Erich Segal stands in the small room where he is waiting for his turn on the talk show. He is dressed in dark blue -- dark blue sweater, dark blue slacks. Even his voice sounds dark blue as he makes small talk about law school with a few of those around him. One of the men remarks offhandedly that he wished he'd never gone.
It is not the sort of remark that demands much of a response. Just about anything will do, from "Oh, really?" to "Why not?" It is not the sort of comment that would seem to elicit what Erich Segal says next.
What Erich Segal says next is "Love means never having to say you're sorry."
Why won't someone take this man's albatross away from him before he beats himself to death with it?
"If I say it first," he explains later, "it gets rid of the tension."
It has been 10 years since Erich Segal wrote a book about a Harvard student who marries a Radcliffe student who dies before they have a chance to get bored with each other. Everyone who read "Love Story" cried, the kind of everyone that means big bucks in book sales. Everyone who saw the movie made from the book cried. Everyone, that is, except the critics.
The critics laughed, some of them scornfully, some condescendingly, some hysterically. The novelists didn't laugh. The ones on the jury for the National Book Committee Fiction Awards insisted that his name be withdrawn from the list of candidates. Either he goes or we go, they said. He went.
That's when Erich Segal cried instead of doing something reasonable like laughing all the way to the bank.
You'd think that a man who had an assistant professorship in a demanding field (classics) at a prestigious university (Yale) wouldn't give a flying frittata for what the critics thought about a book that brought him fame, fortune and the unsolicited keys to the apartments of airline stewardesses. You'd think here was a man who had his cake and ego too. But if that were true, there would have been no need for Erich Segal's latest novel.
"This is my shot," he says of "Man, Woman and Child," his third novel (the second, "Oliver's Story," having been a sequel that followed the adventures of the unfortunate Mr. Barrett after his wife bit the dust). "This is my entry as a serious novelist. It's the fact that my efforts are not taken seriously that hurts. When I ran the two-mile race at Harvard, they applauded my effort even when I didn't win. The critics don't acknowledge effort. I think there should be a little applause for the boy."
What can you say about a 43/year-old boy who tried? That he wants "A" for effort on his letter sweater?
Not being taken seriously was bad enough, Segal said, his big brown eyes looking even more mournful. Being accused of cynicism, of having sat down callously and in cold type to write a book that he knew to be sentimental schlock for the money, was downright alarming. While some authors might have felt relieved to admit to mere money grubbing rather than confess that "Love Story" reflected their true perspective on the world, Segal was not one of them.
Not that "Love Story" any longer reflects the way he sees the world. "I had a prolonged adolescence," he says. "I was immature. 'Love Story' prolonged my adolescence about seven years." He is married now, to a British book editor, and they are expecting a child at the end of summer. "Being married has made the difference," he says. "'Love Story' was a fantasy. 'Man, Woman and Child' is a love story. My guts hurt writing that."
Not that he is willing to kiss off "Love Story" entirely. He remembers giving a lecture in Japan when "a girl got up, a Japanese girl, and said, 'I am Jenny' and I thought to myself, 'My God, this is bigger than I thought.' Mies van der Rohe was right less is more."
Here, more or less, is Erich Segal's new reality as reflected in Man, Woman, et al: A basically perfect professor (Bob) married to a basically perfect book editor (Sheila) have a wonderful marriage and two wonderful daughters, and everything is going along swimmingly, (except, perhaps, for whatever is trying to swim in the River Charles as it flows past Bob's office at MIT). Then Bob gets a phone call from Paris tellng him that the beautiful brilliant fiercely independent French doctor he had his one and only illicit two-day affair with 10 years ago has suddenly died leaving a son. His son.
Sheila, whose new reality still incorporates the old morality, freaks out but is so utterly noble that she suggests that Bob bring the boy to America for a month, where everything is tense and awful until the kid gets real sick and nearly dies and then everyone loves him and no, you don't get to hear what happens after that.
Segal thinks most people in America, with the possible exception of the denizens of Beverly Hills and Marin County, would be just as shocked as Sheila at the news of a long-ago, one-time-only adultery. "I think there is an underground network of happily married couples that do not get together on Tuesday nights to discuss their happiness," he says.
He also does not think he and his wife would survive a similiar shock as well as his fictional couple does. "We have a marriage more like Bernie Ackerman's marriage," he says, referring to a character in the book who explains to Bob that "there's only one score in the marriage game. A thousand. No errors ever ."
Segal and his wife divide their time between Oxford, where he teaches Roman comedy, and Artmouth, where he teaches comparative literature. Describing his priorities these days, he says, "My family is the most important thing to me now. I've tasted all the lovely things early, the glittering things, and found them to be tinsel, all tinsel. I was at a party that lasted seven years, and I was the last to leave. And like anyone who is the last to leave, I'd become a bore."
Still there are times when Segal's verbal fog is pierced by a certain perceptiveness. "I haven't lived long enough to know what it would be. Think how much I've lived in a world of fantasy places like Hollywood and the academic world both have high walls and gates." To keep, he says, reality out.
As he talks about his work in the classics, his voice gets as soft as summer rain, a steady incesant summer rain. He has completed a third book in his field, this one called "A Decade of Roman Comedy Scholarship," which he described as a critical bibliography of everything written about Roman comedy.
"I love Latin," he says."It's so lapidary, there are so many more ways of saying the same thing. It's wondrous." Suddenly, Erich Segal bursts into Latin and is promptly asked to translate. "It's Catullus," he says. "'I love and I hate, you ask me why I do it, I know not, but I feel it and I agonize.'"
He smiles. "I can't quote from my own work, but I can quote from Catullus. It shows I have some taste."
Segal's real love is comedy. "I'm a Plautus man, myself," he says. And suddenly brightens. "Maybe there's a connection. Why did I pick for my thesis topic the Roman comedian who was closest to the people? Think about it."
It is thought about. Segal is asked about whom he wrote his undergraduate thesis.
"Catullus," he says. "I used to think he was the best love poet there was.
But then I realized he just never grew up."