The writer and translator on the U.S. healthcare system, her guilt over creating characters from real life, and why she’s “not a good political militant.”
© Ellen Dubin
Lore Segal’s latest novel, Half the Kingdom, investigates the lacunae and surrealism of the memory loss that comes with old age. Using an ensemble cast, many of them employed by the author in previous books, the writer weaves a frayed tapestry of recollection against the bureaucratic background of the U.S. hospital system. Protagonists are locked in narrative quadrilles, twirling with helplessness and fear, elevated by folklore’s black humor.
We have Joe Bernstine, terminally ill and compiling an encyclopedia called The Compendium of End-of-World Scenarios. There is Lucy, a writer who becomes obsessed with an elusive editor. Ida Farkasz can’t remember which apartment she lives in, and her daughter never returns her calls. The prose is elliptical and fragmented, mirroring the experience of searching for words held tantalizingly out of reach.
Segal’s experiments with magic realism, partly informed by her love of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, lend themselves to the unreliable storytelling habits of an elderly archetype. As a reader, we have an in-built image of the grandmother as narrator, spinning yarns at the fireside. Remembering the details isn’t quite as important as telling a good story. That tendency is exaggerated here.
What results is not so much a traditional narrative but a collection of experiences. The jumping off point is the theory that dementia is catching—it’s labeled “copycat Alzheimer’s”—and Bernstine, himself suffering, thinks this is a terrorist plot. He seeks to investigate it, and this gives Segal the excuse to eavesdrop on different people’s circumstances around the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in New York.
While Segal has made forays into fantastic territory before, most notably with her 1976 novella Lucinella, she is perhaps best known for her realist prose. Shakespeare’s Kitchen, another entwining of different narrative strands—many of them first published as stories in The New Yorker—was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times said that with 1994’s Her First American, Segal “may have come closer than anyone to writing the Great American Novel.” She is a Guggenheim fellow and the winner of numerous awards, including an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Carl Sandburg Award for Fiction, and O. Henry Prizes.
I met the writer in London, the day of Half the Kingdom’s British launch, and autumn bluster was causing a crescent of plane trees to lean in towards her hotel. We were in Bloomsbury, a short walk from where Segal studied English at Bedford College, one of the country’s most groundbreaking universities for women. Born in Vienna, she first entered Britain as an eleven-year-old evacuee fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe.
I found her inside, a book in her lap. Within seconds, she became the consummate storyteller—whirling into eddies of anecdote, and issuing frequent barrages of precisely remembered wisdom. When I looked up, mid-interview, a few other hotel guests were sitting around us, silently reading. Their noses were pointed to the floor, but I can only think they were hanging secretly upon her every word.
—Rob Sharp for Guernica
Guernica: Half the Kingdom’s central idea is that Alzheimer’s is catching. Where did this come from?
Lore Segal: My idea was simply, or not so simply perhaps, that medical science has given us twenty extra years of life. Those twenty extra years—one is grateful for them, one is happy, but they also give you ten or twenty years more of losing your faculties. The original idea actually came from Swift’s Luggnagg. Gulliver goes to Luggnagg and he’s told, “People don’t die, people live forever.” And he says, “I’m moving in.” They say essentially, “Wait until you’ve seen the old people.” And he goes around the corner and there are these decrepit people who look the way you would look if you were two hundred years old. That is actually the origin of my notion. Once you live longer than you’re supposed to live, things go dreadfully wrong. But nevertheless, you’re not dead.
Guernica: And the idea that it’s a virus?
Lore Segal: That is my idea. Once you start on an idea like that it proliferates in itself. So the notion you go to the emergency room and then mysteriously everybody—not just some, in the ordinary way, but everybody—gets demented? That’s my addition to Swift’s.
Guernica: It feels like a joke, expanded.
Lore Segal: It’s a joke. You got it. It’s a modern joke. It’s a fatal joke. It makes a joke out of the realities. Because the realities do seem improbable. The fact that we live and die really is peculiar, isn’t it? That there’s an end to this. There’s that wonderful line in Measure for Measure. I forget which of the characters has committed adultery and is going to die. He looks at his hand and says, “How could this die?” That’s the joke.
Imaginatively, I think we find it impossible to believe we don’t exist.
I’ve always thought, and this is nothing new, that we don’t really believe we die. I think you’re going to die, because I know that’s what happens but I can’t imagine I’m going to die. I dare say you believe I’m going to die. I bet you don’t believe you’re going to die. You know it, but you don’t believe it. Imaginatively, I think we find it impossible to believe we don’t exist.
Guernica: Why set the novel in a U.S. hospital?
Lore Segal: Well, my mother got to be one hundred years old. And there comes a time when an old person’s life—and I assume it’s going to happen to me—when my children are going to take me to the emergency room. And then they’ll fix me and bring me home and then ten days later I’ll be back. That’s what happened to my mother. And I became very familiar with the emergency room. As soon as you move through the hospital doors you’ve removed yourself from real life. From the world we know. It’s an alien world. Just enter those gates and you are in alien territory.
Guernica: Did you research mainly from your own experiences or were there other sources you referred to?
Lore Segal: I think mainly from the several years in which my mother was ill. We had a wonderful arrangement. I live on the twelfth floor upstairs. My mother had her own apartment on the ground floor and I was able to keep her close, and she lived there until she was ninety-seven. At that point, like one of the characters in the book, she would wake up in the middle of the night and start breakfast, and you can’t really stay awake twenty-four hours. That’s why I put her in a nursing home, and she had the grace to say it was fine by her. She was fine. She didn’t mind it at all. Well, she did. But she had the generosity to say that she was O.K.
Guernica: It seems to me, if this is a fairy tale, that the copycat Alzheimer’s is the “evil” in the fairy tale.
Lore Segal: Yes, it’s the witch’s curse.
Guernica: Did that idea come fully formed?
Lore Segal: It isn’t fully formed, it’s only a suggestion. It’s not stated, right? You deduced that. I did play with it in the character Ida because I imagine witches to be people who sit around like my witty grandmother, [people] who are injustice collectors or humiliation collectors. I choose to imagine that’s what a witch is. The reason witches are so evil is because they’re so unhappy and so hurt.
Guernica: Where did that appreciation of the fantastic originate?
Lore Segal: I allow myself that mode. I did translations of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and became very charmed about that way of looking at things. Fairy tales tell a lot of truths. Just as a side point, for instance, we always think the bad guys in fairy tales are the stepmothers, who are witches. But where are the fathers when the witches are killing and mishandling their children? Away. They are on a business trip. They are hunting, they are away. Wow, you know! No one says the fathers are the bad guys! It’s one of the things you don’t say. But my goodness, where are they? [Laughs.]
“What did you intend?” That’s not even a recognizable verb. You don’t intend when you write … Intention is not part of the game.
Guernica: So the fantastical elements are not a conscious choice?
Lore Segal: I wrote Her First American and I always say it took me eighteen years. It took me that long was because after about five years I stopped and wrote Lucinella. I got stuck; it was too hard to write. Lucinella felt like a lark. I wanted to write about the literary circle because it amused me, and I allowed myself to do what I wanted to do. It’s just one of the things I’m allowed to do if I feel like it.
I’m always amused by the way questions are asked. “What did you intend?” That’s not even a recognizable verb. You don’t intend when you write. You sit down and you’re thinking things and dreaming things and someone says something and you think “Ah!” That’s how it happens. Intention is not part of the game.
Guernica: One of the characters, Lucy, is continually trying to place stories in a fictional publication called The Magazine, but she never hears back from them. Tell me about her.
Lore Segal: Lucy’s only “the poet” who’s not really a poet at all. What she’s doing here, well, Lucy is the person who writes. What I was interested in … I did want to give editors a hard time. There seems to me now [to be] the notion that you send something to a journal or an agent and months go by. It seems to me like that is a new piece of bad manners. Probably. (Generally I assume that anything that happens now happened to Adam and Eve also.)
But I did want to write about Lucy’s craziness, expressing itself in reading her stories out to other people. These are the ideas that turn me on, that amuse me. Certain ideas, you wait for them to arrive and you think, “Ah, I must write that one.” Lucy is reading her stories to people—and people do read me stories over the phone. I don’t think I’ve done it to anybody yet. I was writing about that.
Guernica: I really like Maurie, the editor of The Magazine, who has cropped up in your previous work. He is notably absent here. Is the suggestion maybe that he isn’t around any more?
Lore Segal: No. It didn’t occur to me to bring him into this novel because that ambience belongs to Lucinella and I didn’t want to recreate that. But of course Maurie has to be there to not respond.
Did the nineteenth-century novelists create more generously than we do now? … We are much more self-revealing and less able to produce new people over and over again.
Guernica: When you have “pre-made” characters, are you aware of the preconceptions people may have coming to them again?
Lore Segal: I’m not going to say it’s laziness, but I’m not a grand creator of new characters. I’ve always thought every single one of the Jane Austen women are different women. Ilke is always the same woman. That’s because I do not know how. Did the nineteenth-century novelists create more generously than we do now? In a general reading of contemporary work, do you see a lot of new and different characters, or is it the same character who is a stand-in for the writer? And it’s interesting enough, but it’s a weakness I think. We are much more self-revealing and less able to produce new people over and over again.
Flaubert said, “Emma Bovary, c’est moi.” It is not possible to write something you are not, but to have a new form, with a different hair color and a new body … I do very little of that. That’s why I keep bringing up the same people. I haven’t given myself a hard time about it. But I can’t make six new characters instead of one.
One excuse is that K is always the same character. And it’s always Kafka. That’s my excuse. Kafka is a huge influence, more than the Grimms. To allow yourself to get into the coal bucket and fly to the sky … we learned that from Kafka, that you can have a thought and make a body of it in this way.
Guernica: Events concerning Joe Bernstine, another character your fans will be familiar with, bookend the narrative. Why him?
Lore Segal: I have wondered about this. He was based on a person who was a Jewish husband and he had emphysema, in real life. I cannot tell you why this person who played a very small role in my life played a large role in my imagination. He was a producer of plays. He was a small, tiny man married to this grand, vivid black woman. He had a wonderful collection of jazz records and Mozart and he was somebody who intensely lived the life of the enjoyer and he stuck in my mind and he keeps coming back. And I haven’t really done him justice at all, he was much more interesting than I have made him but he keeps popping up and taking over and I cannot tell you why.
Like him, I don’t go to the movies because they scare me. I don’t like anything that is suspenseful, even pleasantly so. That’s what I’ve used Joe for, for someone not able to watch some cheesy old movie because someone is standing on a ledge. I go to the movies and look at my watch about how long I’m going to sit there and be made anxious. So that referral of terror interested me, and Joe was my means of doing that.
Guernica: Is Joe’s paranoia a reflection of American society on a larger scale?
Lore Segal: I’m bad at thinking about society. I love to make fun of very small aspects. For instance the privacy rules we have in the States. Where you sign this thing that you’ve never read, and if you ever read it you discover there’s no privacy whatsoever. But I don’t know how to think sociologically, to tell you the truth. My son is a political scientist and my daughter-in-law is a sociologist. I can’t think that way. I am not a good political militant at all. I keep thinking about what the other side must look like.
Guernica: One of the readings of “The Great Orgasm,” in Lucinella, could be as an apocalypse.
Lore Segal: That’s a joke, that’s not a political statement. I think that’s what human beings do. I know they do politics too. But “The Great Orgasm” was about the nature of all storytelling. I used to love watching soap operas and they are built on the notion that you keep “the great orgasm” from happening. Once it happens you have to start over.
Guernica: It’s public knowledge that you based Her First American’s Carter Bayoux on your friend Horace R. Cayton Jr. Have you ever directly incorporated real people’s lives without their knowledge?
I don’t know where else I get my characters from except from the people we know. It’s a bad thing to do and I’m going to keep doing it because I want to keep writing.
Lore Segal: Yes. And I felt guilty especially in the first book, Other People’s Houses, towards these people who were extraordinarily generous to this little Jewish kid and I have used them as characters in a book. Well, I don’t know where else I get my characters from except from the people we know. It’s a bad thing to do and I’m going to keep doing it because I want to keep writing.
Guernica: How do people react?
Lore Segal: Some are pleased. Students when I was at Bedford College asked me, “How come you didn’t put us in?” And I said I wasn’t doing a journal. Some are hurt they are not there. And some say, “Yes, but I didn’t do that” and I say, “I know you didn’t but I needed the story to say that you did.”
Guernica: Memory is familiar theme among post-war European writers. What are the links between cultural memory and copycat Alzheimer’s, do you think?
Lore Segal: I’ve often tried to describe how memory works. When you go back to Vienna, first of all, you’re a different person from the one you were forty years ago. You’re a different size. The place has changed, too. Thirdly, memory is different to actually looking. I’ve suggested this to students, and told them to close their eyes and try to remember what I look like. Then I ask them if they remember what I look like. But when you open your eyes you will be surprised how different what you thought I looked like is to what I actually look like. Because the imagination is a different raw material from actual vision. Memory is very different from the thing itself.
Guernica: Building on that, how do you feel when you come back to London? You came to England on the first wave of Kindertransport in 1939. Many of the experiences you had while in Britain informed Other People’s Houses.
Lore Segal: I’m very moved and very excited. And it just seems to me here are houses and trees and streets that feel so different from New York. I feel very attached to London; I love it. I go back to Vienna and it seems to me very beautiful and I want to get out of there. Here I want to stay and stay. In Vienna I also want to go around corners, but mostly I want to go home.
Guernica: Do you ever revisit anywhere where you stayed as a child?
Lore Segal: Oh yes, my daughter Beatrice is with me, she’s just gone shopping, but she and I both have been back and we are going back on Friday to the mill which plays a big part in Other People’s Houses, where my mother was the cook. We have tea with one of the daughters and we’re going back soon. That’s one of the happiest places in the world.
Guernica: Is that a purely happy memory?
Lore Segal: Entirely. It’s hard for us sophisticates to believe, but the people my parents worked for were good people. They were. They were socialists of the heart. They were Scottish upper class. I don’t think they had political theories in the way my lefty friends in New York do [but] they did all the things that socialists do. My mother was the Jewish cook from Vienna and they would say, “Come and have dinner with us.” So she was co-opted into part of the family. What English family does that to their cook? And when my father had one stroke after another they said “He should really come and live here.” So he did. I spent weekends with them. Who does that? This is Utopia. And when we go back now, the parents who were the man and the woman, they are long dead. One of the twins is running the house, she is now in a wheelchair, but we are still welcome there. We spend summers with them. When they come to New York their children stay with us, this is the way the world should be. We are going back on Friday to spend the day.
I must be of the opinion that the new way to read is a pretty good way to read.
Guernica: You’re a well-known figure in the U.S. literary community. What are your views on the current health of U.S. publishing?
Lore Segal: It breaks one’s heart to see the Knopfs and Farrars bought up. My husband was an editor at Knopf, and in the late 1960s, he was the fiction editor of Harper’s. He came home one day and said “I’ve just been told to publish no more rabbits.” What is a rabbit? It is a book that sells less than 7,500 copies. That is even more drastically true now. But it was already true in the 1960s. You have the big companies being bought up but then you have new publishers starting like Graywolf and Melville House—these are terrific. They are very good small presses who will presumably grow or be bought up.
And then I read on a Kindle. I must be of the opinion that the new way to read is a pretty good way to read. It’s a new way. Those of us who like the smell of books get upset but nevertheless this is the way we’re going.
First it was handwritten, then the printing press, now we’ve got our Kindles. To be able to push a button and a dictionary comes up. And then, at my age, that I can make the letters any size I want, and that I can carry all of Shakespeare, all of Gogol, all of Kafka in my handbag? You’ve got to love it.
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