Jane Lazarre was interviewed by Deborah Kalb on”Book Q & A’s with Deboarah Kalb.” She talks about her latest book, The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter, and discusses how she refuses to separate literature and politics.
The book is really wonderful. It centers on Lazarre’s father, born in Kishinev, famous for pogroms at the beginning of the twentieth century. He, Bill, and his immediate family emigrated to the United States when he was a teenager. He learned English with great speed, worked, joined the Communist Party, did a stint in prison, and always read widely, but especially Marx, Lenin, Dostoevsky, Theodore Dreiser and other masterful critics of the status quo.
In fact, Bill Lazarre’s reading list, and what he and his daughters read together and discussed, is one of the threads that binds the book together. For this is a memoir about people who constantly think and discuss, and feel as passionately as they think.
As a young man, Bill went to Spain with the International Brigades to fight fascism, and this remained one of the high points of his life. His life in the Party back in the United States was also rich: he wrote and spoke publicly and taught, but the heroic days were gradually undermined by intra-party struggles as well as rumors that justice was not being meted out in the Soviet Union. He was eventually thrown out of the party for reasons associated with the last days of Stalin when any disagreement was tantamount to betrayal. The ideology he had built his life around for its clear path to a better world no longer seemed to work.
After losing his Party positions, he had trouble finding work that would support him and his two daughters. Harassed by the FBI and eventually taken before the HUAC committee, he stood firm and revealed nothing to implicate his old comrades, in spite of a real danger of deportation, even though he was an American citizen.
In his final years, he found some satisfaction in a quiet life, a worker hired by former comrades, reading all the papers, finding a second love. He also had a little time with his first grand-child, Jane’s oldest son whose heritage is half Eastern European Jewish radicalism and half southern African-American. This becomes part of Bill Lazarre’s hope for the future–for a time when international union will be the human race.
The author, meanwhile, as she grew up–and this is almost as much her story as his–turned to psychoanalysis and literature as a language for finding meaning in the complexities of life.
Telling these things about this book, of course, give no hint of its texture: it attempts and largely succeeds in creating a nuanced view of Bill Lazarre’s emotional and political experience and the world he lived and suffered in, which was also the world the author grew up in. He has his heroic days recruiting workers for the righteous cause, and he has personal catastrophes when both his adored wife and then a second love die of virulent breast cancer. The author creates his life using his letters and notes, stories told and books written by his old comrades, and she also imagines scenes of him as a boy in Kishinev and alone in his apartment at the end of his life.
She also writes about what it was like to be a Communist Child, when the families gathered in living rooms over food and discussion, with the children loved by all the adults– a hint, perhaps of the yearned for Utopia of equality and camaraderie.
The book is organized in generally chronological sections, but within those sections, it works by association, by retelling dreams, by including transcripts of and commentary on court proceedings. It is a collection of materials, insights, incidents, and imagery formed into a brilliant whole by Jane Lazarre’s skill and patience.
It ought to be a classic of twentieth century American life.