Warm, Weird, Effervescent, by Madeleine Schwartz

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June 2019 Issue [Reviews]

Warm, Weird, Effervescent

Lore Segal reinvents the immigrant novel

Discussed in this essay:

The Journal I Did Not Keep: New and Selected Writings, by Lore Segal. Melville House. 352 pages. $28.99.

In Lore Segal’s short story “The Reverse Bug,” a teacher named Ilka Weisz invites her conversational En­glish class to a panel at a Connecticut think tank: “‘Should there be a statute of limitations on genocide?’ with a wine and cheese reception.” The class is made up of immigrants to the United States. Although Segal doesn’t give a date, we are to understand that most came several decades earlier as a result of World War II: Gerti Gruner, who recently arrived in the United States from Vienna, by way of Montevideo, and can’t stop talking about her lost cousins; the moody Paulino from La Paz, whose father disappeared in the American Consulate; and the mysterious Japanese Matsue, who tells them that he worked in a Munich firm “employed in soundproofing the Dachau ovens so that what went on inside could not be heard on the outside.” He’s since been working at the think tank on a “reverse bug,” a technological device that brings sound from the outside in. The class takes advantage of his poor En­glish to ignore what he is saying.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

On the day of the lecture, the students gather in the think tank’s auditorium. But when the distinguished guests—including a rabbi, a West German ex-mayor, and an Israeli Nazi hunter—begin to speak, the theater fills with the sound of screams. The noise deafens guests and students. “The human ear could not accommodate it. People experienced a physical distress and put their hands over their ears.”

The audience does not know what they are hearing. Is it the sound of people burning at Dachau? Or the sound of Hiroshima? Paulino believes it’s the sound of his mother and father being assassinated; Segal soon reveals that his father is an escaped Nazi who changed his name to avoid retribution. Matsue, meanwhile, has left the think tank for the airport, and when chased down says the machine can’t be turned off. The theater is dismantled piece by piece and sent cross-country on the back of a flatbed. “They buried the thing fifteen feet under, well away from the highway, and let the desert howl.”

Segal has spent her career facing the biggest, most serious questions of twentieth-century life—How do we deal with the aftermath of great cruelty and great trauma? Can a person ever truly find home in an adopted land?—and presenting them on a canvas that is charming and light. Her five novels and dozens of short stories, published at a slow and steady pace since the 1960s, circle around some of the heaviest aspects of the American experience. But where the reader expects grandiosity and weight, Segal provides sympathy and humor. Taking as her starting point her own experience as an immigrant to the United States, Segal has built up a body of work that probes how people come to know one another. Her writing blows sad and then joyful, warm then cool, with surprising sallies into magical realism and religious critique. What is consistent is her tenderness and steely precision. At ninety, she has managed to create a corpus of work that animates the whole world with the same bright voice.

The Journal I Did Not Keep is a compendium of newly collected fiction and memoir from the past several decades. Segal has brought together here odds and ends from a writing life: short stories, short essays, biblical exegesis, as well as selections from her novels, making it a fitting bookend to a long career and an excellent introduction to her work. It’s an eclectic, covertly joyful book, and shares with the rest of Segal’s writing an openhearted curiosity toward life, even at its ugliest moments.

The highlights of the book are Segal’s stories, many of which were originally published in The New Yorker. In “Ladies Lunch,” a group of five friends—women who gather once a month for lunch at “the age when they worried if one of them did not answer her telephone”—try to understand what to do about an aging pal. One of them seems like she’s headed in that direction: Lotte, whose fights with her caregiver are the source of worry for her friends and even more so for her children. Lotte complains about the woman assigned to look after her:

She’s in my living room . . . watching television . . . she’s in my kitchen eating her lunch which she does standing up; . . . she’s asleep in my spare room and in my bathroom whenever I want to go in.

She pushes every home health aide out. Her sons exercise their power and send Lotte to a nursing home upstate.

The story proceeds through dialogue, as is common for Segal. Ideas are bounced around and shaped as they pass through one person and then another, so that the stories have the effect of a dialectic in plain language. It’s like a Greek chorus, except that the tragedy is also funny.

Gathering as four instead of five, the ladies continue to worry. They don’t recognize Lotte on the phone. She sounds different, “strangled, a new, strange voice.” They plan to save her. They’ll rent a car! A grandson will drive them upstate! Meanwhile Lotte complains even more. She tells them that she’s dead up there. “If I saw Dr. Goodman—or any doctor—he would look down my throat and see the four yellow spots dead people have.” But when it comes time to rescue Lotte, each of the friends develops problems of her own. One of them has a debilitating headache. Another has become ill. They continue to plan together, but keep pushing the plans back. They’ll go see her, “in spring maybe, when the weather is nicer.”

In “Making Good,” Segal takes the same choral approach but changes the tragedy. Now, we are dealing with the Holocaust. A woman named Margot Groszbart, an elderly Jewish concert pianist, participates in a postwar reconciliation meeting: a rabbi has brought together Viennese refugees resettled in New York and Viennese residents visiting the States to hash out their thoughts. Seated in a circle, “not a natural configuration for a group of strangers,” they are assigned to draw out their feelings with crayons and complete the sentence: “When I came into the room, I thought . . . ”

The Viennese Jews wonder who in the room was a Nazi. The Viennese visitors are eager to find forgiveness and resentful that they must do so. One of them mutters, “Sixmillionsixmillionsixmillion” as a form of mimicry or resentment. At one point, the group divides up by pairs and the twosomes are asked to tell each other’s story. Gretel cannot say aloud what happened to Margot’s mother. Her

sentence was swallowed in a sob so that she could not immediately realign the muscles to go on speaking.

Margot gave a straightforward account of Gretel’s mother’s Nazi career. “She never had to use her whip,” she concluded.

Gretel said, “She did other things.”

As the proceedings unfold, the Viennese visitors get huffy. At lunch, one asks, “Did you see Ruth let the cuff of her sleeve fall accidentally on purpose open, to show the numbers on her wrist?” But they beg for forgiveness in every way they know how. They want the New York Jews to write a letter to Vienna about what they think about the visit. Gretel tells Margot, “We came for you to console us for having been terrible.” She dangles her upcoming trip to Israel as a kind of penance. Segal does not allow the two groups to reconcile. When Margot leaves the gathering, “She thought she was going to turn around and wave to her, however she kept on walking.”

Margot Groszbart, Ilka Weisz: the characters at the center of Segal’s stories carry more than a few similarities to their author. Segal was born in Vienna in 1928. Shortly after Hitler came to power, she was sent on an experimental train full of Jewish children whose parents hoped the Nazis would let them cross the border: the Kindertransport. She was ten years old. She spent the next decade living with a series of foster families in En­gland. Though her parents joined her in the United Kingdom, the family remained separated. Employed as a “married couple,” then the term for a cook and butler pair, they had to serve foster homes of their own. Segal’s father could not deal with the stress of the war and died of a stroke in 1945. When Segal and her mother moved to Washington Heights in 1951, they had been trying to reach America for thirteen years. She and her mother decided to speak only En­glish to each other, in order to better integrate.

Segal took on this experience in Other People’s Houses, her first novel, an account that is woven with a tough and quiet sympathy. Lore leaves Vienna on the first train out, clutching a sausage snack from her mother like a magic talisman. In En­gland, she moves in with an Orthodox family near Liverpool. She asks her father to write and explain “what did ‘Orthodox’ mean.” The answer comes too late, and the new family wonders that she knows so little about Judaism. When that family no longer wishes to house her, she is shuffled off to a working-class home. Those parents take her to get fitted for a gas mask. They get rid of her after she places into the local private school rather than the public school their children attend.

Her foster families marvel that she doesn’t weep for her parents, or turn to them for attention. One host mother complains, “At home she never even opens her mouth. She gives me the creeps.” But the child knows that she cannot afford to be sentimental. When she speaks about the deep tragedy of her situation, it is only to manipulate those around her. Her host mother will not bring her to the park, so “it occurred to me to say, ‘In Vienna, Jews aren’t allowed to go in the park.’ The effect was instantaneous and marvelous.”

Every circumstance conspires to remind her that each of the houses she stays in is only temporary. Her parents come to En­gland. But when she visits them, her mother chides her for not writing thank-you notes to temporary families. The realization that she has been deprived of a country only registers later, after the family has left Europe. When she finally arrives in New York, she cannot fully ease into the pleasures of peace:

I, now that I have children and am about the age my mother was when Hitler came, walk gingerly and in astonishment upon this island of my comforts, knowing that it is surrounded on all sides by calamity.

We too now live in a time of calamity, one that writers struggle to put into words. What’s striking about Segal’s novel, as others have noted, is how distant the emotions seem. The young Lore never cries; she never has a tantrum. When her father dies, she barely reacts at all. Living in the town of Allchester, she is invited to join the local Jewish community for meals and services:

I did not want any part of them. It grieved me that I did not love them. It made me feel hard and wicked. I clenched my right hand over my chest and struck it surreptitiously . . . “God, I’m going home to dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Rosenblatt and I don’t even like them.” Thump.

All she can feel, as she is displaced from one home to another, is a sharp absence of emotion: “the icy chill just below my chest where my insides had been.” When the book was published in 1965, Cynthia Ozick reviewed it somewhat skeptically in Commentary. She found the tone cold, but saw a power in Segal’s restraint: “Despite plainness, without comment or cry, Lore Segal agitates as fiercely as though she were dealing with unspeakables.”

Segal recognized that an inability to cry had a human cost. “Cut yourself off, at ten years, from feelings that can’t otherwise be mastered and it takes decades to become reattached.” But the steeliness of her prose has another effect: it makes the narrator dependent on others to tell her own stories. Forgoing the interiority we have often come to expect in novels, especially novels of great calamity, her characters do not experience their feelings by churning them endlessly in their hearts, but by meeting other people. In later novels especially, Segal writes mostly in the third person, at a distance, with the occasional aside for thoughts. When her protagonists look to answer a question, they must find the answer outside themselves.

The best example of this is Her First American, a kind of sequel to her first novel, published in 1980. Here, her protagonist is not Lore, but Ilka Weissnix (“Ilka know-nothing”), a twenty-one-year-old feeling her way through her newly adopted country. “It had taken Ilka Weissnix more than a decade to get to the United States, of which she knew next to nothing and came prepared to think ill.” When the book opens, she has just arrived in “Cowtown, Nevada,” thinking she’s in Utah. It is there that she meets Carter Bayoux, an older black intellectual with whom she soon begins an affair.

Carter introduces Ilka to the United States. He teaches her about New York City, which books to read, how to tap her feet when listening to jazz. He answers her questions:

“What is CP?”

Carter explained.

“What is Wobblies?”

“Oh, Jesus!” said Carter. He explained.

“What is Wasp?”

Carter explained. Ilka thought it was the wittiest thing she had ever heard.

More importantly, Carter teaches her about race. Ilka sees that Carter is different but does not understand what he means when he says, “Not all of us are white.” Carter has grown up in the United States, but his life, too, has been full of tragedy and displacement. He lives in dismal circumstances, holed up in the Bloomsbury Arms Hotel in a room whose regular mess matches his regular bouts of violent, destructive alcoholism. Everyone knows him, he knows everyone, but his family mostly ignores him and he has only a diffuse cast of friends. Carter’s depression is the test of their relationship.

Ilka does not fully realize what she is learning. When Carter asks her to take dictation for an article about racism (“As an American child comma the Negro internalizes a dream of freedom that is baffled by daily comma small comma casual hurts and slights. . . ”), she tells him, “One cannot write things like this.” Later, while beginning to mull ending her relationship with Carter, she accompanies him to a Connecticut house where his friends have gathered for the summer. An African-American woman vacationing with them asks for her help in the kitchen, and Ilka cannot stand being bossed around by a black woman. Looking at another couple—which, like Ilka and Carter, is made up of a younger white woman and an older black man—Ilka asks Carter,

“And why would Doris Mae marry. . . . ” Ilka became puzzled and stopped.

“A Negro twice her age?”

You think I mean that?” cried Ilka.

“What did you mean?”

“That!” said Ilka with the thrill of revelation. “I’m a racist!”

“Not to worry,” Carter said. “Some of my best friends are racists.”

The book makes a strong and quiet case for the sympathies between African Americans and Jews. Ilka herself is slowly coming to understand what happened during the war, distrustful of the Germans she meets in the United States and trying to balance her mother’s difficult integration into American society with her own desire for an adult life. She is, though she does not know it, also becoming a writer. Telling Carter and his friends about her life before New York, “Ilka learned which part of her history affected her hearers and made good anecdotes. The rest remained untold.”

Through Carter, her understanding of the United States fills with color and its American hierarchies. He introduces her to the cruel divisions of the society to which she now belongs. At one point, Carter teaches Ilka the identity of a skin color she has struggled to place—Puerto Rican—

giving a name to the category into which Ilka was now able to file the woman in the early morning subway who had sighed for her mother . . . the word by which to distinguish this group of people from other people.

It’s a cruel sign of successful integration.

How does one form one’s identity? How do people belong? To what extent do immigrants stay immigrants? These questions ricochet through Segal’s later works, vibrating at different frequencies. In Shakespeare’s Kitchen (2007), a novel told in stories, Ilka is Ilka Weisz (“Ilka who knows”) but she is still struggling to find a community for herself. Now a writer, she moves to Concordance Institute, a kind of think tank for dreamy academics in Connecticut. She knows American culture well enough to teach it to more recent immigrants (the short story “The Reverse Bug” comes from this collection), but she still struggles to find the people with whom to create a kind of family. Another Viennese refugee recognizes their shared background and invites her over for schnitzel; Ilka scoffs at that woman’s naked need. A former lover talks his way into a job at the institute; she marries him out of affection rather than love. The book recasts these relationships, from story to story, as Ilka moves and shapes the community around her. When her husband dies, she moves into another couple’s marriage and takes up with the married head of Concordance, whose wife she has also befriended.

With its encounters and conversation, the book has an elastic, cheerful energy. One of the lovely things about Segal’s books is the way characters move from one story to another. Ilka’s mother seems not so different from the mother of Other People’s Houses; Carter shows up in Shakespeare’s Kitchen, too, as an ex-boyfriend who calls in at the low point of the book, soon after the death of Ilka’s husband, Jimmy. (“Christ!” he says. “This is embarrassing.”) Balzac on his deathbed is said to have cried out for the characters in his novels; in her own way, Segal has recreated the community she lost in the world of her novels.

In between the books, Segal wrote a novella called Lucinella, a blend of New York satire and magical realism that is one of the most wonderfully weird books I’ve ever read. Lucinella is another Segal substitute, not an immigrant but just as eager for community as her half-sisters. She looks for it at Yaddo, where she falls in love with “all five poets, four men, one woman, and an obese dog called Winifred.” Lucinella and her fellow poets go to parties, they get married and have sex, they worry about the impact of one another’s work because they’re all submitting to the same magazines. The satire is gentle, with the kinds of details that come from deep knowledge. Here is Lucinella describing yet another get-­together with a literary critic whose wit and erudition she’s been praising for much of the book:

And this is the moment when it hits me: I haven’t read Betterwheatling’s new book. Nor any of his other books either! As I stand in my amazement, staring into Betterwheatling’s face, I can tell, with the shock of a certitude, by the set of the line of Betterwheatling’s jaw, by the way his hair falls into his forehead, that Betterwheatling has never read a line I have written either and I flush with pain. I’ll never invite him to another party!

At one point, the poets organize a panel to discuss “Why Write?” “Why Publish What No One Will Read?” and when the lights come up realize they’ve been addressing an empty amphitheater. Lucinella herself is past thirty, on the cusp of making it in her career, a position made wonderfully clear by the appearance of two avatars, the “younger Lucinella,” who misbehaves at parties and is an embodiment of her future, and the “older Lucinella,” who “used to be good in a minor way”—unlike her model.

Underneath the sparkling surface lurks an indictment of sexism in the literary world. Lucinella is writing a poem about party-going:

where people carry buckets to collect the odds and ends of love—attention, flattery, a proposition or two, a little rape. “The object is to keep your bucket brimful at all times.”

But Segal doesn’t dwell on the negative; Lucinella has too many parties to go to. Her husband, himself a poet obsessed with the Christian mystic Margery Kempe, leaves her for the younger Lucinella; she begins an affair with the god Zeus, a real deity among the would-be poet gods. Threaded by a controlled evenness of tone, the story begins to oscillate into weirder territory: Lucinella reunites with her husband, then climbs into his pocket and decides to die. Watching her friends gather at her wake, she is disappointed that they only talk about her briefly. Her husband complains that no one has accepted his poems. The most damning thing about the world she describes may be that the satire still holds up, some fifty years later.

“The reason I gave myself for not keeping a journal was the assumption that memory would select what could be useful; what I was going to forget could not have been worth remembering,” writes Segal in her new book. She tries to make up for it here, with short recollections. The little essays—on black bread and butter eaten, a fountain pen stolen, Austria revisited—are painted precisely and charmingly. In one, she describes walking through the Alps in Raggaschlucht (“it required Google to recover the name”) and feeling her mother’s fear that she might fall. Was this an early experience of empathy, she asks? “Sympathy pities another person’s experiences where empathy experiences that experience. Both depend on an awareness of that other reality.”

In one of my favorite essays in the book, she describes a visit to En­gland. In 2000, Segal was interviewed, along with her mother, for an Oscar-winning documentary about the Kindertransport called Into the Arms of Strangers. She and the other former children were invited to London to meet Prince Charles. (The invitation highlighted that “Ladies should ‘bob’ rather than curtsy on greeting HRH The Prince of Wales.”) At the event, the prince tries to shake hands with all of the guests. Faced with Segal, he seems not to know what to say. They make small talk. He tries to steer the conversation on his own:

Before he moved on, the prince leaned his head as if confidentially toward me and asked, “Before you got away, it got pretty bad, did it?” I have no memory of what I said to that. I was wondering if this pleasant prince knew his history.

But no matter. The prince walks away, having “finished his fifteen conversations at 9:10, the moment precisely when we needed to repair to the screening. The prince is a pro.” Only later, after he had gracefully exited, did she realize what she wanted to say: thank you.

Sweet as they are, the little essays make one want to go back to the novels, with their arguments, parties, and their subtle and serious considerations of the central questions of American life. This new book may be best for what it reminds us about Segal: that in her long career of remembering and reshaping, she has given readers a new form of the immigrant novel, showing her new country what it cannot see.

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