In which Netty goes looking for reds under the beds – and comes face to face with the Rosenbergs …

May 28, 2013

ImageSometimes you think you know more about something than you actually do. Take communism in the US in the mid-20th century, for example.  I was aware of the term McCarthyism – named after its prime exponent, Republican Senator Joesph McCarthy, who took the hysterical “reds under the bed” concept, the supposed infiltration of communism into every nook and cranny of American life with the intent of destroying its democratic freedoms, to calamitous extremes. I know a bit about the House Un-American Activities Committee – particularly as it relates to the 1950s-‘50s Hollywood era – and that the nefarious J. Edgar Hoover was looming like a particularly nasty shadow over that period. What I didn’t know – didn’t realise – was exactly how far this insidiousness stretched into the lives of ordinary Americans.

Ordinary Americans, that is, like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – who are fictiously reimagined in American writer E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel as Paul and Rochelle (Rachel) Isaccson. I have to admit that the names did not immediately ring a bell – what can I say? It’s been a really, really long time since I read Plath’s The Bell Jar, and, frankly, the Rosenbergs thread was not what I remember most from Esther Greenwood’s tragic tale.

The Rosenbergs, a New York Jewish couple, were convicted of a conspiracy to commit espionage, specifically passing on information about the production of the atomic bomb, to the Soviet Union, in the late 1940s and executed in 1953 for their supposed crimes. The pair, who were involved in local chapters of the Communist party and union activities, were arrested along with several other associates – many of whom eventually served jail sentences of varying lengths after “confessing” to certain crimes or giving false testimonies that ultimately damned the Rosenbergs to death. These days it is accepted that Julius Rosenberg was involved in espionage, but not necessarily of imparting bomb secrets, while there is still considerable doubt over Ethel’s involvement. Rich pickings indeed for any novelist worth their two bob …

The couple had two sons, Michael and Robert, who were aged seven and three, respectively, when their parents were arrested in 1950. After being shunted between relatives, family friends and children’s shelters, they were eventually adopted by songwriter Abel Meeropol (who wrote the anti-lynching anthem Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holliday) and his wife Anne. Michael is a retired economics professor, Robert an anthropologist, activist and lawyer. Both have latterly conceded their father probably did co-operate with the USSR, but baulk at the atomic bomb charges.

Doctorow takes the bare bones of the brothers’ history for his fictional children Daniel and his sister Susan for his novel, which tells of the Isaccson family history through the eyes of Daniel as a youngster, told from the adult perspective. Perhaps as to show the fragmentation of Daniel’s often-shaky mental disposition, the novel abruptly switches from first to third person, and erractically skips between the past and present. This device can make the reading going challenging, but it is far from a flaw in the overall proceedings.

It is New York in the late 1960s, and Daniel, now aged 25, spends his time at the local library, ostensibly – and as far as his young wife Phyliis is concerned – working on his thesis. He is actually writing his family’s story, trying to make sense of the trial and execution of his parents some years previously. His sister Susan is languishing in a sanatorium after a suicide attempt. Their loving adoptive parents, lawyer Robert Lewin and his wife Lise, have provided a stable, upper middle-class, liberal-leaning environment for the siblings, who have embraced, to varying degrees (Susan stridently, Daniel in a more hodge-podge fashion) late-1960s political activism and youth culture, culminating in a decision to use their trust fund to set up the Isaccson Foundation to fund political projects and activities. Their family background and the fate of their biological parents is never far from their consciousness, often operating as a millstone around their necks and fuelling their respective demons – Daniel torments and lashes out at his wife and the infant son who bears his birth father’s name, both verbally and physically, while Susan uses drugs and self-harms.

While the adult Daniel is an often odious creature with few redeeming features, it is in marked contrast to the thoughtful young child portrayed in flashback. Daniel and his baby sister are the children of young Jewish couple Paul and Rochelle, who are keenly interested in and involved in socialism, along with a circle of like-minded friends who will eventually abandon and betray them. In the suspicious spirit of post-World War II United States, with the Cold War looming and government interests keen to stamp out any flicker of what it deems undemocratic, Soviet-leaning activities, the Isaccsons become targets – particularly Paul, who runs a radio and electronics sales and repair shop. After Paul’s arrest, lawyer Jake Ascher takes the case. A kindly, considered but bullish man, he steers Daniel and Susan’s immediate future after Rochelle is also jailed. (“It is not a period that our historians will be proud of us. We are in the mood that someone should pay for what we find intolerable,” he tells Rochelle, presciently.)

Later, when Daniel is reconstructing his parents’ case, he tracks down several people he deems pivotal – Jack Fein, a New York Times reporter who covered the trial; Fanny Ascher, Jake’s wife, who has little regard for his parents and inadvertently blames them for the toll the case took on her late husband’s health; and finally, Selig Mindish, the old family friend who originally implicated the Isaccsons to the FBI and served jail time himself, now an elderly, senile man. Daniel is seeking closure and a denouement, liberation from the past and a path to the future – he realises, as he suspected, that only by looking back can he finally move forward.

The Book of Daniel is a stunning novel. It is difficult, dense, proudly post-modern, but richly rewarding – in short, it is the quintessential Reading Challenge book. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t hesitate a second longer. The well-regarded Doctorow, whom I had not previously encountered in my literary travels, has a good dozen or so novels under his belt – all of which would be worthy of any reader’s time if The Book Of Daniel is anything to go on. Ah time, my ever-elusive friend: you are a cruel mistress indeed …

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