“One of a rare breed … a polished stylist with brains, wit and a message.”
- Sun-Herald (Sydney)
FICTION / LOLA BENSKY
Photo by Trixi Löwenstark.
Rock and a hard place
Lily Brett has again mined dark corners of her past for her latest novel, but she has also tapped into a happier source.
Review by Tim Elliott
Lola Bensky was the winner of the Prix Médicis Étranger. Lily has just become the first Australian and only the fourth woman to win.
HERE'S a particularly instructive passage in Lily Brett's new book, Lola Bensky, in which the eponymous heroine catalogues all the phobias she wouldn't mind having. There's ablutophobia, the fear of washing, bathing or cleaning; astraphobia, the fear of thunder and lightning; the excellently ridiculous hylophobia, the fear of trees, forests or wood; pediophobia, the fear of dolls; and coulrophobia, the fear of clowns.
''Lola wasn't crazy about thunder or lightning or trees, forests, or woods, or even dolls,'' Brett writes. ''And she could easily have lived without clowns.'' Instead, she has been saddled with agoraphobia, a truly crippling yet pedestrian pathology if ever there was one.
Here in her sixth novel, Brett, an Australian based in New York, has created in Lola a typically winning character: curious, self-conscious, naive and neurotic, a wary Jewish girl locked in trench warfare with her waistline.
As the daughter of Auschwitz survivors, the 19-year-old Lola bears the weight of history on her increasingly ample shoulders, having absorbed, without even knowing it, their multiple sorrows and anxieties, their death-camp memories and apparently contagious hypochondria. ''A twinge in an arm signified a stroke or heart attack. A mouth ulcer looked like oral cancer; a callus on her foot metamorphosed into a tumour.''
We first meet Lola in 1967 in London, where she is working as a correspondent for an Australian music magazine called Rock-Out. The Rock-Out job is a dream gig, allowing Lola to escape her native Melbourne for New York and London, where she interviews everyone from Mick Jagger to Cher, the Who, Cat Stevens, the Kinks, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. With her tape recorder and pancake make-up, Lola watches and listens and writes, compiling pen portraits of the stars, people who, she is intrigued to realise, are nothing like their popular images.
Lola is brave, too: she confronts her subjects as equals, surprising herself by candidly confiding details of her parents' Nazi-plagued past. Then, as she gets older and the Jimis and the Janises join the list of the dead, Lola's own morbid traumas - her parents' pain, her agoraphobia and panic attacks - begin bubbling to the surface.
Brett's career has been long and prolific - six novels, three essay collections and seven volumes of poetry. It's also been deeply autobiographical. Her best-known books, Just Like That (1994), Too Many Men (1999) and You Gotta Have Balls (2005), feature Jewish women, much like herself, who are living in the shadow of their Holocaust-survivor parents.
In Lola Bensky, Brett again borrows from her past, revisiting the days she spent as a rock journalist working overseas for Australia's first music magazine, called Go-Set. Save for the occasional tweak, Lola Bensky is as Lily Brett was, right down to the puppy fat and false eyelashes. The only question is why it took so long to write about her.
''So many people have asked me over the years, 'Why don't you talk much about your time as a rock journo? Why don't you write about it?''' Brett says, talking on the phone from Shelter Island, near New York, where she and her husband, painter and sculptor David Rankin, have a holiday home. ''And so, eventually I thought OK, and I thought it would be fun, and started making lots of notes.''
One day Brett gathered up all her notes and put them in a manila folder. ''I then put an elastic band around it and put that folder in a large plastic bag, which I then put in a brown travel bag, and then I put that travel bag in a metal filing cabinet in my study, and I locked it. I would walk past it regularly and look at it. A year went by and then two years, and the publisher rang up and said, 'Um, we're not pressuring you, but …'''
Brett had been gripped by fear, a Lola Bensky-like dread she didn't fully understand. ''I didn't want to face that time in my life,'' Brett says. ''Not the interviewing the rock stars part - that was fun - but who I was, how coated in my parents' past I was, and how recent that past was.''
Eventually she decided she would either have to face the file or dump it. ''The thought of dumping it made me feel sick, so I gave myself three months to write the book.''
Retreating to Shelter Island, Brett arranged her papers, pencils and erasers - ''all the accoutrements of writing that I love'' - and started to write and write and write and write.
''I kept going for 11 months,'' she says. ''I worked the longest hours I've ever worked on a book: I'd start at 9am, then take 25 minutes for lunch, and finish most nights at 8pm. I was certain I had vitamin D deficiency, I hadn't been out for so long. But I didn't feel exhausted - I felt exhilarated. For those 11 months of writing, I was living in 1967. The fact it was 2011 passed me right by.''
Brett's books bristle with memorable characters, such as Ruth Rothwax, the hand-wringing heroine of Too Many Men, and Edek, her indomitable father. In Lola Bensky, the father figure is again named Edek; the two Edeks even share the same idiosyncratic approach to the English language. But in Lola Bensky Brett adds a procession of household names: Jim Morrison, Jagger, Hendrix - rock gods who are rendered as refreshingly three-dimensional.
''[Hendrix] was amazing in real life,'' Brett says. ''I had seen him moments before I interviewed him - I was in the second row of his concert - and I had never seen a man move like that before in my life; I felt terrified, just the way he moved his lips and his tongue. I practically had to look away. And then I had to go into his dressing room, little Lily Brett from Melbourne, Australia. But then he was so polite, and talked to me in the most natural way.''
As Brett's fans would know, however, the most constant character in her books is the Holocaust. Brett's father, Max, had been wealthy before the war, but lost everything when he was imprisoned at Auschwitz, along with his wife, Rose. Both of them lost their entire families. Brett and her parents moved into a terrace house in Brunswick, and then into a three-room cottage in Carlton; but everywhere they moved the dead came with them. ''I lived in a house where the dead were more present than the living,'' Brett says.
Her mother, in particular, constantly anguished over her dead relatives, especially her father. ''All I knew was that all these people who were so important were dead, and that they died in a brutal way.''
Stories from Auschwitz became part of Brett's hard-wiring: the Hygienic Institute in Block 10, where they injected internees with typhus and cholera and tried to glue women's wombs shut; the camp commandant who had prisoners toss babies into the air so he could shoot them with his pistol while his own daughter looked on, screaming with delight. These, too, are the stories Lola blurts out during her interviews, shards of a calamity that finally pop out like long-buried splinters.
''I once said to my mother, 'When I close my eyes I can hear crying', and she said, 'That's because when you were born everyone was crying, either out of joy at your birth or terrible anguish at loved ones who had died'.''
Max and Rose were happy to be alive and in Australia - ''Dad would come home in between shifts at the factory he worked at, and say, 'This country is paradise''' - but their experiences infused them with a suspicion of happiness that Brett inherited.
''Excess happiness expressed loudly is the most bothering aspect to me,'' she says. ''You don't want to push your luck. I always feel bothered by people who, when asked how they are, say 'Excellent!' The man I live with, David, has a terrible tendency to say how wonderful everything is. I just grit my teeth. And if we are alone I say, 'Don't, just don't.'''
When she was young, in Melbourne, Brett used to envy the ''carefreeness'' of the English-speaking children she met at school. Now she is not so sure.
''The idea that a person's skin colour or sexuality or even the music they listen to makes them somehow less human than you, that's a dangerous idea that I've always tried to warn people about in my work,'' she says. ''So in that way, my parents' history has compelled me to write. In an important way, it liberated me.''
Lola Bensky is a nineteen-year-old rock journalist who irons her hair straight and asks a lot of questions. A high-school dropout, she's not sure how she got the job – but she's been sent by her Australian newspaper right to the heart of the London music scene at the most exciting time in music history: 1967.
In London, New York and LA, Lola interviews the biggest rock stars of the day, including Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin. But she begins to wonder whether the questions she asks are really a substitute for questions about her parents' past that can't be asked or answered. With time, she discovers the question of what it means to be human is the hardest one for anyone - including herself - to answer.
Drawing on her own experiences as a young journalist, Lily Brett shows in Lola Bensky just why she is one of our most distinctive and internationally acclaimed authors.
You Gotta Have Balls (2006)
FICTION / YOU GOTTA HAVE BALLS
In this very funny sequel to Too Many Men (2001), Ruth Rothwax, the owner of a successful letter-writing business in Manhattan, can't seem to relax. She worries about everything: her dependence on her husband, a painter who is away for six months; her perception that women, rather than being supportive of one another, are really catty and competitive; her diet of spinach and turnips; and, most especially, her 87-year-old father, Edek, who is driving her crazy by attempting to help out at the office. When Edek comes up with a cockamamie scheme to open a meatball restaurant with zaftig Polish émigré Zofia, Ruth suddenly loses her feminist sensibility, criticizing Zofia's clothing (she looked as though she was representing Kazakhstan at the Winter Olympics) and her relationship with Ruth's father. However, Holocaust survivor Edek, intent on enthusiastically embracing life, and the amazingly accomplished Zofia pull off the impossible - they get Ruth to loosen up. In this warm and zesty novel, Brett perfectly balances serious themes with witty malapropisms and endearing characters.
In this frank, entertaining novel, a father and daughter haunted by loss learn to reclaim meaning and passion in their lives. Australian author Brett brings back the cast of Too Many Men, including her heroine, Ruth Rothwax, a 54-year-old Jewish Australian running a successful corporate letter-writing business in New York. Ruth's husband, Garth, is currently away painting for six months, leaving her time to develop a women's support group, kick off a line of innovative greeting cards and hatch schemes to keep her irrepressible octogenarian father, Edek, out of trouble. But Edek has fantastical plans to open an exotic meatball emporium with the help of busty Polish émigré Zofia and her best friend, Walentyna. A Holocaust survivor, Edek is determined to enjoy the last chapter of his life, even if it means taking outrageous risks. For Ruth, years of downplaying her emotions (any difficulty pales compared to the Holocaust's horrors) has led to bottled-up anxiety, but handling Edek's exuberant brand of chaos now forces her to loosen up. Brett allows her very likable characters to wander down winding, comedic alleys, while the novel remains anchored by the serious subtext: the psychological impact of the Holocaust a generation later. The result is lighthearted but substantive novel.
In this frank, entertaining novel, a father and daughter haunted by loss learn to reclaim meaning and passion in their lives.
It hasn't been easy for Ruth Rothwax, the proprietor of a successful letter-writing business, to branch out into a new greeting-card line. Her father, Edek, is driving her crazy at the office. Other women, who she thought would be supportive, are being catty and competitive, behavior Ruth swears that she will never imitate. But then Zofia arrives to turn Ruth's aspirations of sisterly solidarity - and her life - upside down. Fresh off the plane from Poland - a buxom, sixty-something femme fatale with a talent for making meatballs - Zofia wants to open a restaurant. And Edek, Zofia's most passionate admirer, wants his daughter to finance the enterprise. But Ruth knows that gleam in Zofia's eye only too well, and she knows it means big trouble for all of them.
Too Many Men (2000)
FICTION / TOO MANY MEN
Brett's mother and father were Holocaust survivors who moved to Australia, where she is still known best and where this wonderful book became a #1 bestseller after its publication about 18 months ago. Brett has a body of work behind her poems, essays and three other novels, so why her latest has taken so long to reach these shores, especially with a glowing blurb by no less than Simon Schama, is a mystery.
It is the story of Ruth Rothwax, a successful New York businesswoman who decides to take her 80-year-old father, Edek, back to his native Poland to revisit the scenes of his childhood and the camps where he spent the desperate wartime years. Ruth and Edek are both vivid creations, she a highly organized person who speaks her mind and is constantly outraged by the lingering anti-Semitism and evasiveness she finds everywhere in Poland; he a seemingly simple man driven by a powerful lust for life, food, friendship and sex. Their adventures in Poland as they revisit Edek's childhood home, barter for some of his expropriated household items and share visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau with busloads of tourists who see themselves as following in the footsteps of Steven Spielberg, are at once haunting, riotously funny and deeply touching.
Brett's style is so deceptively easy that the book, though long, reads as swiftly as a thriller; and what might seem a claustrophobic dependence on two characters is avoided by a series of canny devices: Ruth's sardonic meditations on life in New York; a strange meeting with a German hotel guest whose husband wished he was a Jew; the introduction of a pair of lusty Polish widows with their sights set on Edek; and, above all, a series of imaginary conversations Ruth has with Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, from his postexecution existence in a kind of posthumous limbo, where he must attempt to pass impossible tests for heavenly access. These plumb the depths of the astounding banalities of evil and give the book a surrealistic richness of reference. The hardest effect to bring off in fiction is a vision that is at once tender, deeply comic and yet aware of the ultimate sadness of life, the lachrymae rerum. Brett has succeeded triumphantly in the most delightful surprise of the year so far. Agent, Heather Schroeder, ICM. (Aug.)
Forecast:This has real bestseller potential if carefully promoted, and what is so far planned as only a local New York tour could be extended. Powerful reviews and excellent word-of-mouth could make it a natural for handselling by independents
Brett’s high wire act spanning the tragedy of the past and the comedy of everyday events qualifies as true art.
Amazingly funny - a masterpiece
Seldom has someone written so true and caring a story.
Brett's high wire act spanning the tragedy of the past and the comedy of everyday events qualifies as true art. Her book is probably the most significant and most heart-wrenching ever to have been written on the subject. In Australia, her former home, she has been nominated for an award. The Nobel Prize would be more appropriate.
"At once haunting, riotously funny and deeply touching."
Publishers Weekly (*starred* and boxed review)
"Funny, powerful, chilling."
Just Like that (1994)
FICTION / JUST LIKE THAT
A witty, charming novel that simultaneously engages the reader in the trivial and the profound. Brett dares large issues, but never loses her sense of irony and life.
Christina Stead Prize judges
Just Like That is funny, moving, informative and instructive in a way that is entirely its own. Reading it creates a similar effect as reading Catch 22 the first time round. Brett's confidence and poise is resonant behind every line and sustains every page.
Lily Brett's third novel is about a happy marriage, the presence of death in life, the yearning for meaning and the realization that making sense of life is sheer farce. Esther Zepler and her husband, Sean, both expats from Melbourne, live and work in New York. They are both successful she writes obituaries for papers worldwide and he is an artist. They are also
successful parents. Brett writes with great wit and a sometimes shockingly base humor which is always very funny for my money she's much better than Nora Ephron. Nothing is out of place in this novel as it concentrates upon Esther's life, her pain as well as her happiness. The pleasure of Just Like That is that is has great intellectual poise while it exploits all the joys of the contemporary novel. Like Catch 22 it is a serious novel that is often hilarious. Esther Zepler is a wonderful creation. … A fabulously good novel.
The Sunday Age (Melbourne)
Winner of the New South Wales Premier’s Christina Stead Prize for best Australian work of fiction in 1995.
What God Wants (1991)
FICTION / WHAT GOD WANTS
The community focused on in Lily Brett's What God Wants takes only brief glances at the single fact that underlies its entire existence - the Holocaust. Brett's extraordinary achievement is to suggest obliquely the horror of that event while fully presenting the humor and passion of her characters' lives.
Although the middle-aged characters in this distinctive collection of 16 interconnected stories are a diverse lot, they are bound together by a shared past: all are the children of Holocaust survivors. The women in these tales shine with originality and strength; the men for the most part exist in the background, betraying or supporting their wives."
What God Wants was first published in Australia, where it received the equivalent of the PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction, the most prestigious honor that nation bestows on a new literary voice.
Chic, sensual Ruthie Brot is forced into some surprising decisions because of her affair with a friend's husband. Susan Silverman's husband is shtooping a shikse, as she announces in Hot Ochre paint on the outside of her house. Ella Tennenbaum, a prominent journalist brooding over three failed marriages, seeks a new life in Israel. Dora Lipshitz, absorbed in being the perfect wife, decides not to pry into her husband's philandering. Rosa Cohen, after years of analysis, is still profoundly neurotic.
Each has her own individual problems but they share subtle self-imposed barriers: each stifles her anger, distrusts the consequences of happiness and feels an overwhelming need to keep the family together. These wryly comic yet deeply moving stories explore layers of guilt and fear, and above all the need for belonging, to the family, to the community and to the faith.
Things Could Be Worse
FICTION / THINGS COULD BE WORSE
The novel chronicles the story of a family of Jewish immigrants in Melbourne over a period of several decades. The novel describes meticulously the problems the family has with coping with its traumatic past.
Renia and Josl Bensky grow up in the Ghetto of Łódź, Poland. Shortly after their marriage, they are forced to move to the Łódź Ghetto, and soon, they are deported to the concentration camp Auschwitz. After the downfall of the Third Reich, they meet again, and their daughter Lola is born in a DP camp in 1946.
In 1948, The Benskys move to Melbourne and try to start a new life, far away from the horrible crimes they had to endure during the Holocaust. They find good friends among fellow Jewish Immigrants, and with this tight group of friends, they try to live as normal a life as possible.
Lola knows she will never understand her parents completely since she will never experience what they had to live through. She has her own problems. She has overweight, weird boyfriends and a first husband whom she does not love.
When she turns 19, Lola starts to write for a rock magazine and gets to travel around the world to interview the stars of her time. Apart from her job, she raises her children and tries to figure out her life. Finally, she marries the artist Garth and moves to New York.
That Lily Brett is a remarkable poet has been amply demonstrated by her two award-winning collections, The Auschwitz Poems and Poland. But nothing has prepared her readers for this collection of stories, which proves she is also a redoubtable storyteller whose humor packs the kind of punch that leaves her readers gasping … Miniature epics which enclose the abyss of human evil yoked to the impossible optimism and humor of human survival. Stunning!
Things Could be Worse is a novel by Lily Brett about a family of Polish Jews who migrated to Melbourne in the late 1940s.
Only In New York
NON-FICTION / ONLY IN NEW YORK
Lily Brett's love affair with New York began as an outsider in her late teens when she was posted on assignment there as a young Australian rock journalist. In her early forties she returned, together with her soul mate and three children, to start a new life, and for the last twenty-five years she has called New York home.
This witty, candid and moving collection of short pieces celebrates the city that's now part of her heartbeat.
This is a very gentle and insightful series of word sketches that bring together people, places and events past and present.
A compulsive walker, Brett takes us to her favourite places and introduces us to the characters of the city that has nurtured, perplexed
and inspired her. She brings to life the delights of Chinatown, the majesty of Grand Central Station, the warmth and humour of the sketches is very affirming: despite some shocking episodes in the past the positive aspects of humanity shine through the word pictures of New York and Melbourne. The lure of spandex and sequins in the Garment District, and the peculiarity of canine couture. And she muses on the miracle of love in the Lodz ghetto, the possibility of loneliness amidst skyscrapers, and the joy and redemption in a child's curiosity.
Full of wisdom, humour and grace, Only in New York is a human portrait of a city much loved and of a woman in step with herself.
New York is a walker’s city. You can walk for hours. The streets slip by. There is so much to look at, so much to take in. I walk a lot. Especially when I am not writing…
NON-FICTION / NEW YORK
Originally commissioned as weekly columns by the German newspaper Die Zeit, the 52 miniatures in this book describe Lily Brett's encounters, observations, challenges
and triumphs in her adopted home.
Lily Brett turns her razor-sharp gaze on the city which has entertained, inspired and perplexed her for the many years she has lived in SoHo with her husband and three children. Lily muses on the lack of single men, the effect Monica Lewinsky has had on body image, New York street conversations, celebrity hairdressers and plastic surgery all told with her characteristic wit and insight.
Trying to be American can be exhausting.
Between Mexico and Poland
NON-FICTION / BETWEEN MEXICO AND POLAND
Brett's strength in this book is her ability to move fluidly between the small and seemingly inconsequential (New York's pet health clubs, the preparation of a bulls head taco on a street-stall in Mexico, half-mimed conversations
with her Mexican housemaid) to the world-changing events of Auschwitz, September 11 and, on a personal level, the fire that destroyed her SoHo home.
Set between journeys to the places of its title, Between Mexico and Poland traces a number of emotional voyages as Lily Brett turns a brutally honest and unflinching eye on herself. In her most honest and personal book yet, she ranges from the devastation of losing her home to fire several years ago, to powerful insights into her adopted city, New York, and how it has changed forever since September 11, 2001. In the voice Brett's readers have come to rely on – self-scrutinizing, self-mocking, always hilarious – Between Mexico and Poland offers the unsparing Brett candor full-on.
“[In Mexico and Poland] Brett offers one of the most gripping of first-hand narratives of the event [September 11, 2001] and its aftermaths that has been published. Disorientation, the comforting by and of others, the renewal of love for the city and children are her themes.”
In Full View
NON-FICTION / IN FULL VIEW
Review: Sydney Morning Herald
“Love and food are two of the most important things in life, and in this funny, wise and exhilarating book Lily Brett embraces and reflects on all the other things that matter too – aging, sex, death, her body and
her delight in eventually becoming strong, her daughter, her parents who, alone in their families, survived the Holocaust, her city and her work. These are candid and deeply felt autobiographical essays in which Brett tells the 50 years of her life with all the insight, grace and humor of her poetry and novels. Brett’s great skill is to make the writing look effortless while convincing us that nothing here is easily won.”
“The day my husband called me to say he wanted to marry me, I had 16 frozen pheasants floating in the bath. I was trying to defrost them … I had 32 people coming to dinner … ‘I love you’, he said. ‘I want to marry you’. I stopped talking about the pheasants. The pheasants were not my biggest problem. I had a more pressing problem. I was married to someone else.”
The day my husband called me to say he wanted to marry me, I had 16 frozen pheasants floating in the bath.
Mud In My Tears (1997)
POETRY / MUD IN MY TEARS
Australian Book Review
“As Brett’s readers, we get soundscapes, mindscapes and feelingscapes … It is what was experienced that is important. The shortage of visuals heightens the tension.
We are drawn close to what Brett chooses to give us as people who cluster nearer to the storyteller’s candle when all else is dark.”
In Mud in My Tears, Lily explores her roles as daughter, mother, wife and friend in a family full of love but haunted by the Holocaust. In a language steeped in memories, full of vivid images and dark humor, these poems leave an enduring mark upon the reader.
a language steeped in memories, full of vivid images and dark humor, these poems leave an enduring mark upon the reader.
In Her Strapless Dresses (1994)
POETRY / IN HER STRAPLESS DRESSES
On this last birthday
the birthday that took you out
of your teenage years
I wanted to write to you
I wanted to resurrect the thread
that stitched us head to head
heart to heart
Lily Brett’s fifth collection of poetry, In Her Strapless Dresses, brings to life Carlton laneways, bicycles, family, New York and the author’s relationship with her mother.
POETRY / UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
“Unintended Consequences invites the reader to experience the return of hope, without evasions or shortcuts, as Brett has observed it over three generations.”
Lily Brett’s fourth volume of poems represents an important, self-contained development of the themes in her earlier books. Against the historical background of the Holocaust we see her emerging into the open air of the present, more skilled and sure-footed than ever, with a new wit and humor sometimes playing at the corners of her mouth. Brett’s new poems explore the intrigues of personality, here, triumphant, there, barbed or mysterious.
After The War
POETRY / AFTER THE WAR
“Her internal argument about the specialness and integrity of poetry, and her ability to write intelligibly and convincingly from sharp emotions, combined with her ability to locate both sophistication and her immediacy around a subject, are innovations”
After the War is Lily Brett’s third book of poetry, published by Melbourne University Press in 1990. Taken with her first two highly successful volumes, The Auschwitz Poems and Poland, it completes what is effectively a trilogy.
The Auschwitz Poems (1986)
POETRY / THE AUSCHWITZ POEMS
“The poems are something quite amazing … intensely wrought, artistically, yet pure and direct and real and life-size.”
Winner of the 1987 Victorian Premier’s C.J. Dennis Prize for Poetry as well as the 1987 NSW Premier’s Award for Poetry.
Lily Brett’s Auschwitz poems distil the horror that her parents survived. Quietly and simply, the poems catalog the everyday details of life on the brink of death. Their affirmation of the daily miracle that is survival gives these poems an intense and haunting power.
The poems move backwards from Auschwitz into pre-war memory, and forwards to the present. Lily Brett’s discovery of her parents’ experience is also, in the end, a poignant self-discover: for as Auschwitz has scarred its survivors for the rest of their days, so too it leaves its mark on the survivors’ children.