Joined: 19 Nov 2008
Location: Cambridge, UK
|Posted: Sun Jul 16, 2017 4:58 pm Post subject:
|I've written before that when the subject of the best opening line to a novel comes up, the one I automatically think of is from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the
Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
Tha sentence is about Esther, really, the novel's narrator, and yet it drops the Rosenbergs in. The reason that word 'electrocuted' is so brutal is that it's used so dispassionately, so matter-of-factly. The electrocution, I notice on thinking about it now, anticipates the electric shock treatment Esther herself is subjected to later in the book. The gruesomeness draws you in. It's probably been thirteen years since I read The Bell Jar, and I can't even remember if the Rosenbergs are mentioned beyond the first couple of pages. It was the first time I'd heard of them. Elsewhere in literature: Ethel Rosenberg appears in Tony Kushner's duo of plays Angels in America, her ghost haunting the dying Roy Cohn (erstwhile mentor of sorts to the current President of the USA). I'm seeing the plays later this month, and so I thought it would be a good time to read a book I bought a long time ago, The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, a fictionalised version of the Rosenbergs' trial, told at a distance of several years by their now adult son Daniel.
Jonathan Freedland writes of the novel in his introduction, 'It deals in the underside of the American dream, telling the story of a peculiarly American nightmare – a moment when the nation which regards itself as the world's greatest democracy lost its head.' Gee, I can't imagine what that would be like, I thought. But is America today any more alarming than the America of McCarthyism? To recap: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were US citizens who, during the period of Cold War paranoia in the early 1950s, were accused on the basis of sketchy evidence of providing nuclear weapons plans to Russia, tried, and duly executed. The balance of opinion today is that though they may have been guilty of some charges, their trial was flawed and their punishment unjust. Hideous, I'd say, though capital punishment disgusts me, and anyway the morality of spying is something I have problems getting my head around, partly because it's so difficult to understand the concept of a country. I have some sympathy with Forster when he writes, 'If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.' The Rosenbergs left behind two sons, Michael, 10, and Robert, 6.
Doctorow's Rosenbergs are called Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, and their children are Daniel and Susan. Daniel's narrative, sometimes in the first person, sometimes the third (why? to represent his alienation, his disembodiment? whatever, it works), moves around in time, relating events from his childhood, his parents' trial, and various modern-day problems, personal and otherwise (Susan's nervous illness, political protest), while throughout he researches a doctoral thesis on his parents, a thesis that may be the book itself.
I couldn't help thinking of Philip Roth, and in particular Portnoy's Complaint, early on. This book shares with that one an amiable rudeness, a boldness, a sexiness. You feel in the grip of someone telling you the greatest story. It opens with Daniel visiting a mental institution with his foster parents, to try to get his sister discharged. The irreverence of this passage is typical:
A staff attendant in a white uniform with white stockings, which tend to make
the legs look fatter than they are, sat with her legs together on a straight chair
by the door. She played with her hair and read Modern Screen. Does Dick
Really Love Liz? Let me indicate my good faith by addressing myself to the
question. I don’t think he really loves her. I think he is fond of her. I think he
enjoys buying her outlandishly expensive things and also an occasional tup in
bed. I think he loves the life, the camera’s attention, the ponderous importance
of every little fart he makes. I think he loves fraud of spectacular dimension. I
think if they were put on trial for their lives, he might come to love her.
That little bite at the end, the hint of mordancy, is never far away. 25 pages in, with the scene set up, there's a detached, expletive-laden paragraph that announces, 'This the story of a fucking, right?' The anger is righteous and justified. Daniel's parents have been fucked by America, and he and his sister too, and this book is about how it was done. It's a real-life horror story, albeit fictionalised, the outcome (though the reader knows it) at first unimaginable, then slowly, insidiously, possible. The damage doesn't end with the deaths of Paul and Rochelle: though it doesn't excuse his flaws (he can be grossly sexist, for one thing), Daniel is the product of his troubled youth; Susan never really recovers from the trauma.
I keep harping on, but structurally as well as tonally the book made me think of Portnoy. Here as there, you feel there is some beautiful overarching structure at work, though it can't be seen on a first reading. Doctorow is a juggler, many balls in the air, perfectly balanced, in total control of what he's doing. But it's not a technical exercise, it's a book you read to feel – to feel shock, sorrow, outrage – and you do. What a writer he is. He packs so much into a single paragraph. I was especially impressed by the child's-eye view in the flashbacks, but the portrait of Paul and Rochelle is also impressive, the occasional hint at the possibility, however slight, that there may be more to them than met Daniel's eye. Daniel and Susan are determined to prove their parents' innocence (as were/are the Rosenbergs' sons), but what if they're wrong?
Another bit, to give an idea of Doctorow's style, this from the opening of the final part, where Daniel travels to California (to Disneyland, in fact – many symbolic possibilities there) to meet a ghost from the past:
I don’t know what to write to convey the temperature change of the book. Take
your coat off, it’s warm here. A headache passes through the eyes. It has to do
with the atmosphere, the light. The light burns you. The sun warms you tans
you but doesn’t burn you. The light burns you, chars the back edges of the
vision. The sun has to be out in this part of the book. It is a chemical sun. It
shines through a grey haze. It shines through a balmy stillness of air which
lacks all natural smells. And to think all this was once only orange groves.
I had a shock on reading about the Rosenbergs: during the modern-day period chronicled by the book, during the period of its writing, Michael Meeropol, the elder Rosenberg son, was a student in the UK, and not merely the UK but Cambridge, and not merely Cambridge but the very college where I work. I had no idea we had shared territory. It brings his story closer to home. Here's a profile of Robert, the younger son: https://www.theguardian.com/lifea...le/2009/mar/21/rosenberg-children