“We were having a car accident—”
Lore Segal is telling me why she writes.
“I was with my family, and we were having a car accident—”
As if they were hosting a party, or embarking on a voyage. Receiving a gift. Beginning an argument. Having: the word suggests a moment that stretches, roomy enough to admit analysis.
“I thought, This is interesting … ”
Interesting is why Segal writes. Falling outside her building, or swimming up from general anesthesia, or even, as a young girl, boarding one of the very first Kindertransport trains, which whisked her and other Jewish children from Nazi-occupied territory to England, Segal has a tendency to think, Well, this is interesting. This is an adventure.
“You see,” she explains, “whenever something happens, good or bad, you feel like you’ve just found some gold. You can use this. And you know?” She fixes me with her smile. “It’s a pretty fun place to live.”
Over five books and a host of essays, translations, and children’s stories, Segal has been honing her singular voice, at once wry, witty, and morally engaged. Her themes are big—memory, genocide, refugees, race—but her approach is fine-grained. Her books include Other People’s Houses, an autobiographical novel about the Kindertransport; Lucinella, a cult-classic novella; Shakespeare’s Kitchen, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Half the Kingdom, a bracing fantasia on aging; and Her First American, the novel she calls her “favorite child,” which took eighteen years to write, is scandalously close to falling out of print, and follows, hilariously, heartbreakingly, the love affair between Ilka Weissnix, a young Viennese refugee, and Carter Bayoux, a hard-drinking black intellectual, in fifties America.
Now Melville House has published The Journal I Did Not Keep: New and Selected Writings, a hefty volume of Segal’s fiction, essays, and reviews. There are many standouts in the collection, but its single greatest strength is the consistency of Segal’s voice, apparent from the very first paragraph of the opening piece, a short personal essay titled “The Raggaschlucht”:
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. Useful, I think, always meant “copy” to me, which I laid away in the back of my mind to someday write about. Memory as the writer’s sketchbook. What I forgot was that they were going to be dead, all the grown-ups who remembered the details, dates, and locations.
This is hallmark Segal: the fascination with memory and its wormy relation to words; the droll admission of error; most of all, the brief, bleak allusion to grief. There is real pain in this paragraph, but it is subordinated in a dependent clause.
When Segal was fleeing Austria in 1938, “instead of crying, I was thinking, Oooh, I’m going to England. Knowing there was something wrong with feeling that,” she told me. “Even as a ten-year-old, I understood that.” But to fully take in what was happening would have been unbearable.
And so this habit of subordinating pain, learned early, shapes her work. She does not write into the feeling of trauma but rather demonstrates through dialogue and action how trauma shapes people. In her fiction, there is rarely interior thought and never commentary; not for her the satisfaction of the self-righteous mot juste. Instead, meaning builds slowly, over many pages: you have to pay attention to understand her subtle irony.
This kind of almost anthropological dissection is not in vogue right now; one wonders whether part of why Segal has fallen out of fashion is her refusal of big, splashy emotions, her absolute lack of interest in asserting a fierce, feeling I. Writing about pain, she dryly notes, “is making use of it, checking it out for its insides and outsides. If I were an engineer, I would be checking it out for its mechanics.”
Or perhaps she has fallen out of fashion because she so relentlessly refuses to divide the world into good and evil. In her short stories, which form the bulk of The Journal I Did Not Keep, she focuses not on the monstrously bad but rather on the ordinarily good, the vast majority of us who want to do the right thing but don’t. In the short story “Other People’s Deaths,” for instance, the subject is not the recently widowed Ilka’s grief but the ways in which well-meaning neighbors and friends avoid her. They cross the street to avoid her, consider inviting her to dinner and then don’t, debate whether they really need to call. As one friend observes, “Calamity is a foreign country. We don’t know how to talk to the people who live there.” Relentlessly, the fiction catalogues not the grief but the way grief makes one’s wider social circle uneasy.
But is it wrong, I wonder, to so mercilessly dissect the failings of those around you?
Of course it is, Segal tells me. And yet: “I don’t propose to stop.” Writing, especially writing about real people, is a moral minefield. “It’s not okay!” she says. “How about doing it and knowing it’s not okay? You don’t get off. Period. How can it be okay?”
When Segal tells me this, she is defiant but not troubled. In both Segal and her writing, there is an ease with paradox, though not an easy easiness. In conversation, she says “it’s impossible” a lot. She also says “there is no solution” and “I don’t know the answer to that.” Then she laughs.
Now ninety-one, Segal still lives in the same Upper West Side apartment where she has been since 1963, and she still sits at her desk every morning from eight to one writing—or, as she would say, committing little murders.
“Every time we remember something we commit a little murder on the thing we are remembering,” she tells me. “The original memory is like the crime scene. And they say: Don’t walk on it! By writing it, you’re walking on the crime scene and you’re changing it by the very act of writing about it.”
But writing is not only a kind of violence for Segal. As a refugee in England, the young Lore wrote so many letters to the British authorities that they eventually granted her parents visas. Ninety percent of the Kindertransport children never saw their parents again; Lore’s arrived at the home of her foster aunts on the morning of her eleventh birthday. With writing, she had saved their lives.
All these decades later, the link between language and historical urgency remains strong in Segal’s work. She is deeply alive to the way one’s pain is embedded everywhere, even in a grammar lesson:
“Tell to all the people, Bring please out my father and mother from Vienna before come the Nazis and put them in concentration camp.”
Ilka said, “In the or a concentration camp.”
This is from the 1989 short story “The Reverse Bug,” in which the indomitable Ilka, the heroine of Her First American, appears again, this time in the guise of an English teacher for newly arrived refugees. (Delightfully, Segal’s characters age with her; Ilka is twenty-two in Her First American, a newly arrived refugee embarking on a transformative love affair; in Shakespeare’s Kitchen she is a young mother and then a young widow, and in Half the Kingdom she is older, teetering and terrified of dementia, but still—like Segal—whip-smart and witty, easily outflanking her young interlocutors.) After issuing corrections, Ilka invites her students to a university symposium on the theme of “our generation’s unmanageable questions, the application of justice in an era of genocides,” followed, naturally, by a wine-and-cheese reception.
However, this bland institutional attempt to address the question of genocide is interrupted by something called the reverse bug, “a device whereby those outside were able to relay into a room what those inside would prefer not to have to hear.”
So polite is Segal’s language (“what those inside would prefer not to have to hear”) that it is easy to miss the devastating potential of the reverse bug. Not until the bourgeois symposium is interrupted by a “hiccupping that straightened and elongated into a single breath” that then becomes “somebody yelling” and then “a howl … at a volume too great for the size of the theater” do we understand that we are listening to agonized screaming, endless suffering. Polite conversation, analysis, political posturing, or—most crucial of all—emotional distance, is now impossible.
The story then verges into murky moral territory. A page earlier, it has been revealed that the student Paulino’s father is not the Bolivian citizen Patillo, as Paulino claimed, but Klaus Hermann, the German who collected the names and addresses of all the Jews in Vienna. Now, listening to the screaming reverse bug, Paulino says:
“That is my father.”
“It’s not, Paulino,” said Ilka. “Those are the screams from Dachau and the screams from Hiroshima.”
“It is my father,” said Paulino, “and my mother screaming.”
I asked Segal who is right: does the reverse bug scream for the Klaus Hermanns of the world, too? She is silent for a long time, this woman who fled the Nazis eighty-odd years ago. Finally she says, “When you are being tortured, you scream whether you’re a bad guy or a good guy. Not everyone has to agree with that one. But that’s about as close as I get to the meaning of life.”
Written nearly twenty years after “The Reverse Bug,” the short story “Making Good” asks what to do with the torturers who have summoned the reverse bug into existence. Should they listen to the screams of their victims for all of eternity? Or should they, perhaps, fly across the Atlantic to participate in a “bridge building” workshop with a group of elderly Jewish survivors? “Making Good” is a kind of sequel to “The Reverse Bug,” but it is not an answer.
“There exists a shyness—a species of embarrassment—between the party of the murderer and the party of the murdered,” Segal writes, and then meticulously tracks this shyness between Gretel, the daughter of a collaborator, and Margot, the elderly Jewish pianist who fled Austria on a Kindertransport, brought together by a well-meaning rabbi for a week of workshops.
Gretel, the young Viennese woman, cries when she “experiences the shock of realizing what one has merely known”: the Mutti who scolded Margot is the same Mutti who waved from the train platform, who then disappeared into the camps. Meanwhile, Margot is not charmed by Gretel’s personal growth; she just wants to go home and practice her piano. At the end of the workshop, Margot can’t quite bring herself to cross the room and say goodbye to Gretel. As Segal observes to me, “The nerves remember.”
The building bridges session between the elderly survivors and the elderly Austrians fascinates Segal precisely because it is impossible, and naive, and yet also a good idea. Reconciliation is impossible; reconciliation should be pursued. “Look,” she says to me. “There’s no way to do it right. There would be, if there were such a thing as grace. I’m interested in the word redemption, but I don’t know what it means. What does it mean?”
Here she pauses, waiting for me to reply, as she often does in conversation, before concluding that we “would need some help from above, but since ‘above’ doesn’t do such a good job for us, we’re stuck.”
And that stuckness is—what do you know?—interesting.
Kyle McCarthy’s fiction has appeared in the Best American Short Stories, American Short Fiction, and the Harvard Review. Her debut novel, Everyone Knows How Much I Love You, will be published by Ballantine Books in 2020.