The ProsenPeople

Falling in Love in Cologne

Friday, October 25, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Lily Brett wrote about her beach memoriesher love for pens and pencils and why she didn't become a lawyer. Her newest book, Lola Bensky: A Novel (Counterpoint), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In a wildly unexpected and completely unpredictable turn of events, I fell madly in love, in Cologne. It was the sort of love that makes your heart pound. The sort of love that seeps into your arteries. The sort of love that leaves you smiling at nothing in particular.

It was May, 2006. I was happily married at the time, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem. My husband is a very reasonable man. And he has always believed in love.

Cologne is not the sort of city where you expect to fall head over heels in love. It is a beautiful city, but it doesn’t have the drama or the romance of a city like Paris or Havana. But, it was in Cologne that I fell in love. I fell in love with a church. A Catholic church. A church called St Agnes.

St Agnes is the second largest church in Cologne. Only the famed Cologne Cathedral is larger. St Agnes is a relatively plain church. Its beautiful but simple lines and its white, vaulted ceiling and pink-hued, stone columns give it a grandeur. Not a grandeur of superiority. St Agnes has an embracing, inclusive and very human grandness.

It is unadorned and unpretentious with a minimal amount of symbolism or decoration. It also has warmth. A warmth that is palpable. A warmth that allows your spirit to float, to soar, to question and to be challenged. A state that feels remarkably like being in love. Being headily in love. And I was.

There was, however, a problem with this love match. I am not a Catholic. I am Jewish. And it gets worse. I am an atheist. A Jewish atheist. Maybe I am not a one hundred percent, wholly committed atheist. Maybe only ninety percent of me is an atheist. Even if only ninety percent of me is an atheist, falling in love with a Catholic church is pretty problematic.

I was brought up to not believe in God. Not believing in God was like a family mantra. I was born to two people who had each survived years of imprisonment in Nazi ghettos, labor camps and death camps. My mother was seventeen when she was imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto. She had four brothers, three sisters, a mother, father, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. When it was all over, she was the only person in the universe she was related to. Every single person in her family had been murdered. My father’s mother and father and sister and three brothers were also murdered.

It took my mother and father six months to find each other after the war. They were sent to a displaced persons camp in Feldafing. I was born in Germany, one of the first group of children born to survivors of the Holocaust.

“There is no God,” my mother said, over and over again, when I was growing up. I grew up in Australia, a country of blue skies and sunshine. It didn’t seem like a place in which it was important to know that it was a God-less world. My mother said, “There is no God” at the oddest times. And always out of the blue. “There is no God”, she said when she was washing the dishes or hanging out the washing or getting dressed up to go to a bar mitzvah or birthday.

Both of my parents had come from religious homes. After the war, religion was a word they both scoffed at. My father, at 97, still rails at the mostly young, religious Jews who live near him on the Lower East Side, in New York, and who frequently ask if they can accompany him to synagogue.

And he has kept up his lack of faith in God or an afterlife. I woke up one morning worried by the sudden thought that my father, who bought himself a burial plot in Queens when he moved to New York about a decade ago, might want to be buried next to my mother in Melbourne, Australia.

“I don’t want you to spend thousands of dollars to fly me to Australia when I am dead” he said when I asked him about being buried next to my mother. He said it in the sort of severe tone he sometimes used when I was a fifteen-year-old beatnik.

“You won’t be flying business class” I said. “It won’t cost thousands.”

This temporarily derailed him. “Where in the plane would I be flying?” he said.

“Probably with the luggage,” I said. He started laughing and then resumed a monologue about being completely dead when you were dead.

“Mum won’t know if I am next to her or not” he said. “I do not believe in God and I am not going to change now” he added.

I have envied people who are religious for most of my life. As a child I wished I was a Methodist because they served apple pies and cream and jam-filled sponge cakes at their church fetes. I had not been inside many Catholic churches when I first stepped into St Agnes.

It was not love at first sight. I wasn’t instantly smitten. I was nervous. I felt out of place. And uneasy. The feeling reminded me of being a teenager on guard against any inadvertent infraction of the rules that might slip out of me in my overly-strict, highly academic high school.

I was at St Agnes to do a reading from my newest novel. I had never read in a church before. I waited in the sacristy for the audience to be seated. I felt cold. It was strange sitting in a room usually occupied by priests. There was a male aroma in the room. I felt like an intruder. Or an alien.

A few minutes later, I walked into the main body of the church and sat down to read. I looked around me. There was something timeless and uncluttered and unfettered about this beautiful church. Something deeply moving. I felt calm. And embraced. I looked at the audience. Row after row of people were smiling at me.

I went back to St Agnes the next day. And I didn’t want to leave. I was in love, I loved the church. I felt part of the church. I was not alone in this. St Agnes, which sits right in the middle of the district, has a devoted community. They have over the last ten years hosted contemporary music events, art exhibitions and book readings. Last year 300 people came to hear the writer Ulla Hahn read poems.

I have been back to St Agnes many times since that first reading. I have read there again. The church has, in their permanent collection, one of my husband’s paintings, a triptych called Passage and Crossings. It hangs in the nave. Each panel has soaring red and black lines that stretch upwards pointing to somewhere above the earth, somewhere celestial, somewhere above the minutiae of everyday life.

My relationship with St Agnes has changed my life. It has changed my view of religion and showed me how we can be deeply connected while holding different religious beliefs or no religious beliefs. I feel as though St Agnes is my church. I refer to it as my church. Or our church. This sometimes makes my ninety-seven-year-old father laugh. But there is a sense of pleasure in his laughter. I suspect it is the pleasure of possibility. All possibility.

I am still in love with St Agnes. And still in love with my husband.

Lily Brett has written six novels, three collections of essays, and seven volumes of poetry. Her work frequently explores the lives of Holocaust survivors and their children, the experiences of modern women, women’s relationship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Bensky: A Novel (Counterpoint), is now available.


Beach Memories

Thursday, October 24, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Lily Brett wrote about her love for pens and pencils and why she didn't become a lawyer. Her newest book, Lola Bensky: A Novel (Counterpoint), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It took me years to know that going to the beach had anything to do with being close to the water.

My parents only ever went to the beach when the heat became so oppressive that that staying in the small, three-room cottage we sometimes shared with another family became impossible.

My father worked double shifts in a factory and we usually set off for the beach when he came home, in the late afternoon or early evening. My mother always packed for our outings to the beach. She packed food. Usually peeled cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, cream cheese, a loaf of rye bread and oranges, with the peel already scored in quarters and, if we were lucky, some dark red cherries. She also packed two blankets and two bottles filled with tap water. I would feel giddy with excitement when I saw my mother start packing for the beach.

Going to the beach was a whole adventure. It started with a walk to the tram stop and a forty-five minute tram ride from the working class, inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia, where we lived. We boarded the tram armed with our blankets and food and drink.

I loved being on the tram. It was so predictable. You sat down, the conductor came around, you paid your fare and he handed you a brightly-colored ticket in return. It was all so normal. And so much of our life was anything but normal. Seven years earlier, both of my parents were still imprisoned in Nazi death camps. Death camps where almost everyone they loved had been murdered.

When we arrived at the beach my mother set us up in the treed, scrubby area that preceded the water. We really needed the blankets as the ground was rough and littered with twigs and broken branches. There were always other people with blankets and food already there. They were mostly Jews. The Italians and Maltese and Greeks and other migrants, who were also part of the large post-World War Two migration to Australia, must have had a different meeting place.

I felt happy as soon as I sat down on the blanket. I loved being surrounded by families. To me, it always felt like a party. It took away some of the loneliness of growing up with dead grandparents, dead aunts, and dead uncles. It took away the loneliness of growing up with cousins who would never be born.

I sat on my blanket eating hard boiled eggs and listening to the adults talking. I know there were other children sitting on other blankets. Other children who were almost all children of survivors of death camps or labor camps. But I have no memory of myself or any of the other children running around. We were, on the whole, quiet and pale. A pallor hung over us. The pallor of living too close to death.

Sometimes, a man, who sold bags of unshelled peanuts from a box which hung from a band around his neck, came around. If I was very lucky, my father would buy me a bag of peanuts. And if I was luckier than lucky, an ice-cream vendor, with small cartons of ice-cream sitting on top of a mound of ice, would turn up and my father would, despite my mother’s protests, buy me an ice-cream.

I was in heaven. I was so happy. Even my mother, whose anguish clung to her like a tight gown, looked more at ease sitting on her blanket and feeling the breeze.

Years later, I realized how close we were to the water. And, what a lot of water there was. We were at the seaside. There was water everywhere. Somehow, it didn’t feel strange that it hadn’t occurred to any one of us to go into the water or even think about swimming. We were there, on our blankets, under the trees in the middle of the dry scrub. We were there for the relief from the heat and for a small respite from the fear.

Lily Brett has written six novels, three collections of essays, and seven volumes of poetry. Her work frequently explores the lives of Holocaust survivors and their children, the experiences of modern women, women’s relationship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Bensky: A Novel (Counterpoint), is now available.

Lusting for Pens and Pencils

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lily Brett wrote about why she didn't become a lawyer. Her newest book, Lola Bensky: A Novel (Counterpoint), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I love pens and pencils. I have loved them all my life. Whenever and wherever I travel, I buy pens and pencils. I am not a pen or a pencil snob. I buy them in supermarkets and street stalls as well as every sort of stationery store. I don’t need to go to a Mont Blanc store or own a limited edition Tiffany’s pen.

To tell you the truth, I don’t need to own any more pens. I have a drawer full of pens. Ballpoint pens, roller ball pens, fountain pens. I also have a drawer full or pencils. All sorts of pencils. Short pencils, long pencils, carpenter’s pencils, charcoal pencils. I even have pencils inscribed as Dixon Beginner’s. They are black and thicker than regular pencils.

Having all these pens and pencils doesn’t prevent me from wanting more pencils and pens. I covet other people’s pencils in the same way that others might covet a friend or neighbor’s house or car or husband.

My lust for pens and pencils started when I was a child. My parents and I were refugees to Australia. My parents were a rare statistic. Two Jews who were married to each other before the war and who each survived Nazi death camps.

In Australia, we lived in one room before moving to a very small cottage. I looked at the fountain pens in a news agency, a block and a half away from our small cottage, for over two years before, one day, in a moment of great need and possible recklessness, I stole one. I wasn’t caught. I guarded that fountain pen as though it was Elizabeth Taylor’s Krupp diamond.

I have written all of my books by hand. I know exactly which pens and pencils I used for each of my books. I do the actual writing with pens. For the last few years I have used a Pilot G-2 07 retractable gel ink roller ball pen. Always with black ink. I never write in any other color. In pencil, I circle and draw arrows around whatever parts of my text I want to move or change. For my latest novel, Lola Bensky, I used emerald green Criterium pencils, made in France. I bought them in a tiny, almost hole-in-the-wall, stationery store in a small, mountain town 170 miles north of Mexico City. They were so enticing and so cheap. I bought twenty-five of them.

As soon as I pick up a pencil or a pen, a sense of calm comes over me. I feel that that pen or pencil is directly connected to my core, to my heart, my lungs, my arteries. Nothing separates us. Of course I type on a computer and an iPad and a smartphone. And I take great care with my sentences on each of those devices. Too much care - who needs to search for commas or apostrophes when you're typing with one or two fingers. And I do love keyboards. And the sounds they make. But they are not connected to me in the same way as a pen or pencil.

I was recently in Seattle. I went into a huge Rite Aid store. We don’t have supersized Rite Aid stores in my part of Manhattan. I always think I love big stores. That is until I am actually inside one. After five minutes of feeling lost and disoriented in a seemingly endless aisle, I left. I did leave with a bag of ten dark yellow, eraser-topped pencils. Paid for, of course.

Lily Brett has written six novels, three collections of essays, and seven volumes of poetry. Her work frequently explores the lives of Holocaust survivors and their children, the experiences of modern women, women’s relationship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Bensky: A Novel (Counterpoint), is now available.

Lily Brett on Interviewing Rock Stars and Not Becoming a Lawyer

Monday, October 21, 2013 | Permalink
Lily Brett has written six novels, three collections of essays, and seven volumes of poetry. Her work frequently explores the lives of Holocaust survivors and their children, the experiences of modern women, women’s relationship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Bensky (Counterpoint), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I spent five or six years of my youth interviewing rock stars. I interviewed them backstage, after concerts. I interviewed them in their homes, in recording studios and in radio and television stations. I interviewed them in London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Monterey, California.

I interviewed Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, the Who, the Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher and dozens of others.

It was the mid to late 1960’s. It all began because my father wanted me to be a lawyer. He thought that I would be better than Perry Mason, the lawyer played by Raymond Burr, who won his case, on television, every week.

It is very hard to rebel if, like me, you are the child of two people who were imprisoned in Nazi death camps and had almost everyone they loved in the universe murdered. My rebellion was unplanned. It seemed to come out of the blue. I was at a high school for gifted students, and I successfully botched any plans to become a better lawyer than Perry Mason by going to see Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, twice, instead of sitting for my final year school exams.

I’m not sure what I thought I was going to do with my life when it became obvious that I had not sat for the exams and therefore failed the year. I think I wasn’t thinking. Psycho didn’t help me to think any more clearly. It just left me terrified—it was a terrifying movie.

Eventually, after months and months of watching me riding my bicycle in circles around my parents’ small back yard in order to lose weight, my mother, much to my horror, said I would have to look for a job.

My father was bitterly disappointed when, through a stroke of massive good fortune and possibly a degree of deception, I, who didn’t know how to load a sheet of paper into a typewriter, got a job as a journalist. He thought journalism wasn’t a real job. And certainly not a profession. He was even more appalled when he realized I was working for a rock music newspaper. Australia’s first rock music newspaper.

I traveled the world at a very young age for this newspaper. I interviewed rock stars in an era when you could talk to them without today’s entourage of minders, assistants, managers and public relations people present. I interviewed Mick Jagger in his apartment, Cher borrowed my false eyelashes and Janis Joplin and I discussed difficult mothers. It was, in so many ways, a much more innocent time.

A lot of people thought I had a glamorous job. Although, let me tell you that travelling with Gene Pitney or the Troggs, whose hit at the time was "Wild Thing," and staying at boarding houses in the north of England is far removed from anyone’s notion of glamour. My father couldn’t have been less impressed or less interested in my job. For several years he harbored a small hope that I might yet end up a lawyer.

In my new novel, Lola Bensky, Lola Bensky is a nineteen-year-old rock journalist who irons her hair straight and asks a lot of questions. Mick Jagger makes her a cup of tea and Jimi Hendrix, possibly, propositions her. Lola spends her days planning diets and interviewing rock stars.

I loved being Lola Bensky. And I liked sharing initials with her. My long-term editor calls me LB. I called Lola Bensky LB in all the notes I made for the novel. It wasn’t at all confusing. I knew exactly which LB I was referring to.

Lola Bensky, which is set in 1967, is a book of fiction. But, I did, in real life, interview every one of the rock stars I wrote about in the novel. I wanted to paint as honest a portrait of the rock stars I interviewed as I could. I wanted to draw an accurate and intimate picture of this remarkable group of musicians.

When my father, who is now ninety-seven, saw the book, he was annoyed all over again. I have written sixteen books. No other book of mine has irritated him like this one. It has brought back all of his dreams of having a daughter who could stride into a courtroom brandishing her law degree, and, week after week, against all the odds, win every case.

Read more about Lily Brett here.