Lost in America

Lost in America

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.


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!”

This complicated inner circumstance–a sinking heart coupled with unquenchable curiosity–develops in the young Lore what she later called “a survival trick with a price tag.” In England, in 1938, the “trick” enabled her to endure brilliantly the double isolation of being separated from her parents and repeatedly having to absorb the sometimes even greater pain of her refugee status. Early on, she wets her pants and overhears her first foster mother–the self-satisfied Mrs. Levine of Liverpool–say to her daughter, “I told you they don’t bring up children over there the way we do here in England.” The little girl understands with a shock that she is being perceived as “other.”

Watchfulness of a high order becomes second nature to Lore. Called out of class in March of 1939 by the formidable Mrs. Levine to be told that her parents have arrived in England, she listens with the now habituated gravity that Mrs. Levine finds so irritating. “Well! So! Aren’t you excited, you funny child?” Yes, Lore tells her, she is excited. “But,” she tells the reader,

I was busy noticing the way my chest was emptying, my head clearing, and my shoulders being freed of some huge weight that must, since I now felt it being rolled away, have been there all this time without my knowing it. Just as when the passing of nausea or the unknotting of a cramp leaves the body with a new awareness of itself, I stood sensuously at ease, breathing in and out.

This is the true end of childhood: heedless spontaneity giving way to the self-protection of neutral observation. Standing in a schoolyard among other refugee children, she is told that the parents of a little girl she knows, also in the schoolyard, are dead and that she is now an orphan. Lore stares openly in the child’s direction: The word “orphan” interests her. “I kept looking curiously at Helene who was an orphan. She stood by herself in the middle of the schoolyard looking before her. She still wore her little thick coat and her rabbit’s-wool hat tied under the chin. One would never have guessed from looking at her that her parents were dead.”

It’s the tone of the narrating voice in Other People’s Houses that lends the book its distinction. In other circumstances Segal’s predilection for observation without commentary in the face of human extremity might sound slightly mad. But these are not other circumstances. These are circumstances that require precisely her degree of remove. An ironic intelligence coupled with a gift for detachment is speaking out of a time and place that strongly encourage what might best be called engaged wariness: precisely the psychological balancing act out of which postwar minimalism was born.

How many European novels of the 1950s have we read in which the reader finds oneself cast adrift on a tide of surreal-sounding prose because while the characters seem ordinary enough, the remove is disorienting: Where are we? Who is speaking? What are we to make of what is being said? Something stunned, dreamlike, permanently anesthetized in the narration. And then we realize: It’s the war that is haunting these pages. The war is the drain, the gap, the terrible lassitude at the heart of the writing.

It is a remarkable memoir indeed that, written in New York City in the late 1950s, can so strongly resemble not the structure but the feel of postwar European fiction. While Other People’s Houses is filled with vivid portraits and some marvelous closeups–England certainly escapes abstraction–what dominates the book is this tone: the tone of one whom history has stunned, and made go cold all over.

When Lore is trapped in the Dominican Republic for three years, the full meaning of her permanent statelessness begins to dawn on her. Who is she? Where does she belong? What does the future hold? In a paroxysm of youthful defiance (she’s now 21) she begins to long for England–that’s who she’ll be: English!–carrying around in her head some emblematic memory of geese on a lawn under English trees. But when a woman who works at the British consulate actually provides her with a visa, she freezes:

I was horrified: Behind the memory of white geese under the great plane trees on the jewel-green lawn appeared, like a double exposure, my bespectacled self, in mackintosh and oxfords, on a cold drizzling English June day, coming across the bridge into Baker Street in such an agony of loneliness that I can recall it in my memory like an event; I remember I stood a moment to diagnose the cause and felt my feet wet and knew I hadn’t a six-pence left for my gas meter.

America, the natural recipient of stateless desolation, it will have to be. It is here and now that the wonderfully chilled Lore of Other People’s Houses begins the thaw that, twenty-one years later, will release the unmatched vibrancy of Her First American.

Twenty-two-year-old Ilka Weissnix, a refugee from Hitler’s Europe living in New York’s “Washingstein Heights,” takes a trip west, gets off the train in Cowtown, Nevada (“I have believed I am being in Utah, isn’t it?”) and meets Carter Bayoux (on his way East) in a bar beside the railroad. He is big, he is middle-aged, he is hard-drinking, he is black. Ilka tells Carter that she is looking for the real America. New York is not the real America; there she only meets other refugees. You, she announces triumphantly, are “my first real American.” Carter looks at her and replies drily, “Of the second class.” What means second class, please? Ilka wants to know. The rest of the book is about how Ilka herself becomes an American as she learns, over the course of a two-year affair with Carter, what means second class please.

Carter Bayoux is one of the great creations in American literature. A black intellectual of the 1950s–journalist, teacher, writer, former adviser to the UN on race relations–he knows “everyone” yet is terminally alone, his spirit howling in the wilderness, doggedly drinking himself to death while begging whatever sympathetic woman comes along to hang in there with him while he destroys himself. Eager, poetic, on the brink, sole survivor Ilka becomes the designated caretaker during one of Carter’s last attempts to pull himself out of the void. He, in turn, as they tumble about together, gives her the education of her life, letting her experience New York, the world and herself–as he does.

In the bar beside the railroad station Carter tells Ilka he’s going to teach her how to smoke and drink, and she tells him he doesn’t look like a teacher. What exactly do I look like? he asks. Ilka shakes her head; she cannot find the words in English:

She meant that she did not recognize his hair, and that the size of his mouth and his laughter did not go with the urbane way he bent his wrist and crossed his ankles; that the luxurious tweed of his jacket contradicted his flattened nose with its small outgrowth of wild flesh at the bridge, which intimated to the girl disastrous chances, moving accidents his youth had suffered.

Later, they take a walk through the garish streets of Cowtown. Passing Harry’s Hash and the Steak and Swill, Ilka asks Carter what sort of men these are whom she sees drinking inside. “Good enough fellows,” he tells her, ” as fellows go–care for their kids, satisfy their wives some of the time, do their work as well as can be expected, and pay their taxes, mostly, go to church, or not, and will string me up as soon as look at me.” What means “string you?” she is thinking, but what she says is, “I believe you have conjured this all, isn’t it?”

“I have conjured,” said the big American, looking at her. Then he looked deliberately across the street and back at Ilka and said, “You and I stand here, side by side, but I don’t know what the hell you’re seeing.”
   “That is it, which I have been meaning,” said Ilka with a sensation of bliss. She came, afterward, to identify this as the moment in which she had fallen in love; it coincided with a break in the traffic and the man’s first, slightest touch, under her elbow.

Back in New York Carter settles into the Bloomsbury Arms (read: Chelsea Hotel), and he and Ilka start the series of mangled dinner dates, disastrous parties, disheveled outings and emergency rescue calls that become their relationship, throughout which Carter sends the bellboy for bourbon, Ilka tries to make him stop drinking and their conversation mounts in a kind of intelligent hilarity that, for the reader, is pure joy.

Two of the brilliant ingredients Segal throws in to enrich the situation even further are the reappearance of Ilka’s DP mother whose crazed behavior Carter understands to perfection, and the introduction of a group of Carter’s oldest friends, black and white ex-Communists who provide Ilka with the excitement of seeing herself in a bad light. Among these people is a couple who seem ill matched in every way.

“Why would Doris Mae marry…” Ilka starts to ask Carter, and stops.
    “A Negro twice her age?”
   “You think I mean that?” cried Ilka.
   “What did you mean?”
    “That!” said Ilka with a thrill of revelation. “I’m a racist!”
   “Not to worry,” said Carter. “Some of my best friends are racists.”

This conversation echoes another one in which Carter tells Ilka that when Uptown moves to Washingstein Heights, she will move out. Everyone does. She thinks this over and insists that she will not.

“You will move,” said Carter.
   “I will not move,” said Ilka.
   “You will be the last to move,” said Carter, “but you will move.”

By the same token, he predicts that sooner or later she will leave him; she will have to. No, Ilka insists, she will not. You will, he mourns. Everyone does. You’ll be the last to go, but you will go.

And indeed, within the year she sees what he sees–and feels what he feels:

Carter’s door stood ajar. Carter slept with his face to the wall. Ilka made a pass at cleaning up, but there was something ferocious about the mess of soiled clothing, bottles, papers, wires. It came to Ilka–and not for the first time–that she must disengage herself, and the prospect produced a familiar blackness of pain, as if a hand had thrust into her gut and emptied her out.

Exactly 10-year-old Lore’s reaction, upon being told that she must leave her parents if she was to survive–and exactly what Carter feels all the time.

It was a stroke of genius on Lore Segal’s part to see in the character of Carter Bayoux the mirror image that would allow Ilka Weissnix to Americanize her outsiderness. Carter’s savvy is so elegant, so original, so bottomless that, exposed to it long enough, Ilka is bound to realize, “Oh, now I see how it is done.”

It is not so much that Carter himself deepens (he simply accumulates); it is his situation that deepens; and as it does, Ilka’s clarifies. Carter in America is sufficiently similar to the Jew in Hitler’s Europe that she comes to see herself in him. It’s this necessary reversal that supplies the book its radiance. The objective correlative to Ilka’s growing illumination is the exactly right, real and convincing way in which her English improves in response to Carter’s conversation. As Ilka takes into herself the experience of Carter Bayoux, letting her knowledge of him reshape her, it becomes the key element to how the American language now lives in her. The immigrant experience is completed.

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