Words off her chest

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - FIC­TION/MEM­OIR au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal

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’

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