In 1976 Lore Segal published a short, fabulist satire of literary New York, narrated by a wide-eyed poet, Lucinella, who charges from one party to the next, directing her considerable wit cruelly inward, at her own ambitions and doubts, and affectionately outward, at her striving intellectual friends. In its brevity, its free handling of time, and its lightheartedness, Lucinella almost resembles Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, while the clipped narrative rhythms and wry high-low style bring to mind Grace Paley. The talk is emphatic, exclamatory. The characters’ last names are silly (“Winterneet,” “Betterwheatling”), and the humor tends toward exaggerated self-deprecation. Profound themes—the shortness of life, the fragility of the ego—run through alternately absurd and commonplace events: Lucinella meets her future husband, William, at Yaddo, gets her floors redone, has an affair with the god Zeus. Meanwhile, William gets a poem rejected from “The Magazine,” feels hurt by a snub from a more famous writer, and, in the most affecting bit of fabulism, runs off with “Young Lucinella,” a copy of his wife at twenty. Present-day Lucinella also encounters frowsy “Old Lucinella,” a poet who “used to be good in a minor way.” Her elderly incarnation horrifies her: “How can she bear it! . . . To be old, and minor!”
Thirty-seven years hence, Segal herself is old but not so minor. Over the course of a long career—she is now eighty-five—she has written in two modes, one comic and one serious, which she has mixed in varying ratios and with varying degrees of success. Her most powerful book remains Other People’s Houses (1964), her first. This severe and stunning memoir describes her escape as a child from Nazi-controlled Austria, her life with a series of foster families in England, and her eventual arrival in New York by way of the Dominican Republic. The account is unsentimental, and the more moving for its coolness. Young Lore, matured beyond her years by stress and loss, approaches her situation with a stony will to flourish. She is brutally avid for experience, her hunger apparent in the story’s relentless detail.
Segal’s third book, Her First American (1985), fictionalizes a love affair of her early years in New York. Here the tone lightens but remains on the whole sober, realistic. As Ilka Weissnix (Ilka “know-nothing”), a young Austrian immigrant, falls in love with Carter Bayoux, a black intellectual decades her senior, we see the man through the girl’s eyes—his charisma, his wit, his generosity—and can forgive his hopeless alcoholism. He is a mess but a man of style. (“I’m going to snap out of this,” he promises after one binge. “Reestablish protocol.”) The book’s humor and its pathos emerge from the gap between Carter’s charms and his flaws, or his flaws and Ilka’s way of ignoring them. Ilka is of a piece with the child in the memoir—an eager, vital person who argues too much; a delight and a pain in the ass.
Half the Kingdom, Segal’s latest novel, gathers many of the characters populating the previous books and deposits them in and around the emergency room of the Cedars of Lebanon hospital. In a sci-fi-style conceit, patients are suffering from attacks of a peculiar sudden-onset dementia, apparently triggered by their arrival in the hospital wing. A cancer patient, Joe Bernstine, the retired director of a think tank who’s obsessed with the apocalypse, takes it on himself to develop a theory of the epidemic. Improbably and comically, he is soon contracted by the hospital administration to investigate. Bernstine has been hiring his friends to help assemble an encyclopedia, The Compendium of End-of-World Scenarios. Now he has them go undercover as patients in the Alzheimer’s wing to do “research” on this new form of dementia. At first, the conceit just seems silly, but it becomes more interesting once we realize that the investigation of the disease may in fact be a symptom of it. This Philip K. Dick–style question—is it real or is it a hallucination?—isn’t one we usually encounter in realist fiction, and it shows that Segal is up to something formally adventurous, mingling genres when it suits her.
It’s curious that a book about a child like Other People’s Houses should have been marked by its adult tone, and a book about old people by a certain na´vetÚ. But of course in Half the Kingdom the witty characters of Segal’s previous books have been diminished by age. One scene has Hope enjoying a meal with her ex. They talk of where they’ve traveled and where they want to go, and it’s only clear that Jack is in a wheelchair, parked there by his children, when the lunch is over and they’ve returned to collect him. The autonomy and freedom of the old people’s conversation vanishes with the conversation’s end. We see, painfully, the distance between their experience of themselves and the world’s experience of them. In the bathroom, Hope “removed all the pins and stood gazing at the crone with the gray, girlishly loosened locks around her shoulders and saw what Diane Arbus might have seen and was appalled.”
Segal is best when she is harsh like this. But the fine balance she struck in her first books—between affection and judgment, between casting a gentle and an unsparing eye on the world—starts to wobble in the later ones. The comedy in Other People’s Houses and Her First American is subtle and taut, disciplined by realism. Lucinella, which ends with the death of Lucinella herself, reaches a similar tragic effect by a more burlesque route. A poem Lucinella writes about parties—she explains at one party—describes people carrying buckets to collect “attention, flattery, a proposition or two, a little rape.” The goal, impossible to fulfill, is to keep the bucket full. If only everyone could experience the “Great Orgasm,” when “you get fucked and stay fucked once and for all”!
Rape, alcoholism, racism, Alzheimer’s! Throughout Segal’s career we see an effort to maintain high spirits in the face of discouraging things. The effort proves less successful in her later books, as her more ingenuous mode edges out the sterner, more skeptical one. The appealing looseness she was previously capable of grows floppy, the jokes become slightly too slapstick. Segal became zany. Never mind: The publication of this small and, yes, minor book is an occasion to revisit the great early ones. Those books remind us that her comedy has been sharpest when pointing to reality rather than away from it.
Emily Cooke is a senior editor at the New Inquiry.