Review: Philip Roth – I Married a Communist

I Married a CommunistI Married a Communist by Philip Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is going to be one tricky review.

The second of Roth’s American Trilogy, reading it immediately after the first, (American Pastoral), may have been a mistake. I am about to read the third, The Human Stain, given that I don’t learn easily.

I Married a Communist stands up perfectly well on its own. The only connection in terms of character is that of the narrator, but even with him it’s clear that we’re talking about a different life history. Bar biographical details of time and location, the two narrators seem to have entirely different stories insofar as each, though having a strong influence upon the narrator, stands in isolation from the other. We may expect the Swede, or his brother Jerry, from American Pastoral would receive a passing mention here, but they do not appear. Nor, of course, (given it was written later), does Ira Ringold make an appearance in American Pastoral, Ira being the focus of I Married a Communist as the Swede was the focus of its predecessor.

For all that, given the structure of the two works, it is difficult to assess this one without back-referencing. Just as the Swede is brother to the narrator’s school friend, so Ira is the brother of a respected teacher. As the Swede becomes successful, so too Ira. As the Swede married a sexual icon in popular culture, so does Ira. Perhaps stretching the connections a little far, just as it is the daughter of the Swede who provides the destructive impetus that lays the central character low in American Pastoral, so it is Ira’s step-daughter who, indirectly, brings about the demise – socially – of the central character in I Married a Communist.

In all this marked similarity of structure, and parallels in the plot lines, there is an impediment. It is difficult upon entering I Married a Communist not to have one’s mind upon the recently-lost Swede, both in missing him as we get to know Ira, and in confusing the two. This is made a little worse, ironically, by ways in which the structures of the two works differ. A long introductory to American Pastoral presents us with a neutral background to the Swede largely drawn from the distant observation of the narrator. The narrator takes us through his own high school reunion which furnishes the work with prescient echoes of themes to come. In I Married a Communist, however, Ira is thrown at us from the start, both through the personal relationship the narrator himself had with him, and through the eyes of his brother, the narrator’s erstwhile teacher, in reminiscence. Ira must be assimilated far more rapidly. Again, we are seeing events after the passing of decades, but where the narrator in American Pastoral has the luxury of constructing the Swede in his head from scant information and making it an all-but first-person narrative, Ira comes complete with commentary as a consequence of his own presentation. This can make him a little distant for the reader as we disentangle fact from interpretation; so distant, indeed, that a surprise revelation towards the end of the book comes as no great surprise at all. We are aware that we have never truly plumbed the depths of the character.

However, it may be argued that the character here verges upon being secondary to the central theme of McCarthyism and the witch hunts of which Ira is to become a victim. Roth does not give us a character who is undeserving of his punishment insofar as Ira was, indeed, a Communist, though he certainly poses the question as to whether it ought really to have been such a crime in the first place. Ira’s Communism is homegrown, a response to injustice and the plight of the working man and not, as the accusation made against him states, the result of his being a direct stooge of the Soviets. That he admires them is undeniable. That he is controlled by them is a falsehood in keeping with many another falsehood of the era in its almost hysterical condemnation of supposed fifth-columnists, a condemnation which many a European finds bizarre in hearing its echoes in the words of many an American even in the present day.

Roth’s critique of McCarthyism through Ira’s brother is condemnatory, and yet that condemnation is ameliorated somewhat by the surprise revelation at the end which shows Ira never to have been a particularly good person. Indeed, there is the suggestion that the idealism, the emotion, the energy behind Ira’s support of Communism has an ugly side and this, perhaps, may be what attracts Ira to the ideal. Certainly the three main Communists in the work do not emerge from it as sympathetic individuals.

If I have said little about the plot here, that is because the plot of I Married a Communist – as with American Pastoral – is secondary. What we have here is an analysis – perhaps Roth’s, perhaps not, but certainly not all Roth’s since he offers differing viewpoints – of politics, of the zeitgeist, of social structures and hierarchies, of folly, of relationships both personal and not-so personal and the damage they can do.

As good a work as American Pastoral, I Married a Communist tends to suffer from, rather than being enhanced by, the structural resonances with its predecessor. On the one hand, those similarities justify – indeed, almost compel – the two works being placed together as two of The American Trilogy, but they would most assuredly benefit from being read entirely separately with a long space of time in between.

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  1. Pingback: Review: Philip Roth – American Pastoral | Pete Marchetto

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