Lucinella — Lore Segal


The story of a group of poets and critics in the late 60s/early 70s NYC should not be so fun or rewarding. From its first page, Lore Segal’s novella Lucinella invents itself as a scathing satire of writers and would-be writers. Segal’s book paradoxically reveres its subject matter, a back-biting and insular literati; and yet at the same time it exposes their solipsistic, narcissistic, cannibalistic shortcomings. These are not particularly generous people, but they are somehow endearing.

Lucinella takes first-person authority to tell the story–and boy does she take authority, bending reality, reason, and narrative cohesion to fit her whim. Lucinella is a poet (a minor poet, perhaps), and Lucinella is very much a poetic action, an act of creation in thirteen parts. The story begins with our (utra-)self-conscious heroine at the idyllic artists’ retreat Yaddo, where she’s ostensibly trying to compose a poem about a root cellar but really just having a grand ole time with a host of notable intellectuals, the poets and critics who will populate the book. “I will make up an eye here, borrow a nose or two there, and a mustache and something funny someone said and a pea-green sweater, so it’s no use your fitting you keys into my keyholes, to try and figure out who’s who,” Lucinella tells us. No worries, Lucinella, we had no idea who, if anyone, your Betterwheatling and Winterneet and Meyers were based on–heck, it took us a few pages to figure out that your Zeus was, um, y’know, that Zeus.

Segal’s (or Lucinella’s) inventions work within a hyperbolic schema set to slow burn. Describing a fellow poet of greater renown:

This Winterneet walking beside me has walked beside Roethke, breakfasted with Snodgrass and Jarrell–with Auden! Frost is his second cousin; he went to school with Pound, traveled all the way to Ireland once, to have tea with Yeats, and spent the weekend with the Matthew Arnolds. He remembers Keats threw up on his way from anatomy; Winterneet says he admires Wordsworth’s poetry, but couldn’t stand the man.

This is pretty much Lucinella‘s program: plausibly esoteric literary references running amok into sublimely surrealistic sketches. If you don’t like that, take your sense of humor to its doctor. Lucinella’s time at the haven of Yaddo is soon up, and she must return to the monster of Manhattan, where young poet William (despite his too-thin neck) shows up at her doorstep to fall in love and eventually marry her. The two attend every literary party, where they feel alternately bedazzled, thrilled, or–mostly–slighted. William, composer of a never-quite-finished epic about Margery Kempe, takes his snubs especially hard, even when he’s being celebrated (and published). We weren’t there, but it seems that Segal evokes her Manhattanite milieu with painterly (or perhaps cartoonly) accuracy. Really, the infighting intellectuals are reminiscent of poseurs and scenesters of any time and place. Lucinella and William go to parties, throw parties, complain about parties, and throw fits like children when they don’t get invited to parties. It’s all very real and very silly and very funny. In one (literally) fantastic set-piece (okay, the whole book might be a fantasy set-piece), Lucinella meets Old Lucinella and Young Lucinella at a party, giving her an(other) opportunity to critique herself. “There’s old Lucinella, the poet,” says one character. “She hasn’t written much in these last years. Used to be good in a minor way” comes the nonchalant reply. Young Lucinella fares no better, although she does manage an affair with William (don’t worry, Lucinella proper hooks up with Zeus in one of the book’s strangest flights of fancy).

The real seduction, as Lucinella points out at a party (of course), is her attempt to seduce her reader into a trenchant unreality that the poets and critics pretend is reality even as they bemoan the reality that their addiction to unreality is their main reality. Yeah. It’s all a bit surreal, and it all comes to a head quite pointedly twice in the novel. The first unmasking occurs at a symposium where the group holds forth on weighty matters – “Why Read?” – “Why Write?” – “Why Publish?” The house lights come up to reveal our fretting poets addressing an empty hall. Even in 1970, no one cares about reading and writing and publishing. And it’s not just the symposium–when Lucinella hosts a party for her pal Betterwheatling, who’s just published a collection of a criticism, she’s shocked to realize as the party dwindles that, not only has she not read his new book, she’s never read anything he’s written. But that’s not all: “I can tell, with the shock of a certitude, by the set of the line of Betterwheatling’s jaw, by the way his hair falls into his forehead, that Betterwheatling has never read a line I have written either and I flush with pain.” Betterwheatling’s punishment: “I’ll never invite him to another party!” Ahhh . . . the petulance. Oh, all the backstabbing and perceived slighting and posing and posturing leads up to an apocalyptic climax, complete with a proper de-invention of Lucinella. It’s all really great.

If Lucinella is light on plot–which we don’t really think it is, despite its slim build, light weight, and 150 or so pages–it’s big on ideas and even bigger on voice. Lucinella is kinda like that crazy art chick you knew in college who was always working on some project that never quite came to fruition, and her cohorts are just the sort of mad loonies you spend time alternately ducking calls from or hoping to run into at a party (depending on your mood). Her evocation of the youthful excitement and nascent romance of poetry reminds us of some of Roberto Bolaño‘s work, particularly the joyful jocularity of Garcia Madero’s section of The Savage Detectives (Segal’s volume is in no short supply of exclamations points). The book builds to a massive millennial climax, a hodgepodge of social consciousness movements and poetry and block party–a moveable feast of paranoia and art and possibility and good clean fun, and, more than anything else, the death-sentences we impose upon ourselves. But we’re overextending our review. Let’s just say that the book is great, and if you love books that both simultaneously mock and valorize the creative process, you’ll probably dig Lucinella’s metafictional tropes. Highly recommended.

Lucinella is in print again for the first time since the 1970s thanks to indie stronghold Melville House Publishing.

On Cult Books

I finished Lore Segal’s lovely and perplexing 1976 novella Lucinella today. It’s a witty and rewarding little book that deserves its own review, of course, and I’ll post one later this week. Lucinella is new in print again for the first time in a few decades courtesy of the good folks at Melville House Publishing. The jacket and the press release Melville House sent me both trumpet the book as a “cult classic.” I’ve been reading a number of so-called “cult books” lately–William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and John Crowley’s Little, Big. But I’m not really sure what a “cult book” might be. It got me to thinking, of course, and before I went to that ersatz oracle of our time (i.e., a Google search), I thought I’d try to define “cult book” in my own terms:

First, to be clear, a cult book is not (necessarily) a book about cults. It’s a book that has a cultish following (i.e., a group of devoted (perhaps obsessive) fans who work to push the work on anyone who will listen to them).

Second, cult books tend to address or include subject matters and issues outside of mainstream tastes (whatever that means). Of course, what’s open to public discourse changes over time, so what was once a cult book, over time, can soon move into mainstream or even canonical tastes. Hence, a large number of books and authors that once might have been cult are no longer cult.

ulysses unrestored copy
First edition of Ulysses

But this doesn’t seem satisfactory: James Joyce’s Ulysses had to be initially smuggled into America; it’s now a canonical standard. William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch faced similar obscenity charges; decades later, Burroughs starred in a Nike ad. Yet, it seems that despite their eventual “mainstreaming” both books have something of a cult status–yet they don’t seem to need a cult the way that Gaddis or Lowry might. But what about Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy? It clearly needs a cult to push it on people in the hopes of it actually being read, despite its canonical status. Which brings us to defining point three:

Third, the cult in question can not be purely academic. Faulkner would probably be a cult author if it weren’t for English professors and teachers with their syllabi and whatnot.

So, what is a cult novel? I have to think that, based on my definitions, cult status is always malleable. Thanks to the internet, readers have greater access to other readers, not to mention an exponentially expanded market of books to access. So I have to think back to high school and college, to those books that friends thrust on me, saying simply, “Read this, you have to,” books that I thrust on others, books that were secreted from hand to hand, clandestinely, until their covers had to be fixed with Duck tape. I think about Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; anything by Kurt Vonnegut; Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; anything by Charles Bukowski; Tropic of Cancer (or was it Tropic of Capricorn?). Antony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan biography made the rounds in my circle of friends, as did the Led Zep bio, Hammer of the Gods.

Note the warning that the book is verboten in the US and UK

There was also a pirate copy of The Anarchist Cookbook that someone had downloaded off of something called the internet (this was 1994 or 1995) and printed on a dot matrix printer. William Burroughs, of course. William Gibson. Anthony Burgess. Philip K. Dick. Cerebus. Aldous Huxley (especially Ape and Essence). Lolita. On the Road. Camus. Kafka. In college: John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. J.G. Ballard. Douglas Coupland. David Foster Wallace’s Girl with Curious Hair, a book literally pressed on me my freshman year by a friend who simply could not believe I had never read Wallace. To some embarrassment, I suppose, Irvine Welsh. Thomas Pynchon. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. After college, a refinement I suppose (grad school ironing out some kinks of course): Blood Meridian. W.G. Sebald. Roberto Bolaño. Jorge Luis Borges. The list goes on; I’m sure I’m forgetting hundreds. (Normally, I’d hyperlink most of these authors and books to Biblioklept posts, but there’s just too many. Interested parties, if they exist, may use the search feature).

My list is pretty expansive I suppose (and it’s truncated to be sure), and I concede that the term “expansive” seems at odds with the term “cult.” It seems that all literature that lasts must first build a cult, and I guess that’s a good thing. Anyway–I eventually did google “cult novels” and here’s a few lists. Plenty of overlap with some of the above citations, and some stuff I didn’t think of as well. Also, stuff that I think is too canonical, but, again, make up your own mind:

The Telegraph‘s 50 Best Cult Books

The Cult’s List (

We like this one from Books and Writers

And of course, we’d love to hear from you, dear reader.