“BY nature,” Lore Segal told an interviewer in 1985, “I am infinitely slow.” At the time, she was accounting for the two decades (give or take a year) it took her to write “Her First American.” Well, another two decades have passed. And Ilka Weissnix, the Viennese refugee whose prolonged and painful transplantation to the New World was the subject of that earlier novel, has returned.
By the time we encounter her in “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” -- a collection of stories so effectively soldered together that we may as well call it a novel -- Ilka has exiled herself once again, this time to suburban Connecticut. This is something of a puzzle. Having gotten a toehold in New York City (“naturalized,” as the Viennese-born Segal once wrote of herself, “not in North America so much as in Manhattan”), why would she ever leave?
The answer: a job. Ilka has been offered an administrative gig at the Concordance Institute, a pint-size think tank on a college campus. After some hesitation, she accepts. There is something perverse about her willed plunge back into estrangement. Yet the art or necessity of living alone, in a kind of self-propelled solitude, has always been one of the author’s great themes. So Ilka hangs her hat in a temporary home, vacated by an assistant professor on sabbatical. In describing it, Segal echoes the title of her first book, “Other People’s Houses.”
“The stillness in the air suggested recent agitation, palpable absences like the absence of newly dead people,” we read. “Ilka carried bags up the stairs, opened a door and stood smelling the alien temperature of other people’s bedrooms. She looked inside their closet. They were young people, strapped for money, collectors of checkered flannel bargain shirts in sharp, sad colors.”
Like many newcomers, she is at first rebuffed. With a little persistence, she meets the Bernstines, the Stones, the Cohns: faculty couples with dogs, children, tenure. She meets Winterneet, an elusive Nobel laureate, and swiftly deflects his advances at a party. Her great prize, however, is the affection of a gilded couple, Leslie and Eliza Shakespeare. Leslie is the director of the institute, an Oxford academic with an exquisite manner and “eyes so blue Ilka could look through them to the sky behind his back.” His wife, a big, acid-tongued Canadian, welcomes her into the inner sanctum: the kitchen. Within a few weeks, the trio becomes what Leslie calls “elective cousins.”
For its first half, at least, “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” is a delicate and droll examination of a topic you don’t often encounter in American fiction: intimate friendship between consenting adults. A romance is messy, melodramatic. A friendship is a sturdy, shock-absorbent affair, requiring real effort by both parties to undermine it. You’d think that Ilka, having attained this Elysium of intimacy -- of love, really -- would take extraordinary care not to mess it up.
But Ilka has her imp, her inner demon: She can’t leave well enough alone. “Contradiction was her instinct, her autobiography, her politics. Mention a fact and Ilka’s mind kicked into action to round up the facts that disproved it.” Spurred by this contrarian zest, she makes one big mistake (tangling with Eliza), then compounds it with a worse one (falling in love with Leslie).
Contradiction is Segal’s instinct too. Her dapper, deceptively plain narratives never quite go where you expect them to. The story “The Reverse Bug” (which won an O. Henry Prize when it was originally published in the New Yorker) begins as a light comedy of ethnic collision and ends in the darkness of the Holocaust. Another, “Leslie’s Shoes,” is both a paean to stolen love and a weary reckoning of its consequences. “Fatal Wish” is an even more mercurial performance. In its opening pages, the story squeezes some rather tame laughter from one character’s wretched command of the personal computer: His data keep vanishing into oblivion. Surely this sort of thing went out with, say, Windows 95? Then, in the space of just a dozen or so pages, Ilka becomes a wife, a mother, a widow. And as her dead husband is trundled down the stairs by two guys from the coroner’s office, the metaphors of memory and deletion snap back in the reader’s face. Nobody and nothing are truly saved.
It sounds bleaker than it is. For one thing, Segal is a sensualist, even in her most minimal mode. Show her (or a fictional mouthpiece) a dilapidated French villa with peeling wallpaper and no hot water and she gravitates toward the dovecote in back: “Only Ilka loved the liquid monotony of the cooing white birds. They lifted, at intervals, all together, raising a rusty cloud and beating it with wings.”
Segal is an enchanting storyteller. An old hand at dodging sentimentality -- who else could have transformed her childhood expulsion from Hitler’s Europe into such a dry and delightful tale, as she did in “Other People’s Houses”? -- she compels our attention without ever asking for it. Perhaps that is her secret: She never does ask; she maintains a dignified distance from the reader.
In any case, her oddly telescoping paragraphs are impossible to resist. We read them, we read them again, and we are reminded of Eliza’s crabby comment halfway through the book: “My idea of hell is a child telling you the plot of a story.” Nobody who has ever undergone such an ordeal will disagree. But my idea of heaven is a brilliant adult doing the very same thing, and that’s what we get in “Shakespeare’s Kitchen.” *