Reading Lore Segal's fiction is like peeling away intricately patterned wallpaper only to find another layer underneath. "Shakespeare's Kitchen" seems to me the best book by one of our best writers.
Twenty years have passed since the release of "Her First American," Segal's last major work of fiction. There we left Ilka Weisz, then Ilka Weissnix, a Jewish refugee struggling to grasp both the contemporary American idiom and the middle-aged American man.
But Segal's longtime readers probably suspected that they had met Ilka some 40 years earlier, in Segal's autobiographical first novel, "Other People's Houses," in which the narrator is a 10-year-old Jewish refugee moving from one English household to the next.
The 13 interrelated stories in "Shakespeare's Kitchen" (about half of which were previously published in The New Yorker) revolve loosely around Ilka as, over the course of many years, she leaves her New York circle of friends to accept a teaching position at a Connecticut think tank; falls in love with its older, married director; is widowed by a fellow Jewish employee (a minor character borrowed from a dinner party in "Her First American"), and sails to a Greek island.
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Ilka's story is quite different from Segal's, but it's hard at times not to see Ilka as Segal's biographer and Segal as Ilka's.
"'I'm always interjecting my autobiography into the other person's story,'" Ilka tells Leslie, her new boss at the Concordance Institute. "'I mean to be expressing my sympathetic understanding, but all it does is take the conversation away from the other speaker.'" She then continues with the most writerly observation: Leslie uncrosses his right leg from over his left knee and recrosses his left leg over his right knee when someone says something he doesn't like.
The advantage of Ilka's nonnative point of view is that it shows us what we too often miss. I can hear Henry James in her tone of constant astonishment toward the American scene. "American streets always look too wide for the houses," she says of Concordance. "I think American houses are always wanting to get away from the houses across the street and go West." Speaking of a visitor to Concordance she concludes, "He has to be from Washington. Only a Washingtonian's hair gets to be that particular white color."
In her best story, "The Reverse Bug," Segal adjusts the nonnative perspective. She populates the story with a Basque, a Turk, a German, a Jew, and a Latin, not to cast the ordinary world as fresh and strange but to accomplish the reverse: to make the strange seem ordinary. A Japanese student in Ilka's conversational English class has bugged the sound system to play recorded screams from Dachau and Hiroshima during a conference on genocide. The screams can be heard for miles and cannot be turned off. It's a device that makes plain our discomfort in the face of primal human expression. At the same time, the foreign students struggle to tell their stories, demonstrating the pain of an inability to articulate.
For a time, as I read "Shakespeare's Kitchen," the critic in me left and I absorbed these stories with complete self-forgetfulness. Then the critic returned to explain why: They have force, feeling, scope, and form. The form is peculiar, decorated, precise, with a posture of thought akin to poetry.
A few of the stories feel more like sketches, but they work as pieces of the whole. Whereas some short-story writers close with elevated, poetic scenes, Segal ends hard, often by borrowing the closural devices of poetry, such as a strong repetition of sounds: "quite nice white wine" and "mooter, mootest."
One of her most memorable characters is a poet who spends his later years unsure as to whether a prize, made out to Nathan H. Cones, was given to him, Nathan Cohn, by mistake. As the first story in the collection, it establishes Segal's most recurring theme: our reluctance, sometimes our inability, to see ourselves in others.
The question of autobiography will forever remain a complicated one, but what I see here is a writer so attuned to her craft that her imaginative genius sees itself in every character she writes.
Jeannie Vanasco is a freelance writer in New York.