I’m always amused by the way questions are asked. “What did you intend?” That’s not even a recognizable verb. You don’t intend when you write. You sit down and you’re thinking things and dreaming things and someone says something and you think “Ah!” That’s how it happens. Intention is not part of the game.
Anyone who has ever passed time in a hospital will find something recognizable and true in Lore Segal’s new novel, Half The Kingdom. Outside of Aleksandar Hemon’s heartbreaking essay, “The Aquarium,” I don’t think I’ve read anything that so accurately captures the otherworldly experience of hospital life, where catastrophic situations are so frequent they become banal, or worse, bureaucratic. And yet there is nothing heartrending about Half The Kingdom, which unlike Hemon’s essay, does not focus on life’s tragic, unexpected brushes with disease and death. Instead, it’s a comic novel about old age.
In each of Winnie’s tales, God rather irritably corrects a Bible story that misrepresents what he had in mind. God says, ‘Why would I have expelled Adam and Eve for eating a fruit?’ The trouble was that they bored him, but he didn’t want to tell them. It’s devastating to know you are a bore, because it’s not something you can do anything about. Kinder to let them think it was something they had done wrong so they could live in the hope of stopping doing it and getting back into paradise. So God said, ‘Let there be sin.’
—  Lore Segal, Shakespeare’s Kitchen

Here’s all that’s going on in the wonderful world of the Housing Works Bookstore this week:

On Monday, we’re celebrating Banned Books Month with Paradise Banned; readings from the poems that have offended the censors throughout the ages. Claire DonatoAlex Dimitrov and more read the likes of Sappho, Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.

Tuesday will feature author Lore Segal shedding light on her new book, Half The Kingdomwith Harper's Editor James Marcus.

On Thursday, we offer you both intellectual stimulation and gastronomic delights. DISH will feature a feast of food stories from chefs and authors, as well as a chance to snack on some of their work. Come see the NY Times' Rosie Schaap discuss her memoir, Drinking With Men, and sample the delightful produce of Breucklen Distilling.

And on Saturday, our monthly sale begins. 30% off all books and music all weekend! Get your Christmas shopping done before you’ve even bought a Halloween costume.

And looking a bit further ahead: Wed Oct 16th will see Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding celebrate her return to fiction in the store! Helen will be discussing her new book, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy and much more with Vogue editor Valerie Steiker. Get tickets fast before they sell out!

Three Question Marks

Melville House: In an interview that you did a few years ago about Shakespeare’s Kitchen with BOMB, you said, “Being an elderly person, I want to write about the loss or partial loss of memory, so I’ve got myself a character who remembers nothing—an amnesiac.” Is Half the Kingdom the culmination of your interest in memory loss?

Lore Segal: Incidentally, one of the things that I’m going to find as I talk to you and as I will be talking: my facility with language is quite slower; [words are] much less available to me than [they were] ten years ago, twenty years ago. And that’s part of the experience, and that’s part of the conversation. When I went to speak in Austria some ten or twenty years ago I had the experience of speaking in German when my vocabulary was missing. I had the vocabulary of a ten-year-old. And now I have the same experience as an old person; my vocabulary is not necessarily available to me. And I think most people in my generation are now experiencing that. It’s sad. I miss it. I regret it.

MH: How does it affect the actual process of writing?

LS: It doesn’t affect writing very much, because I can put a holder. I can put three question marks—that means go back there and find the word. The other day I wanted to say “Charles Dickens” and he wasn’t available—but he came back a little bit later.

But in the course of conversation, I am now aware and even a little bit worried as I start a sentence; I wonder whether I’ll get to the end of it. [All I can do about this affliction] is say, maybe boringly: isn’t that interesting, what happens to language? That’s my defense.

We interviewed Lore Segal about her new novel Half the Kingdom, but I never expected answers as candid and wonderful as this.

Guernica: And the idea that it’s a virus?

Lore Segal: That is my idea. Once you start on an idea like that it proliferates in itself. So the notion you go to the emergency room and then mysteriously everybody—not just some, in the ordinary way, but everybody—gets demented? That’s my addition to Swift’s.

Guernica: It feels like a joke, expanded.

Lore Segal: It’s a joke. You got it. It’s a modern joke. It’s a fatal joke. It makes a joke out of the realities. Because the realities do seem improbable. The fact that we live and die really is peculiar, isn’t it? That there’s an end to this. There’s that wonderful line in Measure for Measure. I forget which of the characters has committed adultery and is going to die. He looks at his hand and says, “How could this die?” That’s the joke.

Imaginatively, I think we find it impossible to believe we don’t exist.

I’ve always thought, and this is nothing new, that we don’t really believe we die. I think you’re going to die, because I know that’s what happens but I can’t imagine I’m going to die. I dare say you believe I’m going to die. I bet you don’t believe you’re going to die. You know it, but you don’t believe it. Imaginatively, I think we find it impossible to believe we don’t exist.


Lore Segal

READ: The Dark Fantastic

‘Is that your wife, on the ship, in the white hat? Very elegant.’

'My ex-wife, Georgia. She was a looker!’ said Carter. 'When we hit England I divorced her.’

'Because of the heavyweight champion?’

'That was my wife Olga. Georgia was a bitch.’

Ilka said, 'A bitch is a dog, yes?’

Carter explained the concept. Ilka thought that’s what she wanted to be—a bitch and a looker. Think of the opportunities!
—  Lore Segal, Her First American
Half the Kingdom: A Pseudo-Review

One might get to the end of Half the Kingdom and feel as though you were on the receiving end of an extended and supremely wry punchline. Oops? Really? But then, one would think back to some of the characters, especially Lucy and her Quixotic quest to read her short story to every contact in her address book, and Bethy who hates everyone and is hated in turn, and god, that one guy who got stuck on the beach? Who can even remember his name but you’ll never forget the part where the kid is jumping over his legs and he can’t say anything and it’s just terrifying. Also you had to look up “bathos” again which makes, what, the fourth or fifth time this summer? Anyway. It’s almost like Lore Segal is Joe Bernstine and you are maybe Benedict or Al, Al definitely seems the cooler of the two, so Al, and anyway Joe told you a story and is grinning like a maniac and you’re pretty sure you know what the joke was supposed to be but maybe not but you don’t really care because Joe is so interesting and the story was pretty good, even if you do feel like you don’t 100% get the punchline. One might try to explain to the curious person next to you on the train about this, late on a Sunday night after a long day of beer and movies, and then a long stretch of standing on the train reading and then finishing the book before you’re quite ready to but it was so good. Also they can’t tell what the title is because the print is all flip-flopped around on the spine and then they ask you if you are in publishing because clearly this is not a finished copy of anything and then you tell them that Lore Segal will be at the Brooklyn Book Festival and they thought the festival happened already, but no, it’s later this month. Because it’s September now. What I’m saying is, you should probably read Half the Kingdom. On a train. Or not, but it’s better on a train.

These books are so excited about going on sale today that they were waiting by the door when I came in this morning.

GB84 by David Peace, a brutal tone poem of the ‘84 Miner’s Strike.

Half The Kingdom, Lore Segal’s ode to the sheer weirdness of death (and it’s also a NY Times Notable Book btw), now in paperback.

And the Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, aka BDLF, aka the most inspiring collection of fuckups of whom you’ve never heard.

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To be proved correct had that odd little importance one feels in presenting certification—a driver’s license, a library card: this proves that this is me. The person standing before you is the person standing before you. It is I who lived here.
—  Lore Segal, Her First American