I Married a Communist

by Philip Roth

Hardcover, 1998

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Description

During the McCarthy era, a wife revenges herself on her husband by denouncing him as a Communist. It happens to Iron Rinn, a radio commentator, after he told her he did not want her daughter in the house.

User reviews

LibraryThing member SamSattler
There is almost as much going on between the lines of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist as there is in the story the novel tells. Most obviously of course, the book is another chapter in the life of Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. This chapter of Nathan’s story, concentrating on his teen-age years and his flirtation with Communism as it does, is a key portion of the Nathan Zuckerman saga. And then there is Roth’s use of the book as payback to his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, for her overwhelmingly critical memoir (Leaving a Doll’s House, 1996), the book with which she did her best to destroy Roth’s reputation.

The good news about all of this is that, although several of the 1998 book’s key characters are certainly based on Bloom, her daughter by a previous marriage, and some of her friends, I Married a Communist is more than just a means of retaliation on Roth’s part. It is also a powerful indictment of the McCarthy-era witch-hunt that needlessly ruined so many lives in its determination to snuff out American Communism.

Key characters include: Nathan Zuckerman, a high school student being drawn toward Communism by his best friend and mentor; Murray Ringold, Nathan’s much admired English teacher; Ira Ringold, war veteran, radio actor, and active Communist to whom Nathan is particularly drawn; Eve Frame, silent movie star and radio actress who marries Ira; and, Sylphid, Eve Frame’s adult daughter.

Ira’s story is recounted over several evenings of conversation between the now 90-year-old Murray Ringold and Nathan after a chance meeting between the two men provides them with the opportunity to do some long overdue catching up. All of the key players in the story, other than Murray and Nathan, are long dead, and Murray holds nothing back as he shares his memories of his brother. Murray is the last person alive who knows the whole story, and he believes that Nathan is the only one left who cares enough to listen to it. As the two share memories of the past, Nathan reflects upon his own involvement in the events of those years and how his choices affected his relationship with his parents.

I Married a Communist is the second book in Roth’s “American Trilogy,” a series that also includes American Pastoral (an alternate history of America) and The Human Stain (about the goings on at a small New England college). The trilogy is largely an indictment of the American Dream and a study of the social changes that shaped American thought during the second half of the twentieth century. This second book, as are the other two in the series, is a reminder of just how easily those with the best of intentions can ruin innocent lives.

Rated at: 4.0
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LibraryThing member YossarianXeno
I like the way Philip Roth uses words. I'm often interested in the subject matter he chooses - in this case McCarthy-era America. I suspect our perspectives on the events he writes about are similar. So why is it I often struggle through his novels? I Married a Communist is no different: though I'm interested in the US repression of the early 1950s, this plot didn't engage me. The story was related through the medium of one brother telling the life story of his sibling, the communist in question, to a mutual friend. Perhaps because of this, the writing was almost pedestrian; despite the subject matter, there was a lack of drama. I felt little, if any, emotional interest in the characters. Frankly, the communist and his wife were both ludicrously naive. Yet despite this, I kept reading, enjoying the writing in parts despite my overall frustration with the novel. Perhaps I should conclude that Roth is very good essayist, but not a natural storyteller.… (more)
LibraryThing member lriley
'I married a communist' is Philip Roth's look back in time to the period of time known as the Red Scare. Irving Ringold (the communist in question) and a radio drama star is as much a dogmatist in his own way as the right wing conservation patrioctic hacks who are determined to bury him in order to further their own political ambitions. In as much as the deluded Irving may deserve something of what eventually comes to him his older brother Murray--a somewhat unorthodox high school teacher--is much more of the innocent victim guilty by association--or just being Irving's brother but the reality goes a little further to a schoolboard wanting to eliminate a thorn in its side because of Murray's prominence in the teacher's union.

What brings the whole house of cards down is Irving's misalliance of a celebrity marraige to the film star Eva Frame (a woman determined to deny her jewishness) and the complete and utter rejection of Irving as stepfather by Eva's daughter Sylphid. Coinciding with the political buildup behind the scare with the breakdown of the marraige manipulated by Sylphid--the angry breakup is then supplemented by a tell all book published by Eva but actually ghostwritten by a husband-wife team (friends of Eva) with political ambitions. This book destroys Irving's career and in the long run destroys Eva's as well in the backlash she is shunned by all her friends.

Roth IMO is a great writer--mixing brilliant dialogue, in depth psychologoical analysis and intriguing plotlines. His prose has the uncanny ability to seem to whisper in his reader's ears. Like the best and greatest writers he seems in search of a logic in a chaotic universe--something that doubtfully can ever be reached but all the same is well worth the trying not only for a writer but for all of us as well.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
Not as expansive as American Pastoral, but searching, incisive, brilliant, and quite the page-turner. While I found Roth's last, Exit Ghost, to be an anemic excuse for Roth's long literary rants, this one is a living breathing story on its own. Ira Ringold, the Communist in the title, is a tragic figure who uses ideology, and marriage, as a desperate protection against his own dark side. His wife, the aptly-named Eve Frame, betrays Ira to the red-baiting journalists of the time by participating in a libelous book that gives the novel its title. Indeed, betrayal, of self and of others, is one of the larger themes of a book that ruminates on what it what it means to be human. Can we as humans not betray? This is ultimately a story of human relationships and the mess we make of them, rather than a grand discourse on the politics of the time, and it is all the more interesting for that. (Oh, and the gossip? I don't care about that, and it surprised me how often it turned up in reviews).… (more)
LibraryThing member OscarWilde87
After having read Roth's "The Human Stain" and "American Pastoral", "I Married a Communist" was definitely right on top of my wishlist. It gives a lot of insight into what shook America in the McCarthy era. As all of those three books, Roth - again - did it. He achieved to write a compelling story that grips its readers not so much for what is being told but rather for how its being told. A little less action, a little more thought. Insightful, American, a typical Roth. 4 stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member piefuchs
This book is not considered one of Roth's strongest - but I found it readable, though provoking, and a great story.
LibraryThing member john257hopper
An interesting novel in which the author portrays very clearly the ethos of a time and place. Some good stuff, but this is too rambling and disjointed. The central character is a victim of McCarthyism, but is a deeply unsympathetic, pathologically angry, violent individual. Indeed, McCarthyism is almost incidental to the book, which is more about one man's struggle to come to terms with his own nature.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
People complain that Americans lack a political memory, but we can thank our lucky stars that the narrative of the Red Scare is pretty well-established in our popular imagination. It would probably have been easy for Philip Roth to write a novel that conformed to that familiar narrative, in which a well-meaning, largely innocent American is unjustly removed from his or her job after a villainous public inquisitor draws some spurious link between them and a largely imaginary Red Menace and capitalizes on public hysteria. While there is a brief courtroom scene in the first section of "I Married a Communist," I'm glad to say that Philip Roth did not choose to go down this too-familiar path. In fact, Roth doesn't seem to be particularly interested in the general American public's reaction to the communist threat or their Antisemitism, which plays a far greater role in "The Plot Against America." His real subject here is fanaticism and ideological narrow-mindedness, which could be said to be prescient, since this novel was published before the attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the focus of American discourse, perhaps for good.

"I Married a Communist," like so many other good novels, could be read as a tool of resistance to all-encompassing ideologies like communism and an impassioned argument in favor of critical thinking. To reduce it to a mere civics lesson would ignore its human element, which Roth, as per usual, handles masterfully. The character at the center of this novel, Ira Ringold, is both a classically Rothian protagonist who struggles, largely unsuccessfully, in this case, to synthesize his American and Jewish identities and an unrepentant communist. As a victim, he's not particularly sympathetic, either; he uses his political ideology to stifle his most violent impulses and seems to lack the intellectual capacity to fully understand the philosophy he espouses. These shortcomings make "I Married a Communist" an occasionally harrowing read; Roth seems to want to impress upon his readers the inner and turmoil and emotional violence that it takes to create a genuine fanatic. As Roth's longtime narrator and authorial stand-in Nathan Zuckerman and Murray Ringold, Ira's brother, try to patch together a serviceable narrative that can make sense Ira's chaotic life, they are also seeking to examine the emotional scars that this sort of absolutist thinking leaves upon the psyches of its practitioners. Ira, for example, seeks to achieve a sort of impersonal dedication to communism but seems unable to gain the necessary emotional distance to do so. And this novel is brimming with misdirected emotional energy. Characters in this novel fall in and out of love with each other, with their illusions, and with various political philosophies with typically messy, painful results. The tense triangle that Roth describes between Ira, Eve Frame, his co-star and sometime wife, and her emotionally damaged daughter is a fascinating picture of familial dysfunction. His portrait of Johnny O'Day, Ira's mentor, is a similarly spellbinding account of a character alienated from everything but his own ideas. One suspects that the only genuine personal growth in this novel occurs when Nathan Zuckerman rejects the lure of communism, chooses to dedicate his life to literature, and escapes Ira's circle.

As for Roth's prose: what's left to say? To say that he flawlessly mimics the speech pattens of his characters wouldn't be quite correct: Few people are able to speak as elegantly as Roth writes. When he gets going, Roth's writing reminds me of nothing so much as the calming sound of the waves gently and ceaselessly crashing upon a beach. Whatever his subject, Roth's prose finds and mines a poetic vein that most writers strain to imagine, let alone commit to paper. To watch as he patiently unspools his characters' stories is to watch a master fully in control of his medium. "I Married a Communist," like "American Pastoral" and "The Plot Against America," the other entries in Roth's American trilogy, is highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member agnesmack
Anyone who's paid any attention whatsoever to my reading habits knows that Philip Roth is far and away my favorite author. I've made it through about half of his books now and while I Married a Communist didn't quite earn the title of my favorite Roth book, it is easily in the top 5.

Many of the novels I've enjoyed by Roth I would hesitate to recommend to someone who's never experienced him before. Often times they build on one another, or I think it's necessary to know certain things about his life or his philosophy to get what you need to from his books. However, I Married a Communist certainly stands on its own and makes an excellent starting point for someone who's never experienced him before.

There were many reasons I loved this book, not the least of which was the total saturation with McCarthy-era politics. The characters were rich, the book was complete. With other authors I'll often read a book and be left wondering what happened after it was over, or I'll be curious about details regarding what happened before the story began. Roth manages to start right in the midst of the story and yet the novel is 100% complete. Though I loved the book I did not feel like it needed a single additional word, nor were any of the words superfluous.

As always, there were many little sentences that proved Roth's understanding of the human condition.

“I'd say to Doris, 'Why doesn't he leave? Why can't he leave?' And do you know what Doris would answer? 'Because he's like everybody – you only realize things when they're over.”

or

“I headed down the stairs with the seething self-disgust of someone young enough to think that you had to mean everything you said.”

My politics are about as left as you can get and this book certainly focuses on left-wing politics, which is certainly a bonus for me. However, there were several sections regarding the inability of a writer/artist/etc. to be political, and while I generally disagree with that point of view...well, I was a bit swayed.

“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other – they are also in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn't to be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow the chaos. To let it in. You must let it in.”

Overall, this book reminded me that Roth is the most awarded living author for a reason. Every word he writes is there for a purpose and he rarely oversteps his reach. I would recommend this book to anyone who's interested in literary fiction.
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LibraryThing member sometimeunderwater
Captures the McCarthy era well, but not with quite as much humanity as Roth is capable of. The narrator keeps threatening to be the most interesting character, but never quite emerges.
LibraryThing member figre
I really wanted to like this book. But it wasn’t going to happen. This is the story of a radio star who gets caught up by McCarthyism, eventually leading to his downfall. (The fact that he was pretty darn close to a Communist really has no bearing.) But it also tells the story of his brother, a teacher who winds up caught in the same hearings – primarily because he is a free thinker and he refuses to cooperate. But it is also the story a boy who gets to know them both – as a student of the teacher and a friend of the radio star. It is all told from the boy’s point of view – years later, as he learns the real story behind his teacher and mentor.

And, if it was just this story, told in this interesting way, there might have been a good book here. However, page after page is made up of the various individuals going on about their beliefs about politics and deeper considerations. Yes, this fleshes the people out – makes them real. But it also bogs down the entire book and makes reading it a chore.

Every once in a while it tries to soar. But about that time another discussion or speech begins, and it all comes crashing to the ground.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Philip Roth is such a good writer that even his less than best is pretty good. I enjoyed the book but it had a similar feel to other Roth books on the same subject. I really did not connect with the main character. He was deeply flawed and not really worthy of the deep consideration given to his life by Nathan Zuckerman. The book also did not really give you the sense of how widespread the McCarthy era blacklist was and how it impacted so many people. I just didn't feel it. I would recommend other Roth books to initial Roth readers.… (more)

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