Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lucinella by Lore Segal

Melville House makes beautiful books, and not that many of them by women, so I was happy to pick up Lucinella, by Lore Segal, which is part of MH’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series. It’s a reissue of a book that originally came out in 1976. Lore Segal has written a few other books for adults (including one that recounts her experience fleeing Austria on the kindertransport to England during WWII) and some children’s books as well, including, I was pleased to discover, one of my old faves, Tell Me a Mitzi.Lucinella, the book’s protagonist, is a poet in early 70s New York. She attends Yaddo, the artists’ colony, and accumulates a group of poet/editor/reviewer friends (many of whom I imagine are meant to be satirical versions of actual literary figures, though I don’t know which ones). I could see the book feeling esoteric to those that aren’t in any way invested in that literary world, but I think that Lucinella herself is a compelling enough narrator to carry the novel, as she is alternately pained and elated by the writing process, friendships and love relationships, the state of her apartment, party chatter, mortality. There’s somewhat of a Jane Bowles quality to the writing—the way that Bowles characters speak in completely uncensored fashion, as if totally unbeholden to any recognizable social conventions, and the world sort of shrugs and goes along with it—not in a confessional way, but maybe a kind of frankness taken to the extreme. Lucinella’s observations about her friends and the world they all inhabit are also smart and often very funny: from the Contact paper salesman who has every possible variety of contact paper in the world except for plain white, to Lucinella’s chatter at a party at the house of a famous magazine editor: “I’m writing a poem about parties,’ I say, ‘which explains why we can’t simply say ‘Thank you, I’ve had enough of you and walk to go and talk to someone else.’”

Segal was also fascinated with fairy tales—she wrote some translations of Grimm—and that influence is present in Lucinella as well. Though the book takes place in the familiar terrain of New York apartments, department stores, Times Square, there is also a Yaddo poet named Zeus (hint: his wife’s name is Hera), and a scene near the end of the book where Lucinella scrambles up the pants leg of her estranged husband, and into his pants pocket (not to mention the appearance, about 2/3 of the way through the book, of a couple alter egos: Old Lucinella and Young Lucinella). I think Segal’s mix of the surreal and the mundane works because, in many ways, that’s what the process of writing is all about. It’s the intersection of the imagination—the stuff in your head—and the real world (the body you’re in, the geography, the people around you) that you inhabit when you’re writing. Lucinella at times reveals to the reader some self-consciousness about the writing process—“Notice how I elide my sentences and keep my books short. I’m watching for signs of a yawn”—but at the same time makes the case for the essentialness of writing, the ways in which it is such a part of her existence: “Writing is like brushing my teeth, without which the day is misspent.” In Lucinella we get to experience not so much the life of a writer, but the mind of one.

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