Ted Lambros, an outsider like Segal, becomes the ultimate Harvard insider: a beloved classics professor, also like Segal. Jason Gilbert, if we’re willing to suspend disbelief, heroically goes on to lead the Israeli raid on Entebbe. The Zelig-like George Keller has the ear of Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Andrew Eliot — yes, one of those Eliots — redeems his ill-gotten Wall Street gains by raising a million dollars for Harvard’s endowment. And Danny Rossi embarks on an illustrious musical career, though he hides the fact that his Broadway musical adaptation of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” — a megahit, unlike Segal’s own Broadway adaptation of Homer’s “Odyssey,” which opened and closed in an afternoon — was rewritten by a three-chord hack.
“The clichés make ’em think it’s something they’ve heard before,” the hack tells Danny. “They’re half-remembering it even before they hear it. And that means they can hum it at intermission. And that, in the musical theater, spells success. You don’t have anything against success, do you?”
Reading the great books in the great rooms of Widener Library, Segal slyly implies, doesn’t necessarily translate into real-world achievement or slaking the thirsts of the masses, a truth to which any reunion weekend in Cambridge can painfully attest. Yet the exchange can be interpreted as the author’s potshot not only at the elitism endemic to Harvard but also at his early reviewers. “The banality of ‘Love Story,’ ” Newsweek said, “makes ‘Peyton Place’ look like ‘Swann’s Way’ as it skips from cliché to cliché with an abandon that would chill even the blood of a True Romance editor.”
Reviews of “The Class” were equally patronizing. “ ‘The Class’ is a good story, although not a well-written one,” Susan Isaacs wrote in The Times, sentiments that remain the consensus of the many ardent fans still reading and posting reviews, despite its poetic deficits. Is the Harvard myth so strong, so alternatingly alluring and repellent, that readers are ineluctably drawn in?
“The Class” explored familiar territory for Segal: the Harvard class of 1958 — Segal’s own — marks its 25 years, although the reunion itself appears near the end of the book and is somewhat beside the point. It also explored territory familiar to readers at the time of its publication in 1985, who may have confused it with Rona Jaffe’s 1979 best seller “Class Reunion,” in which a group of Radcliffe women comes together for its 20th reunion.
Not that Jaffe was so innovative either. “Class Reunion” was preceded by Segal’s own “Love Story” and by John Jay Osborn Jr.’s “Paper Chase,” which was itself preceded by “The Second Happiest Day,” by John Phillips, a k a John Marquand Jr.; Faulkner’s Quentin Compson was a Harvard man. And even today, when we watch a film like “The Social Network,” we are fascinated by the story in large part because it takes place at Harvard, whose reputation for excellence — deserved or not, love it or loathe it — foments the kind of aspirational desire that keeps the looky-loos gawking through its wrought-iron gates. Or as the managing editor of an online magazine, Gilt Taste, recently tweeted, with regard to my own addition to the genre, “Harvard envy, you never die!”
But while all writers must inevitably confront the shared settings and competing shelf space of Other People’s Prose stretching behind them, in “The Class,” Segal seems to be wrestling with his own “Love Story” and the supersize fame it brought him. In Nora Ephron’s 1971 Esquire profile of Segal, written during the giddy bloom of “Love Story,” she describes dining with the author at a restaurant when a shy, out-of-town couple ask him to sign their menu. He demurred, telling them to buy his book at the bookstore around the corner so he could sign that instead. “Erich got so carried away,” Ephron wrote, “that Jacqueline Susann, who is no slouch herself in the self-aggrandizement department, felt called upon to advise him against it. ‘Every time you mention the book’s name,’ she told him, ‘you don’t really have to add that it’s No. 1 on the best-seller list.’ ”
Segal had already tasted a measure of success before the publication of “Love Story,” having collaborated on the screenplay for “Yellow Submarine.” But the book came on the heels of screenplays for two Hollywood duds: “The Games” and “R.P.M.” Heard of them? Still, Lois Wallace, then Segal’s literary agent, persuaded him to turn his unsold screenplay, “Love Story,” into a novel. The rest, as they say, is (commercial) history.
A few years before his death in 2010, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and unable to sell his memoir, Segal wrote to Wallace after a four-decade rift and asked her to represent it. That the autobiography remains unpublished would have pained the man who composed the following line, which appears at the end of “The Class” and may well be considered a tag line for both the book and Segal’s life: “Fear of death is universal. But what lies beneath that fear is the terror of insignificance. Of not being remembered, not counting.”
Ultimately, “The Class” makes the reader feel sorry for its men, whose constant jockeying for fame and power, for “significance,” undermines any gratitude they might have felt for those gifts they possessed in such abundance — life, love, a shot at tomorrow — while simultaneously making them suspicious of those very same ambitions in their Radcliffe classmates. “I mean, brains are O.K. for a girl in moderation,” Andrew Eliot wrote in his diary, “but the Radcliffe types are so . . . intellectual — and competitive — that they sometimes make you forget why the Lord created women.” Though, of one female character Segal wrote: “Fanny had a talent he had not encountered in all the girls he’d dated in America. She was happy just being herself.”
Perhaps that’s what we “competitive Radcliffe types” actually brought to both Harvard and the Harvard narrative — heck, what women have brought to every formerly all-male university and institution: an understanding that while a fancy degree and external validations are nice, they are the icing not the cake; that “happiness” can only be found in acceptance of the flawed self.
So what can we say about that 72-year-old man who died? That he loved Harvard. That he was, by all accounts, an inspiring classics professor and a doting father. That he wrote books we are still reading about a university we’re still obsessed with. That, barring the opportunity to read the memoir he never sold, we nevertheless get a pretty clear picture of the author’s midlife yearnings, shortcomings, ambition, fears and psyche in the pages of “The Class.” And that, dear reader, dearly departed Segal, is not insignificant.Continue reading the main story
The complete FLCL manga adaptation—now with bonus color illustrations and remastered story pages! In this surreal sci-fi romp, a sullen Japanese boy finds himself in the middle of an interstellar conspiracy. As his home life unravels, a sexy space assassin becomes his family maid, and his own head becomes a portal for armed robots. Life as he knows it is quickly falling apThe complete FLCL manga adaptation—now with bonus color illustrations and remastered story pages! In this surreal sci-fi romp, a sullen Japanese boy finds himself in the middle of an interstellar conspiracy. As his home life unravels, a sexy space assassin becomes his family maid, and his own head becomes a portal for armed robots. Life as he knows it is quickly falling apart, and Naota doesn’t know who’s friend or foe! One thing’s for certain—he has to grow up quick and save his hometown, whether he wants to or not!
With Dark Horse’s FLCL Omnibus, fans will not only get every chapter in Hajime Ueda’s acclaimed FLCL adaptation, but this collection will also include revised story pages and over a dozen color FLCL illustrations by Ueda....more
Paperback, omnibus, 392 pages
Published May 29th 2012 by Dark Horse Comics