By Lore Segal. Melville House, $13 paperback.
Wed Dec 9 2009
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
“We live on a seesaw between arrogance and abjection,” says the narrator and title character of Lore Segal’s Lucinella, a 1976 New York City cult classic just brought back into print. A poet, Lucinella documents the heady highs and lows of making it—or just barely hanging on—in a literary scene of the ’60s or thereabouts, a time when critics, editors and writers vocally admired and insulted each other at intimate retreats, cocktail parties and symposia, rather than from a bloggy distance. Despite its pre-Internet setting, Lucinella transcends period features and references, transforming the pressures and mysteries of a female poet’s life into timeless art.
The realistic passages—particularly the scenes that capture late-night drinking sessions, a stint at the artists colony Yaddo and gossipy conversations—sparkle with wit. But Lucinella’s personal obsessions (with poetry, with what she calls “The Great Orgasm”) are fascinating too, awash in her inspired observations and continual self-doubt. Both of these forces result in an enchanted and sometimes manic narrator whose revelations shift, without warning, between real events and fictional flights of fancy. Lucinella’s drive to create is at once serious and comic, as she records her writing process, her professional insecurity and her need to establish order in her New York apartment (she maintains a complex filing system with separate folders devoted to business, friends and people she’s never met). Her marriage to William, a fellow poet with a fragile ego, is a study in ambivalence, as is her affair with a scholar named Zeus.
Segal continues to create wise, talk-driven portraits of couples and artists (see her 2007 Pulitzer Prize--nominated story collection, Shakespeare’s Kitchen), but Lucinella ranks among her best. This fantastically flawed heroine is compulsive and deeply fearful of obsolescence, but her refined comic energy makes even her more-arcane interests the stuff of great storytelling. As Lucinella says, “Intelligence turns me on.” Without a doubt, Segal feels the same way.—Meghan Roe
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