The Howling Continues

Shakespeare’s Kitchen
By Lore Segal
New York and London: The New Press, 2007, 225 pp., $22.95, hardcover

Tell Me Another Morning
By Zdena Berger
Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2007, 288 pp., $15.95, paperback

Reviewed by Alice Mattison

The main character of Shakespeare’s Kitchen—Lore Segal’s brilliant, long-awaited book of linked stories—is Ilka Weisz, who is also the main character of Her First American, Segal’s powerful and well-received 1985 novel, about Ilka’s affair with a black intellectual. (In those days Ilka knew less and was named not Weisz but Weissnix.) In Shakespeare’s Kitchen, as in the novel, Ilka revels in human quirks. In “The Talk In Eliza’s Kitchen,” she flirts with Leslie Shakespeare, the director of the Concordance Institute, where Ilka—new in town—works. He and his wife, Eliza, have taken up Ilka, and Leslie and Ilka talk and drink wine in the kitchen while Eliza cooks. She saucily tells Leslie what he does when something displeases him:

      “You uncross your right leg from over your left kneee and recross your left leg over your right knee.”
      “I’ll be damned,” said Leslie.

Later in this story Ilka appoints the Shakespeares her “elective cousins.”

As the reader—although not Ilka—guesses, she and Leslie will become lovers many pages later. Meanwhile, Ilka, Eliza, and Leslie continue discussing their own endearing or annoying characteristics: Eliza explains how one sort of question and not another might lead her to talk about her own life, and she partly tells a story that recurs many times in this book but is never fully told: “How I lost my baby.” She and Ilka speak not of what happened but of how Eliza—and also, it seems, Ilka’s mother—characteristically talk. Eliza says,

“I put the brakes on the stroller, ran in, got her blanket that I had already washed and put away, and out fell a box of mothballs, so I ran and got the broom and the dustpan and I’ll drive Leslie crazy telling you the whole story.”

And Ilka responds,

“Just what my mother does. . . .She tells the whole story of how she left my father sitting on the side of the road before Obernpest a week before the end of the war, and she never saw him again.”

The true subject of this apparently lighthearted book—with its clever characters who love to talk about how they talk—is loss, and it’s World War II and the Holocaust that define loss and sorrow, though other losses—like the loss of the Shakespeares’ child—may be as devastating. Both the baby and Ilka’s father were lost at apparently uneventful moments: we are wrong if we think nothing horrifying can result from going for a broom and dustpan, or sitting down to rest at the side of a road.

In an introduction, Segal explains how she came to write about elective cousins. “I was thinking about the sometime-comedy of providing oneself with a new set. How do we meet people we don’t know? How do acquaintances become intimates?” This book might be a comedy of manners, if these friendships didn’t matter as much as they do. Ilka is a war refugee. We aren’t told that Ilka’s actual cousins died in Nazi death camps, but that’s probably why she needs new ones. Her annoying student, Gerti Gruner, tells how she tried to persuade the foster family that rescued her from the Nazis to save a long list of her relatives as well. Gerti first attaches herself to Ilka because they are both from Vienna; briefly Ilka lets down her guard because they both remember the same charming restaurant. But Gerti is an embarrassing version of Ilka herself, ingratiating herself with offers of Wiener schnitzerl rather than with cleverness. I think Ilka is also not sure Gerti is Jewish—or sympathetic to Jews—until Gerti says Ilka’s blouse reminds her of “the blouse of my Tante dead in Belsen.” Only then does Ilka consent to have coffee with her. She is repelled by Gerti and will never accept her dinner invitations, but when Ilka and her boyfriend are lost in a dark neighborhood, and Ilka rings a random doorbell for directions, of course it’s none other than Gerti Gruner who opens the door.

Farce, ordinary life, and tragedy regularly intertwine in these stories. In the English conversation class Ilka teaches, a student compulsively reads aloud newspaper accounts of the disappearance of his father, who turns out to have been a disguised Nazi. Another student, a Japanese man, has developed what he seems to call—his English is hard for Ilka to understand—a “reverse bug.” The Institute puts on a symposium about genocide, and as it begins, howls fill the room—the howls of the death camps, Hiroshima, all comparable howls. The student has planted his reverse bug, which does not broadcast what happens inside a room but forces those inside to hear what happened elsewhere. Eventually the building is torn down and its materials, still emitting howls, are trucked to a desert and buried. Listening to the howling, Leslie and Ilka make love for the first time.

As she does here, Segal uses the bizarre and the slightly surreal, but the book departs from sturdy realism only about five percent of the time. Occasional leaps past realistic boundaries give the universe of the stories slightly more possibility than our universe, and because of that, these irresistibly funny stories of friendship and love—and soured friendship and spoiled love—take on immense reach and significance. Shakespeare’s Kitchen is a delightful, engaging book, and it’s also—without being the least bit preachy or pompous—a compassionate and powerful study of human suffering.

 

Zdena Berger’s sensitive and beautiful novel, Tell Me Another Morning, has much in common with Segal’s book, including the Holocaust, an implied subject in the stories and the actual subject of the novel. Both authors have the courage to write about ordinary moments as well as dramatic ones, so characters who suffer are also recognizable. Newly republished by Paris Press, Berger’s novel first appeared in 1961, when it was well received and then forgotten. Segal has sometimes been similarly overlooked in the years since Her First American, despite the deserved success of that novel as well.

Perhaps Tell Me Another Morning was overlooked because Elie Wiesel’s Night came out at the same time. Night is a stark, declamatory indictment; to some, Wiesel’s book may have seemed like the only one about the Holocaust readers needed, but we need Zdena Berger’s book at least as badly. In Night, the characters think only important thoughts—about cruelty, starvation, pain, hate, fear, love, and piety. As we read it, we are in danger of thinking that the Jews the Nazis exterminated were all larger than life. In contrast, the characters in Tell Me Another Morning—an autobiographical novel about a teenage girl in the death camps—are lifesize, sensible, and secular. Tania Andres, a well-behaved teenager from Prague, becomes attached to two other young girls in the camps: Ilse—who is knowing and bold—and Eva, Tania’s childhood friend. When Eva becomes so sick she passes out on a forced march, the others drag her along, so the guards won’t shoot her. The three regularly save one another’s lives, and also quarrel, speculate, make jokes, tell stories, and respond to horrors with wry, cynical patience. The horrors are many, but often it’s the moment of ordinariness juxtaposed to the horror that makes it real and moving.

Having no knowledge of their fate and no experience with persecution, Tania’s family behave not like tragic victims but like people anywhere who are obliged to do things that make no sense. They don’t have enough yellow stars for all their clothes, so they must laboriously sew and resew stars to each blouse or dress in warm weather (in the winter, they can simply leave a star on their coats). Then they and their neighbors are forced to leave. At a camp, families settle into bunks and politely introduce themselves. Since the book is in present tense, written as if in the moment, only the reader knows what will happen.

One day—by now they do know—there is a “selection.” Inmates are lined up, and the younger, stronger people are sent to the right, while the older, feebler ones go to the left. As they wait, Ilse digs through her clothes to find an old lipstick she has somehow managed to keep, and rubs color into Tania’s mother’s cheeks (“Do I look nice?” she asks shyly.) She is sent right—the good direction—but Tania’s father is sent left, and Tania’s mother manages to stay with him. Tania is sent with her friends to a work camp and never sees her parents again.

On one assignment, Tania, Ilse, and Eva live in a warehouse in a city, forced to dig foundations. When a guard’s back is turned (the guards are invariably referred to as “the green uniforms” or “the green ones”) the girls wander among deserted hovels and see smoke coming from a chimney. They knock, and are fed three bowls each of thick soup by an old man in a yarmulke, who has somehow been left behind. He scolds them for dripping snow on his floor and eating with their hands instead of waiting for spoons. (On every page, there is hunger. All the characters in this book are always hungry.)

Berger is accurate and honest about the way thought passes through our minds—the way it invariably mingles what’s important and what’s unimportant—and the novel includes overwhelming moments that would be benign or trivial in ordinary lives. As the girls climb into cattle cars, Tania reports, “a hand under each elbow boosts us up.” Looking at a new camp, which is dominated by the huge chimney of the crematorium, she reflects that “for a house with such a tall chimney, the doors seem too small.” When they are living in the warehouse, there’s an air raid:

Voices behind me sputter and hiss: “Right across from the movie house. You take the tramway. . .number ten. . .”
      “...We will plan it very, very carefully. . . .”
      “. . . You let the butter brown and then slowly you add. . .”
      “. . . The first time? I don’t remember the first time. . . .”

And, when Tania is in one of many incomprehensible trains, closed in a box, she reports:

“They are going to kill us,” says a voice behind me. I have heard it many times and each time I have understood it less. I find myself humming a child’s singsong: “They’re going to kill us, kill us, kill us; they’re going to kill us, tra la la, la la.” I hope they let us go to the latrines before they do it. . . .

She survives. Zdena Berger, incarcerated in the death camps for four years, lived to write this sharp-eyed, moving novel. Tell Me Another Morning and Shakespeare’s Kitchen are indispensable accounts of women’s lives lived with honesty and, somehow, humor—while the killing and the howls continue.

 

Alice Mattison’s most recent book was a collection of connected stories, In Case We're Separated (2005). Her new novel, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten In Brooklyn, will be published in 2008.

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