Archive for February, 2011

Lore Segal (1964) – Other People’s Houses

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

It is a truth widely acknowledged that an author’s first novel is often a thinly disguised memoir.  In the case of Lore Segal’s (1964) novel, there is no disguise.  It is the fictionalized tale of her life as one of the 10,000 or so Jewish children saved from the Nazis in the run-up to World War II and sent to live—in other people’s houses—with families outside the reach of the Third Reich.  In the preface to the 1994 edition, she explains her decision to write a novel rather than an autobiography.

If I want to trace the present from the occurrences of the past, I must do it in the manner of the novelist.  I posit myself as the protagonist in the autobiographical action.  (p.xi)

Given my own personal dislike for memoirs in general, I was pleased that she chose to present her memoir as fiction—a novel.  Presumably, that freed her from having to worry at every moment (as many autobiographers seem to do) about whether what’s written is the way things Really Happened.  I’m not sure Segal managed to escape that compulsion completely, but at least in the first two thirds of the book it feels like she does, and it makes the work readable.  

The preface is itself a delight.  It feels honest and realistic, and is not without humor.  I relished her retrospective analysis of the letter she wrote at the age of ten to the British refugee committee requesting them to get her parents out of Austria.  The letter

was a tearjerker full of symbolisms—sunsets, dawns, and the rose in the snow outside the window, “a survivor,… wearing a cap of snow askew on its bowed head.” (p.ix)

The letter had the desired effect, the refugee committee managed to bring her parents to England, “proving that bad literature makes things happen.” (p.ix)

Segal says interesting things about writing.  She notes “the novelist’s impulse not to explain or persuade, but to force the reader’s vision: See what I saw, feel what it felt like.” (p.x)  In other words: show, don’t tell.  It’s interesting, however, that she puts it in the past tense:  what I saw, what it felt like.  I would have expected a writer to say “See what I see, feel what it feels like.”  A small point perhaps, but perhaps also a vestige of the urgency of recording how it Really Happened—an urgency underlined by her frustration with the unavoidable tragedy of authorship:  “the writer’s grief that what happened on the paper was not what I intended.”  (p.x)

The 1994 preface, written thirty years after the initial publication of the novel, becomes nonetheless an integral part of the work, not just something tacked on as an afterthought.  (Why is it that introductions and prefaces are invariably written last and printed at the head of the text as if the author knew from the outset how it would all come out?)  She notes that the novel documents the trick that enabled her to survive: “… a survival trick with a price tag.  Cut yourself off, at ten years, from feelings that cannot otherwise be mastered, and it takes decades to become reattached.”  This is a perfect one-sentence summary of the entire book.

The novel is divided into two parts.  It is at its best in Part 1, the first two thirds of the text, which takes her from a comfortable life in Vienna at age ten to a precarious and uncertain life in England where she remains until she graduates from college.

Writing in the first person, the author creates a touchingly  realistic persona for her ten-year-old protagonist / self.  The Lore of the story is both a unique individual and a typical ten-year old.  Trying to impress the indifferent, unimpressionable Dolf (a friend of her Uncle Paul), she tells us,

I learned to stand on my head—an accomplishment of which I am still capable and proud, athough it has never worked for me any better than it did then.  (p.8)

With guileless candor, she writes of her inner life as she walks with her father who tells her for the umpteenth time the seemingly interminable story of Rikki-tikki-tavi’s fight with a snake.

My father’s voice droned above my head.  I walked beside him telling myself my own delicious, mildly sexy stories.  (p.12)

I don’t recall telling myself “mildly sexy stories” until I was eleven.  Well, now that I think about it, I guess I could have been only ten, too.

For a Jewish child, living in Vienna in 1937 must have been akin to living in a seething pot of water on the way to a boil.  As Segal says, a child cannot really comprehend, and thus cannot “master” the emotional maelstrom in which she finds herself.  But, we see the toll it takes.  The Nazi’s take over the family’s yard for the paymaster’s quarters.  Lore sits watching in the passageway to the yard with the family cat in her lap.  Here’s how the unspeakable tension manifests itself. 

What bothered me was not that [the soldiers] might see me, but the fact that in fact they did not, and I got hold of the cat and turned its ears inside out and tied my skipping rope around its neck until it yowled.

The paymaster looked around….  [He] came over saying, “… Poor little kitten… ,” and untied it.   He asked me if I knew how to skip rope, and I said yes.  He ordered one of the guards to hold the other end of the rope.  The line of soldiers stood at ease against the vine-covered walls.  I skipped and recited.

“Auf der blauen Donau                       [On the blue Danube]

Schwimmt eing Krokodil”                  [A crocodile swims]

This was about the time that Neville Chamberlain paid his visit to Hitler in Munich.  (p.14)

Talk about showing, not telling!

Segal had obviously thought through the pluses and minuses of presenting her personal story as fiction.  The following epigraph after the preface and before the start of Part 1 tells it all:

The “Carter Bayoux” of my book once told me a story out of his childhood.  When he had finished, I said, “ I knew just where your autobiography stopped and fiction began.”

He said, “Then you knew more than I.”

Do we know what is fiction here and what is autobiography?  No.  Does the author?  Does it matter?  Maybe to the author.  Not to us.  The author succeeds in creating a character we care about: a child both bewildered and precocious.  Prematurely old, but without the benefit of experience to cushion her and inform her decisions, guide her actions.  Yanked up, but not grown up, and still a child for all that.  A child who every minute of every day is exquisitely aware that she is absolutely dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Her favorite activities in the home of the Levines, the first family that takes her in, are sitting underneath the dining room table or sitting all day on a small stool facing the fire.  She cannot bring herself to call Mrs. Levine “Auntie Essie” because that seems inappropriate, but she cannot call her “Mrs. Levine” because she has been asked to call her “Auntie Essie.”  She finds herself without any way of addressing Mrs. Levine at all.   She hates tea with milk, but she cannot conceive of asking if she might please have some tea without milk.

All the same, she says she is happy, but she finds that she repeatedly wets herself unexpectedly.  The Levines are clearly sympathetic; there is no sense whatsoever that they abuse Lore or treat her condescendingly, but Lore holds herself apart.  Presumably, having been from the bosom of her real family untimely ripped, she is not about to form easy attachments to a new family from which she may be easily expelled.  And expelled she is, although it takes the form of a suggestion that she not concern herself about returning to the Levines from a visit with her parents whom the refugee committee has brought to England to work in service as cook/housemaid and handyman/gardener married couple. 

I am tempted to invoke the specter of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Certainly the reader feels her pain.  (“Feel what it felt like.”)

Eventually, Lore ends up in the care of Miss Douglas and Mrs. Dillon, members of the upper class whose manners and way of life Lore absorbs rather than learns.  She is still an outsider, but now she is an outsider whose self-identity has become upper-class English.  Miss Douglas and Mrs. Dillon feel their Christian obligations to do charitable works and while performing them derive considerable self-congratulatory satisfaction.  They purchase a house that they make available to refugee families in the Allchester area.  Talk about a confused self-image: Lore identifies with both the superior views of Miss Douglas and Mrs. Dillon and also with the views of her parents and the other refugee families living in the Allchester house.  Arguably, this would make her feel superior to herself and at the same time inferior to herself.  It’s no wonder she keeps her relationships with other people at arms length.

I will digress for a moment here to note a passage that I found delightful.  I was reading with only half an ear when I encountered it, and it brought me to a screeching halt.

“… I do hope the snow doesn’t catch fire from the candle in the manger.  Last year the pianotop was quite badly burnt.”  (p.165)

It took me several seconds to figure out the context that made this a perfectly reasonable thing to say.  I admire Segal for having worked it into the narrative.

Part 2, the final third of the book, takes us and Lore to the Dominican Republic for three chapters and then to New York for the final chapter.  Part 2 was, for me, not compelling; the author seemed to have lost her bearings.  When Lore arrives in the Dominican Republic, she puts away the things of a child and becomes serious.  Worse yet, the author becomes serious, too.  Gone are the playfulness and charming ironies that lighten Part 1.  Writing seems to have become a chore.  About all there is is an ongoing family drama involving Lore, her mother, and her grandmother.  The author just keeps replaying it.  Theme and uninteresting variations.  Reading on becomes a chore.

An episode about the (ineffectively lecherous) Don Indalecio Nuñez Aguirre is remarkably predictable, and something of a let-down.  Okay, she was naive and she was lucky she wasn’t raped.  That’s nice, but not as interesting as the issues she had to deal with in England in Part 1.

I would have been happier if the author had figured out how to make something interesting out of Part 2.  It was a great pleasure to read Part 1; kind of boring to read Part 2.  I think that the further away in time the situations and incidents were, the easier they were to piece together into a compelling narrative.  As the narrative approached the author’s recent past, she lost perspective.   

What is missing, at the end, is any real insight into the process through which the author managed to reattach herself to her feelings.  Segal’s reattachment occurs outside of what the she is willing to commit to paper.  Why?  Too painful?  Too prosaic?  I can imagine that it was a bit of both; although one person’s “prosaic” is sometimes seen by another to be profound insight.  I wished I could have seen it–even if only to glimpse the experience from afar.  It all takes place in the last three pages of the book.  She says goodbye to her grandmother and says she is meeting “a friend…. His name is David.” three quarters of the way down page 310; a page later she is married to David.  In the next paragraph she has children and the book ends.  I’m left feeling that fully half of her story is missing.  Pity.