Books: The politics of marriage

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I Married A Communist

by Philip Roth Cape pounds 16.99

"In his conversation, as in his brother's, there was no invisible line of propriety observed and there were no conventional taboos. You could stir together anything and everything: sports, politics, history, literature, reckless opinionating, polemical quotation, idealistic sentiment, moral rectitude ... There was something marvellously bracing about it, a different and dangerous world, demanding, straightforward, aggressive, free from the need to please."

T hese two brothers, Murray and Ira Ringold, who form the centre of I Married a Communist, are human embodiments of Roth's narrative ideal. Their lives and their attitudes represent a manifesto for Roth's writing - for the liberating powers of energy, aggression and directness, and for unapologetically noisy Jewishness. They almost seem closer to Philip Roth's heart than his own alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who ostensibly narrates this novel.

Nathan Zuckerman first appeared in Roth's The Ghost Writer 19 years ago. He was subsequently at the heart of a trilogy, completed by Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, which deals with Zuckerman's transformation from a young, struggling writer, through a literary success which comes "so suddenly and on such a scale, it was as baffling as a misfortune", to an older, iller life as a successful writer. Zuckerman has appeared intermittently in Roth's fiction ever since, his life shadowing Roth's so closely that his presence latterly feels more than ever like Roth himself is inhabiting his novels.

Although Nathan Zuckerman is the narrator of I Married a Communist, he plays only a shadowy role in the book, since the novel almost entirely consists of a story within a story told to Nathan by his former high-school teacher Murray Ringold, detailing the life of Ira Ringold, Murray's brother, a former mentor of Nathan's as a young man.

Ira Ringold's life story is an epic, politically emblematic tale of mid- century American history. A Jewish working-class boy who runs away from his family without completing an education, he takes various blue-collar jobs around America, has a spell in the army, then becomes a political activist on the fringes of Communist activity. He subsequently becomes famous as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, which in turn transforms him into a radio star. He represents an ideal of American manhood: the intellectual who has worked down a mine; the political idealist who knows how to hit a baseball; the self-made man who got rich without ever compromising.

He marries into high society, a choice which marks the chief turning- point in his life. His wife, the silent-movie star Eve Frame (born Chava Fromkin) is utterly unsuitable and their marriage flounders, causing her to turn on him with disastrous results. His ultimate ruination comes with the publication, in the midst of the McCarthyite witch-hunts, of "I Married a Communist", Eve's vindictive and almost entirely untruthful expose of their marriage.

Although this novel is in no sense autobiographical, one cannot help feeling that Roth's choice of title is deeply personal and pointed. Eve Frame is a weak, neurotic and vastly unsympathetic character, by no means the protagonist of the novel. By promoting the title of her memoir to the cover page of the book, Roth provides her with a curiously central status. In doing this, he stirs up more than a hint of a connection between Eve's betrayal of her husband, and the expose of Roth's own marriage by his ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, which was entitled Leaving A Doll's House, but could just as easily have been called I Married a Bastard. It reads as though, through Eve Frame (the perfect name for a vacuous actress), Roth is getting his own back, in a subtle but devastating way.

Aside from this strange and slightly chilling resonance, which could easily have slipped by unnoticed were it not for the novel's title, this work deepens Roth's progress into less personal territory. A tale of giant antagonisms acted out on an ambitious historical canvas, this novel satisfies on every level. The sheer analytical energy which Roth for so long exercised on himself is more than ever turning outwards, looking at the big issues of 20th-century America, consummately mingled with the big issues of quotidian life.

This is a novel of aesthetics versus politics; belief versus compromise; stepfather versus stepdaughter; success versus honesty; Communists versus McCarthyites; men versus women; Manhattan versus Newark; the personal versus the ideological. The grand and the mundane are inextricable in this novel, with neither trivialising the other. It is a novel of ideas, but Roth is aware that ideas only live through people. Human weakness and ideological weakness are the same thing in this novel - as in life.

As fascinating on its human as its historico-political level, in this achievement alone joins the tiny elite of genuinely successful political novels. Perhaps this is because, despite its historical setting, this is very much a work of the Nineties in that it is essentially a post-political novel. Through charting America from the Thirties to the Fifties, Roth traces the divorce of ideology from politics and pins down the McCarthy era as "inaugurating the post-war triumph of gossip as the unifying credo of the world's oldest democratic republic". He has traced a notion which reached its apogee this summer back to a precise point in American history. Like all great historical novels, I Married a Communist resonates as much with the now as the then.

In dealing with this idea, however, Roth reaches no simplistic conclusions. He rejects the easy nostalgia common to narratives of political struggle. While he does chart the victory of gossip over ideas, the novel is not a lament for the end of politics. Ira Ringold's political struggles are far from romanticised and Roth refuses to allow him much nobility in his destruction at the hands of McCarthy. The heroism present in Arthur Miller's writings on this subject is utterly absent here. Ira's political battles ultimately come across as foolish. His brother says of him that "when you decide to contribute your personal problem to an ideology's agenda, everything that is personal is squeezed out and discarded and all that remains is what is useful to the ideology". Ultimately, Communism is as cruel to Ira Ringold as his wife was. Whole-hearted political commitment, Roth suggests, is like a bad marriage. With Eve Frame, as with politics, Ira finds himself in an addictively servile relationship which creates ever deeper blindness to the love-object's flaws. In both cases Ira is the victim but, as ever, Roth is harsh with his victims. Ira is simply a powerful, impressive, brave man who made mistakes - obvious mistakes - and paid for them.

While bemoaning the defeat of ideology as a political weapon, Roth is equally sharp on the way in which ideologies create slaves out of their subjects. This gripping, abstract debate is conducted within the pages of a novel which also crackles and thrills as a domestic narrative. It is hard to imagine a better novel coming out of America this year, and impossible to imagine one coming out of Britain.