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)

Lola Bensky, Lily Brett

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Lily Brett is a well known Australian/New York/Jewish writer, born in Feldafing displaced persons camp, Bavaria in 1946 after her parents, Polish Jews, were released from Auschwitz concentration camp. She grew up in Carlton (Melbourne), attending University High, reported for the Australian pop magazine Go-Set from 1966-68, and moved to New York in 1989 (Wiki).

This is all relevant, as Lola Bensky starts out as a nineteen year old reporter in London for an Australian music magazine, reflecting on her uncommunicative parents’ experience of the Holocaust in between interviewing all the famous names of 1960s London pop culture; marries, divorces, remarries, has children, moves to New York to live. Lives all the time with a type of PTSD arising out of the horrors experienced by (especially) her mother.

I enjoyed the 1960s parts of the book, all the name dropping, interviewing Jimi Hendrix; interviewing Mick Jagger, being invited by Jagger to have a cup of tea with Paul McCartney; then hanging out in New York with Lillian Roxon, “the other fat Australian journalist, as Linda Eastman had so bluntly put it”; being introduced to, and not liking, Jim Morrison. All the time through the prism of her love for her parents and her experience of their horror, and of all the absences, the grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who didn’t survive.

Eastman, from upper-crust Scarsdale, has a Jewish father “who really wanted nothing to do with his Jewishness”.

Even if they had wanted to, Renia and Edek [Lola’s mother and father] would not have been able to discard their Jewishness, Lola thought. Their anguish, their sadness, their wariness was as clear as if it had been printed on them and illuminated and enlarged.

Two years later, when Lillian rings Lola to say that Linda is going to marry Paul McCartney, Lola’s first thought is, “Anyone who could spread her legs that wide could probably get anyone they wanted.”

I enjoyed the rest of the book too, but the first part could have been expanded into an interesting grunge/coming of age novel on its own – and maybe it has, I’m not familiar with Brett’s other work.

We step through the stages of Lola Bensky’s life – 20,30,50,60. At 30 she is married to Mr Former Rock Star in Melbourne, after an awkward ‘mixed’ wedding:

The Jews were too loud. Too emotional. And too obsequious to the Church of England crowd. There was also a lot of kissing from the Jews. And too much kissing for the non-Jews.

They have a son and a daughter, Mrs Gorgeous, but Lola falls in love with someone else, Mr Someone Else, an artist, and moves with him to New York.

Twenty one years later, Lola is lunching with the editor for her new book The Ultra-Private Detective Agency. We digress into the book and its characters for a while. Needlessly, probably. Her mother has died.

Lola had cried for weeks and weeks after Renia died. She didn’t know she would be crying for Renia for the rest of her life. Lola missed her mother. She missed the mother she had and the mother she didn’t have.

Lola understands why her parents couldn’t always be there for her, I’m sure this book is part of Lily Brett’s working her way through to an understanding. At one point, discussing that Lola’s parents had trouble ‘hearing’ her, she writes:

It would take Lola many years to understand that Renia wouldn’t answer questions. that Renia was terrified of questions. And terrified of answers.

Lola’s parents were unable to live in the present.  Mrs Gorgeous for instance is the image of Renia’s niece, nine-year-old Hanka, who with her mother was separated from Renia and Edek on arrival at Auschwitz, into the line for, though they didn’t know it, the gas chambers. And Lola must live, not in the past with them, but in a present where the past is always present too.

To be honest, I avoid Holocaust books. Like every other person in the western world I know it happened, and in a general sense, what has happened since. But Brett says that Australia has the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors of any country in the world, so the Holocaust is an Australian experience too. I’m still not sure I want to know more about it – factual or fictionalized – but I found this ‘memoir’ profoundly moving.

 

Lily Brett, Lola Bensky, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), Melbourne, 2012

see also Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)