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)