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I Married A Communist Interview

Sound files accompany this interview; both PC and Mac/UNIX formatted files are available. See the Sound FAQ if you have questions about how to use these files with your web browser.

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Q: I Married a Communist: What brought you to it?

Roth: American Pastoral in a way. I found that dealing with a very important, powerful decade in American life in the Vietnam War era enabled me to write in ways I hadn't written before. And I began to wonder about what other time was like that in my experience. And I realized that of course it was the McCarthy era. I was in college. I started college in 1950. McCarthy appears in 1950. The Korean War begins in 1950. The Soviets exploded an atomic bomb in 1950. It was a very big year. And I had some familiarity with the era personally because I was a very politically conscious youngster. I had a family that was very politically conscious and that talked about the newspaper at dinner--uncles, cousins, arguing strenuously. All of them in the family to the left of center, and some extremely to the left, some Communists, and my own father, who was really a New Deal Democrat.

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Q: Who is the principal storyteller?

Roth: The principal storyteller--well let me say there are two storytellers. Zuckerman is one. And perhaps the principal storyteller is a 90-year-old man named Murray Ringold who had been Zuckerman's English teacher, a favorite English teacher in high school some 50 years earlier.

Q: In Newark?

Roth: In Newark, yes. And they alternate in telling the story about Murray's brother, Ira, who was a Communist and who was destroyed in the McCarthy era. And they alternate in this way, that Murray tells what he knows and what Zuckerman cannot know about the man Ira and then Zuckerman tells what he knows, which is what he learned as an adolescent and political protégé, really, of Ira's when he was a young boy. Therefore they--in tandem they more or less tell Ira's whole story. But it comes through two narrators, one who is narrating aloud--Murray is telling the story over a series of six summer nights in the Berkshires somewhere --and the other is Zuckerman, who is reminded by Murray's story of things he knew about Ira, who then stops the narrative, as it were, or interrupts the narrative, and in the voice of a book storyteller tells about it.

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Q: So Nathan Zuckerman as a young man is very taken. How does he take up with Ira, and what is the confrontation between his father, between Nathan's father, and Ira?

Roth: Well, I think that in adolescence there are some kids who are very drawn to the dynamism of outrage and anger. And among that group of adolescents there are those who are drawn to it as it's funneled through politics. You might say supplemented through politics. Certainly in Ira's case the attempt to deal with rage that can be violent is certainly in him sublimated through politics. And such people have tremendous manly glamour for some boys, and there is a heroic side to this anger. Because it is pinned to politics that I think Zuckerman is drawn it.

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Q: And he had been to Iran, of all places, during the war, whereas his brother, Murray, had been through the Battle of the Bulge Ira had been to Iran. And what did he find in Iran that had so much of an influence on his political life?

Roth: He found somebody. I think it was very common in World War II, that long war, when people were away from home for four and five years and they were young, for a young fellow like Ira Ringold with no education, big tough guy, to meet another big tough guy who has a brain and who has politics and who made a student of him. And a lot of guys got their first education in the army. And then from there some of them went back to college and some of them just went into the world. Ira goes into the world. He meets a guy named Johnny O'Day, Ira does, in Iran, where they are both stevedores on the docks with the army. And O'Day is a steelworker from Gary, from Chicago, who is a Communist. And he educates Ira in many things--politics, literature, writing--and eventually recruits him for the party. And so Ira becomes a Communist in, when he's in the army. And then when he comes out of the army, he goes off to live with O'Day in the Middle West and works in a record plant, a record factory, while O'Day works as a rigger with a steel manufacturer.

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Q: What kind of character does O'Day represent?

Roth: Well, I think they are--I don't know whether O'Days still exist, those guys. They probably do, but in small numbers. I think that during the Depression and during the war and afterward they existed in large numbers. As working-class men who discovered Marx and discovered books. Generally books that had some political or social impact. Occasionally literature, but mostly it was writing that ... it effected change. And they educated themselves, sometimes crudely, sometimes badly, but it added to their force. And they were polemicists, they were proselytizers, and they gathered other people in with them, and then--

Q: But not much other focus in their lives.

Roth: None, zip. He's a real revolutionary. O'Day is a real revolutionary. He lives for the revolution.

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Q: Now Nathan as a student goes to visit O'Day, because Nathan goes to the University of Chicago, and he spends time with O'Day and now he's drawn between really taking up as a true revolutionary, leaving it all behind, and being the good student, the promising student, his father's son, and so he's in great conflict there.

Roth: Well, I think that one of the repeated situations or, if you like, themes of the book,--aside from its primary theme, which I think is betrayal--is, the other theme would be education. Everybody is educating everybody else. Even when Nathan goes out to visit Ira, who lives up in the woods in New Jersey in the summertime, we run into other people who are all educating either Ira or Nathan about whether it's rock minerals, the zinc that they take out of the mines, or stuffing animals, or whatever. So education is going on all the time. And it's a book about people being educated at a very fundamental level, the way Zuckerman is, or being educated the way you get educated in life, by taking a shot in the head or wherever-- in the solar plexus, you know.

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Q: Well, let's talk about the betrayal aspect and let's talk about Eve Frame and let's talk about the other life of this committed, pugnacious Communist, Ira Ringold. He is also an actor, and he becomes a very successful radio actor and he takes up with a very successful movie star named Eve Frame. Can we talk about that?

Roth: Sure. Ira starts out with afternoon soap operas and is very successful, and with the help of left-wing and communist guys in radio he winds up on a very popular evening program called The Free and the Brave, in which--a kind of program that was reasonably common in the forties about the biographies of American figures, the Wright Brothers or Jack London or whoever it is. And when he gets to New York he meets this ex-silent film star, older than himself-- we're now in 1947,48--who is sort of the queen of serious radio drama, such as it was in the 1940s. And they have an impassioned and whirlwind kind of romance and they marry. It doesn't seem like a likely marriage for a Communist. It wouldn't be a likely marriage for a Communist like O'Day. It's a very likely marriage for Ira, who isn't just a Communist. Near the end of the book, Murray says to, in sort of summing up he says to Nathan, "Eve didn't marry a Communist, she married someone who couldn't find his life." And that's, I think, the larger truth about this guy. He's endlessly struggling to realize his passions and to escape his damage. And to change whatever and whoever he can to make the world accord with his utopian vision, and to do this he tries whatever is at hand. So he has a tremendous appetite for life, different from O'Day's.

What interested me when I was writing was the difference between these two men as it began to emerge. Between the single-minded, fierce, devoted revolutionary O'Day and the other fellow, like Ira, who is no less passionate in his devotion, but he's also passionately devoted to everything else, and so that finally, as much as anything does . . .

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Q: How does Ira ultimately betray Eve, and how does she betray him?

Roth: Well, let's say that everybody in the book betrays. One of the things I realized when I was writing the book is that betrayal is built into life. It's built into virtually every choice. When you choose one thing over another, if there is a personal dimension to it, you inevitably are betraying something that you're leaving behind. In some people this creates remorse, regret, guilt. Some people, it doesn't create anything.

And the betrayals are very different. The fundamental betrayal in the book is Eve's revealing to an anti-Communist journalist with a lot of power that her husband--not only that her husband is a Communist , but she hands over lots of documents that prove it. She then writes a book which has the title that my book has I Married a Communist, which embellishes on this and, for many reasons, says that he actually was a Soviet saboteur. Well, that's treason, which is a capital offense, and the charge is pretty remarkable.

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Q: He's brought down by this book.

Roth: He's brought down to begin with by just the exposure in the gossip column, the exposure of his diary and so on. And he gets fired from his radio program. But when he becomes the country's leading Communist with the publication of her book, then he's brought down, he's destroyed in several ways. One is, he is momentarily destroyed because he's suicidal, I suppose, but then he's more deeply brought down because the rage, the unsublimated rage is aroused in him and he decides he is going to kill Eve Frame. And though that does not happen, Ira the wild man takes over. The wild man he had been trying to suppress for all these many decades.

Q: And Eve Frame herself--what can you tell us about why she did this?

Roth: Well, she did it for the reason that people do those things--she's angry. She too is angry. Her daughter is angry. Ira isn't the only angry person in the book. And she's angry, furious, feels betrayed by him for a variety of reasons, and her anger is exploited by two friends of hers who have political ambitions and who use her, really, as a means of themselves gaining national prominence. It begins out of a personal motive of . . . it begins out of domestic anger.

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Q: You point to the McCarthy era as in many ways, the beginning of, the origin of tabloid television, the origin of the kind of maniacal way that we take half-truths and explode them in today's media climate.

Roth: Yes, I think that the McCarthy era was one--that, certainly, the beginning of the moral disgrace as public entertainment. Actually, what I don't say in the book because there is no reason to talk about it, I think it was the beginning of the Vietnam War, in that it created an atmosphere around communism that was so hysterical that there was no, certainly no Democratic president who could ever be anything but more ferociously anti-Communist than the Republicans, and eventually it led into that ghastly, ghastly Vietnam War. Where no one could make a reasonable choice facing communism. You had to prove that you were not, that your wife hadn't married a Communist, your husband hadn't married a Communist, you had to prove you weren't a Communist.

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Q: What drove you to be a writer? When did you know?

Roth: I don't know what drove me. Driven I have been but I don't know what drove me. When did I begin? In college I began to write some very tender little stories. And I stuck with it.

Q: Who influenced you? Who were some of your major influences as a younger writer?

Roth: Well as a kid, a kid as old as Zuckerman--Zuckerman in the book is in his sixties but he talks about himself when he was a fourteen or fifteen year-old--Norman Corwin, the radio writer, was a great influence, and Norman and I have become friends over the last few years. We have never met; we have spoken on the telephone many times. And one of the most pleasant aspects of the Pulitzer Prize was that day, whenever it was, two or three weeks ago, when I got home and I found forty messages on my answering machine. Forty. Which I didn't know the machine could do, you know, and I didn't know what had happened because I'd been out all day, and so I thought one of two things had happened, I thought either I had died and these were condolence calls or I'd won something. And it turned out that I'd won the Pulitzer Prize. And when I began to listen to the messages, as many were from my broker as from Wendy Strothman of Houghton Mifflin. He was very delighted. He saw it on the Dow Jones newsline as it was going around. He reported it to me.

And among the messages there was a message from Norman, who is now ninety. And I found the only emotional moment I had listening to all those tapes--of course I was pleased--was when I heard this guy's voice. And I called him the next day and I said, "You know it's no easy thing emotionally to get a phone call from your boyhood hero who says, 'Very good, you've done very well.' "

So, you know, when you're a kid you respond to of course different kinds of writing than you will as an adult. But there was something passionate in this radio writer, something deeply American in him. There was a tremendous amount of what I took to be political good will, and all these things were very, very provocative for a fourteen or fifteen year old.

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Q: You have written consistently about Newark. Murray stuck with Newark, continuing to teach there even in not very hopeful times for education. What does Newark look like to you now?

Roth: I, myself am surprised I'm so mesmerized by this place, because I left younger than any of my friends. I was sixteen or so when I went off to college, just seventeen. And I never went back. And many of my high school friends went back after college, were professionals, doctors, lawyers in Newark, hung on until they couldn't hang on there any longer and then moved to the suburbs. But close to Newark, when I lived all over.

On the other hand, the place has come to represent for me, I suppose, modern times in America, and the fate of Newark has been the fate of many other cities. Detroit is probably one that most comes to mind. And others which have just--were tremendously productive industrial towns, had a hardworking, fully employed working class. Had good, strong, corrupt city administrations, as they had in those years. And in other words the city worked, these cities worked. And the people worked in a different sense. And that's all been destroyed. The riots of the late sixties in Newark just ended the real life in the city, and the city became an intensive-care case, really, and is still, despite the new art center, and they are now building a new baseball stadium and so on. But that doesn't affect life in the city, and life in the city is pretty . . . pretty awful. And I went--over the years I began to go back to visit by myself, walk around. When it became too dangerous to walk by myself I'd go with somebody, and I was-- as I say, I was mesmerized by the destruction of this place that . . . I knew the city very well, perhaps better than other kids did because my father was in the insurance business. I went everywhere in the city, and sometimes when I was very small I used to go with him. And I knew all the streets and I knew what they had looked like and I knew how people lived in them. And so to come back to that word I've used several times, I'm mesmerized by the change in my own lifetime and trying to depict it; I'm just trying to resurrect it in its different stages. I think that there may be something of some interest there for other Americans.

 

 


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