The Jour­nal I Did Not Keep

  • Review
By – July 22, 2019

Lore Segal’s ret­ro­spec­tive col­lec­tion, The Jour­nal I Did Not Keep, might be viewed as a doc­u­ment of a sur­vivor. Selec­tions from Segal’s nov­els, pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished essays and short fic­tion, and new or uncol­lect­ed works, tes­ti­fy to her sur­vival of a refugee child­hood, mar­riage, wid­ow­hood, friend­ships, old age, and her being one of the most elo­quent voic­es in mod­ern Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. In a pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished essay, The Foun­tain Pen,” Segal begins by explain­ing this antique item with an anthropologist’s pre­ci­sion. The short essay becomes both a mem­o­ry of ordi­nary child­hood deceit and cru­el­ty, as well as a reflec­tion on the Holo­caust to come, which would pre­sum­ably have reduced the theft of her pen to an incon­se­quen­tial fact. Yet, like so much else in Segal’s work, it has remained stub­born­ly lodged in her con­scious­ness. Every selec­tion in this book reflects this pair­ing of life’s slight and mon­u­men­tal ele­ments that are part of Segal’s sig­na­ture voice.

In Noah’s Daugh­ter,” the nar­ra­tor views this unnamed Bib­li­cal woman as a pre­cur­sor to Vir­ginia Woolf’s inven­tion of Shakespeare’s sis­ter, lost to lit­er­a­ture because she lacked a room of her own. Here the room would be a space in the ark, where Noah’s daugh­ter com­pos­es her own ver­sion of the flood in the tablets of her mind.” If only God had been able to read her thoughts, he might have recon­sid­ered anni­hi­lat­ing humankind, set­ting a prece­dent for cease­less inci­dents of destruc­tion in the world. Segal often reflects wry­ly on imbal­ances between male and female auton­o­my, as in Michal in Love,” an analy­sis of the unequal rela­tion­ship between King David and his wife.

The chap­ters from Oth­er People’s Houses, Segal’s semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el about a Jew­ish girl from Vien­na sent to Eng­land on the Kinder­trans­port, should send read­ers to the com­plete book. This his­tor­i­cal, yet utter­ly con­tem­po­rary, account of being a refugee relates an uncom­fort­able sto­ry; Lore is res­cued from the Nazis and sent to live in the home of an afflu­ent fam­i­ly of fel­low Jews, who are seem­ing­ly inca­pable of empathiz­ing with her uproot­ed exis­tence. Their response to her chal­lenges the ide­al­ized Jew­ish sol­i­dar­i­ty. Words are the cur­ren­cy of her expe­ri­ence and a source of poten­tial pow­er. Lore is con­vinced that, only if she invents the most apt metaphor for her par­ents’ predica­ment, will she suc­ceed in con­vinc­ing author­i­ties to admit them to Eng­land. She sens­es an irra­tional truth – those in con­trol of her life strange­ly view her with fright­ened suspicion.

Segal immers­es us in all the con­tra­dic­tions of the human con­di­tion, often empha­siz­ing the strengths of women and the sin­gu­lar fact of being a Jew. In a life defined by words, even in old age, her dai­ly rou­tine includes the inevitable phys­i­cal indig­ni­ties, but also writ­ing five hours a day, sev­en days a week, the way I imag­ine ath­letes run…because that’s what we know how to do.” The Jour­nal I Did Not Keep is a record of Segal’s ongo­ing fideli­ty to that creed.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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