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

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part III

October 23, 2015 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. October 23, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    This has been a terrific series.

    I read the first three Zuckerman books with pleasure. Someday I will get to this one – very interesting.

    Like

  2. October 23, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    I haven’t read those three. Which one was your favorite?

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    • October 23, 2015 at 6:16 pm

      The first one, The Ghost Writer, is my favorite, with a young, pre-fame/scandal Nathan, but the later ones all have some excellent – some very funny – scenes.

      The more somber little sequel novella, The Prague Orgy, where Zuckerman visits Communist Czechoslovakia, is quite good, too. It just occurred to me that it might go well with I Married a Communist.

      Like

      • October 23, 2015 at 7:00 pm

        The Ghost Writer sounds great. How does it compare to Ask the Dust by John Fante?

        And now I’m curious about Zuckerman’s visit to Prague…

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      • October 23, 2015 at 7:05 pm

        How does it compare – way, way more Jewish.

        No, I haven’t read Fante, so I don’t know.

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        • October 23, 2015 at 7:15 pm

          Ha ha ha!
          I highly recommend Ask the Dust.

          Like

  3. October 23, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    Even though I’m not a fan of Roth, I’ve enjoyed reading your series of billets on this book. It sounds like such a rich and thought-provoking work, a novel that’s packed with meaning on every page.

    Like

    • October 23, 2015 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks Jacqui.
      It is a thought-provoking work.

      As you may know, I never studied literature or philosophy beyond basic high school classes.

      What I like in Roth is his ability to develop solid arguments and remain readable, reachable to non-academic readers. He nevers drowns you under obscure references or uses name-dropping or leads you through a fancy thinking understandable only to those who have the proper baggage.
      Only brilliant people can do that.

      Like

  4. October 25, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Well you already know that I’m not a Roth fan… but it seems as though, from the review, this book hit some chords for you. Do you have another Roth in mind yet?

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    • November 1, 2015 at 9:16 pm

      I want to read American Pastoral. And The Ghost Writer.

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      • November 1, 2015 at 10:05 pm

        Even I’ll admit that The Ghost writer sounds interesting.

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        • November 1, 2015 at 10:17 pm

          Why don’t you like him?

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          • November 1, 2015 at 11:34 pm

            To me, the ones I read felt very dated as though they hadn’t stood the test of time well.

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            • November 2, 2015 at 10:25 pm

              Which one did you read?

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  5. October 30, 2015 at 7:54 pm

    Extraordinary how much you got from this. Should I take it you’re now a Roth convert?

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    • November 1, 2015 at 8:10 pm

      It’s really multi-layered and I was already a convert.

      Like

  6. leroyhunter
    November 2, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    Every time I come across a reminder of the Zuckerman cycle, I get a fresh burst of enthusiasm for them, which I can’t seem to quite follow through on. But am definitely keen to read The Ghost Writer sometime.

    I’ve read 5 by him, not this one but American Pastoral from the Zuckerman series, and I’ve enjoyed all 5 to a greater or lesser degree. The two “late” books, Indignity and Nemesis, were particular stand-outs. Roth is hard to sum up, he’s so protean: you can find greatness in there, but he can be hard going as well, and obviously provokes a significant amount of exasperation in some readers.

    He’s been such a fixture that it’s strange to think of him *not* producing more books.

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    • November 2, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      I can understand that some readers don’t like him at all. He’s not for political correctness, he has strong opinions and sometimes his style lacks paragraphs. (especially for a foreigner reading in English)

      I don’t agree with everything he writes but I do enjoy his sense of humour and his lucidity.

      Like

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