In no literature in the world has the immigrant novel been more varied, more original, more persistent than in ours–and this for the most obvious of reasons. The word “America” has been experienced, for at least 150 years, by millions all over the world, as a euphemism for the fabled land, where, washing up half drowned on a richly receptive shore, one is assured salvation of an undreamt-of order. So they have been driven to come–wave upon wave upon wave of Jews, Italians, Irish, Latinos, Asians, Africans–and, sooner or later, large numbers of them produce the written document detailing the disparity between the fantasy and the actuality: the one that is so powerful it seems to the writer that now just to utter the word America in quotes is to achieve metaphor.
Only rarely do these novels have a life beyond the one given them on publication day. Even when well written, they are, all too often, claustrophobically enclosed by a tale of survival beyond which America itself remains an abstraction, hardly ever quickening into the life with which a real–rather than a testifying–protagonist would have to engage. A perfect example is Abraham Cahan’s 1917 The Rise of David Levinsky, an early rags-to-riches story with a strong psychological bent that fails to deepen precisely because Cahan’s character is sealed into a ghetto environment that remains static. Levinsky’s New York is crowded with Lower East Side Jews who hand him on, one to another, until at last he prospers, but the city itself never emerges as a place of vast and varied doings beyond the streets of the ghetto, where the characters soon become indistinguishable. The sole development in the novel, finally, is Levinsky’s awareness of the absence of development.
Yet the genre is a resilient one. To read an immigrant novel of, say, 1910, conceived in social realism and sentiment, followed by one written fifty years later, in the wake of Modernism and the Holocaust, is to see how stubbornly it has kept itself alive–and every now and then sheltered a piece of work that bursts the bounds of its own conventions, thereby announcing the presence in our midst of a genuine writer.
Lore Segal was born in Vienna in 1928, the daughter of educated, fairly well-to-do Jews. Nine months after Hitler took Austria, she was sent, just 10 years old, to England, as part of the rescue mission that came to be known as the Kindertransport. The clever little girl wrote an affecting letter to the British refugee committee and within a year her parents, sponsored by well-to-do Brits, were admitted to England as a cook and a butler. For the next seven years the parents worked as a domestic couple in one upper-class house or another, while Lore lived separately, also in one English household after another. When Lore’s father died at the end of the war, she and her mother made their way to the Dominican Republic, where an uncle was waiting to be admitted to the United States. In 1951 visas came through for the whole family, and Lore’s life as a refugee was transformed into that of an immigrant.
Her story took twenty years to tell, and came in two volumes–the first published in 1964 as a fictionalized memoir, Other People’s Houses, the second in 1985 as a novel, Her First American. Together, these books–both reissued this fall by the New Press–reflect, with peculiar power, both the change in European literary sensibility brought about by the Second World War and the one jolted into life by the very American 1960s.
Other People’s Houses begins in Vienna in the fall of 1937, rapidly sketching in the speed with which the Nazi takeover is accomplished, and the Jews from one day to the next are either running for or losing their lives. In all this mayhem, a little girl of novelistic intelligence and enterprising temperament is caught up, observing herself at the same time that she is being pushed–both frantically and as in a dream–into fear and excitement. When the arrangement is made to secure Lore a place on the first experimental children’s transport to England, even as she is feeling “as if my inside had been suddenly scooped away,” she thinks, “Wow! I’m off to England!”