Her First American by Lore Segal

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“That’s Carter Bayoux!” the young man said to Ilka.

“Who is Carter Bayoux?” Ilka asked him.

The young man said, “Didn’t you come with him?”

“Yes,” said Ilka. “Who is he?”

Carter Bayoux—a journalist, a former delegate to the UN, an old, black intellectual, an alcoholic living in the Bloomsbury Arms (a.k.a. Chelsea) Hotel—is Ilka Weissnix’s first American.

They meet in 1951 in a bar near the train station in Cowtown, Nevada: Ilka, a 22-year-old Jewish refugee recently arrived in New York, is taking a short trip west to see the “real” America; Carter is on his way back east. As Ilka gazes out over the purple mountains and the glowing blue cow blinking its lashes on the restaurant sign, she feels “excited and hilarious.” “I believe you have conjured this all, isn’t it?” she asks Carter. She falls in love as they cross the street. They go separately back to New York, where they become lovers, and for the rest of the novel, Carter shows Ilka what it is, this real America.

Lore Segal’s Her First American is one of my favorite novels; I tear up at the thought of it. First published in 1985, it has just been released in e-book format by Open Road Integrated Media. Lore Segal is almost a household name. She should be a household name. Born in Vienna, Segal escaped to England through the Kindertransport in 1938, at the age of ten, and came to New York in 1951 (the same year as Ilka). She has written novels and children’s books and translated fiction and poetry and taught at prestigious universities across the country. There are charming, insightful, even revelatory interviews with her all over the Internet, and glowing reviews of her books; her novel Shakespeare’s Kitchen was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

Her First American is a medium-length book with short chapters. “Carter called,” they often begin, and Ilka comes running from her job as a file clerk for the Council for Eretz Israel. The writing is precise and endlessly surprising, as witty as Grace Paley’s and as cool and fated as Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight.

Ilka asked Carter, “What will happen to us? Will we end up badly?”

“Of course,” said Carter.

Ilka felt the thrill of it. “Of course!” she said.

Before their first “date,” Carter takes Ilka to an upscale Manhattan wedding reception, where he extracts a bottle of scotch from the bar. “‘Now,’ Carter Bayoux said, ‘I’m going to liberate, as they used to say in the war, a couple of Harris’s little pills.’” They never make it to dinner.

When Carter is not incapacitated by bourbon and insomnia, Ilka accompanies him on assignments: interviews and concerts and trips to the UN.

“I’ll take you to hear jazz,’ said Carter. “I’ll introduce you to—who d’you want to meet?”

“Everybody!” said Ilka.

“I know everybody,” said Carter Bayoux.

During one interview, while Carter goes to the bathroom, gospel singer Ulalia Dixon asks Ilka to stand guard as she removes her pink rubber corset. “Another minute and I was like to die,” says Ulalia. In another scene, Ilka and Carter run into “Duke” (Ellington) at what we must assume is a Billie Holiday concert. Carter claims to have met (and disliked) James Joyce. He insists that he coined the word “Afro.”

Lore Segal

Lore Segal

When Carter is incapacitated by bourbon and insomnia, Ilka meets him at his hotel room, straightens up, and helps him hope he’ll snap out of it. In one of the most tender scenes in the book, Carter tells her, “I can’t make love to you tonight, but it would make me happy if you would lie beside me. If you lie beside me I think I can sleep.” He weeps when he can’t find his socks.

As Carter expands and deflates, a lung about to collapse, Ilka grows stronger. They are a brilliant pair, often thinking two sides of the same thought. Just before their first kiss, Ilka observes “how the fold of the back of his neck bulged over the collar of his sport jacket” and she decides that “she must go out and see other people.” The very next moment, Carter is saying, “I’m snapping out of it. I’m going to start going out and seeing people.” His brain cells are “damaged.” Her potential is “incalculable.”

Carter Bayoux belongs to a generation of black Americans who had reason to hope they might become first-class citizens, but they were never given the chance. Ilka has lost her family and her home. The weight of these problems would seem incomprehensible. The triumph of Her First American is that Segal’s writing is so careful and smart that she articulates Carter’s tragic self-destruction, and Ilka’s trauma, and the ultimate horror of race relations in America, in a way that makes us want to look, instead of look away. To use Segal’s words: “getting things right in writing is an act of affection for life.” She makes the intolerable art—and makes it possible for us to feel its weight.

The extraordinariness of Ilka’s situation is not lost on her (or the reader, for that matter). “It seemed wonderful to Ilka that she had come all the way from Vienna, and was getting to know Carter Bayoux’s several pajamas.” Ilka and Carter have casual conversations about race and class that are almost unimaginable in other novels. Describing the men in Cowtown, Carter says,

“Good enough fellows, as fellows go—care for their kids, satisfy their wives some of the time, do their work as well as can be expected, and pay their taxes, mostly, go to church, or not, and will string me up as soon as look at me.”

When Ilka is afraid to say the word “Negro” she asks if it means she is “anti.” Carter asks what else it could mean.

Ilka said, “That I wish to be polite.”

“You mean it’s impolite to be a Negro?”

“It means,” said Ilka, “one is nervous. You must allow being nervous.”

“Must I?” said Carter.

When Carter and Ilka take their first walk holding hands, two aged women in “moldering black furs” with “moon-purple” mouths stare at them, mouths gaping.

“People are so stupid!” Ilka said hotly. “They have to look.”

“Oh,” said Carter, “I don’t know. When I see white and colored walking, I always look, don’t you? Always wonder if they make love. Don’t you?”

But a moment earlier, the two old women have had their own frenzied, totally believable exchange:

“Who who who who who!” said the one who had a cane. “Who says?”

“Everybody!” said the other, who was crooked. “Everybody knows you are a witch.”

Her First American is about slavery and oppression the way walking down any street in America is about slavery and oppression: it’s woven in. It’s contradictory. It’s obvious and impenetrable and arresting and casual all at the same time. When, for example, I walk around my own neighborhood, one of the oldest in Miami (and traditionally black), I run into walls and fences built to keep the black residents from crossing easily into the white neighborhood one block south. The fences are topped with barbed wire; the roads, which once ran from one neighborhood to the next, are cut.

Each character who enters the novel is as complicated and fully realized as the next. Midway through the book, Ilka’s mother is discovered to be alive and arrives in New York, where she has nightmares about giant ants who are also the police. She slowly recovers: “Soon,” Segal writes, “Ilka’s mother was strong enough to refuse to walk out of the front door.” She and Carter get along brilliantly.

And in an intermission of sorts, three-quarters of the way into the book, Ilka spends the summer in Connecticut with Carter and a group of socialist socialites—white and black and Jewish—including the formidable Ebony Baumgarten (“orchard” in English, one example of Segal’s fantastic names. Ilka’s cousin, whom she lives with, is named Fishgoppel; Weissnix is “know-nothing;” Carter calls the owner of the liquor store “the Liquor Store Christian”). Ebony is persistently outraged by the larger and smaller acts of racism she faces on a daily basis. As with all long vacations with friends, the summer is perfect and intolerable.

Ilka said, “Ebony is wonderful.”

“Ebony,” said Carter, “is a hostile bitch.”

“You don’t think that she is beautiful!” cried Ilka.

“She is a beautiful hostile bitch,” said Carter.

“I like her so much!” said Ilka.

“I love Ebony,” said Carter.

Carter doesn’t give Ilka any easy answers. He often replies to her questions by saying, “Tell you a story.” This is what makes Her First American a classic: Carter’s ability—Segal’s ability—to answer questions that have no answers, to tell the story, to articulate the contradictions of American life without simplification. It’s a novel about what being a human in America is. “Ilka wanted somebody to turn to and say, ‘I don’t believe this!’” Segal writes, as Ilka arrives in Cowtown. It’s how the reader feels: I don’t believe anyone could have made such a perfect, perfectly natural thing as Her First American, as open and fluid and relaxed and exciting as a whole life.

So read it! For the two men in the bar who “looked underdone, as if they had been taken prematurely out and put down in the world” and the bellboy named Bones. For Carter, drunk in the jazz club: “Gravity was about to get to him.” And for Ilka, who “had it in her heart to envy herself for being alive, here, in this beautiful house on an American hill carrying dirty dishes into the kitchen with these variegated Americans.”

“If I had been going to enter the public imagination, Her First American would have been the book,” Segal said in an interview. Lucky for the public, the book now exists in the eternal e-world, and if we have any imagination at all we’ll finally escort her in.

Sarah Trudgeon lives in Miami. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The London Review of Books, The Nation, and The Paris Review. More from this author →