It hurts. I feel burned, in the sense of the sun. I feel like going indoors and rubbing Solarcaine on myself. I may go indoors forever. Maybe forever. -- Erich Segal, 1971
Poor Erich Segal. He says he didn't mean it. Any of it.
He knows he acted like a jerk. He knows that going on Johnny Carson four times in four weeks was a bit much. He knows that when success hit, at the age of 31, with a slim, two-hankie volume called "Love Story" that sold 11 million copies in America alone and prompted its brash, verbose author to compare himself to Shakespeare, he couldn't handle it.
Any of it. The money, the fame, the envy, the press. And now he's back, at the age of 47, with his fourth novel, "The Class," the saga of five Harvard graduates and the price they pay for success.
Segal says a lot about success. Except the one thing you want him to say.
He still doesn't say he's sorry.
"I was incredibly ambitious, obnoxiously ambitious, intolerantly ambitious." He went to "excessive lengths of self-indulgence and self-love. Narcissism is the wrong word. But egotism certainly, bordering on megalomania.
"Self-intoxication is probably the best word."
Buoyed beyond his dreams ("I had helium in my shoes"), the son of a Brooklyn rabbi willingly gabbed in interviews and on talk shows, signed books for the lavender-haired ladies and flew 100,000 miles across the country succumbing to the amorous advances of eager female fans who didn't realize that the diminutive Yale classics professor ("I was one step above a nerd") and creator of the country's bestselling treacle didn't have two dates while he was an undergraduate at Harvard.
"I was swept up," he says now in a hesitant near-stutter. "I stayed on the magic carpet as long as it was up. The book was followed by the paperback, which was followed by the film."
Then, like Cool Whip left on the counter too long, Segal congealed.
"I wore out my welcome," he says quietly.
Suddenly, just as many people (one out of every five Americans, according to a Gallup poll) who had wept over the story of preppy Oliver Barrett IV losing his harpsichord-playing Radcliffe wife Jenny Cavilleri to leukemia were now sneering at it.
The backlash was swift and deadly. "Love Story" was nominated for a National Book Award in 1971, then pulled from the competition after protests from the five-member panel headed by author William Styron, who called the work "inferior . . . a banal book."
Segal says now it wasn't the book they were criticizing. It was the author. "I think I contributed to that myself by delighting in my success. You're supposed to be humble. I could have said, 'I didn't know what I was doing' or 'I don't deserve it.' "
What Segal did say is a matter of public, humiliating record.
"I'm kind of a folk hero at Yale," he was fond of saying. "The closest thing to a Beatle." He told interviewers he was glad he hadn't written "Portnoy's Complaint." He didn't like all that sex. "Shakespeare wrote a pretty good love story called 'Romeo and Juliet,' and the story was more important than what went on between the sheets," he told New York magazine.
He allowed as how he just might be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of his generation. "Little did I know that I was creating a whole style that was perfect for the '70s," he told Nora Ephron in Esquire.
He is sitting in his hotel suite, a symphony in blue: blue serge pants, blue V-neck pullover, blue and white striped shirt and tie. His body is frail and sickly, his face shockingly thin. His huge brown eyes look like Oreos against his milk-white pallor.
His publicist says he is suffering from "a nerve disorder," and his left hand trembles. The only reason his right hand doesn't tremble is because he's sitting on it. He no longer runs marathons.
"I almost died in 1982. I've not really recovered. I had a blood disease that they thought was leukemia. Actually, it was the reverse. It was red blood cells. One of the young doctors said to my wife, 'Wouldn't it be funny if he had leukemia just like Jenny Cavilleri?' "
One thing is certain about Erich Segal's kind of success.
"You never feel it's going to end. You never think the cheering's going to stop."
But the cheering did stop, and Segal says it just might have had something to do with him.
"I talk too much."
The year after "Love Story" was published, he was denied tenure at Yale. Bitterly disappointed, he went into self-imposed exile in Europe, teaching at the University of Munich. He wrote a sequel, "Oliver's Story," in 1977, and another, less successful novel four years later, "Man, Woman and Child."
Segal's luck had run out. But he didn't turn to drugs or drink.
"My mouth was destructive enough."
Instead, he got into therapy and married an English book editor, Karen James. Only then did he understand why he had sabotaged his own career.
"It didn't take more than 50 minutes for me to learn what I had done wrong. That was clear. The question is why."
And the answer?
He hesitates. Not sure he wants to reveal the reason. Is he talking too much again?
"I felt guilty about all that success. I was getting too much. Feeling guilty about what I had. I didn't deserve it. I was, in essence, a wonk, so why am I suddenly chosen as a hero?"
But success didn't kill Erich Segal. It knocked him down and spit in his face and slandered his name all over the place, and now he's back for more.
"I like the fact that I could recover from all this and write a book," he says confidently. "I'm not here touting myself. I'm trying to call attention to this book. He who does not promote his book does not get his book in the bookstores."
"The Class," for which he received a reported $1 million advance from Bantam Books, is already in its third printing with 140,000 copies and is a Dual Main Selection of the Literary Guild. Although it hit the New York Times best-seller list at No. 10 a week after publication and is already No. 4, the book has been creamed by the critics.
Publishers Weekly described it as "unabashedly slick," saying the author "makes no attempt at real character development." Newsweek, which called Segal's brand of literature "junk fiction," said "The Class" is "so simple-minded that one can only assume Segal's word processor is programmed to supply cliche's as adroitly as it corrects his spelling."
The New York Times faulted its "dead language," and said the author "opts for the cliche' almost every time."
There's a reason for that. Just as "Love Story" was the first book written as a screenplay, "The Class" may be the first book written as a mini-series. Several producers are bidding as we speak for the rights, Segal says, checkbooks in hand. Five love stories, he says, eyes widening, the chance for five male stars and six female stars to clod across the country's screens for two or three nights running. Think of it. Segal won't have to do a thing but pencil in "pan to" and "fade out."
Not surprisingly, he says it is "with great trepidation" that he faces the press.
"I won't try and obfuscate the fact that I wanted to regain the public that I lost," he says. "I wanted to have popular success."
And writing for the populace means, as it did with "Love Story," reducing plot and language to the lowest common denominator. Was it a deliberate attempt on Segal's part to repeat the bestselling formula?
"I don't think I consciously pandered -- I may have unconsciously pandered -- but I definitely wanted to be read again."
He says he knows he's not a great writer. Not like Updike or Mailer or Vonnegut.
"It's a question of being Mozart or Salieri," he says. "There's no question that I'm Salieri." A small smile. "But Salieri had it better."
He was born in Brooklyn in 1937. Even as a child, he knew he wanted to be a writer. After track practice at Midwood High School (where he was president of the school), he would take the subway to night classes at a seminary.
At Harvard (Class of 1958), Segal was salutatorian and class poet. During his college days he began writing musicals. At Yale, where he was a classics Teaching Fellow, he wrote the screenplay for "Yellow Submarine" in 1967 and fulfilled his lifelong wish to have his name appear in Variety.
It was a schizophrenic time for Segal, trying to balance his Latin-scholar background with his nouveau turtleneck-and-$40-haircut Hollywood image.
He says he worked from 1958 to 1971 "publishing, teaching, doing those extra things that are supposed to win brownie points for you, going around speaking at Yale clubs, raising money for the university, being a good boy."
But then he wrote "Love Story."
The next year he was denied tenure.
"I lost what I loved best," he says sadly. "I'll never recover what I lost. It took me 10 years to realize I wanted it that badly. I admit it now only because I'm more mature."
At the "height of the furor," he says, "I was crossing Harvard Square, and coming across the other way was none other than John Kenneth Galbraith. I have to drop the name because I'm quoting him and this is an absolutely true anecdote. As we were in midstreet, he said, 'Erich, you made one mistake. You should have done like I did. Waited until you got tenure to write your novel.' "
Segal says he was accused of "being a pawn of the Nixon administration, providing an opiate to those people who would otherwise be out demonstrating.
"I remember one lecture I gave. The one question was, 'How much did Spiro Agnew pay you to write "Love Story"?' I said, 'What's the connection?' They said, 'To distract people from the Vietnam war.'
"I had to laugh."
And he kept laughing. All the way to the money market.
" 'Love Story' is important for only one reason. It was a cultural phenomenon. It was an index of its time and it stands still."
Kurt Vonnegut, damning with faint praise, once said that criticizing "Love Story" was like criticizing a chocolate e'clair.
"I'd rather be treated as a chocolate e'clair," Segal says now, "than as some traitor to great literature. It makes me a confectioner of something, something pleasurable."
He leans forward, his left hand trembling.
"I'll never be a great literateur. I read on the plane down here a short story by John Updike. I said, 'That's real writing. That's mellifluous,' if you will. I can't do it. I wish I could write not like Updike, but like Mailer. It's such muscular prose. It's so vi-tal."
He says he yearns to become a member of the Great American Writers club, whose members include Mailer, Vonnegut, Styron, Cheever.
"I would," he says. "I would like to be held in the same esteem as Irwin Shaw. If they write on my tombstone, 'He tells a good story,' I'll be satisfied."
But he knows it's a long shot.
He says, simply, "I can't do any better."
He lives in England now, with his wife and young daughter. "I live in Hampstead, the writers' ghetto. John le Carre' lives here," he says, left hand stabbing the air, "Kingsley Amis lives here. Down the block John Keats died, up the block Byron lived for a summer. Coleridge died in Highgate, which I can see from my window."
Where does he fit in?
Erich Segal wrote "The Class" after attending his 25-year college reunion. It took him two years on a word processor. It has 592 pages. But the chapters are only two or three pages long.
"It's a profile of my generation," he says broadly. "Of what people gave up. Of their priorities."
One of the characters attains enormous success, acts like a jerk because he is guilty over that success, then is felled by a mysterious nervous disorder that forces him to reexamine his priorities.
"In every successful person there is the feeling of unworthiness," Segal explains. "There may be exceptions. Maybe John Wayne was an exception."
But is the new Erich Segal's rationalization for his previous behavior believable? Or is it a convenient excuse, a way of saying it wasn't his fault?
"What happened to me was a kind of heroic coronation. I didn't deserve to be king."