Her First American

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A Year in Reading: Andrew Martin

In June, my partner and I moved from Boston back to Brooklyn, where we last lived, separately, almost a decade ago. The cost of moving and the inevitable decline in square footage occasioned a (very) reluctant jettisoning of books, though you wouldn’t know it from visiting our apartment, where almost every inch of wall space is now taken up with self-installed shelves of questionable sturdiness holding “must-haves,” such as galleys of NYRB Classics from the late 2000s, giant undergraduate philosophy anthologies, and that book of Don DeLillo short stories that I swear is climbing out of giveaway boxes and following us, Toy Story-style, across the country.

All of which is to say that it sometimes felt like I spent
as much time lifting, sorting, stacking, shelving, and contemplating the
physical necessity of books as reading them this year. Nevertheless, I did read
a bunch of them.

I started the year reading My Tender Matador by the Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel, after learning about him in Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. Lemebel, who died in 2015, was a brave and outspoken gay activist, and his novel combines a high camp sensibility with grave political concerns in a way that’s reminiscent of his Argentinian predecessor Manuel Puig. Lemebel dares to enter the perspective of Pinochet, and is blessedly merciless in his depiction of the ugliness and emptiness of what lies within the dictator’s mind. I wish this novel was better known, and that more of Lemebel’s work was available in English, because my Spanish remains terrible.

Though Lemebel’s novel is fast, funny, and relatively short, I thought of it while reading Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, a nearly 900-page, deeply unfunny book. Like Lemebel, Grossman was determined, at all costs, to speak hard—impossible, in his case—truths about the governing ideology of his time. (His novel was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and not published until long after his death, in the 1980s.) After years of people telling me to read it, I was finally convinced to take it on over afternoon beers with an n+1 editor, who made it clear that our continuing friendship was contingent upon my reading it. OK, I haven’t finished it yet. But after a few hundred pages, I can safely affirm that it is one of the most emotionally intense books I’ve ever read—page after page of horror and empathy across the Soviet Union during the battle of Stalingrad, including possibly the most devastating letter—from a mother, being sent to a death camp, to her son—in all of literature. I cried while reading this book in an airport, and then on a plane, and then on a bus. So maybe read it at home?

Rounding out the nightmare political portion of the year’s reading, I was totally engrossed by Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, about the brazen murder of a Guatemalan bishop following his involvement in the compilation of a report detailing the military’s atrocities against civilians, many of them indigenous. It’s a fascinating and horrifying work of investigative journalism—if you liked Say Nothing by Patrick Raden Keefe (which I certainly did), you should read this, as well as the scabrously funny Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, which fictionally depicts the writing of a report very much like the one Bishop Gerardi was murdered over.

I read Her First American by Lore Segal after reading about it in a great essay on Segal’s work by Madeleine Schwartz. It’s a novel about an Austrian war refugee falling in love with an alcoholic black intellectual in New York in the ’50s. It may well be the perfect novel. It seems criminally under-known, or under-discussed at least. I read it around the same time as I read For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez, an incredibly dark novel about a woman who serves as a field nurse in the Vietnam War, then returns home to a grim and circumscribed existence. I think the title might be holding this one back from becoming the modern classic it should be. That led me associatively, I think, to The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which I had pretended to have read for years. It’s really great! And Dorothy just put out a funky collection of her nonfiction, Me, that is well worth reading, too.

I read two and a half books of Proust—part two of The Guermantes Way through The Captive—and decided that he is not overrated. I also read a bunch of Annie Ernaux, and I’m currently reading The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere and Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. I wish I knew French. I wish I was French.

I read excellent new books by my friends. Caleb Crain’s novel Overthrow and Andrew Marantz’s nonfiction chronicle Antisocial make a nice holiday pair, covering the surveillance state and the rise of the right-wing Internet with matching red and black covers. Adam Sachs’s The Organs of Sense is the funniest, smartest book about an eyeless astronomer you’ll ever read. And Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is the best novel of next year—I’m so sure of it that I’m not going to bother reading any other new books in 2020.

Finally, I listened to James Atlas’s lovely audiobook reminiscence of his friendship with Philip Roth. It’s a short, sweet New York memoir that captures the character of the great novelist and biographer, both now gone and deeply missed. Let it serve as an elegiac gateway back into their unruly, essential bodies of work.

I’m Going to Keep Writing: At 91, Lore Segal Is Still Going Strong

For the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting the writing of one of my favorite authors, Lore Segal, in her new book, The Journal I Did Not Keep, a volume that includes new fiction and previously uncollected nonfiction, as well as excerpts from her best-known work. At 91, Segal is overdue for a retrospective. Her career spans six decades and includes memoir, translation, and children’s literature. She’s known best for her stories and novels, including Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Her First American, a 1985 novel that has as much to say about race in America as anything being written now.

Her debut novel, Other People’s Houses, published in 1964, was serialized in The New Yorker, and is Segal’s most autobiographical work. It tells the story of a Viennese child refugee, who, like Segal, was put on the Kindertransport, a rescue effort to bring Jewish children to England from Nazi-occupied Europe and place them with foster families. Very few were ever reunited with their parents, though Segal’s parents were able to escape Austria on a domestic workers visa—which meant that they had to work as live-in servants and could not live with their daughter. Segal’s father passed away before the war ended, but Segal and her mother were able to emigrate to the U.S. in 1951. Other People’s Houses was reissued last year in the U.K. to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, and The Guardian noted that its subject matter is unfortunately quite timely in an era when refugee children are routinely separated from their parents.

Though Segal’s material is often weighty, she’s very funny. She revels in dialogue, jokes, and sometimes fantasy, allowing fairy tale, myth, and magic realism into her stories without any preamble. Segal also carries characters from one book to another, aging them and letting them take on slightly different identities, a technique that rewards Segal completists. The best example of this is the way that the heroine of Her First American, Ilka Weissnix, shows up again as Ilka Weisz in Shakespeare’s Kitchen—and finally in Half the Kingdom, as an old women telling stories to her grandchildren.

In Segal’s latest fiction, included in The Journal I Did Not Keep, a different set of characters has emerged, a group of 80-something women and their grown children. Segal calls them the “ladies’ lunch people,” and told me that they were her new people, a different set from Ilka, Joe and Jenny Berstine, Lucinella, Maurie, and all the rest, adding, “There are no more Ilkas, or any of those people. I think most of them have died.”

I spoke with Segal over the phone last week. The following interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

The Millions: Before we get to talking about The Journal I Did Not Keep, which looks back on your whole career, I wonder if you could tell me about when you were first published?

Lore Segal: That took forever! I was published when I was 30. I had spent ten years in England, three years in the Dominican Republic. I always say it took me 13 years to get from Vienna to New York. It was here that I walked around thinking, I don’t have anything to write about. Everyone already knows about Hitler. I took classes at the New School. I knew a lot of writers at the New School, we were all sending things out. And you had to pay someone to type your story, then you put it in the envelope, with a self-addressed stamped envelope so they could send you the story back, so you could put it in another envelope. I think in 1958, I had finally published three pieces. And then I sent one to The New Yorker and I put in a little message with the submission: Is there anyone there? I know there’s a pencil that keeps writing ‘sorry’ at the end of my rejection slips. They noticed the theme of it, and they noticed that I had published a story on a related theme in Commentary. And they called me up on the phone and they said, Would you like to write a series on this? I couldn’t believe it.

TM: And here’s another sort of debut writer question: who would you say are your major influences?

LS: Jane Austen, Kafka, The Bible, Shakespeare. Nothing extraordinary about that—oh, and the Grimms.

TM: You know, I first read your stories when I was in my 20s and I couldn’t figure out why I recognized your name. Then I realized that I knew your name from The Juniper Tree, which you translated. That was my favorite book of fairy tales when I was growing up. As a child, I couldn’t have explained why I liked it better than the others, but now I see that it was the translation.

LS: Oh, that’s wonderful to hear. You know, four of the stories were translated by Randall Jarrell. And Maurice Sendak had been wanting to illustrate the fairy tales forever. On my wall I have the printer’s proofs from that project. It was great. One of the fun things in my career.

TM: The Journal I Did Not Keep is a retrospective, with excerpts from your fiction as well as essays and memoir. Can you tell me how this project came together?

LS: I’m 91, I’m going to keep writing, but I’m not going to write another novel. So the idea was to collect what I’m writing now that has not been published, to publish something that is both fiction and nonfiction, which I think it unusual. It was to have a kind of an overview.

TM: How did you choose which pieces to include—especially from the novels?

LS: That came fairly obviously. First of all, a lot of my novels actually come in story form. That’s not a new thing. Dickens did it, Henry James did it. Some of the chapters make publishable units because they were originally published alone. I picked the ones that make the best sense by themselves, and the ones that I liked best. From Her First American, there’s a big central piece called “Summer” which introduces all the characters living together for the summer for the holiday, which I thought was a good set piece.

TM: What was it like to look back on your whole career?

LS: It was interesting, having to read them under these circumstances. I realized it was very new to me. Stuff I wrote in the 1960s I hadn’t read since the ’60s. Her First American was written in 1980s, but I had not read that novel in decades. Some of the stuff I thought was good, other times I thought, oh you should have moved this to here. And it was interesting to reread these old columns that I had written. There was a moment in the 1980s when it seemed like a good idea to ask writers, particularly women writers, to write about The Bible. I’m not a religious person, but as I said, The Bible is one of my influences.

TM: Looking back over your work, I was surprised to notice that you only used a first person narrator once, in Other People’s Houses and then never again. Why is that? 

LS: Did you know when I picked up Other People’s Houses, I couldn’t remember that it was written in the first person? I don’t think it matters. I know people have theories about first or third, but I don’t think it makes a difference. It surprised me that it was in first person.  

TM: Another thing that’s distinctive about your work is that you use a lot of dialogue.

LS: I like writing dialogue. I like it better than explaining. I’d rather have a character develop and express him or herself through dialogue than explaining what they’re thinking. It’s a preference. I like how we discover and uncover ourselves through dialogue. I tell my students, you see any two people together, walk behind them, listen, get the tone of their voice.

TM: One of the new pieces of fiction, “Dandelion,” begins with the narrator describing rereading old work. Is this something you’ve been doing lately?

LS: I thought I was experimenting with something, but it worked. I was 21 years old when I wrote that one originally. The joke is I took Henry James as an excuse to do that. In a way, I was taking the reader with me in the editing process. As a young writer I tried to remember being in the mountains. Now that I am a better writer, a more experienced writer, I can do it better. The body of the story has really not changed. The whole notion of having visions as a child—which I think children do have—that’s what I wanted to write about. It’s only the first page where I am interested looking back. Really, it’s about editing. What it is like to be edited by someone and also to edit yourself.

TM: When do you edit?

LS: I never sit down without going back to what I did yesterday. When I’m finished, I go back to first chapter. And when it’s published, I still want to edit. 

TM: What are you working on now?

LS: Actually an essay about being edited. About the pleasures and irritations of being edited. It’s called “Editing Caesar,” because my joke is they would say—what’s that they say now? Let’s “unpack” that. If Caesar said, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” the editor would say, “Let’s unpack that.”

TM: This collection showcases lots of different forms: essay, memoir, fiction; in what genre do you feel most at home? Where do you express yourself most fully?

LS: Oh, in fiction. Stories. When I was starting out, I had it in mind that to write an essay you had to know what you’re talking about. To write a story you figure out what you know by writing the story. My essays are clearly the essays written by a fiction writer. They use the methods and insights of a fiction writer. What do you think, as a reader?

TM: I think your fiction, although I really like your essays in this book. There was one that stuck with me, “The Gardeners’ Habitats.” It was about so many different things: friendship, writing, fame, grief. How did that essay come about?

LS: My husband David Segal was an editor, and John Gardner was one of his authors. We visited him in Carbondale, and John and I both taught at Breadloaf. I knew them for many, many years. I think they asked me to write an introduction to his book on writing. It just shows what an inefficient writer I am, because I wrote something that is not an introduction or an essay.

TM: You begin The Journal I Did Not Keep saying that you didn’t keep a journal because you assumed memory would be your editor—in the way we forget the things that are not important. But I noticed another theory in your book, which comes up in your fiction, where characters store away things that are confusing to them, things they don’t understand, so that they might be able to understand them. Is that right?

LS: Yes. There was a woman recently who was the first to get the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics, and she said: “If I understand it, it bores me.” It’s what we don’t understand that we put in the back of our heads. The other thing about memory, which I’ve not expressed fully, is that when you write it down, you’ve done a number on the thing that actually happened. Once you’ve put it into a story, what’s happened is lost and buried.

TM: What is it like to write at 91?

LS: It’s the same. I don’t think I had the verve I had when I wrote Lucinella. I was really surprised at the amount of energy that I had. But I still have a lot of curiosity, and a lot of celebration to do.

TM: Do you keep up your schedule of writing for five hours in the morning?

LS: I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have those five or six hours. I always wonder what other people do. And then, what you call writing is often, we change the comma to the period and the period to the comma. It’s a way of life. It’s a lucky life.

TM: What are you reading these days?

LS: I belong to a reading group. We’ve are doing Goethe’s Elective Affinities. I read my German literature at school, but I haven’t returned to it since. I like to reread, but some in the group like to read contemporary work. There are eight of us, and I can no longer read except on kindle. So we have to find something that is an e-book. Most things are, but many are not. We have a hard time choosing books.

TM: Are you still teaching?

LS: I still have a class. It began with my teaching at the 92nd Street Y. So there are still some 10 to 13 students who come to my living room, these are older people. A number of them are in their 80s. We talk about each other’s work and what we are reading. It’s wonderful.

TM: Can you give some advice to the writers in our audience?

LS: Oh, you know I’m going to say something silly. Write and find the right words, be patient with yourself, don’t use words you don’t need.

Surprise Me!

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