Twists and Turns

Several weeks ago, I wrote about David Evanier and categorized him as a writer of high quality who has labored for years in almost complete obscurity. I often think of the writer Lore Segal in the same way, although the cases are not comparable. No one could say that Segal has been as critically ignored as Evanier. In fact, if you were to do a comparison of their careers, you would have to admit that Segal has lived something of a charmed life as an artist.

From the start, her work appeared with some regularity in The New Yorker and several of her stories have been anthologized. She has been published by a number of big-name houses, among them Farrar Straus and Giroux, and has seen her books reprinted in paperback editions (something that has pretty much passed Evanier by). At least one of her books, Other People's Houses, is considered a minor classic — some readers would insist it's a major one — of Holocaust literature. She has also written children's books that have received exposure and excellent reviews.

Most important, she has been at the center of literary life in Manhattan, and counts any number of top-flight writers among her friends and acquaintances.

That doesn't mean, however, that she's gotten anywhere near the attention she deserves, either from critics or readers. She's a little-known quantity despite all the high-powered backers she's had packaging her products over the years.

Both she and Evanier have produced small bodies of work that are so distinctive that when you read a Segal sentence (or an Evanier one, for that matter), it's like reading no one else. Take the first line of the first story in her new book Shakespeare's Kitchen. The story is called "Money, Fame and Beautiful Women."

"Someone must have been saying something nice about Nathan Cohn, for when he walked in the door of the Concordance Institute that fine morning Celie, the receptionist, said, 'Listen! Congratulations! Everybody is just tickled pink!' "

A Comic Tribute
The fact that the source of the line is the opening of Kafka's classic story "Metamorphosis" is part of the point; and the fact that the tone is slightly kidding in its tribute doesn't lessen the effectiveness of the sentence or the nod to Kafka. Segal's story is also about a metamorphosis — in the form of possible mistaken identity — and the literary echoes are necessary and correct. But more about that later.

First, let's establish that Shakespeare's Kitchen — no denying the echoes there — is a collection of interrelated short stories recently published by the New Press. They all revolve around the Concordance Institute, a think-tank off in the wilds of Connecticut, and the assorted eccentric types who work there — their dreams and frustrations, their love affairs and disappointments (Leslie Shakespeare is the institute's director — hence the title –whose wife Eliza is also central to many of the stories). At the heart of the many plot twists, most of them laced with comic if not satiric touches, rests Ilka Weisz, who has left her circle of New York friends to take a junior position at the institute, where she tries diligently to create a new support system out of the odd but endearing group of people she finds there.

One of the interesting features of the book is that it has a brief author's note prefacing the stories, almost as if it were a work of nonfiction. I bring this up because some interesting points are made by the author about the whole process of writing, and why these stories ended up as stories with a similar set of characters rather than as a novel, as might seem a more logical outcome for such material.

"The stories in this book take place in a particular situation; they may have a chronology," writes Segal. "There is a protagonist, some main characters and a chorus of minor ones, whom you don't always need to tell apart. There is a theme: I was thinking about our need not only for family and sexual love and friendship but for a 'set' to belong to: the circle made of friends, acquaintances and the people one knows."

Segal states that she was once told by a film producer that when writing a movie script, nothing should happen in the plot that isn't the result of something that's come before or the cause of something soon to occur. She says that she enjoys reading stories like that, but she never writes them because that's not how life happens to her or to the people she knows.

"The mental hunt for happenings and causes produces ever more stories: What if you had a dog who thought ill of you? Imagine a place and time when crime comes out of the dark into broad noon. What if we were forced to hear the sound of torture we know to be happening 24 hours a day out of earshot? Odds and ends … [a]nd the old chestnuts: What if you love the person who loves you? What if you have ruined a friend? Each story created its own choreography, became fixed in its shape and would not always attach to what happened before and what was going to happen next.

"I have known the state of grace in which everything I thought and heard and saw and read and remembered dovetailed into a novel. Here everything dovetailed into these stories."

There is a sweet overlay of the literary throughout, as in the first line quoted above from "Money, Fame and Beautiful Women" (to say nothing of the title). The story about the rebellious canine is called "At Whom the Dog Barks." Segal gives each of the sections of the book titles as well; one of them is "The Howling." Another is "By Joy Surprised." She even echoes her own work with the story titled "Other People's Deaths." There are more examples, and none are precious or overweening because of the playful quality they exude, like the stories themselves.

Take "Money, Fame and Beautiful Women," for example. Someone was saying something nice about Nathan Cohn, the poet, because he's just won the Columbia Prize for Poetry. It takes him a while to learn exactly what award has been bestowed upon him but when he does, he indulges in this brief meditation:

"I won the Columbia Prize for Poetry! Nathan Cohn said to himself and felt the jolt of satisfaction. It took this form in Nathan Cohn's mind: Sometimes I think I'm good — I'm better than anybody. Now the world is saying it. My friends hear the world say it. Maybe I really am? Now the heart in Nathan's chest heaved and rasped in a way that, had the occasion not been pleasant, Nathan might not have recognized as pleasure."

The institute's receptionist then tells him his wife is on the line, and he assumes that she'll now tell him that the prize people called earlier that morning, and that was the reason she was trying to flag him down as he drove away. (He feels a moment of regret for ignoring her, but only a moment.)

But the award people hadn't call. And we learn in this little patch of dialogue that the Cohn marriage has turned sour, and not too recently. Nathan, in fact, doesn't even tell his wife about the prize.

As it turns out, no one ever calls, and though Nathan goes to the prize ceremony — a swanky shindig — he's still not certain he's the correct Nathan Cohn. In fact, when he's given his name tag it reads "Nathan H. Cones," which he scratches out and replaces with his name. Segal explores every bit of comedy this situation offers, even to the point that when the check for the prize money arrives, it's made out to the other man and can't be deposited in Cohn's account.

The prose is of a very high order. Here is Segal setting the party scene: "Nat walked into glamour. Mozart dropped gracefully away before a jazz combo at the foot of the stair. The smallest, blackest of the three musicians exposed his throat and blew a long, high note of unregenerate and seditious joy. Neither the laughing, slender couples, who skittered by, nor the glittering old woman, who passed Nat on the bright stair, looked like writers. The rich people."

Another wildly funny story with intensely serious overtones is "Reverse Bug," which follows Ilka Weisz as she tries to teach English to a group of new immigrants. A parallel plot deals with a symposium at the Concordance Institute that will address the topic, "Should there be a statute of limitations on genocide?" That is when the "bug" gets into the sound system of the room being used for the discussion. At heart, the story is about language, life and death, loneliness, dislocation and suffering — all the major themes of literature that work their way, comically or otherwise, into the body of all these splendid, moving stories. 



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