Home > 1990, 20th Century, American Literature, Novel, Roth Philip, TBR20 > I Married a Communist by Philip Roth Part I

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth Part I

October 19, 2015 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. Tredynas Days
    October 19, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    I’m a great admirer of P Roth’s novels, especially his great resurgence around the time this one came out. look forward to the next two billets!


    • October 19, 2015 at 8:15 pm

      Thanks. I admire his novels too. Next one will probably be American Pastoral.


  2. October 19, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    ‘if she exposed their marriage in her memoirs, she knew her novelist of an ex could retaliate’ this reminds me of Nora Ephron’s ‘Heartburn’

    I admit, not read any Roth… any totally oblivious to his & Claire Bloom’s dirty laundry so I’m hoping I too could read this as ‘a great piece of literature… blind to this ugly controversy’


    • October 19, 2015 at 8:24 pm

      I’ve never heard of Heartburn, so I looked it up. I can see the comparison. I was also clueless about his personal life, I have to say I’m not interested in writers’ love lives more than necessary. (Like knowing Jeanne Duval was the black mistress of Baudelaire because it helps understanding his poetry.) I’m also not very interested in gossip in general; I don’t think the public must know about the personal lives of artists.

      Roth is worth reading. I wouldn’t start reading him with The Breast or Portnoy’s Complaint but I think you’re safe with any title of the Nathan Zuckerman series.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. October 19, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    I didn’t know about the personal side of this either. I’m loathe to try another Roth at this point…


    • October 19, 2015 at 8:25 pm

      I know you don’t like him; too bad because his multi-layred books are worth reading. We can’t like them all, right?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. October 19, 2015 at 11:42 pm

    I’ve yet to get into Roth. i was going to start with American Pastoral but maybe this one could be more interesting


  5. Pat
    October 20, 2015 at 1:59 am

    Hi again Emma, I read this way back when, I’d forgotten all about it before I saw your post, I’m not sure that in my innocence I read so much into it in the nineties


    • October 20, 2015 at 1:29 pm

      Hi Pat, welcome to Book Around the Corner.
      I don’t know how old you were when you read it but I suspect you shouldn’t be too young when you read Roth.
      There are things we understand better when we’re older.


  6. October 20, 2015 at 11:41 am

    I am a big fan of Roth and the Zuckerman books.

    A survey of critical and popular opinion finds that this is the least esteemed of the series. I thought that it was very good novel though not as good as the best of the series.

    I also ignored the possible real life connections when reading this book.

    I look forward to your future posts.


    • October 20, 2015 at 1:27 pm

      My next one will be American Pastoral. I expect it to be very good.
      I loved The Human Stain and Exit Ghost.
      Which one is your favourite?
      I love that he doesn’t back down and challenges his readers. He’s not an easy read for me in English but his books are worth the effort.


      • October 23, 2015 at 1:03 pm

        I think that I liked American Pastoral the best. I found it to be the most poignant. The Human Stain came in a close second for me.


        • October 23, 2015 at 6:12 pm

          American Pastoral comes back often in recommendations.

          I loved The Human Stain. What happens in there is so strange for me. Not the racism (alas, present here too) but the idea to hide a % of black blood.


  7. October 20, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    You said this book is part of something like a series? I own a copy of this book, but do I have to read others first?


    • October 20, 2015 at 1:23 pm

      No, you don’t. It’s just that the Narrator has the same name and background in all the books.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. October 21, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    I’ve struggled to take to Roth’s work in the past. His last novel (Nemesis) did very little for me, and I think I ended up abandoning The Plot Against America. You’re making a good case for this one, but I’m not sure I want to try another Roth right now!


    • October 21, 2015 at 7:05 pm

      I loved The Plot Against America. I enjoy reading his books because he makes me think and he manages to mix personal lives with thoughts about his country, his society.
      Powerful stuff but I need to have all my brain cells available to read him in English!


  9. October 28, 2015 at 11:59 am

    I think taking books back to the biography of the author is banal, so I think you’re absolutely right not to care about the real world personal life aspects. Books have a variety of inspirations and sources, does it matter that we can say “this person is based on x, this one on y”? Surely what matters is whether the book is good or not.

    Anyway, interesting that he’s a devoted Communist yet willing to hide the fact. It suggests a complexity of motives.

    Roth somehow never tempts, though I quite believe he’s great. I have his Exit Ghost which I still haven’t read and which I think is the first Zuckerman. Perhaps that’ll make me a convert. In the meantime though, for me the great Roth is always Joseph…


    • November 1, 2015 at 9:15 pm

      I think that comparing Roth’s life to the book’s plot line raised a controversy and helped selling papers.

      He’s a devoted Communist and he’s hiding it because it’s the McCarthy era. He wants to keep his job, his reputation. In the political context of the time, it was not prudent at all to be openly a Communist. Some went to prison for that.

      I’m not sure that starting Roth with Exit Ghost is the best choice. It’s the last of the Zuckerman novels. The first one is The Ghost Writer.


      • November 2, 2015 at 12:19 pm

        I got my titles mixed up. It’s The Ghost Writer that I have.


        • November 2, 2015 at 10:26 pm

          OK. I hope it’ll be on the next TBR10 because I’m selfish and I want to read your review about it. 🙂


  1. October 21, 2015 at 7:00 pm
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  4. November 5, 2016 at 3:08 pm
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