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I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part III

October 23, 2015 19 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (2008) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

Roth_Communist_CoverThis is the last billet about I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The first one is about the plot and the characters and is available here. The second one focuses on Communism and the witch hunt of the McCarthy era and can be read here.While the two first billets explore the topics underlying the title of the novel (marriage and Communism), the third one is dedicated to the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman.

At the beginning of the novel, Nathan stumbles upon his former teacher Murray Ringold. Nathan is now 64 and Murray is way over 80. When Nathan was in high school, Murray was teaching English. He was unorthodox and encouraged free thinking. He was the one to introduce Nathan to Ira, the Communist of the title. The two brothers had a key influence on Nathan’s growing-up. I Married a Communist corresponds to Nathan’s teenage years.

This is where I Married a Communist becomes a coming-of-age novel, focused on the education of the mind. It’s showing just beneath the surface. It doesn’t dwell on the hormonal part of adolescence and the discovering of the other sex. (Extensive rendition of the “body experience” can be found in Portnoy’s Complaint) It discusses how an adolescent becomes a man in his mind, not in his body. Nathan is around 14 when he meets the Ringold brothers.

I was sitting between two shirtless brothers well over six feet tall, two big, natural men exuding the sort of forceful, intelligent manliness to which I aspired. Men who could talk about baseball and boxing talking about books. And talking about books as though something were at stake in a book. Not opening a book to worship it or to be elevated by it or to lose yourself to the world around you. No, boxing with the book.

Murray and Ira challenge him, intellectually. They teach him to think out of the box, to criticize the books they read, to question what he hears. They come in his life at this transition period that is adolescence in anyone’s life. Nathan is starting to question his parents’ values and line of thinking. That’s the normal path to adulthood, as Roth beautifully puts it:

If you’re not orphaned early, if instead you’re related intensely to parents for thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years, you grow a prick, lose your innocence, seek your independence, and, if it’s not a screwed-up family, are let go, ready to begin to be a man, ready, that is, to choose new allegiances and affiliations, the parents of your adulthood, the chosen parents whom, because you are not asked to acknowledge them with love, you either love or don’t, as suits you.

How are they chosen? Through a series of accidents and through lots of will. How do they get to you, and how do you get to them? Who are they? What is it, this genealogy that isn’t genetic? In my case they were men to whom I apprenticed myself, from Paine and Fast and Corwin to Murray and Ira and beyond—the men who schooled me, the men I came from. All were remarkable to me in their own way, personalities to contend with, mentors who embodied or espoused powerful ideas and who first taught me to navigate the world and its claims, the adopted parents who also, each in his turn, had to be cast off along with their legacy, had to disappear, thus making way for the orphanhood that is total, which is manhood. When you’re out there in this thing alone.

There’s a lot in this quote.

As an adult, I remember that period of my life and I relate to the second part of the quote. It’s the time when you look at your parents with critical eyes and the curtain of blind love is removed. They become human. They become fallible. We all found ourselves these adoptive parents in our life. We threw away the part of our education we didn’t want. Religion. Political orientation. Vision of social life. We found help in thinkers and digested them before rejecting part of their instruction too.

As a mother, I love the first paragraph of the quote. That’s what I want for my children. I want them to separate themselves from their parents’ vision of life to build their own. I want them to question our opinions and values to keep what works for them. I want them to explore other paths in the process. There are beautiful passages in the novel about Nathan and his father, like this one, when he’s about to attend a political meeting with Ira:

My father didn’t want his son stolen from him, and though, strictly speaking, nobody had stolen anybody, the man was no fool and knew that he had lost and, Communist or no Communist, the six-foot six-inch intruder had won. I saw in my father’s face a look of resigned disappointment, his kind gray eyes softened by—distressfully subdued by—something midway between melancholy and futility. I was a look that would never be entirely forgotten by me when I was alone with Ira, or later, with Leo Glucksman, Johnny O’Day or whomever. Just by taking instruction from these men, I seemed to myself somehow to be selling my father short. His face with that look on it was always looming up, superimposed on the face of the man who was then educating me in life’s possibilities. His face bearing the wound of betrayal.

Mr Zuckerman Senior knows what’s happening. He knows that Nathan is about to choose Ira and Murray as adoptive parents. It makes him sad but he’s resigned; he knows he needs to lose his son temporarily to have him back again later. There’s a lot of tenderness from the son to the father in this novel. I don’t know how much Roth put of himself in Nathan this time but if he experienced what Nathan describes, then I Married a Communist is a nice tribute to Mr Roth Senior.

Years later, as Nathan reacquaints himself with Murray, his old professor has something new to teach him:

In Murray Ringold, I thought, human dissatisfaction has met its match. He has outlived dissatisfaction. This is what remains after the passing of everything, the disciplined sadness of stoicism. This is the cooling. For so long it’s so hot, everything in life is so intense, and then little by little it goes away, and then comes the cooling, and then come the ashes. The man who first taught me how to box with a book is back now to demonstrate how you box with old age.

And an amazing, noble skill it is, for nothing teaches you less about old age than having lived a robust life.

Nathan is now 64. He’s entering old age and Murray’s example is welcome, just as it was in his youth. Again, as I mentioned it as the end of my billet about the “Communism side” of the novel, we start with something—the wrong assumption of Communism, the importance of Murray’s teachings—, we follow a thought process and come back to the first point—the inexistence of natural brotherhood, the worth of Murray’s instruction. It gives a sense of accomplishment to the book, the feeling that everything is well orchestrated and yet not fake.

There’s a lot to explore in I Married a Communist. I wrote three billets and I barely skimmed the surface. It is not known as Roth’s best book but there’s still a lot to chew over.

Still highly recommended.

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part II

October 21, 2015 12 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

This is my second billet about I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The first one focuses on the plot and can be read here. In this second post, I wanted to focus on Roth’s analysis of Communism as a political ideal and on his depiction of the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s. Roth focuses on the global picture, the ideals conveyed by Communism, the witch hunt and the political climate of the time but also reflects on how this witch hunt has been possible, that is to say by the cooperation of individuals.

He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it. In order to get them to believe in their brotherhood, they’ve got to control people’s every thought of shoot ‘em. And meanwhile in America, in Europe, the Communists go on with this fairy tale even when then know what is really there. Sure, for a while, you don’t know. But what don’t you know? You know human beings. So you know everything. You know that this fairy tale cannot be possible. If you are a very young man I suppose it’s okay. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, okay. But after that? No reason that a person with an average intelligence can take this story, this fairy tale of Communism, and swallow it. ‘We will do something that will be wonderful…’ But we know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.

Roth_Communist_CoverI have to say I quite agree with Roth. The idea of Communism is doomed from the start because it’s based on a fairy tale conception of mankind. I don’t believe in natural goodness and I haven’t in a long time. I remember sitting on a chair in my high school class, listening to the teacher explain Rousseau’s vision of the Good Savage and thinking it was utterly rubbish and unrealistic. Ingrained brotherhood and goodness do not lead to wars, rapes, pogroms, thefts and crime in general. And those have existed since the beginning of humanity.

Everything is clearer with hindsight but still, I never understood how a clever philosopher like Sartre became so engrossed with Communism and refused to see through the official curtain put in place by the USSR. Not only was the thinking flawed from the start because it’s based on an inaccurate assumption, but the implementation phase led to brutal dictatorship.

Roth depicts O’Day, the Communist who converted Ira to his “religion” as a zealot. He can be compared to a Christian zealot from the beginning of Christianism. He has an unbreakable faith in Communism, he’s ready to suffer for it and he’s ready to sacrifice any personal life for it. The older he gets, the more ascetic he becomes. He renounces to possessions, lives like an ermit and is only committed to preach Communism to the masses. That beats everything for a line of thinking that says that religion is the opium of the people.

Roth also describes the unhealthy climate of the McCarthy era and how the battle against Communism was a good opportunity or a good excuse to eliminate political opponents, gain political power, undermine liberal thinkers or simply get rid of a rival. Politicians used it as a leverage to win elections and be well positioned at the White House. Several examples are given in the book through the characters’ lives. Of course, Ira is a notable Communist and he was loud about his political ideas. He was bound to be in trouble for it considering the times. As a reader, I expected it. But it also touched other characters in an unexpected way. Murray, Ira’s brother was an unorthodox teacher (more of that in Post III) who pushed his students to think out of the box. He had the bad idea to go against his hierarchy. False accusations of Communism on top of his teaching methods were enough to put him out of a teaching job for a decade. He sold vacuum cleaners door to door for 10 years and his former dean was promoted. In his conversations with Murray, Nathan learns that he missed a grant to study abroad because his friendship with Ira was suspicious. He states:

I did not and could not have made crap of difference, and yet the zealotry to defeat Communism reached even me.

Roth wants to go further and endeavors to understand how common people denounced someone, how the American administration managed such an efficient witch hunt. He reflects on how betrayal became normal in those years.

To me it seems like more acts of personal betrayal were tellingly perpetrated in America in the decade after the war—say between ’46 and ’56—than in any other period of our history. This nasty thing that Eve Frame did was typical of lots of nasty things people did those years, either because they had to or because they felt they had to. Eve’s behavior fell within the routine informer practices of the era. When before had betrayal ever been so destigmatized and rewarded in this country? It was everywhere during those years, the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit. Not only does the pleasure of betrayal replace the prohibition, by you transgress without giving up your moral authority. You retain your purity at the same time as you are patriotically betraying—at the same time as you are realizing a satisfaction that verges on the sexual with its ambiguous components of pleasure and weakness, of aggression and shame: the satisfaction of undermining. Undermining sweethearts. Undermining rivals. Undermining friends. Betrayal is in the same zone of perverse and illicit and fragmented pleasure. An interesting, manipulative, underground type of pleasure in which there is much that a human being finds appealing.

I’m not sure about the comparison with sex but I think that Roth’s reflection on the personal motivation of people who were informers and betrayed acquaintances, family or colleagues quite interesting. It is applicable to other contexts as well, the Occupation in France, or the wide network of informers the Stasi had in the DDR. In a way, it brings us back to the first statement Roth makes: there is no such thing as natural brotherhood, otherwise this betrayal behavior wouldn’t have spread in the society as fast as the Spanish influenza.

I have not done extensive researches on the period. I can’t tell if Roth exaggerates or not and if the witch hunt infiltrated the society as much as he pictures it. I’m not here to say if he’s right or wrong. I do think that I Married a Communist tackles a difficult topic and Roth approaches it through different angles that give an interesting vision of it. He develops a consistent analysis of the phenomenon through a political, historical and philosophical perspective. And the multi-disciplinary approach is commendable in itself.

 

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth Part I

October 19, 2015 28 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

You have to take your hat off to life for the techniques at its disposal to strip a man of his significance and empty him totally of his pride.

Roth_CommunistI read I Married a Communist in August but didn’t have time to sit down and spend the necessary time to write about it. It is part of the Nathan Zuckerman series, where the narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, a Jew from Newark, born in 1933. He’s Roth’s doppelgänger. Nathan is now 64 and he spends several evenings with Murray Ringold, an old man who was his literature teacher in high school. Murray had a younger brother, Ira, and Nathan befriended him when he was a teenager. Ira is dead now and Murray is willing to tell Nathan what happened to Ira, how he died.

In this volume, Roth continues his exploration of America, while unveiling a bit more about Nathan and telling us a story. Grand fictional story, great coming-of-age soul-searching and great state-of-the-nation stuff: an all-in-one novel. I’m afraid I’ll have to write three billets to only scratch the surface of the thought-provoking material Roth put in his novel.

Murray and Ira were born in a poor family, with neglecting parents. Murray got out of it through school and a lot of studying. Ira was a wild one, hanging out with the mob, full of violent energy and unable to sit in school and learn. He did a lot of odd jobs, went away to war and met a Communist, Johnny O’Day. This man shaped Ira’s mind into Communism. When he came home, Ira started to support “progressive” political causes. He also had the physique to impersonate Lincoln and his shows led him into working for the radio in New York. It is there that he met Eve Frame, a former star from silent cinema. Eve had already been married twice, and not to standard men. One was a closeted homosexual and the other was violent. She has a daughter from her first marriage, Sylphid. When she marries Ira, Sylphid is already grown-up, she’s a musician and plays the harp.

Ira and Eve get married but their honeymoon is short lived. Two damaged souls can’t always heal each other, their worlds don’t mesh well and Sylphid hates Ira. He’s a roughneck and she’s an artist, on paper, they already are very different and you have a hard time imagining them bonding over anything. They could find a modus vivendi around Eve’s happiness but Eve and Sylphid have an unhealthy relationship. Eve feels guilty for not being a good enough mother. Sylphid exploits that guilt and bullies her mother everyway she can. She first refuses to attend Eve and Ira’s wedding, she picks fights with him and does everything she can to come between them. Ira tries to protect Eve, to put Sylphid in her place but he’s up against Eve’s opposition. She doesn’t welcome his help, she chooses Sylphid’s side.

This domestic hurdle is not the only one in their way to a Hollywood happily-ever-after. Ira and Eve are also involved in the New York radio microcosm. His political views aren’t welcome among Eve’s friends. She’s more looking for recognition from the rich and famous. She’s good friends with the Grants who are ambitious and using the anti-Communist climate of the McCarthy era to fuel their political ambitions. They manipulate Eve; Ira knows it but must be careful around them. He has political views opposite to them and he’s vocal about them in a buoyant, radical way that eradicates any civilized conversation. He’s a zealot of the Communist cause, extreme in his beliefs and Murray says:

By and large I believe he was—another innocent guy co-opted into a system he didn’t understand. Hard to believe that a man who put so much stock in his freedom could let that dogmatizing control his thinking. But my brother abased himself intellectually the same way they all did. Politically gullible. Morally gullible.

He was swallowed by O’Day’s thinking. He needed a father figure, O’Day provided it along with a ready-to-think vision of the world. He gave him a frame to explain the world, a structure to walk through life. Ira needed a system of values and focus; O’Day gave it to him.

Ira is a character larger than life. He’s like a character from a Russian novel: huge, passionate, extreme, violent sometimes, rough and unpredictable. He takes Nathan under his wing, like a little brother he never had or like the son he’d like to have. He settles with Eve and would like a stable family life, the one he envies to Nathan. But Eve is not the woman for that. She doesn’t want another child, she’s in her dysfunctional relationship with Sylphid.

Ira and Eve’s relationship is doomed from the start. He enjoys his rustic cabin in the woods, she enjoys socialite life in New York. They don’t have anything in common and can only end up hurting each other. He’ll do anything he can to hide his belonging to the Communist Party. She’ll betray him and ruin him out of spite.

I know it is said that this side of I Married a Communist was a way for Roth to get back to his ex-wife Claire Bloom for what she wrote about their marriage in her memoirs. I’m going to be harsh but if she exposed their marriage in her memoirs, she knew her novelist of an ex could retaliate. As a strong defender of one’s privacy, I dislike the display of personal lives on the public forum. I think that Churchill’s or Saint-Simon’s memoirs are worth reading because they had positions that made them invaluable witnesses to historical events. I’m not sure Claire Bloom’s memoirs are indispensable to the world, unless to satisfy the masses’ curiosity about Hollywood and do dirty laundry in a public wash house. To be honest, I don’t care about the personal material that went into the ingredients of this novel. All I see is a great piece of literature and I’m glad I read it blind to this ugly controversy.

Part II will be about the state-of-the-nation-side of the novel

Part III will be about the coming-of-age side of the novel.

Runaway by Alice Munro

October 13, 2015 14 comments

Runaway by Alice Munro (2004) French title : Fugitives. Translated from the Canadian by Jacqueline Huet and Jean-Pierre Carasso.

Munro_FugitivesBefore I start telling you about Runaway, please allow me a little rant. I’m angry at the French publisher. I dare you to find a male Nobel Prize winner with such a pink cover for his books. The reasoning seems to be: it’s written by a woman, about women, therefore it is aimed at a female readership and it deserves a pink cover. I tell you, it is a shame to market a book written by such a remarkable author as it were a book by Sophie Kinsella. I wonder why they didn’t put a cupcake on the cover, the picture would have been complete. Grrr.

End of the rant.

Runaway is a collection of eight short stories, long enough to develop their plot and characters nicely. Each one is around 40 pages long, except for the last one. The short stories included in the collection are: Runaway, Chance, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks and Powers.

It is rather difficult to write about short stories. I’ve decided against retelling one or the other but will try to decipher a pattern, a common theme instead. In a nutshell, Alice Munro brushes through the characters’ lives and show them at different times of their existence.

Runaway is the title of the first short story. The French translator chose to call it Fugitives, which means “runaway” but in plural and in the feminine form. So, for a French reader seeing the book on a shelf, it is about runaway women. It’s an interpretation, I wonder if Alice Munro approved of it, but it’s a good assumption. All the characters live moments away from their routine or tell the moment they derailed from their usual days and how it affected their future.

All the main characters are women and in every story, this character has another woman in her shadow, a disquieting presence, someone who seems friendly or loving in appearance but has a negative influence on the character’s course of life. It is a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor, a housekeeper, a rival or a former rival in her man’s affections. The men in their lives are weak or tasteless. They lack personality, they’re accepting to the point of lacking a backbone. They got into a relationship because it was a thing to be done or because they didn’t want to be lonely. They all fail their partner, voluntarily or not. The passionate ones are on the dark side, they drink or they cheat. The others get sick and trap their wives in a caretaker role or die suddenly.

These women live a linear life and the short stories either reveal how they got there or picture a moment when their life made a detour. They got sidetracked. For example, Robin goes to the theatre in the nearby city once per year and it’s her alone time, stolen moments for herself, away from her ailing sister. They aren’t really unhappy but the reader has the feeling that their lives could have been better. If they had behaved differently. If they hadn’t settled with the wrong man. If they had been more assertive about their wishes, their needs. Most of them were born at a time when women had fewer options in life. Grace thinks, after meeting a lovely and perfectly dressed young woman:

She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men –people, everybody—thought they should be like. Beautiful, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should ben to be fallen in love with.

They were expected to quit their jobs when they got married. University degrees were a means to be where the men with a bright future were. If they stray away from the designated path, they have to face the consequences. Juliet lives with Eric and has a daughter with him. We’re at the end of the 1960s and they’re not married. They live in Whale Bay, in British Columbia. When she visits her family near Toronto, she realizes how much her choice cost to her parents. Her father lost his teaching job. They’re ostracized and they’d rather pick her up at a farther train station than welcome her in their town’s station.

Runaway gives glimpses of the lives of women born before 1950. It is written in a sober tone, the angle shifting from one heroin to the other. I don’t have other quotes to share as I have the book in French. Alice Munro puts her characters on stage, giving a face and a voice to millions of quiet Canadian women. They’re average people, they could be you or me. They don’t live a grand passion, they have a quiet domestic life and yet, they’re unique. I felt like wandering in a cemetery, stopping randomly in front of a grave and listening to someone quietly telling me about the person buried there. Who she was. What happened to her. What event changed her life. It’s a lovely promenade with them.

A big thank you to the friend who gave me Runaway because I’m not sure I would have bought it myself, Nobel Prize or not. It’s been sitting on my shelf and became part of my #TBR20 project.

PS: A word about the #TBR20 project. I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms: I haven’t bought myself a book in months and I’m itching to visit a bookstore. I’ve managed to refrain by purchasing books as gifts and getting book related items, like bookmarks or a mug with Shakespearian insults on it. *sigh* Still 6 books to go.

 

Happy are the Happy by Yasmina Reza

October 3, 2015 16 comments

Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza (2013) French title: Heureux les heureux.

book_club_2In September, our Book Club had picked Yasmina Reza’s novel Happy Are the Happy. It’s a particular novel as each chapter is named after a character and features different persons but all are related in one way or the other. They are friends, family or colleagues. Each chapter is an excerpt of their life, a moment that sheds some light on their love life. This novel feels like wandering in a gallery of portraits in a castle with a guide who stops in front of each portrait and tells you a story about the person in front of you.

I’m afraid it’s almost all I remember from Reza’s novel that I read four weeks ago. I remember that first chapter opens on a hilarious and Frenchissime domestic row in a supermarket: husband and wife fight over which cheese to purchase that week. I vaguely remember about a burial, adultery, a diner in town, stilted exchanges between parents and children, a young man who sinks into madness and believes he’s Céline Dion.

The married characters often have a poor marriage and if they don’t, their happiness seems suspicious. Don’t give this book to someone the night before their wedding day unless you want them to have a bad case of cold feet. The people of Reza’s world are lonely. They’re married and they’re lonely, which is maybe the worst loneliness. They’re trying to capture happiness but it evades them, perhaps because they don’t have a clear vision of what happiness means for them. Not for society or their family or friends, but for themselves. The reflexions on life and marriage can be spot on:

On accepte d’un héros de la littérature qu’il se retire dans la région des ombres, pas d’un mari avec qui on partage une vie domestique. One accepts of a literary hero that he isolates himself in the land of darkness but not of a husband with whom one shares a domestic life.

In other words, you can think as hard as you want but at some point, someone needs to make diner.

It is full of insightful remarks and it doesn’t lack of humour and yet, things didn’t work for me. It Frenchy French stuff. It could be a film by Christophe Honoré with Louis Garrel playing the guy believing he’s Céline Dion. As much as I loved Comment vous racontez la partie, I was disappointed by Happy Are the Happy. In 2013, it won the Prix Littéraire by Le Monde and the Grand Prix du roman by Marie Claire. I’ve obviously missed something.

The English and the French covers of this book couldn’t be more different. The French one is a drawing by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Nacktes Liebespaar (Nude Lovers), while the American cover shows a heart.

Reza_EnglisReza_Heureux

The tone of the book is a mix of the two. The French cover implies that sex is a prominent theme, which is not true. The English cover is a bit too sentimental for the tone of the book.

I’ve read two other reviews, one by Guy and one by Tony.

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