain. Guy who expelled the Jews from Spain for Ferdinand and Isabella back in 1492. Yeah, you heard right, pal – 1492.’

There’s an easy, colloquial grace to Nathan’s reminiscences of his youth, a combination of wry comedy and generosity towards old mentors. When he meets Ira, he is swept away by this strong, glamorous man whose rage against injustice is unvanquishable. Soon, he becomes Ira’s adoring protégé, visiting his hero repeatedly for political instruction and inspiration. As Nathan grows up, however, he finds him less and less bearable. He is disillusioned with Ira’s brutality and his stupidity, glimpsing a mind that moves with ‘force’ but not ‘clarity’. Ira may be a courageous idealist, but he is also a thug. As Nathan hears him rant senselessly about the Korean War, and berate his Negro maid for her loyalty to Harry Truman’s Democratic Party, he becomes disgusted, and after a while, ‘profoundly bored’. For Nathan, political idealism is not about closed-mindedness and anger; it is about escaping the confines of Newark and finding his way into a larger culture. By the time he moves on to college at the University of Chicago, he finds himself divided between his loyalty to Ira and his loyalty to a new mentor, a monastic graduate student who preaches the university’s creed of aesthetic purity and contempt for the mob. Eventually, Nathan will drop both of them and move on.

While Nathan tells a story about the betrayals involved in growing up, Murray reveals the betrayals involved in his brother’s marriage and politics. Even by the standards of a Philip Roth novel, Ira’s family life is a disaster. There is adultery, Jewish self-hatred, and the exposure of damaging secrets. And then there is Eve’s daughter Slyphid, a strong-minded and malicious anti-heroine. As fully committed to her own notions of ‘ego-justice’ as Ira is committed to his wooden notions of political justice, this evil stepdaughter battles Ira on every front. She calls her mother a ‘kike bitch’ and vows that if Eve has another child, she will ‘strangle the little idiot in its crib’. Under the pressures of domestic misery and political harassment, Ira falls to pieces, and ends his once-glamorous life in destitution, selling minerals to tourists at an abandoned mine. Eve fares little better.

All of this is presented as torrid melodrama. Roth skewers the self-regard and pettiness of the Ringolds’ milieu. Eve’s friend, the socialite Katrina Van Tassel Grant, is the author of the bestseller, ‘Eloise and Abelard’, whose prose is a delightfully atrocious counterpart to the youthful Nathan’s preciosities as well as a premonition of Eve’s trashy memoir:

How aroused he was, this man whose genius would revamp and revitalise the traditional teaching of Christian theology. Her nipples were drawn and hard and sharp, and her gut tightened as she thought: ‘I am kissing the greatest writer and thinker of the 12th century ...’ Best known for his solution of the problem of universals and for his original use of dialectics, he knew no less well, even now, at the height of his intellectual fame, how to melt a woman’s heart.

Yet the story of Ira and Eve doesn’t quite come into focus. Four decades after the fact, Murray narrates it from a great distance. As the drama escalates, the characters themselves become less arresting. For all their unruliness, they can be summed up in simple formulas. Ira, Murray tells us, has never recovered from his childhood humiliations: ‘His whole life had been spent looking for a way not to kill somebody ... his whole life was an attempt to defuse the violent impulse.’ He needs to ‘shield himself against his nature, against all the force in that big body, all the murderous rage’. But he fails: ‘His passion was to be someone he didn’t know how to be. He never discovered his life.’ Eve, too, is a hopeless case: ‘His recourse to violence was the masculine correlate of her disposition to hysteria-distinctive gender manifestations of the same waterfall.’

If Murray’s final judgments are too compact, his own presence, by contrast, becomes more compelling as the book proceeds. Fired from the Newark school system for failing to please the House Un-American Activities Committee, he works for years selling vacuum cleaners until he gets his job back. His integrity and sober, reformist politics make him one of the wiser characters in Roth’s work, a figure of improbable heroism. Unlike his brother, he is an ‘essentialist’ who is ‘unblurred by impulse and the argument with everything’. And it is he who offers an elegy for Ira: the McCarthy years, he concludes, had less to do with politics than with ‘cultural terrorism’. They fed an appetite for ‘the entertainment value of disgrace’ and the ‘pleasures of paranoia’. Ushering in the ‘postwar triumph of gossip’, they made betrayal into a public sport.

Reflecting on the damages of that era, both Nathan and Murray are in a decidedly tragic mood. If the language of youth is lyrical and hopeful, and the language of middle age tempestuous and full of rage, the language of old age is austere and hard-edged. All human choices, Nathan observes, involve a necessary disloyalty. ‘You control betrayal on one side and you wind up betraying somewhere else.’ And it is in apparent flight from this dreadful knowledge that Nathan has sought refuge in the woods, where he reflects on his withdrawal from life in near-Yeatsian tones:

The palliative of a primitive hut. The place where you are stripped back to essentials, to which you return – even if it happens not to be the place you came from – to decontaminate and absolve yourself of the striving. The place where you disrobe, moult it all, the uniforms you’ve worn and the costumes you’ve gotten into, where you shed your batteredness and your resentment, your appeasement of the world and your defiance of the world, your manipulation of the world and its manhandling of you ... Think of those Chinese paintings of the old man under the mountain, the old Chinese man all alone under the mountain, receding from the agitation of the autobiographical. He has entered vigorously into competition with life; now, becalmed, he enters into competition with death, drawn down into austerity, the final business.

Throughout the novel, both Nathan and Murray speak in twisting negatives and double negatives. Nathan finds that ‘ageing into decrepitude was not unendurable and neither was the unfathomability of oblivion’ and Murray observes that ‘life can’t be impugned for any failure to trivialise people.’ Ira, we are told, ‘lacks a heart without dichotomies’; a Communist partisan has ‘torn himself away from everything not his existence’; an angelic photograph of the infant Slyphid represents ‘everything antagonism is not’. It is as if the only way to approach wholeness or serenity is to evoke their opposites.

At the end, all of these negations combine, rather grandly, in Nathan’s contemplation of the Berkshire skies, with their glittering stars. This alone offers him a glimpse of the world at rest, stripped of its glories and its liabilities: ‘There is no betrayal. There is no idealism. There are no falsehoods. There is neither conscience nor its absence ... that universe into which error does not obtrude. You see the inconceivable: the colossal spectacle of no antagonism.’ After all the book’s upheavals, these are affecting, and carefully anticipated, words. And yet there is a curious disproportion between the extent of the renunciation and its explanation. I Married a Communist deliberately leaves the cause of Nathan’s withdrawal from the world unnamed. Though Nathan longs to ‘shed’ both his ‘appeasement’ and his ‘defiance’ of the world, we see little of either in this book. He seems to be in flight from Ira’s passions, not his own. Roth has written both a story of burning revenge and a story of quiet retreat, and the two novels never quite meet. He has constructed a plot where everything hot is far away; and everything nearby is cool or ‘cooling’.

There is something bewitching about this perspective, as if one were watching a drive-in movie from outer space. But it also takes away from the remarkable words of resignation that mark the finale. If Nathan Zuckerman has become a stoic, it is a rather coy stoic. His isolation may be a sign that he is atoning for his misdeeds or attempting to assuage his anger; it may be a means of confronting mortality or of preparing for a return to the world. There is no way to tell. ‘What the hell happened?’ Murray asks him, and we share the curiosity. Alone among Roth’s characters, Nathan appears to achieve a kind of serenity. And we can be grateful for that. But it is a peculiar kind of peace: he is recollecting other people’s emotions in tranquillity.