A Return to Philip Roth

by Adele A. Wilby

The link to Charles McGrath’s ‘No Longer Writing, Philip Roth Still Has Plenty to Say’ which appeared in the New York Times in January, only a few months prior to Roth’s death in May this year, was forwarded to me by a friend who thought I might find the article interesting. How indebted I am to my friend that he thought of me in those terms, for the sending of that article rekindled my acquaintance with Roth; life’s events and circumstances had left my reading of his work to the margins.

After reading that January interview, I was surprised and saddened to hear the announcement that Roth had died; despite his eighty-five years there was no suggestion of ill health on his part in the interview. However, the numerous critical and appreciatory obituaries propelled me into reflection on what I might have missed over the years by failing to read this major twentieth century literary figure that has now left us, and that it was time I returned to Roth to discover for myself what all the praise and criticism of his literature was all about. All that remained of my reading of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Human Stain forty years ago was the impression that they were good books. Fired up with a renewed enthusiasm to ‘return’ to the Roth I had left behind, unsure of what to select from his numerous writings, but armed with my own life story and political history, I chose his I Married a Communist to start reading him again.

I married a communist in the political heyday of the Cold War seventies and eighties, and we could be thought of as politically active in the decades that followed. Thus, with the value of hindsight, of having at least temporarily succumbed to a socialist ideology and politics, and the development of a healthy skepticism of all ideologies, I have to admit to a curiosity as to how Roth would present politically engaged persons, and the socialist politics of the era, albeit in the United States, and I was not disappointed.

My first reaction after reading the final sentence, closing the book and resting it on my lap was to heave a heavy sigh of great satisfaction. Roth, I felt, had written a great book.

As with all books, they can be read on many levels, depending on what the mind of the reader brings to the book. Thus, I Married A Communist can be read as a novel about people engaged in socialist politics in the United States at a particular time, while others might be more concerned with the rendering and development of characters in the story. For others, the book could be considered a critique of the McCarthy years in the United States, or about the fickleness of people and politics, or a critique of idealism.  Arguably, it is the multifaceted levels and subjects raised in the book that make it a great book.  For me, the book contains all those aspects: it is a story about people and politics; Roth has rendered the political passion of Ira Ringold effectively; Ringold’s brother, Murray is an interesting narrator of history, and Eve Frame’s publishing of the expose that led to the branding of her husband as a communist, is an example of both political and personal betrayal; it shows a skepticism of idealism; it contains insightful commentary on the relationship between politics and literature. Leo teaches Zuckerman that:

‘Politics is the great generalizer’…and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they an inverse relationship to each other – they are in an antagonistic relationship.

However, it was not these components of the book alone that hooked me, not only into this book, but into Roth as a writer, and thinker. For starters, there are no lapses in the intensity of the book: one can almost ‘feel’ the intellectual energy Roth must have expended in the writing of the book. Zuckerman’s description of Murray Ringold’s age is a more than adequate example of hard work done in the production of the prose and thought in the book. Roth writes:

His skull looked so fragile and small now. Yet within it were cradled ninety years of the past… All the dead were there, for one thing…

The prose, while creative and original, is laden with insight and perspective, and we see this further in his commentary on the ageing process. Roth writes:

Time, we know, goes very fast near the end, but Murray had been near the end so long that, when he spoke as he did, patiently…I had the feeling that time had dissolved for him, that it ran neither quickly nor slowly, that he was no longer living in time but exclusively in his own skin…

In Murray Ringold…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 comes the ashes…

For middle-of-the-twentieth-century-born readers like me, such prose sums up eloquently the ageing process, and our experience of that process across the span of years that we have lived: the prose has resonance.

I Married a Communist is replete with examples of Roth’s creative writing that express his reflection on life, but it is in his final paragraphs where, in my view, he raises his intellectual effort, and takes the reader to a different level of thinking. Indeed, it would be easy to view his critical exploratory and the balance of opinions in the narratives on many subjects in the book, as leads up to the final pages and paragraphs. It is in those final pages he effectively renders ideologies, moralities, identities and other dimensions of that congeal to constitute personalities and human existence, as illusions, as futile concerns in view of the death that awaits us all. Reflecting on the death of the characters who had so preoccupied him in his quest to understand what became of Ira Ringold, Zuckerman sums this up when he says:

There are no longer mistakes for Eve or Ira to make. There is no betrayal. There is no idealism. There are no falsehoods. There is neither conscience nor its absence. There are no mothers and daughters, no fathers and stepfathers. There are no actors. There is no class struggle. There is no discrimination or lynching of Jim Crow, nor has there ever been. There is no injustice, nor is there justice. There are no utopias…

If it is beyond this human level of existence to influence the destiny of the species, and our lives are impermanent and hence illusionary, we are left with the question of: how then does Zuckerman view destiny and time? It is on these points that we see Roth’s thinking move beyond mundane human existence, to an understanding of the universe, and human life within that perplexing and as yet fully unknown phenomenon. To quote him:

Neither the ideas of their era nor the expectations of our species were determining destiny: hydrogen alone was determining destiny.

And that destiny is found in the power of suns, and in the universe, a universe characterized by harmony and order, summed up in Zuckerman’s closing comment:

What you see from this silent rostrum up on my mountain on a night as splendidly clear as the night Murray left me for good… is that universe into which error does not obtrude. You see the inconceivable: the colossal spectacle of no antagonism. You see with your own eyes the vast brain of time, a galaxy of fire set by no human hand.

It is from amidst this order and energy of the universe that the existence of human life is possible. ‘The stars’, says Zuckerman, ‘are indispensable’.

As I read I Married a Communist, I was not oblivious to the criticisms levelled against Roth: misogynist, ‘self-hating’ Jew, to name a few and I can recall the odd sentence in the book starting to raise a red flag. However, my overall appreciation of the intellectual energy the book represents and the many themes and subjects in the book outweighed my concern for the few suggestive sentences. I will certainly be reading more of Roth in the near future, and perhaps then I will be better positioned to make judgements on the validity of the criticisms to which he has been subjected. In the meantime, I look forward to reading his American Pastoral.

Roth has joined the ‘furnace’ of novelists ‘burning at twenty million degrees’, but for me, his death was the birth of a new star in the universe of my literature.