Lore Segal was ten years old when the Nazis occupied Vienna, in March 1938. Within weeks her father lost his job, her parents were evicted from their apartment, and her grandparents’ business was confiscated. It was quickly decided that she should be sent out of the country on the newly organized Kindertransport headed for England. They walked across the city, she and her parents, to reach the train station, crossing the Danube Canal on the way. She knew that she was leaving them and that she should be feeling sad or frightened, but halfway across the bridge, she couldn’t help it, she was thinking, “Wow! I’m going to England!” At the station everyone was crying; her parents cried, she did not. “How interesting,” she thought, “that I am not crying.” Years later she said to friends, “In that moment I realized I’d decided to give up grief, and go for interesting.”
Her father was a bank accountant, her mother a piano-playing housewife. A precocious child, no sooner had Lore arrived in England than she took it as her mission to get her parents out of Vienna. To that end the clever little girl wrote an affecting letter to the British refugee committee. This, along with letters from influential friends, resulted in their being admitted to England on the domestic worker visa—she as a cook, he as a butler—that allowed the entire family to survive, but not to live together until the war was over. In the interim, Lore lived in five different households, attended British grade school and high school, and went on to receive a degree from Bedford College at the University of London.
At the end of the war, Lore’s father, who had been interned as a German enemy alien early in the war, died of a stroke in England. Her mother thought it best to join her brother and his wife in the Dominican Republic, where that branch of the family was waiting for a joint visa to the United States. When the visa came through in 1951 Lore arrived in New York along with her mother, uncle, and grandmother, and the whole tribe took up residence in what the refugees called Washingstein Heights. She went to work as a textile designer (she draws beautifully), and in time married and had children. In her thirties, she wrote the stories that ultimately became Other People’s Houses, the memoirish novel about her years in England, which was published in 1964.
Since her arrival in New York City, Lore Segal has written an abundance of novels, stories, articles, and reviews that only she could write. Her grasp of the American idiom is spectacular, and that, applied to her particular angle of vision, has made her a singular writer indeed. The sound of the narrating voice in Other People’s Houses—a sinking heart coupled with unquenchable curiosity—set the stage for all that was to come. In the course of telling the story of her years in England as a refugee, she goes a long way toward introducing the distinctive “Lore” who will appear disguised through many alter egos in novels and stories written over the next decades. After a year alone in England, when the eleven-year-old is told that her parents have arrived in the country, she responds to the news with an apparent lack of emotion. She was excited, she explains to the reader, only
I was busy noticing the way my chest was emptying, my head clearing, and my shoulders being freed of some huge weight that must, since I now felt it being rolled away, have been there all this time without my knowing.
In one sense Segal is writing here about the end of childhood: a time when that reckless spontaneity gives way to the watchful self-awareness with which the young approach the world all around them. (She once described this writing as “a survival trick with a price tag.”) In another sense, she is summoning the atmosphere of postwar Europe, the experience of those whom history has astonished, made go cold all over, then left permanently wary. This is a circumstance that profits greatly from Segal’s exact degree of emotional remove, which is characteristic of the detachment that came to symbolize minimalism. It is a tone that Lore continued to adapt, one that over the years grew richer and more expansive as it came to accommodate new experience without losing itself. Her third novel, Her First American, benefited from this gradual development, but that’s another story: read the book.
Lore and I became friends some twenty-odd years ago, which was twenty-odd years after we originally met. That first time must have been in the late 1980s. She was, of course, already a famous Holocaust novelist living on the family-friendly Upper West Side, securely ensconced in the New York literary scene. I, on the other hand, was divorced and childless, writing for a Greenwich Village counterculture newspaper, on the barricades for radical feminism, a writer yet to find my bearings. But we both lived intimately with literature, exhibited the same knowing mixture of urban provincialisms, and were New Yorkers through and through. Enough commonality, I would have thought, to make a connection, but it wasn’t. The years passed. We’d run into each other occasionally, and each time I’d feel my own puzzled sense of failure reflected in the expression I thought I saw on Lore’s face: Who are you? Why can’t we know each other any better?
We met again sometime in the early 2000s, thrown together at a book party where the noisy chitchat bored each of us so much that when I said impulsively, “Let’s get out of here,” Lore nodded eagerly. “Yes!” It was a soft spring evening. Finding ourselves on a street close to the East River, we decided to walk across town, back to the West Side where we still both belonged.
As we walked we spoke giddily of how estranged each of us felt these days from the world of literary parties, and found ourselves delighted to be sharing an opinion that felt received rather than challenged, as so many exchanges between comparative strangers prove to be. We seemed to hear in each other’s responses what neither of us had heard previously, and I think we both realized that something important had changed between us in the years since we’d last met. Soon the question of what we were working on came up, and I confided that I was writing a biography of the great feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Lore stopped walking, and I of course stopped with her.
“This feminism,” she said. “Tell me. What is it? What is it that you want? I don’t think I’ve ever understood.” The question startled me—I felt thrown back twenty years—but it seemed so genuinely meant that I began to talk, and as Lore is a superb listener I was soon rehearsing the star moments of second-wave feminism. She stood there on the pavement, staring at me, and then she said in a voice filled with something like wonderment, “You have a passion for equality.”
I was so astonished I said, “Don’t you?” “No,” Lore said, “I don’t. I have a passion for many other things—for love, and friendship, for good conversation, for living inside another’s imagination—but not for equality. There are many things I cannot live without before I cannot live without equality.” She peered at me, again with that look of wonder on her face. “But not you. You, I believe, cannot live without it.”
So we stood there, one spring evening early in the twenty-first century, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 19th Street in New York City, staring directly into an old divide that we ourselves now embodied, and I thought I could see in Lore’s face what I was sure must be visible in mine: the thrill of realizing anew that temperament, in all its astonishing variation, is what makes history. What we both find precious today is that the temperamental divide between us has proved stimulating rather than off-putting—so stimulating that we have spent the past twenty years mining it.
Lore is famous for describing almost everything that enters her mind as “interesting.” And I am equally famous for asking, “What’s the point?” A dog squats in the street, a friendship begins to fail, a neighbor presses the wrong button in the elevator, a quarrel threatens between someone planting a flower and someone picking a flower, and Lore will say, “Isn’t that interesting?” If she says it to me, I will ask (dryly), “What exactly is interesting about that?” She will then explode, “I can’t explain. It just is.” And I will not let it go. “I mean, what’s the point?” Now she really explodes. “The point, the point! With you, it’s always what’s the point! There is no point. It’s just the way it feels! That’s what interests me, the way things feel.”
Actually, that’s what interests me, too. When I sit down to write, what I most want is to make the reader feel what I am feeling; my intelligence is in service to my emotions. It’s the same for Lore, yet the most common quarrel between us is this difference between the way each of us makes use of “the way it feels.” In a certain sense it goes to the heart of who we are as writers: why she is a novelist and I a memoirist. Now that I find interesting.
Another of Lore’s tendencies is beginning a sentence with “Why do you think it is that…” Fill in the blank. Why do you think it is that people hate being corrected? Why do people feel ignored when a speaker at the table doesn’t look at them? Or humiliated when someone they’ve met doesn’t remember meeting them? Often her stories are grounded in these or similar whys.
It was not too long ago that Lore, for the first time in all these years, explained to me, “Anything that happens, small or large, even falling down in front of your house, is interesting. When I say something is interesting, I mean, ‘This is something I could write about.’” There was in that revelation, in its structure and the tone of her voice, the sound of the Lore of Other People’s Houses having morphed into the wryly knowing narrator of her later work, most especially in the work called flash fiction.
Recently, Melville House has collected a series of Lore’s flash fictions into a volume called Ladies’ Lunch. The title refers to an actual gathering of six very intelligent Upper West Side women (Lore and five of her good friends) who’ve been meeting every other month for some thirty-odd years. (I’m not one of them.) The agenda is whatever is on any one of their minds. For Lore, the Ladies’ Lunch has been a source of writer’s gold. It has provided her with a setting and a group of models that allow her to riff on friendship, aging, party dynamics, even useless philosophizing.
In one story, a character named Bridget marvels over the contemporary question of “finding oneself.” She asks, “Is there a character in Homer, in Shakespeare, in the Bible who thinks to ask ‘Who am I?’” Another character, Farah, gets into it with “Don’t you love the question ‘Who does he think he is?’ or ‘Who do you think you are?’ followed by a rhetorical exclamation point?” Meanwhile, Hope is looking out the window at some people on a neighboring rooftop. “They’re having a party and they didn’t invite me!” she exclaims. Turns out, of course, she doesn’t know them. There follows one slightly lunatic but delightful exchange after another. At the end of the story one of the women says to Bridget, “It’s you who got us asking ourselves who we are. What do you say?” Bridget replies, “That there is no ‘Who’…I think it’s a silly question.”
In another of these stories, one published in The New Yorker and not in the book, a character named Lucinella confides that there was a time when she needed “to have my pencils in a row, sharpened to perfect points, all of one length…’’ Then another character, this one called Ruth, says of her friend Dario that often when he visited he would “sit and talk and fidget and look uncomfortable until he suddenly got up and straightened the picture on the opposite wall.” And Hope observes that the nice woman who comes in once a week to clean doesn’t put things back where they belong, and it’s driving her crazy. Then the group is made to consider: Why do Hope’s things need to be in the right place? Why does Dario need to straighten the picture? Why do Lucinella’s pencils need to be sharpened to perfect points? Various explanations are offered: because neatness is prized, because straight feels better than crooked, because you want to be able to find your things!
“Yes, but why?” our old friend Bridget continues to ask. And on they go: Why do I need to find my things, why is neatness necessary, why does straight feel better than crooked? Why? Why do I want, why do I need, why must I have.
On a Saturday or Sunday evening around six I walk into her apartment and she is sitting in her favorite rocking chair, waiting for me with a glass of wine in her hand and a pile of books and a phone on a movable stand beside the chair. She looks up and for a fraction of a moment I see in her eyes the practiced remove of the Lore of Other People’s Houses. But then all the years between then and now collapse, and the Lore of Ladies’ Lunch crowds in. She takes a swallow of her wine and she says to me, “I find it so interesting that people always need to be agreed with. Or, put another way, why do people hate to be disagreed with? Yes, yes, I know what you’re going to say…but why do you think it is so?”
She is ninety-five years old. Her body is frail, her vision is failing, exhaustion lies ever waiting to trip her up. But her genuinely deep amazement over how curious human beings are has never deserted her; not from the moment she observed herself, ten years old, thinking, “Wow! I’m going to England.” The evenings I spend talking with her are among the very best I ever hope to have.