June 15, 2011

A Conversation With Lore Segal

This interview that I did with the writer Lore Segal was previously published in The Missouri Review, Issue 30.4 (Winter 2007)

Photo by Alisa Douer
Lore Segal, born Lore Groszmann in Vienna, March 8, 1928, escaped the Nazis when she was ten years old with five hundred other children on an experimental transport to test whether the Nazis would allow a trainful of Jewish children to cross the border. In England, Lore was placed in a succession of foster homes.  The author of Shakespeare’s Kitchen, Her First American and Other People’s Houses, she talks here with Mary L. Tabor on thinking about questions of goodness and virtue, a conversation that began ten years ago while Segal was working on Shakespeare’s Kitchen. That book was published in April 2007. In October 2006, Segal was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

MLT: Lore, let’s talk goodness, once again, now that your new book, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, is out. I know from talking with you that it gives you some anxiety to talk about goodness, but that’s my subject for you. You recall your “Hers” column in The New York Times, which hit the subject dead on?

Segal: I wonder why the very words goodness and virtue embarrass us.

MLT: In the “Hers” column you said, “To be good, sane, happy is simple only if you subscribe to the Eden theory of original goodness, original sanity and original happiness, which humankind subverted into a fascinating rottenness. Observation would suggest that we come by our rottenness aboriginally and that goodness, like any other accomplishment, is something achieved.” This essay raised for me a fundamental question about your work: Do you perceive that humankind is fundamentally evil or prone to evil?

Segal: I’m going to give you such a boring answer. I don’t see one as stronger than the other. One of my favorite images comes from Aldous Huxley in The Devils of Loudun. And I don’t know if I’m quoting it correctly. Huxley says there is about the same amount of good and evil in the moral economy of the world. There is a certain quantity of each, but once in a while all the evil seems to collect in one place and settle there for a time. This is the world as I understand it.

MLT: What then would be the keys to achieving goodness?

Segal: I have a suspicion that goodness, like cleverness, like being good at writing—is a talent, which can and must then be educated and trained. I imagine that we might be born with a tendency to violence that can be encouraged or discouraged. I remember in Chicago, in a 7-Eleven, watching a young, overworked black mother with a little kid, and she was shopping. She was nervous and harassed, and when the little kid put out his hand to a stand of women’s stockings—I think he must have been some three years old—she hit him on the side of the head. Now I cannot imagine, unless that child is a saint, that he will have a friendly attitude toward the world. If, despite my experience of the Holocaust and having to leave my family at ten, my assumption is that this is not a basically violent world, it might have something to do with having been treated kindly and with respect and with affection by the first people around me in my childhood.

MLT: Aristotle says in The Nichomachean Ethics, “It is a difficult business to be good; because in any given case it is difficult to find the midpoint—for instance, not everyone can find the centre of a circle; only the man who knows how.” Would you agree with that?

Segal: Yes, I would. What my “Hers” column on goodness meant to say, along with my  sense that our genes tend us toward the good or the bad, is that meaning well is a complication. I think Tolstoy is wrong in his oft-quoted opening sentence of Anna Karenina: All happy families—and by happy I mean sane and good—are not the same. If they seem the same it’s because we tend not to investigate how they got to be happy. For a little while I would question people. I wanted to talk about where, in literature—in novels—we locate the author’s interest in virtue. Emma corrects her faults with the help of Mr. Knightly, the good man who is in love with her. Jane Austen is intensely interested in her characters’ good behavior.

MLT: Ilka, your main character in Shakespeare’s Kitchen and in your novel Her First American, takes very firm positions and questions and argues in favor of virtue, don’t you think?

Segal: Here’s a bit of autobiography: I have always had both women and men friends who have been my political and philosophical adversaries. I have admired and respected and loved—and argued—with them. That is not a virtue. That’s a pathology, if it’s anything at all (laughs). I hope to have figured that one out. It has to do with the Holocaust and the bottomless misperceptions that create racism and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism truly believes that it knows the Jew, knows all about the Jew, has the lowdown on the Jew. By an extension that may be beyond logic, my bĂȘte noire is any type of true belief, even if it’s a belief I share. I’ll climb onto the other side of any absolute opinion and start arguing. I am terrified of opinion that believes in itself. I have to tell you that Ilka’s addiction to arguing has something in it of comedy.

MLT: When we first began this conversation a decade ago, you said, “My Ilka stories, after Her First American, are trying to become a novel called Shakespeare’s Kitchen,and you noted, “Actually the title came long after out of an interview, but that might not matterand it’s not working very well. I still have some work to do or I have to let it be.” Now your book, connected short stories, has been published. Can you talk about why you chose this form and not another novel about Ilka, for clearly that had been your aim. What changed?

Segal: Novelists think by writing stories. I had a theme in search of a plot—another modern dilemma. 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. I once allowed myself to be persuaded to turn my novel Her First American into a film script. The would-be producer plied me with script-writing lessons. They were very interesting. They said that in a good plot nothing happens that is not the result of what happened before or causes what happens next. I like reading stories like that, but I don‘t write them because that’s not how my life happens to me or the people I know. The mental hunt for happenings and causes produced ever more stories. Each story created its own choreography, became fixed in its shape and might not attach to what happened before and what was going to happen next.

MLT: The first story doesn’t actually include Ilka but deals with questions of both perception and identity. A poet appears to win a major prize, but his name is misspelled in the newspaper, and he hasn’t ever been actually called and told about the prize. His friends and colleagues think he’s won it, but he never gets the award money, and he’s never sure he actually won. So you get us off on the foot, so to speak, of questioning our assumptions, and you do it with humor. Ilka, when she appears, asserts, “We are, all of us, ridiculous.” How do the comic, the ironic, inform your worldview?

Segal: Comedy, like tragedy, derives from the gap between what ought to be and isn’t. I once arrived at a fancy PEN event and found myself left off the list of invitees. To think you are being honored and find yourself forgotten seems to convey some deepest truth—the incarnation of the nightmare in which you are prevented from arriving where you are going. We know that Kafka thought of himself as a comic writer.

MLT: From your experience of the past it amazes me that you can find that humor and not see the world as absurd.

Segal: It’s absurd and lovable. It’s funny in a sweet way, though one of my favorite writers is Swift, and he sees nothing adorable in the world. To him absurdity is bitter. That’s not my first take.

MLT: Does that view relate to the reason you began to write children’s stories?

Segal: Why did I write children’s stories? I had my two children. My mother was telling them stories. I was telling them stories. I’m a writer, and I began to be interested in getting these stories right on paper. One of my favorite quotes is  Howard Nemerov saying, “Poetry is getting something right in language.” I am moral when I tell the truth in language. I don’t allow myself a word that is bigger or smaller than the thing I mean. You know the wonderful phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “Our sacred honors.” What does that mean off the battlefield? It’s in the matter of writing that I understand the word honor.

MLT: Is that the only place it’s possible to be moral?

Segal: It’s the place I know how. For the rest I’ll be satisfied if I am decent. My moral ambition is to translate what I know into true—that is to say the right—words.

MLT: You’ve translated Bible stories and written essays on the Bible. Does that work inform your understanding of goodness in the world?

Segal: I’ve written an essay called, “The Dream of a Good God.” I am amazed when I read the Bible, especially the marvelous stories in Torah, that God is not always good, and yet we go on instinct that He is. We believe He is almighty, all knowing, at once just, merciful and kind, but that’s not what the story says. God makes the world, destroys it, and regrets destroying it. He takes his anger out on those who deserve it and those who don’t. Abraham questions him about that. God asks Saul to wipe out the Almalekites. He says, Have no mercy. Kill the women, the babies at the breast, the men, the oxen, the ass, and if you don’t, I will do to you worse than I tell you to do to them. What interests me is that having read that, we continue to say that God is merciful and kind. I think we have to have One who is all good. We yearn for a good Someone above us. We have a yen that we cannot suppress for that good God. And those who are saying, If He’s not good, I won’t have Him, are operating out of the same yen. A proof that we love virtue is that we have created, against the evidence of the world, a good God.

MLT: Do you believe in this good God?

Segal: Not in the least, unless He is that for which we yearn against the evidence of our experience.

MLT: Since we are talking about the Torah, I’d like to talk about a Talmudic story that I was reminded of when I read in Her First American the part when Ilka and her mother have returned to Austria to remember where they had been before they escaped the Nazi scourge. They talk of a neighbor family that put their heads in their gas oven instead of trying to escape or face what was ahead. And Ilka’s mother says, “The next time, I can see that one might rather put one’s head in the gas oven.” Ilka responds, “One might survive again.” This passage remains marked in my memory.

Segal: I’m not sure that I have made clear what I meant: Imagine having survived those first refugee years, having had your living to make in a foreign language, at a loss, much of the time, among alien ways and rules, and now you’ve arrived at the moment where you are catching your breath. Now imagine the prospect—we never quite stop expecting it—of another, of the next calamity, and mightn’t you long to put your head in that gas oven?

MLT: The passage brought to my mind a Talmudic question I have puzzled over and written about—the one about the two men in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man should drink it. This has been a very difficult question. Elie Wiesel has said that “Rabbi Akiva was very hard, very hard on the survivor.” I think Wiesel is saying that it is very difficult for the one who survives. What do you think?

Segal: I feel respectful toward the assumption of survivor guilt; I don’t recognize it particularly in myself. If you’ll remember in Other People’s Houses, it was because of a piece of cheating on the part of a relative’s girlfriend that I got on that train. I might have got on it; I might not have got on it, but I was pushed to the front, not by any act or choice of mine, but I did take the place of someone in that long line. I do not recognize any sense of profound guilt. It does not take up my nightmares. I would lie if I said it did. Once every two or three years I look it in the eye, but I do not suffer over it. Primo Levi is my hero on this subject. He is the most subtle and the most honest. He says something which interests me more about survivorship than the sense of guilt: He says he suffers a sense of shame to be of the same species as those who perpetrated such horrors.

MLT: Is that the sense of shame that you are dealing with in the short story, one of my favorites, “The Reverse Bug,” in Shakespeare’s Kitchen?

Segal: “The Reverse Bug” is not so much about survivorship, which we can do nothing about, but our failure to be aware of those who are suffering while we live and eat and make love, our failure to be horrified twenty-four hours a day.

MLT: Doesn’t that include the shame that Primo Levi describes, the shame to be of the same species as those who perpetrated the horrors?

Segal: You may be right. It’s awfully close to that. You’re absolutely right. I’d never really connected it.

MLT: Does that shame include the son of the Nazi torturer who continues to shout, who keeps interrupting, who wants help to find his father? In this story his screams and the screams of others invade an auditorium, echo into the surrounds through the “reverse bug,” a device that puts into a room “what those inside would prefer not to hear.” Ilka says, “Those screams are from Dachau and Hiroshima.” But the son of the Nazi torturer continues to assert, “That is my father.” When the desert howls with the screams from Dachau and Hiroshima, does it howl for that child as well?

Segal: Yes. I am very sorry for him because he and I share a childhood grief I have not written about adequately. My father said to me, when I was leaving Vienna for England, “You must bring out Mother and me and your grandparents and the cousins.” And I did come to England and did think that’s what I was supposed to do. I did it some of the time. But it seemed to me that it was something I should be doing constantly, constantly. That I should be doing without doing anything else, and here I was, part of the time sleeping and part of the time I was playing with my friends. Some of the time I was laughing. When I caught myself laughing, I would feel a shock in the heart that I was laughing instead of asking somebody to save my parents. That is what I perceive to be driving the Nazi’s child crazy. If it didn’t drive me crazy, it’s because I have a talent for sanity. I am sane—not completely, but reasonably sane. I’m not vulnerable to the depths of depression.

MLT: I was struck by the shared compassion in that story for all of those who are suffering.

Segal: The story is really about the failure to share. It’s only when you hear the actual noise that you go like this [putting hands over ears] and you want it to stop, but the screaming goes on whether you are hearing it or not. Now I don’t say that we should be constantly in a state of compassion. I am dazzled, morally dazzled, by the people who go over to Somalia—nurses and doctors, who walk among horrors and actually do something about it with their own persons. I am dazzled by that. They seem to be extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. That is very amazing. You ask me, Do I believe people are good? Yes! There they are! I think the people who took that feisty little uncomfortable alien child, Lore, into their inmost homes did something extraordinary and good.

MLT: Can we teach our children to be good?

Segal: I taught mine without setting out to do it. One of the charms of my life is that I have good children. My daughter is a social worker. I said to her, “Beatrice, you really are a good soul.” And she said, “I hate it when you say that. I am not trying to be good. This is what I want to do.” And I said, “How interesting that if you did it against your will, you would be good, but since your wishes are virtuous, that’s not good?” How odd that we tend to think that people who work against their nasty instincts are better than those who have good instincts.

MLT: Then the source of Beatrice’s goodness could be thinking, as a rational mind reasoning what is best to do?

Segal: I believe it’s her good instincts. If you ask her, she will say it is because of her grandmother’s stories of the Holocaust and because of the death of her father when she was little. That’s her reason. I think she has a talent to be useful and helpful.

MLT: You think she was just born this way?

Segal: Yes.

MLT: Don’t you think you had something to do with it? If you remember the beginning of our talk, you told me the story of the harassed woman in the store with the small child . . . .

Segal: Yes, if I had smacked her around and not listened to her, she might be  different. Let me tell you about my son, Jacob. I once took Beatrice’s class on a trip (I was one of the mother assistants) and I took Jacob along. He was three, and Beatrice was five. One of the five-year-old kids stepped on a bug, and three-year-old Jacob let out a howl that you could hear to the other side of the Hudson River. I said, “Jacob, that fly, it only had a day to live.” And Jacob said, “A whole day!” He was inconsolable.

MLT: A great deal of mercy in that little child. This makes me think of a passage in Her First American when Ilka’s black lover Carter Bayoux has died, and Ilka says to their friend Ebony (who is also black), “Fishgoppel sent me Blake for my birthday, and Ebony, you know that poem ‘Mercy has a human heart, Pity a human face’?” And Ebony says, “I don’t know that poem.” That poem ends with this line: “Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell/ There God is dwelling too”? Do you agree?

Segal: First I want to say that when Ebony says she does not know that poem, she means that in her experience, mercy does not have a human heart. That’s the irony in her comment: “I don’t know that poem, and that’s not the world as I know it.”

MLT: But then Ilka says, “I have thought that Carter and I were merciful to each other,” and Ebony says, “I think that you were.”

Segal: Reluctantly, she says that.

MLT: Does this poem have meaning for you as an expression of belief in mercy and pity in the human soul?

Segal: When you asked me, Do I think the world tends toward good or evil, I said both, and you can demonstrate both. I remember a class in Shakespeare that I attended at the University of London, and I remember thinking that I am wrong that all evil is the result of suffering, that you’re bad because somebody has been mean to you. There is evil. We were reading Othello. I believe in an Iago. I believe pity has a human face, and brutality has a human face. And I suspect so does God.

MLT: In both places.

Segal: In both places. It’s a very Hebrew notion. You know that line, “By their fruits, you shall know them”? You know God by his creation. It’s wonderful that we thank God for healing our illnesses and don’t blame him for allowing them.

MLT: You’ve translated, with W.D. Snodgrass, the poetry of Christian Morgenstern.  In Morgenstern’s poem #10, “Korf’s Clock,” the “...clock circles with two pairs of hands/ Which point not only to advance/ But also point back to the rear.” And the result is that “Time is canceled out by Time.” I want to ask you from that lovely and humorous place, how has time worked for you on memories of the past? Has time canceled out some of the pain of memory?

Segal: Writing does. I don’t know if time does. But writing does it in a peculiar way. When you begin writing about it, there it is again. You know Wordsworth’s famous line, “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.” I think that’s the best possible answer. I told my mother that I am lucky, though I certainly wouldn’t have chosen it, to have had the privilege of living in other people’s houses. Who gets to live inside the household, at the hearth of a railroad stoker, the milkman, my upper-class Victorian ladies, the Jewish furniture manufacturer? Who gets, in one lifetime, the privilege, the unbelievable advantage of seeing life without having to turn into an au pair or seeing it in some willed way? I once said this to my mother, who said, “You poor thing. You wrote me a letter to say how lonely you were.” She could not bear for me to find elation in what she needed to see as a grief. People want me to feel grief and to stay appropriately grieved. And so I do. But it was also a tremendous and fascinating experience for a future writer.


  1. Great interview, Mary. You're a natural, I'd say. Another Mary Tabor talent! Lots of food for thought in Segal's comments ... another soul who strives to understand the world via experience that serves as a lasting catalyst for profound inner exploration. Thanks for posting this. Excellent work! --Daisy

  2. How lovely of you to stop by, Daisy, and say such kind words to me and to Lore Segal. I read everything that Lore Segal ever wrote to conduct this interview. The bibliography is longer than the interview, of course. What I learned from doing this is the importance of study and how my own introspection that gets infused by such work.

  3. I'm being told via e-mail that folks are having trouble posting a comment. They are saying that they type the comment, that they even have a gmail address and that when they hit post, nothing happens. I'm going to google support to see if anyone else is experiencing this. And I'll post a q. on Twitter. In the meantime, here is a comment that Kerfe wanted to post:

    "What a wonderful interview...the problem of evil, goodness, decency is always on my mind when I look at human behavior. Segal's insights add to the mixture. "Tell Me a Trudy" and "Tell Me a Mitzi" were among my children's favorites (and among my own to read). They are children's books I kept and cherish. I did not realize she wrote for adults as well, and will add her grown-up books to my list."

  4. Thanks for posting this wonderful interview. The grace and wisdom in Segal's responses to your questions is really encouraging to me in a time of struggle...this is worth revisiting again and again.

  5. What a glorious and lovely way you have of revealing yourself, Helen, while giving credit to others. I am grateful to have you here in conversation on this blog that means so much to me.

  6. Fantastic job--smart, informed questions and (not surprisingly) marvelous answers. I don't think I've ever read a more thoughtful exchange with this essential writer. Bravo!

  7. James Marcus, Oh my goodness, you just made my day. Thank you from my heart. I want to get to know you! I am so moved by what you wrote about the questions. As to Lore Segal, you bet: no surprise there! Such an amazing mind. I was lucky to get to do this interview with her and that it did appear in The Missouri Review.


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