Tuesday, 6 September 2011

I Married a Communist - Philip Roth, 1998

I Married a Communist is the middle entry of Philip Roth’s multi-award winning “American” trilogy which began with American Pastoral (1997) and concluded with The Human Stain (2001). It charts the rise and fall of Ira “Iron Rinn” Ringold, a fictional Jewish-American radio star of the 1940s, as remembered by his protege Nathan Zuckerman and his brother Murray Ringold, now old men in the late 1990s. Ira - a combative Communist in the McCarthy era - is a tragic character in the Shakespearean mould, driven to self-destruction by his unyielding political convictions and his barely-controlled violent impulses. He is Gatsby-like, forcibly severing himself from his roots, and in the process creating himself anew - the archetypal modern American, a creature created and sustained by self-determination alone.

The catalyst for his downfall is a book written by his ex-wife which exposes him as a communist, in an echo of Roth’s private life - Roth’s ex-wife also published a tell-all expose about the author in the mid-1990s, although it would be a mistake to assume that this makes the novel autobiographical, or at least not in the sense that it seeks to explain or understand anything from Roth’s life. Instead, it seeks to elevate the stuff of real life into art. The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books”, explains Roth. “Not at all. What he's doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book - which is, How do you write about this?”

One of the recurring problems that Roth tries to solve in the American trilogy is how to write about the interplay between the broad sweep of history and the minutae of personal experience, as it’s lived. In his own words, the three novels are “about the historical fire at the centre and how the smoke from that fire reaches into your house." In Ira's case, the smoke that chokes his career comes from the McCarthyite paranoia surrounding Communist activity. Ira is a character defined by his antagonism, so it makes sense to place him in opposition to the most oppressive political climate in the history of the USA. This setting also allows Roth to examine a particularly traumatic chapter in 20th Century American history, when the fear of communism was ratcheted into a major threat to the country’s foundational idea of political freedom.

As a student, Zuckerman comes under the tutelage of a young professor called Leo Glucksman, who tells him: "Politics is the great generalizer, and literature is the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other - they are in an antagonistic relationship". Ira Ringold highlights, but ultimately fails to resolve, that contradiction. Roth refuses to unpack the antagonism at the core of the Ira character - it just is, as it would be in real life. It’s given a genesis in his neighbourhood and family, and an outlet in his political beliefs and his violence, but it also - primarily - exists as an elemental force of its own. The wider context is provided by the era he lives in, and he exists in constant antagonism to it. Ira’s violence isn’t unpacked because it’s a part of him, a particular, the smallest unit - indivisible.

Conversely, generalisation is what seems to drive the (mostly faceless) anti-communists, who barely feature in the narrative as formed, speaking characters. Instead, the threat is always out of camera-shot, lists of communists are implied but never produced, and when the repercussions do come - Ira and his producer are fired from their radio show - they happen away from the main thrust of the narrative. There’s a Kafka-esque feel to these proceedings, the accused are never informed of the nature of the charges and never face their accusers, and are only left to face the consequences.

When Eve’s book is published, the effect is to distort the real person that Ira is by simplifying him into a caricature ‘communist’. Effectively by over-generalising him, by reducing him to one superficial quality, Eve succeeds in destroying the real, particular Ira. Eve’s motivations, or the content of the book, do not feature heavily in the narrative - again it’s left to the reader to imagine what forces are arrayed against Ira, and Roth portrays only the impact these things have on Ira and those close to him.

The Murray character is the opposite of political, and the opposite of generalised - he’s interested in the intangibles, the particulars of novels and of lived experience. He has no time for Ira’s political convictions, preferring instead to read and teach literature. He is the embodiment of the principle stated by Glucksman - he cannot see the world in the broad strokes necessary for any political ideology, but can only puzzle over the particular nuances of human character that are revealed through the novels that he reads. Having finished speaking to Murray, the older Nathan ends the novel by sitting on his veranda, gazing at the stars. Experience has brought him away from the certainties provided by political ideologies, and - unlike Ira - having survived, he chooses instead to retreat into imponderables.

So if the book can be said to have an overall theme, I’d read it as the interplay between literature and politics, and the way they can’t really reconcile. Novels are about not fully understanding, not quantifying or reducing, but about describing and anatomising the raw stuff of living, as it is. Political ideologies are the complete opposite, insofar as they trade the personal for the general, the contradictory for the complete. Ira is a confused, messy human form who tries to forcefully fit himself into something rigid and ordered - and this eventually leads to his undoing. Eve Frame’s character follows the same trajectory. The present-day Murray and Nathan exist above it all, embracing the contradictions with the benefit of age and hindsight.

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