The author of 'Her First American' reflects on her incredible lifetime as a contrarian
You can’t depart Lore Segal’s Upper West Side apartment without the writer first giving a tour of her small study where, for the best part of five decades, she has worked every day from 8am to 1pm. At the age of 91, her routine is unchanged—“only because I wouldn’t know what else to do,” she says, as her small, angular face creases into a generous smile. Each day after a cup of “excellent” coffee she makes her way to her desk, where she sits next to a treasured bust of Bastet, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess of the home, fertility, and women’s secrets. Nearby lies a curious bone salvaged from a memorable oxtail soup, and long worn smooth with age. Also, a well-thumbed copy of Roget’s Thesaurus that traveled with her to New York from England in 1950, and which bears the marks of her lifelong exactitude for finding the precise word.
Surrounded by her talismans, Segal begins to write. “Mostly it’s changing one word, three words,” she says, a little too modestly. Although she does not anticipate writing another novel—“I’m not sure I have the energy to write long pieces now”—Segal continues to work on short stories, increasingly now peppered with allusions to age and memory. Her latest project is something of a departure. “I’ve written a story called ‘Creative Murder,’ which is a massacre that takes place in at a creative writer’s conference,” she says cheerfully. The story is loosely inspired by the 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, but although Segal has an excellent premise—a professor attempts to cover up a humiliating faux pas by killing the witnesses—she is stuck. “My trouble is that I don’t believe it,” she says. “My imagination doesn’t go to the act of murder.”
To read Segal, the most autobiographical of writers, is to appreciate that comedy and tragedy are co-conspirators of everyday life. In the newer pieces collected in The Journal I Did Not Keep, the condition of being old is examined with a tenderness that avoids sentimentality, while reveling in the blackly comic. In “Ladies Days of Martinis and Forgetting,” we follow Lotte around a house party as she hunts for a cocktail, and chit-chats with strangers. Frequently, she wonders who her host might be. Only in the last paragraph does she (and by extension, the reader) realize that the party she has been so enjoying is in fact a wake.
Lotte pops up again—often as a proxy for Lore—in tales that crackle and pop with Segal’s ear for dialogue and showcase her trenchant wit. In “Ladies Lunch,” Lotte tries to outmaneuver the overly fastidious caregivers monitoring her diet until she is removed by her exasperated son to an assisted-living home outside the city. For a while her friends plot her rescue, but the rescue is postponed, and the story ends with a certain knowledge that the rescue will never happen, that soon it will be too late.
Although Segal is vividly aware of time’s arrow—she notes a creeping inability to distinguish faces or remember names—she is sanguine about her own death, perhaps as a consequence of having seen so many loved ones die before her. Her husband, David, a book editor, died a few weeks before his 41st birthday, in 1970. They had been married just nine years, and Segal had to juggle her writing career with raising her children, then aged 8 and 6, aided by her mother, who lived to 101. “All the men in my work have a little bit of my husband in them, for better or worse,” Segal says.
Sometimes you also catch glimpses of her father, as in her musical short story, “Dandelion,” in which a man and his daughter hike through the Austrian Alps. “He adored me,” she recalls. “I felt guilty for not adoring him. And he did not know how to talk to children. He had a different kind of imagination. He had the imagination to put me on the Kindertransport that took me to Liverpool.” That act of foresight almost certainly saved her life. The Kindertransport was a British program designed to save ten thousand, mostly Jewish children by bringing them to the U.K. for the duration of the Second World War.
Segal was on the first train to leave Vienna in December 1938, and tells the story of her time in Britain in her 1964 novel Other People’s Houses. “Why did I choose to fictionalize my personal history?” she asks herself in the afterword to a new English edition of the book. “Because I experience and remember and understand like a storyteller rather than a historian or a journalist.” She likes to describe memory as “the writer’s sketchbook.” It is her greatest instrument. But so, too, is the failure of memory—of what we create when we must fill in the gaps.
Unlike 90 percent of Jewish children who found sanctuary in England, Segal was lucky to be reunited with her parents. They arrived in Liverpool a year after she had, and quickly found work in southern England as a butler and housekeeper to the well-to-do. But her father, always plagued by ill-health, died shortly before the war ended. “I think I’m right in saying that my father’s continuing illness was a greater trauma than Hitler,” she says. “It was always the next disaster. And I was horrified for my mother who had to carry all this.” Segal, who stayed on in England through university, still marvels at the kindness of strangers. “At the beginning of each semester, I got a list of questions—how much do you need for rent, clothes, books, travel—and I meticulously estimated it, and then they sent me the money,” she recalls. “Nobody said, ‘Yes, but you’re a refugee,’ or ‘How are you going to pay us back?’ That’s amazing.”
It is, of course, tempting to contrast her positive experience as an immigrant with today’s climate of hostility and resentment. “I’m not so scared of Trump as I am scared of the people who like him,” she says. “Trump will die, but the people we’re talking about now have always been here, and they’ll always be here. The question is, how many of them are there?” Yet Segal is not a political writer, and resists easy virtue-signaling. “I’m a helpless contrarian,” she says. “Say something to me, and I will check it out from the other side.”
Drawn to complexity, she finds herself increasingly alienated by an intellectual culture that leaves scant room for nuance. To illustrate the point, she recalls her tendency to argue the Palestinian cause to friends on the right, while to friends on the left she defends Israel. Both sides dismiss the other as “vicious.” For Segal, the interesting position to occupy is invariably the one that places you at odds with your audience. “Most of my New York friends are passionately on the left, and I am too, but I have to quarrel with it,” she says.
Segal’s best-known and most widely admired novel, Her First American, was published in 1985, and tackles race relations with an outsider’s bravura. It was based on her four-year relationship with Horace Cayton Jr., author of the seminal 1945 study of South Side, Chicago, Black Metropolis. The protagonist of Segal’s novel, Ilka Weissnix, is a 21-year-old Viennese refugee in love with Carter Bayoux, a black intellectual, and an alcoholic, living in an approximation of the Chelsea Hotel. Carter is brilliant, charming, sexy—and destroyed by an endemically racist society. But like his real-life counterpart, Cayton Jr., he elucidates America’s contradictions by answering Ilka’s questions with stories that shun easy answers.
“I had the incredible good luck to have this teacher-lover who was really the victim of racism, but who had an ironic view of it,” Segal says. “I would ask something, and he would say, ‘I’ll tell you a story,’ and he would tell a story, and I would think, ‘Why is he telling me this joke?’, and by the end of the joke, he would have answered my question.” All these decades on, she is still astonished by her good fortune. “I mean, who has the luck to have somebody explain the world to you in that form?”
Is that also why Segal’s writing avoids easy resolutions? In the short story “Making Good,” a rabbi brings together Jews and non-Jewish Austrians for a group exercise in reconciliation, but the project is riddled with resentments. The Austrians resent the burden of shame; the Jews resent the idea that they, uniquely, must liberate them from that burden. The characters are each stuck in patterns of behavior they seem unable to change. An aging concert pianist, Margot Groszbart, becomes the object of fascination for a younger Austrian woman eager to be cleansed of the sins of her parents. Groszbart pities her, but resists giving her the satisfaction. It ends irresolute, as it must.
Segal’s writing has an economy of language that makes her stories zip. Her syntax is light and pristine. When she was invited by the publisher Farrar, Straus, & Giroux to translate an edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, partnering with the great Maurice Sendak, who illustrated them, she set about eliminating the archaic language and convoluted sentence structures, so at odds with the original German versions she remembered. She is a fan of Jane Austen, who knew how to make her points without excessive windiness. There’s another aspect of Austen she feels has influenced her style. “I find that many of my essays, what they call ‘occasional pieces,’ end in a kind of moral,” she says. “It brings whatever I was talking about back to my own behavior, the behavior of human beings—and that’s Jane Austen. Without being boring about it at all, she cares about how honest you are.” She fishes for a phrase from a beloved Austen novel: A delicate sense of honor. “It’s really about that,” she says. “Wherever I start, it ends up with me thinking, ‘Ok, so where’s the moral?’ It’s not intended, but it’s where I find myself.”