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'You're a plum!': the fight with my father


My cousin Irv
Philip Roth Writer
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I had a cousin, an older cousin – my cousin Florence, who recently died – she was about 12 years older than I was and she married a guy after the war — who came back from the war — a guy named Irv Cohen, and Irv became a great figure in my life. I had… the war had made an enormous impression on me and I had been a student of the war as a kid, and I knew the names of all the places where the battles were and I knew everything. And I carved airplanes that were the airplanes that were used by the US forces and so on, out of balsa wood. And when Irv came back from the war, here was a real ex-GI, and I… he was left-wing, very left-wing, and I was just getting to that stage in my life where I was becoming political myself, as much as a boy can. And he talked to me a lot; a lot of it was bullshit, but it didn't matter.

I… I dramatized him in my book, I Married A Communist. I modeled the character Ira Ringold after my cousin Irv. Ira Ringold in my book kills somebody, but my cousin Irv never did that, but he was a hothead and I was of course interested in this hot head, you know, who was against everything – against everything in America, against the status quo, against capitalism. And we had good times together. We went to baseball games together, we… he… he worked on a truck delivering orders for an uncle of mine, and I would go out with him sometimes on the truck, very rarely, but occasionally, and we would talk in the truck and I felt like a real American man on the road, you know.

And all that… the heroic rhetoric of the war and the heroic rhetoric of the left-wing popular front had gotten into my head and… and the heroism implicit in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, the manliness of the guys who'd been in the war that tested their manliness, all of this was in my head in 1946, '47, '48 and my cousin Irv embodied… embodied this, you know. And he… you say, who did I speak to? I don't think I brought family problems to him; I don't think I had very many family problems, but what I brought to him was my appetite to be a man, you know.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: I Married a Communist, Ira Ringold, I Married A Communist, Thomas Wolfe

Duration: 2 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013