The Twisted Tales of Lore Segal: The Author Speaks Up About Getting Older, Mortality and Stuffed Animals

Lore Segal. (Photo: Ellen Dubin)
Lore Segal. (Photo: Ellen Dubin)

The writer Lore Segal sat drinking coffee in her Upper West Side apartment next to a small potted tree draped with stuffed monkeys, talking about fairy tales. “I think it’s hilarious and marvelously truthful of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales to give the prince and princess the kingdom,” she said. “Half of it.” She landed on that word decisively. “I mean, that is so profoundly mean. And funny. And true.” Ms. Segal gave a gremlin-like smile under her mop of curly, silver hair. She wore all black clothing and simple silver jewelry that hung on her diminutive frame, making her pointed stare all the more unavoidable. Her presence abounds with contradictions, her wicked black humor tempered by the stuffed animals scattered all around her apartment, from the monkeys to alligators.

“What is it like to know you’re going to die?” Ms. Segal asked in her metallic German accent, but with the earnest curiosity of a child. “How do we handle that? And the answer is we don’t believe it. I know you’re going to die,” she said, pointing right at me. “But not me! And I bet you know I’m going to die, but you don’t think you’re going to die. It’s almost impossible to believe.” She found this very funny. In the moment, so did I. Soon after, she insisted, “Let me show you my pigs!” and led me to her doorway, where she has a modest collection of porcelain and toy pigs, one of which she lovingly cradled in her hand.

Ms. Segal’s fifth book in a career that has spanned across five decades is called Half the Kingdom. It begins at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in New York where all the patients over the age of 62 have suddenly developed dementia; Joe Bernstine of the Concordance Institute has been tasked with figuring out why. The narrative jumps between dozens of characters that shuffle in and out, many of which appear in Ms. Segal’s earlier fiction. She has always toyed with the contradictions and overlaps of the banal and the fantastical, and here is its culmination: a fairy tale about the elderly. Ms. Segal’s writing deconstructs the very idea of aging and never shies from the embarrassment that comes with trying to fit in or bearing disappointment. Her career has been a half-century struggle with the conventions of language and the humor inherent in pain, a long meta-commentary on the role of the author herself.

Born Lore Groszmann in 1928 in Vienna, Ms. Segal began publishing stories in The New Yorker in 1961 about her experiences as a Jewish refugee. She escaped Hitler-occupied Austria in 1938 on the Kindertransport into England, where she briefly lived as a foster child. “The happiest summer of my life followed my 10th birthday, in 1938, the spring Hitler took Austria,” the first New Yorker story begins, impossibly. In the early days of Hitler, her world first began to change, with an influx of friends, then soldiers, then questions of travel. A young Lore boards the train to Holland: “I suddenly understood that events happened one after another, stretching away behind me from where I stood, and forward from when I would be no longer standing there.”

She began writing not long after arriving in England, sensing that the families she lived with didn’t understand her experience. She also successfully wrote letters to secure her family’s entry into the U.K. In 1951, she arrived in New York City. She married David Segal, an editor at Knopf, in 1961, and they had two children. Her New Yorker stories make up her first book, the memoir Other People’s Houses, published in 1964. It would take her more than 10 years to write her next one, during which time her husband passed away (Ms. Segal never remarried and has dedicated most of her books to David). In 1976, she published Lucinella, a novella with elements of magical realism about a young writer in New York and, nearly 10 years later, Her First American, a roman à clef about a young Jewish immigrant named Ilka Weissnix and her relationship with a black, middle-aged intellectual, Carter Bayoux. She wrote articles, children’s books and, of course, a translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Randall Jarrell, but it was another 22 years before the publication of her most acclaimed work, Shakespeare’s Kitchen.

“I don’t know what I’m writing about until I’ve written it,” Ms. Segal said of her slow output. “And then when I’ve written it, I’ve got to get it to exactly what I mean. But I don’t know what I mean until I’ve written it,” she said, laughing. “Until you have the right word, you don’t know what you’re talking about. The right word is what you’re talking about!” For the last 65 years, she has sat down to write from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., seven days a week. More than 30 of those years have been at the apartment on Riverside Drive, where she also has classes for her students at the 92nd Street Y. It’s a routine she picked up during her early relationship with noted sociologist Horace R. Cayton, the basis for Carter Bayoux, after he became exhausted by her excuses about needing time to write, she said.

Her process does much to explain her fiction, made up of cutting episodes, usually taken from her life, with lead characters who often stand in for herself. Lucinella, reprinted by Melville House in 2011, serves as a prime example. Depicting a slice of literary life in 1970s Manhattan through the eyes of an aspiring writer, it could easily have fallen into a shrewd critique à la Mary McCarthy. But the novella is told from the perspective of the poet Lucinella as she navigates a series of writers’ retreats and parties, often running into “Young Lucinella” and “Old Lucinella,” a green and a jaded version of herself, respectively, neither of whom she much likes.

Many of Ms. Segal’s characters first appeared in that book: Professor Winterneet, who later emerges in Shakespeare’s Kitchen as the elusive, highly lauded former director of the Concordance Institute, a Connecticut think tank always described in the abstract. The Lucy of Half the Kingdom is a version of “Old Lucinella.” While rewarding to Ms. Segal’s admirers, the continuity has probably been ill-served by the long gaps between her books. “I’m a good writer but not a good inventor of new characters,” she said.

Released in 2007, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, a collection of interlocking short stories, contains some of her most poignant writing. In it, Ilka Weisz (an older, wiser iteration of Ilka Weissnix) arrives at the Concordance Institute, stumbling her way through deceptively simple life questions, such as, “How do we meet people we don’t know?” as Ms. Segal writes in the introduction. Ilka has shed her accent and much of her naivety, if only outwardly. She’s among characters (including Joe Bernstine) who obsessively strive to belong to a small group of intellectuals orbiting around Leslie Shakespeare, the institute’s director. A fellow Viennese immigrant cannot understand why Ilka never accepts her dinner invitation; a poet argues for misplaced prize money until the day he dies; and a “reverse bug” in the institute auditorium plays the screaming of Hiroshima victims throughout town, but no one can figure out where the device is to turn it off.

The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, alongside Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won. Amid Mr. Diaz and Mr. Johnson’s literary bombast, Ms. Segal’s project is more delicate: exposing what we try not to believe in order to get through a normal day and convincing us to laugh at it.

In this way, Half the Kingdom seems a necessary step in her body of work: After new countries, new cities, new circles and friends and lovers, how does one arrive at old age?

By nature of the question, it becomes a very different kind of book and a very weird little book at that. The story, she said, was partially inspired by the many trips she took to the emergency room with her mother, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 101. Not quite a fully realized novel, it functions more like a string of vignettes, some more interesting than others, that create a codex to the complaints and concerns that comprise Ms. Segal’s work. She has composed her own world, reminiscent of our own, but also not. She doesn’t like to think of the book as a work of magical realism—more as “a joke on reality.”

“I wanted to have the fun of writing these various nightmares,” Ms. Segal said.

In many cases, watching Ms. Segal’s characters age allows her to cycle back to her earliest work, with language and understanding just out of reach, but seen from the perspective of a mind decayed with too much experience, rather than rendered embryonic because of too little.

The nurse spoke slowly into the patient’s face. “Do. You. Know. Where. You. Live?” Ida Farkasz frowned and said, “Where you live.” Ida was frowning at not knowing what the person was saying to her. Not knowing had volume, was cloud-colored and located behind her eyes. Ida moved the finger from her lip to a place toward the back of the top of her head. She needed to put her hand inside, to reach around the way you reach around inside a drawer for—what?

In one scene, Ilka Weisz’s daughter, Maggie, and Lucinella’s son, Benedict, run into each other in the hallway of the hospital. Soon after, Maggie watches her mother fall into complete madness.

Now the ice age, presaged by the worm under her ribs, settles into Maggie’s chest. She thinks that she has crossed into another era from which she will look back with nostalgia to her life and to the thing as they have been. Maggie is mistaken. The ice age in her chest will become the way things are.

One thinks of the young Ms. Segal getting on the train.

“I wanted to say in the book that old age is terrible, and the other thing I wanted to say is that we old people have a lot of fun,” she said.

In conversation, her curiosity chases after these kinds of paradoxes. How can someone who survived Nazi Europe be scared of going to the movies? How can a person live through a war but still be upset about not getting invited to a party? If getting old is a disaster, how is life still so extremely entertaining?

“My original title was And If They Have Not Died,” she said, quoting the common Grimm’s refrain. “It’s a joke, but it’s a sad joke. I mean, what am I doing here except that I haven’t died yet, right? I think it’s very funny. And horrible!” She threw up her hands. “Oh, what a life.” Aha! she almost said, lifting a finger. ‘What a life’ is really that I mean.”

The Twisted Tales of Lore Segal: The Author Speaks Up About Getting Older, Mortality and Stuffed Animals