(My review on goodreads)
Let’s forget for just a minute the only thing that critics could talk about when this book was published: that this book was Roth’s revenge for Claire Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House.
What I liked about this novel was Roth’s use of the Murray Ringold character: a teacher and explainer who was compelled to analyze every event and every situation until he could explain it in minute detail to whoever he felt needed the explanation. In this case that was Nathan Zuckerman, a student in Ringold’s English class, and the subject that needed explaining was Ira Ringold, Murray’s brother.
Ira was a ranter, a partially exploded bomb, a passionate expounder of ideas that he did not understand. And the 15 year old Nathan was instantly under his spell, becoming an erstwhile defender of the rights of workers everywhere. Two years later, as Nathan is about to leave for college he finally gets tired of Ira, and some months after that he is ripped from Ira’s influence by an adjunct professor with an eye for the boys and the deep principle that art should be nothing but art, and not political polemic.
Fifty years later Nathan meets up again with Murray and over the course of six evenings explains Ira’s story to Nathan, in detail and with great insight.
One of the things I liked about this novel was the use of Murray as a surrogate for what might otherwise have been an omniscient third-person narrator. The long narrative passages would just not have worked as well without Murray. Murray doesn’t just explain: he was part of Ira’s story from the time he was eight years old and protected his younger brother from the neighborhood toughs. He has a history, with all its regrets and temporary victories.
The Eve Frame character is Murray’s opposite: despite a decent autodidactic education and a fine mind and memory, she acts on pure emotion. She is dominated and controlled by her unloving 23 year old daughter; she is ashamed of being Jewish and acts out in a most antisemitic way at the worst times (not that there are good times for that); she is terrified of anything that might jeopardize her career or her hard-earned position in society, and yet enters into a string of wholly unsuitable marriages. It is fun, in a sort of schadenfreude way, to watch what she does next in the unnecessarily chaotic life she has created for herself.
Most of the action takes place from 1947 to the early 50s, as the Communist witch-hunts and the blacklists were ramping up. Roth gives us a sense of what (he imagines) that was like, including its effect on Nathan, making me wonder whether Roth knows or believes he was affected in the same way.