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 In a previously unpublished essay, “The Fountain Pen,” Segal begins by explaining this antique item with an anthropologist’s precision.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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.