Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

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.

Philip Roth (1991) – Patrimony

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

I am known to be a curmudgeon when it comes to memoirs.  I am, thus, both pleased and abashed to report that I found Philip Roth’s memoir of the events of the last years of his father’s life to be amusing, insightful, and satisfying.  In this I find myself conflicted.  I acknowledge that Herman Roth suffered on the way to his death, but I found the man to be insufferable.  He was unflaggingly critical of those closest to him and took pride in the doggedness of his criticisms (hocking, he calls it, using a Yiddish word).  The author reproduces a letter written by Herman Roth to his other son, Sandy, explaining how and why he was nagging Sandy’s son Jon to save and not to spend so much.

… there are two type’s [sic here and throughout] of .. Philosophies.  People who care, and those that don’t.  People who do and people who Procrastinate and never do or help….   I tell Jon and hock him….  I don’t tell him once, I keep telling or Hocking, why, because he forgets, like a compulsive drinker, or drug taker, etc.  Why do I continue hocking?  I realize its a pain in the ass, but if its people I care for I will try to cure, even if they object or wont diceplin/disaplin themselves….  I have many battles with my conscience, but I fight my wronge thoughts.  I care, for people in my way. (p.81)

From this letter, we learn that Herman Roth thinks he means well.  This is a second order truth.  It is not a truth about what he says; it is about the armor he always wears to justify himself, to protect himself, to keep from acknowledging his profound hunger to be superior to anyone he gets close to—anyone he cares for.  It is what justifies the anger he channels into his attacks on them.  When he finds a fault, he doesn’t just critique, he lays siege.  Day after day, week after week, year after year.  He wages a war of attrition.  This is soul murder.

But he means well.  This is not a justification, it is just a fact that makes it more difficult for the victims of his emotional abuse to deal with his criticisms.  The psychiatrist R. D. Laing called this “crazymaking”.  In crazymaking, a person gets “you are crazy” messages when he or she correctly objects to disparaging or unreasonable personal attacks, and “you are not crazy” messages when he or she accepts such attacks without objection.  Either way, you lose.  Herman Roth was a crazymaker of the first order.

Philip visits his father in Florida.  His father is sharing the condominium of

his old friend Bill Weber… a good-natured, even-tempered [man] … whose failings he could correct unceasingly…. [M]y father berated Bill for his social shortcomings.  “Ask her to a movie … don’t just sit home night after night.”  “I don’t want to take her out Herman.  I don’t want to take anybody out.”  “You’re antisocial.”  “If that’s what you call it, okay….”  “You live like a hermit.”  “Okay.”  “Not okay.”  “…I don’t want a woman….  I’m eighty-six years old.”  “I don’t understand you, Bill.  I don’t understand why you fight me like this when all I’m trying to do is help you out.” (p.53)

The initial suggestion: “take her to a movie” swiftly escalates to name-calling: “you’re antisocial” and then to aggrieved posturing: “I don’t understand why you fight me like this.”  This is serious crazymaking. 

Philip eventually takes a little tiny stand against his father on this kind of behavior.  Near the end, Herman Roth tells Philip on the phone

“She can’t even buy a canteloupe,” … and because I had by then heard just about enough on the general subject of what Lil could not do, I answered, “Look, a canteloupe is a hard thing to buy–maybe the hardest thing there is to buy, when you stop to think about it.  A canteloupe isn’t an apple, you know, where you can tell from the outside what is going on inside.  I’d rather buy a car than a canteloupe—I’d rather buy a house than a canteloupe….  I’ll tell you about making a mistake with a canteloupe: we all do it.  We weren’t made to buy canteloupe.  Do me a favor, Herm, get off the woman’s ass….”

“Well,” he said uncertainly, taken aback a bit by my thoroughness, “the canteloupe is the least of it . . .”  but for the time being he had no more complaints to make to me about Lil.

Well, it was about time, but truly too little and too late.

Patrimony is the story of Philip Roth trying to understand—in the emotional maelstrom focused on his dying father—who and what his father was, is, and will be in his life: the patrimony of the title.  It is at the same time the story of how Philip Roth, forced to deal with the impending death of his father found himself (not necessarily unwillingly) in a disconcerting role reversal in which he became the nurturing parent to his failing parent. 

Lil phoned … to ask how he was doing.  I overheard him saying to her, “Philip is like a mother to me.” (p.181)

In a similar vein, Philip, tired of putting up with his father’s general recalcitrance surprises himself in what starts as the repetition of a situation that has occurred hundreds of times before.  Philip cajoles, his father demurs. 

“Look, put on a sweater and … your walking shoes, … I’m going to call Lil, and … we’re all going outside for a walk.  It’s a beautiful day and you can’t sit around inside like this with the shades drawn….”

“I’m fine inside.”

But this time is different.

I then spoke four words to him, four words that I’d never uttered to him before in my life.  “Do as I say,” I told him.  “Put on a sweater and your walking shoes.”

And they worked, those four words.  I am fifty-five, he is almost eighty-seven, and the year is 1988: “Do as I say,” I tell him—and he does it.  The end of one era, the dawn of another. (pp.82-3)

The son is now acting in loco parentis and the father does as he is told.

At one point, Philip gets into a cab to go visit his father in the hospital.  The cab driver is a huge, frighteningly feral man who tells Philip, “my old man’s in his grave now without his four front teeth.  I knocked ‘em out of his fucking mouth for him….  He was a shit-heel and a failure and he wanted me to fail, too.”  (p.156)  The episode is told amusingly (believe it or not) and Philip, who has represented himself to the driver as a psychiatrist, ends up giving the driver a pep talk worthy of a real therapist when the brute says unexpectedly, “Doc, I’m insecure.”  The obvious subtext here is that Philip, in spite of a constitutional aversion to any form of violence, recognizes that at times he would have liked to smash his father in the mouth, too.  He avoids saying it as baldly as I just did, but I’m willing to say the thought was available to him.

Philip Roth knows how to tell a story.  He captures the anxiety of not knowing—not knowing what is causing his father’s neurological problems, then not knowing if the tumor revealed in the x-rays is malignant, then not knowing whether the tumor is operable and if so, how to balance the possibility of improvement against the possibility of turning his father into a vegetable.  He balances intensely serious episodes against humorous episodes in such a way that the reader is not overwhelmed by the emotional weight of his father’s deterioration. 

The last funny—hilarious even—anecdote Philip tells dates from a few months before his father died.  To a family dinner his father brings an acquaintance—a holocaust survivor who is writing a memoir of his experiences during the war.   His father wants Philip to help this man, Walter, “a friend from the Y who was in Auschwitz.”  “[Y]ou could give him some [publishing and writing] tips,” (p.210) his father says.  Thus ambushed, Philip has to read the half-dozen sample pages that Walter hands to him.  It turns out to be pornography.  In it Walter portrays himself as a Jewish stud muffin who spent most of the war—thanks to  the enthusiastic cooperation of the otherwise unoccupied women who hid him from the Nazis—having and giving tremendous orgasms. 

The anecdote is a can-you-top-this story and the revelations just keep coming.  Walter casually says that he has finished the manuscript and “It only needs my daughter to edit the English.”  (p.217)  Two days later, Philip is talking with his father on the phone.

“Guess what [Walter’s] book’s about.”

“Well, it’s about his incarceration.”

“No, no,” I said.

“It’s about his days in Germany.”

“It’s pornography.  Did you know that?”

“I don’t know anything.  I didn’t read any of it.”

“It’s all about fucking.  Every page.  He makes me look like a piker.”

We were still laughing when my father said, “Maybe it’ll be a best-seller like Portnoy”

“Of course.  A pornographic best seller about the Holocaust.”  (p.220)

Philip Roth devotes eighteen pages to this wonderful silliness.  Another ten pages and his father is dead.  Sixteen more and the book is over. 

I found the ending unsatisfying.  The author spends three pages describing a strangely unmoving dream involving inter alia a “defunct warship drifting blindly into shore,” which he interprets to symbolize his father.  If you say so, Philip.  This he follows with another dream in which his father complains about having been buried in a shroud.

He said, “I should have been dressed in a suit.  You did the wrong thing.”  I awakened screaming….

In the morning I realized that he had been alluding to this book….  The dream was telling me that, if not in my books or in my life, at least in my dreams I would live perennially as his little son, with the conscience of a little son, just as he would remain alive there not only as my father but as the father sitting in judgment on whatever I do.  (p.237-8)

Again, if you say so, Philip.

The problem here is that the author really doesn’t seem to have figured out by the end of the manuscript just what his patrimony is, or at least how to tie up the material of the book in a satisfying way.  The evocation of the image of God the Father sitting in judgment is a bit much, but if that’s the way Roth felt, that’s the way he felt.  And I suppose there are people who will resonate with those feelings.  I did not. 

The book shows us how the challenge of dealing with the prolonged death of a parent can be agonizing, but not insurmountable.  Some of us know or will eventually know that first hand.  Others are spared the experience.  There is no surprise in this, but it is worth considering from time to time.  It also shows us that Philip Roth has within him an improved version of his father’s unflinching realism, a willingness to confront difficult situations and make difficult decisions as they present themselves, but without the need to coerce others to conform to a uselessly rigid agenda.  That, I would say, is his patrimony.