Words off her chest
LORE SEGAL’S novel, Other People’s Houses, (Sort of Books, £8.99) is the bildungsroman of a protagonist ripped from her comfortable, cultured, assimilated Jewish home, exported on the first Kindertransport to leave Nazi-occupied Vienna in the winter of 1938, and replanted in the chilly soil of England — an alien species in a Christian country on the verge of war.
Segal, an only child, carries a huge burden of responsibility. Before she leaves, she is exhorted by her father and closest relatives to write to anyone in England who could help to get them all out of Austria. She is ten years old.
Her first literary effort is an uncharacteristic “tearjerker”, about a single rose outside her window, “a survivor, wearing a cap of snow askew on its bowed head”. Passed to the refugee committee, it helps rescue her parents, who are granted entry to England as a butler and cook.
She is also encumbered by her mother’s “wanting me to need something that she could give me”. The unwanted gift is a Knackwurst, a fat sausage, whose decay stinks out the cottage she shares in a children’s camp, leaving her “drowned in shame”. The idea of throwing it in a rubbish bin brings on “such a fierce pain in my chest where I had always understood my heart to be that I stood still in surprise”. Nevertheless, she eventually bins it — a practical necessity and essential to her psychic survival but an act that comes to symbolise her damaged relationships with her parents.
This youthful cauterising of feelings is evident in the book’s stark, deadpan tone. Her reactions to her father’s loss of status, from chief accountant to failed domestic servant consumed by chronic illness, are anger, shame and disdain — with an attendant guilt. When he dies, she has “one short, harsh paroxysm of grief” and is able to “produce a creditable pain in my chest” by conjuring up a few guilty memories.
Her education takes place in other people’s houses and, chameleon-like, she apes the mores of her hosts, including the Orthodox, Liverpudlian Levine family, the working-class Hoopers and two genteel, gentile, Home-Counties sisters. Yet, despite her wish to charm her benefactors, and shame at her refugee status, Segal discovers a “furious loyalty” to herself. Fiercely determined to do more than merely survive her escape from extinction by the Nazis, she emerges as a compelling literary voice.
She has a ‘short, harsh paroxysm of guilt’