Like her first book Other People’s Houses — a novel that reads like a memoir — Lore Segal’s newest work Shakespeare’s Kitchen has an unusual, shifting form. On the surface, it seems like a collection of short stories about an immigrant from Vienna, Ilka Weisz, and the friendships she develops while teaching at a think tank associated with a college in Connecticut. Ilka comes to the Concordance Institute from New York City where she has been living since she came to the U.S. She is alone and determined to find friends or “elective cousins” (Segal’s twist on the German word Wahlverwandschaften, commonly translated as “elective affinities”).
Ilka’s need for these “cousins” is connected to loss. She left Austria because of World War II and no longer has her extended family near her. But the narrative of her search for friends is often light because of Segal’s approach to her material. In an author’s note, she refers to Ilka’s quest for a new social group as a “sometime-comedy.”
The humor of the comedy is both dry and quick, especially in “An Absence of Cousins,” the second story in the book. In it, Ilka finds herself calling up strangers who live in Concordance. The phone numbers she’s dialing come from various friends and acquaintances back in New York. And one of the numbers is from a man whose name Ilka can’t recall: “[She] was dialing the number of the woman who had dated the man whose name Ilka was never able to remember, so she was relieved when they didn’t answer.” Still she persists. “She dialed the number Leina Shapiro had given her. They didn’t answer. She dialed Jacquelyn Rosen’s number and when they didn’t answer, Ilka felt snubbed.”
Soon her efforts pay off. As she starts to find her “cousins” at the institute, the stories in the book come together like chapters in a novel. These chapters are connected like a small group of witty friends: they keep mentioning the same people, the same events. Ilka starts spending time around Leslie Shakespeare, who heads up the institute, and his wife Eliza. Guests in the Shakespeare’s home tend to gather in the kitchen where Eliza cooks and “keep[s] conversation flying like some high-wire act.”
Segal is remarkably honest in her fiction. Her characters have common flaws which the author renders matter-of-factly. The result is brave, fascinating fiction that makes the characters in most other novels look like prim, false things around the edges. Segal discusses her frankness in a recent interview in Bomb magazine in which she tells playwright and novelist Han Ong: “I believe in a community of rottenness and a community of goodness. There’s nothing I can tell you about myself to which your understanding does not have access.”
This “community of rottenness” rears its head after some minor thefts occur at the institute. Leslie Shakespeare calls a meeting of the faculty to discuss the problem. One solution offered is to rebuild an old wall that surrounds the college. “Put a layer of cement on it and embed broken glass,” suggests a police officer present at the meeting. The idea is to keep people who live in a nearby housing project off of the campus. (The wall also would keep these people from easily getting to the supermarket.) The talk that ensues is like broken glass with people making small, cutting remarks. “Something had to be done about the project,” someone says, which prompts another person to say, “I always wanted to fund a project project.” Here we find the same wit that enlivens the Shakespeare’s home but now it seems like glass embedded in the concrete reality of class prejudice.
Ilka argues against putting up a wall. Unlike Eliza Shakespeare, who has a sharp tongue and a lack of compassion, Ilka is a sympathetic character, at least in the first half of the book. In the second half, she is transformed by the people around her. Segal draws upon Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities to show how the attraction between people in a group can be a powerful force. It can pull apart marriages, rearrange couplings. Acting upon Ilka and the people around her, this force simultaneously creates and destroys. By the last story, the attraction that initially drew Ilka to her group of friends is pulling her apart.
Ultimately the form of Shakespeare’s Kitchen is charged with the energy of its dynamic subject. In her author’s note, Segal says that when she started the book, she had “a theme in search of a plot”: she wanted to write about the human need for a “circle made of friends, acquaintances, and the people one knows.” From this beginning, she ended up creating a masterful collection of short stories held together by a charge, an affinity, that draws the reader toward the book’s surprising end.
And sometimes too the book reads like a novel, the story of a woman, being pulled apart.