by Lore Segal
from the March 25, 2019 issue of The New Yorker
I need to read more of Lore Segal’s work. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer when she turned 80. Here she is, in her 90s, still going. Yet I think I’ve read only a couple of her short stories from Shakespeare’s Kitchen, the collection that was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and know her primarily for her translation of a volume of Grimm fairy tales she did with Maurice Sendak (and even that I primarily know because of Sendak and not Segal).
I love how Segal starts out “Dandelion”:
That Henry James, when he got old, rewrote his early work was my excuse for revisiting, at ninety, a story I had written in my twenties.
And then she just jumps right in to that story, completing the first paragraph with this: “I was ten years old when I had to leave Austria, so the day with my father in the Alps must have taken place on our last family holiday, the previous August.”
This is a lovely revision of an old story, based on Segal’s own experience walking along the Alps with her father. To tell the story, a lifetime later, Segal both goes through the memories but also through the original version, critiquing her younger self:
“Light tinkled among the trees,” and the “grasses gleamed sword-like,” says my story. Curious how our language asks for similes. What is something “like”? The sky was “like liquid light,” I wrote. “Liquid” is close, but it’s not quite the right word.
So here we have a narrator looking back on two memories: one of her ten-year-old self having this strangely painful experience with her father and one of her twenty-something self writing of that experience. We have an exploration of writing and how that affects memory. She also ties in a beautiful moment of this childhood day with the birth of her first child. This all happens in a very brief space, the story only taking a few pages. In the end, though, the story focuses sharply on that oldest memory with her father. That is the one that stands out sharpest. That is the one that is unresolved.
Importantly, what is to happen to father and daughter are not disclosed explicitly. We don’t know, unless we read between the lines as well as some lines elsewhere, that this is one of her last experiences with her father. At first, then, we may simply wonder why this writer is going back so far, simply to tell us about what sounds like a beautiful day in the Alps that ends with a bit of childhood guilt. She is looking at a moment when she feels sorry for her father, sees him a bit vulnerable, and how uncomfortable that made her feel.
It really is a lovely story, but I think it is made more powerful if we incorporate some knowledge the story does not provide. Namely, this experience with her father happened not long before he sent her away on the first Kindertransport to England. The first paragraph suggests this — “I was ten years old when I had to leave Austria, so the day with my father in the Alps must have taken place on our last family holiday, the previous August.” That’s about it: this happened shortly before she had to leave Austria, and it was on their “last” family holiday.
I’m not sure the story would be better if that were brought in explicitly. I think perhaps not. It might get in the way, muddy up the childhood feelings. Then again, I do think it is vital to the story to come to know this about its author. So perhaps the story is perfect as is: we sense there is more to it, so we, the readers, are able to seek it out, allowing Segal to explore the memory on its own.