New York, Lily Brett

I’ve been down to Fremantle to see Kim (ReadingMatters) for coffee and beer a couple of times since she moved back to Australia. We have a connection, the obvious one, that we follow each other’s blogs, and the less obvious, that we are in WA and our parents are in Victoria. Last time, she gave me this book.

Lily Brett lives in Manhattan and her father, at the time of writing, in Melbourne, so that’s a connection too. Though I’m sure Kim gave me the book because she knows I enjoyed Lola Bensky.

New York is a slim volume of pieces, some trite, some whimsical, some sad, all the same length, around two and a half pages, maybe a thousand words, that feel like newspaper columns, casual, personal and beautifully crafted. Brett writes of Geoffrey, the man who cuts her hair:

This man is crucial to me. My hair is curly. it’s not easy to get curls to aim themselves in whimsical directions and attractive angles. To make curls look carefree requires a skilful hairdreser,

She might be writing about her writing.

The pieces, only tied together in that they are observations arising from Brett’s having lived in downtown New York for many years, all have the same rhythm so that if you read them one after another it begins to feel like the rise and fall of breathing.

A quick introductory sentence: “I feel bad about living so far away from my father”. A little story about something she sees or is feeling: “I worry that he is lonely in Australia. He is eighty-four. Most of his friends are dead.” A side-step into the general: “In New York, elderly parents are sometimes seen as a storage problem.” Then back to the particular:

I work at home. It would be impossible for me to concentrate with my father in the apartment. “Would Grandpa really disturb you?” my younger daughter, who’d love her grandfather to live in New York, asked me.

“He’d drive me nuts, very quickly,” I said. I paused. “I don’t want to ever hear you talking like that about me,” I said to her.

And a little sting in the tail:

“You won’t,” she said, “I’ll say it out of your hearing.”

Lily Brett, it is clear, writes always about Lily Brett. I’m not complaining. The best writing comes from deep within as the writer wrestles with his or her demons.  Look at DH Lawrence, Sartre, Gerald Murnane, Kim Scott. The problems their protagonists deal with are the problems they deal with. Writers who imagine themselves into situations, famously Lionel Shriver, or say, Peter Carey, may write very well, but they are mere story-tellers compared with the greats.

The great problem Brett’s writing revolves about is that her family was murdered by the Nazis before she was born. That she is alone in the world, not just an only child, born in 1946 in the shadow of Auschwitz, but without uncles and aunts, cousins or grandparents; her own parents often remote; her loving, ordinary husband and children never enough.

This is a light work, indeed Lola Bensky is a light work, but Brett’s New York is not the New York of Friends or even of Seinfeld. We are seeing through the eyes of a woman who feels every day the absence of family. She loves New York, is anxious when she is away, describes lovingly the everyday experiences of walking, shopping, apartment living, getting her hair cut. But this is also the New York where people take dogs to work because they can’t make connections with people; where Brett can’t offer to help the homeless couple living nearby because she might become involved; where Brett’s acquaintances don’t know her children, and her children don’t know them; where there is no-one who knows her father. A world where no-one has ever met, where she has never met, was never able to meet, her wider family.

I wonder if she writes of herself, or versions of herself, so that we can know her, so that she can feel known. Or known and not known. She tells a friend her father is worried about a prostate op. making him impotent.

“Well he’s certainly had his fair share of sex,” she says. I am surprised. She doesn’t know my father. I realise she is confusing my father with the father in my novels.

Maybe I am confusing the author with the Lily in these stories. But I don’t think so.

Brett, as a new New Yorker from Australia, tries very hard to fit in,

Trying to be American can be exhausting. I’ve practiced perkiness until I’m blue in the face. And still perkiness eludes me. It’s not my natural condition. Nor is friendliness …

She has speeded up her speech and ‘tried to tone down my Australian vowels’. Kim’s years in London have noticeably rounded hers, but I gather she’s doing lots of homework in her local (Clancy’s) and will soon be as nasal again as the rest of us.

 

Lily Brett, New York, Picador, Sydney, 2001

Kim’s review (here)

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22 thoughts on “New York, Lily Brett

  1. I have a couple of her books. Her book You Gotta Have Balls is along the same vein as this one. She writes a lot about life in NY. I think she did move her father to New York but that memory seems foggy at the moment. I think growing up with parents who lived during the Holocaust had it tough as they could never complain about anything in their life, as we all did as children because nothing would ever be as bad as what their parents went through. I have realised that as I have read of other children of parents who survived the Holocaust. I do enjoy her books about NY even though she does come across as self indulgent as times. She reminds me of Vivian Gornick books about her life in New York. 🤠🐧

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    • I do have another of hers to read -Just Like That – but this one was to hand, and once I’d started I sped through it.

      It’s pretty clear from what I’ve read that living with traumatised parents left Brett traumatised too. Not because they failed her in any way but because they were understandably unable to put the Holocaust behind them. I don’t know Gornick, sorry.

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  2. Fantastic review, Bill. I haven’t read this book but your observations about the author and her ‘characters’ could equally be applied to Lola Bensky (a book that has stayed with me for all sorts of reasons).

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    • I was very conscious of Lola Bensky while I was writing this review. Too conscious maybe, but we see an author through their whole body of work. Also, when I was looking for a cover photo I noticed that all the hype was for “Only in New York” which I see is a later work of non-fiction (2014). But I might see if I can chase up another novel for my next read.

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  3. This is an inspired post, Bill, I loved it. I loved so much, it’s hard to know where to start.

    I loved this about her hairdresser: “This man is crucial to me. My hair is curly. it’s not easy to get curls to aim themselves in whimsical directions and attractive angles. To make curls look carefree requires a skilful hairdreser”. I have curly hair – though probably not as curly as hers – and know what she means. However, I’ve given up on great hairdressers. They are too stressful in wanting to colour, add product etc etc. My hair now just goes where it will, which, if kept short, it reasonably tidy!

    Most though, I liked the comment that Lily Brett always writes Lily Brett, You give some good analogies but missed an important one – Helen Garner. These pieces sound just like the sorts of things Garner writes in, say, Everywhere I look. I’m ashamed that I’ve never read Brett because I just know I’d love her. One day.

    Meanwhile, I wonder if I’ll get to the west to meet Kim before her accent is all nasal again!

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    • Thank you Sue. I see what you mean about Garner, and yes they do write similarly though I suspect Garner writes more about situations and less about how she feels. When I gave those examples I was thinking about DH Lawrence and his deep, almost continuous introspection. But then I often think about Lawrence because if I ever wrote that is what I’d be aiming for.

      I’m sure we’d all love a visit. Come for spring.

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      • We keep talking about it, as we have a couple of friends there, one of whom has health issues which has seriously affected his ability to travel.

        Interesting re Lawrence. I feel the opposite. I feel as though I’ve been there done that. He is one of the writers from my past that I don’t feel an urge to revisit, much as I loved him in my teens and early twenties. Of course, if I read him again, I might change my mind.

        BTW I forgot to say I also loved that quote about her father living with her and the dialogue with her daughter!! So funny!

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  4. I’ve read a number of Brett’s over the years, and as you say LB writes LB. But her story & her parents history are fascinating. Too Many Men is one of the few books that made me blubber! Her aloneness and family loss has been a life time of writing to process. Lola wasn’t my most favourite book, but I do remember it fondly nonetheless.

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  5. I really liked this review. I think part of what I enjoyed about it is the way you highlight aspects of the author’s book that make me think of other books — everything sprawled while I was reading your post. I thought of Roz Chast’s graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which is about her aging parents living in New York City. They’ve had the same apartment for SO long that when Chast started to move them out, she found odd bits and bobs and things no reasonable person ever would have saved. I also thought of Tangles, another graphic novel, by Sarah Leavitt, whose mother is diagnosed with dementia and needs loads of help, but Sarah Leavitt lives a thousand miles away. Does she give up her life to live with her mother, is a phone call enough, can her aging father care for her mother? These are all questions one asks. Lastly, I thought of Maus by Art Spiegelman (YES, another graphic novel) that is about his father’s escape from Nazis. His father moves to the U.S. and lives there, but his survivor’s guilt is enormous, and father and son fight often.

    Have you ever lived outside of Australia? I love watching the movie Mary & Max about a lonely girl in Australia who randomly chooses and name and address in a New York City phone book and starts writing to him. Because she’s so curious, viewers learn about the ways this New York Jew with Asperger’s is so different from an Australian (for example, she claims her “grandpoppy” told her babies are found in the bottom of beer cans and that her favorite snack is sweetened condensed milk).

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    • To start at the end, people really do like sweetened condensed milk, not me though. Do you have it? It’s sort of like a milky syrup. I’m not sure about babies and beer cans – the sealing process would be messy!
      Australia has quite a big community of Holocaust survivors and descendants, but it’s not something we (Anglos) pay a lot of attention to, so it is good that Lily Brett recalls it to our attention. Her father sounds like he has all his marbles, but my grandfather had dementia and it was more than my grandmother could cope with and hard work for my parents who made the 300 km journey to be with them every couple of weeks. As for old people’s apartments I think my children will have a similar experience to Ms Chast.

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      • Oh, Bill! How is your apartment so full of things when you’re always on the road? I THINK we have sweetened condensed milk, but it’s something you might occasionally use in a recipe, perhaps around Christmas.

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  6. Glad to see you enjoyed this one, Bill. When I reviewed it you left a comment along the lines that you didn’t think it would be your thing.
    Oh, and I’m working on the nasal twang 😉

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    • I did enjoy it thank you Kim and I’ve added a link to your review. Just two months ago and I was wondering why you hadn’t done one. My brain is going to mush. Now I’ve read them, I think that, taken together, they make a whole which transcends the individual pieces. Were they in fact published as newspaper or magazine columns, do you know?

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      • No… I don’t know if they were published as newspaper or magazine columns… I don’t think there’s any disclaimed in the book itself, but they certainly do have that feel about them.

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