Lucinella (Contemporary Art of the Novella)
by Lore Segal
A review by Kati Nolfi
Artists are cherished and reviled for their bad behavior. They transgress where normal people cannot. In Lore Segal's Lucinella, a thrilling experimental novella first published in 1976 and now reissued by Melville House's Contemporary Art of the Novella series, New York poets are a competitive and shallow bunch. The bad behavior in Lucinella is the social kind; while there's some indiscriminate fucking, there's no homicide or drug addiction. The poets are preoccupied with who's who, who's where, what they're writing, who they're doing. They are writers, but they are not self-sacrificing ascetics as some assume artists must be. They would sacrifice each other for a speaking engagement or publication; an editor's career is described as "standing on your writers' shoulders, alternatively with your foot on one or another of their necks." You could call the relationships symbiotic or more accurately, opportunistic. They search for meaning, order, fame, and transcendence in dowdyish party scenes of empty fabulousness and joyless desperation. But then each success proves insignificant and fuels the search for the next one.
Segal depicts the asymmetrical relationships of artists, their inability to negotiate dull indignities and unequal creative successes and failures. Our anti-heroine Lucinella is flitting and fitful, she eludes, she wants someone sensational and yet would blanch at being outshone. The pain of artists' love relationships: one is always more or less successful and both situations are equally awkward. Similar to Camus's ultimate question, Lucinella struggles between the horror of surviving alone or with company. Making love, making work; writing poetry is secondary to socializing, but neither brings true pleasure, and humans prove most useful when their experiences are the nutriment for poems.
Lucinella is about the hollow, the void that artists cover with creation and praise. The celebrity worship and gossip of this lofty circle of poets could exist among any group of rivals and friends. Yet, poets in community perhaps disregard that their interests are not the interests of the majority; they work in the felt, the unreal sound, the small and still. These poets need each other because they can't depend on the reading public to enjoy their poetry. Lucinella's time at Yaddo and in the city at parties explores the way writers are heartbroken about the negative; acclaim is easy to forget. Segal accurately captures Lucinella's experiences: the false charm of friendship and parties, in which everyone wants to be talking to someone else, the agony of memory, all those slights that sit with you forever, the wonderfulness and horror of being elevated. To show Lucinella's manifold layers, Segal creates the tripled Lucinella (in her past, present, and future selves), boldly explicating her diminishment, insecurity, and false bravado. Lucinella precisely speaks that which we fear to speak:
"I'm writing a poem all about parties," I say, "which explains why we can't simply say, ‘Thank you, now I've had enough of you and want to go and talk to someone else.' It's Courtesy which wisely constrains us, and by tacit contract you will treat me as if I mattered in return for vice versa, so that we keep the rug in place to cover the abyss under one another's feet." I tell Winterneet about my Underground, where I preserve the company of persons who have thought me less than perfectly interesting and charming, reinforcing my suspicion that they're right. I'm talking too much, I know, but Winterneet looks at me so kindly that from where I haven't figured floats up the highly unstable, rainbow-hued, transparent company of persons who like me, confirming my suspicion that I'm charming and interesting.
And there's the sexy nothingness of the man who becomes her husband:
It's William, a man with a skinny neck and glasses, of no interest to me whatsoever, walking into my foyer. I say, "I'm sorry about the mess." He drops his briefcase. I'm kissing the edge of a lapel, blinded with emotion, I suck a button.
Together, Lucinella and William trade in insecurity and nagging about minor indignities like wet towels on the floor. Her strange relationship with Zeus (yes, that Zeus) is not troubled with the casual pains of daily life, all that time sucked up by fainting over the shoes on the bed. When faced with writing, Lucinella craves an orderly environment and mind and talismanic writing equipment; she sharpens her twelve pencils before writing:
But how can I write with chaos breathing in my ear, yearning for just such a crack, such a fault in the system, to come creeping back among my papers? I must find the place, quickly, to put my new notebook, and here is exactly the right white folder.
Though the poets endeavor to be voluptuaries, they have the bourgeois fear and anxiety of dirt, the superstition that cleanliness and organization will right everything, the avoidance strategy: once everything is in its proper place, I can write and then everything will be OK.
At Yaddo the poets enjoy privilege and luxury. Lucinella feels acquisitive toward the other poets in this closed community, infantilizing like summer camp or boarding school. Here we see the differences in labor between poets and the housemaid, floor scraper, and Fuller brush man. The latter defer before these artists who seem not even to understand their craft, to be dazed by the mystery of writing poems that spring from the writer like a goddess.
The sparkling scene outside my window and all persons, affections, libido, arrogance and abjection, and every credo, even the passion to be read, have folded away. The staid, middle-aged housemaid in white linens leans her ear to my door, hears a pencil moving across paper, and steals away on plimsolled feet. She will return later to make my bed.
The solitude and competition of writing keeps the writers from connecting humanely with each other.
Not out of malice but from desire for communion, we chew up the other poets and offer them to one another.
They are able to feel but only as it informs their writing, greedily collecting ugly trauma to spin into art. The mean laughter of other people's stories, the cartoon pantomime of acting human, performing your life, and muddling through. Tragedy becomes a funny story in the fingers and conversations of friends. The poets are excited about the shifts in other poets' identity -- divorce, mental exhaustion -- that provide material for the imagination. Interest becomes gossip, which affirms antagonism.
In Lucinella's death (strangely and wonderfully, she climbs into William's jacket pocket where she expires; I don't understand it, but it happens) we observe the essence of character and what we believe and pretend to believe about people, the process of becoming and dying. Lucinella's death is the vampire death we all want to have. We don't want to live forever but we want to die twice. The first time is the performance of the ghost. We hang around in the ether, watch as we are mourned, as we are remembered. We are sufficiently pleased with the celebration of our lives. And then finally we fade away. This is the dream.
As the novel proceeds, Segal's more traditional early narrative becomes nonlinear metafiction. She elegantly unravels her prose, interpolating experiments and unfolding time and language in delightfully surprising ways. Language integrates and disintegrates, voice trades between first and a remote observing third. She breaks the fourth wall, speaks to the reader about the construct of this book, acknowledges artifice, and plays with the notion of ending (there is no period at the end; "THE END" occurs before the book is over). In the best way, Lucinella is a Didion tale by Bunuel. It plumbs the life of a poet and the meaning of a poem in unusual ways. This tiny book contains both worlds and moments.
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