Sunday, October 2, 2011

Her First American by Lore Segal

A greenhorn encounters America

Someone recommended this, saying I would like it. She was a little wrong as I loved it. The story is at once a sweet reminiscence of an earlier time and, at the same time, a terribly ambitious analysis of America in the 1950's. It’s a comic novel about the Holocaust and U.S. race relations. It succeeds, I think, because these tragic issues are described on the slant. The important things – the destroyed lives in the wake of Nazism,the interracial love dynamics, the subordinate position of blacks in American society, the beginning and the end of the love affair, are never addressed head on. Therefore the immensity of the tragic issues doesn’t overwhelm the writing and sentimentality is avoided. But the reader can feel and clearly understand the emotional consequences of history on people’s lives, even as the reader is laughing at the heroine's comic misunderstandings.

Our immigrant young heroine, Ilka Weissnix, is 21, determined to make a life for herself in a new country. Something happened back there in Vienna - it’s never fully addressed, but she is always expressing her envy/approval of American family groups, American friendship groups. People who have histories.

In a wonderful scene out West, she meets Carter Bayoux. The reader knows he’s black, but Ilka doesn’t until several chapters in. He introduces her to America, and to herself. He’s an intellectual with a drinking problem and a despair problem (and it seems also a woman problem), taking frequent trips to the “bughouse” and drinking bottles of bourbon and talking talking talking. He’s awful, completely unsuitable for Ilka, and wonderful at the same time.

Ilka’s mother is missing, which creates great sympathy among the Americans, who are almost uniformly depicted sympathetically. And the character of the cousin Fishgoppel who is her benefactor is wonderfully done. The scene where Ilka and her mother return to Vienna at the very end of the novel is truly heartbreaking and funny at the same time.

The dialogue is amazing and really brings the characters to life. Bucky Bailey’s call in radio show would drive anyone mad. The most interesting and sustained scene is the summer rental in Connecticut with the four couples. A tour de force.

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