A couple of weeks ago, as part of my research for my novel, I spent a few hours in the beautiful old Mitchell library in Sydney reading through old copies of two seminal magazines from the 1960s – one, called Everybody’s was published in Sydney, and the other, called Go-Set, in Melbourne. I was trying to soak up a feel for that period via the faded pages, hoping to imprint the colours, habits and interests into my brain so that I can at least have some chance of representing how it was to live in the mid-sixties in Australia.
I was therefore very keen to read Lilly Brett’s new Miles Franklin long-listed novel, Lola Bensky, about a rock journalist from Melbourne, based on Brett’s own experiences writing for Go-Set in the 60s. And what a wonderful book this is and I can’t believe I haven’t read Lilly Brett until now, though there’s something vaguely familiar about her.
The story follows Lola as she travels to London, New York and LA for the Monterey pop festival in 1967, interviewing rock stars for Rock Out, a Melbourne pop magazine. Its hard not to wonder where the distinction between fiction and memoir lies with this book. Lola meets Mick Jagger, Jimmy Hendrix, Pete Townsend, Mamma Cass, Brian Jones, Cher and Jim Morrison, among others. What is hard to comprehend in this day and age is the access she had, unrestricted by minders and PR people and I guess we have to assume that’s what it was really like.
But the story isn’t really about the rock stars, its about Lola’s experience (and Brett’s own) as a child of parents who survived the Holocaust, the only members of their families to do so. It hangs like a big black cloud over every interview Lola does and indeed everything aspect of her life, chiefly her weight. Lola spends most of her time planning diets and working out how to lose weight, and we learn early on that her mother Renia despises Lola’s fat because she thinks no-one should be fat after what she saw people endure in death camps during the war.
Lola’s memories of the things Renia has told her about the camps, Renia’s attitudes to life, and her gross unhappiness are heart-breaking. Lola’s father has a different way of dealing with his Holocaust experience, and in the end finds happiness, as does Lola herself. The book flips briefly to Melbourne when Lola is 40 and dealing with her psychological demons manifested as panic attacks, and also to Lola at 50 in New York as a successful author, and then again at 60, where the story ends.
There are two things about this book that I think are particularly strong, and deserving of the Miles longlisting and both of them relate to the characterisation of Lola. She’s really a gawky, naive and self-conscious young girl who disarms everyone she meets with her honesty and genuineness. And this provides the humour of the story, which contrasts so well with the deeply disturbing impact her parent’s experience has on her life. She discusses hair curlers with Jimmy Hendrix and lends Cher her false eyelashes and then doesn’t have the courage to ask for them back. One of my favourite scenes is her conversation with Janis Joplin at the Monterey pop festival, revealing a well of hurt and self-hatred in Janis that must have affected her performance as an artist. As Lola points out at the end of the story, many of the people she interviewed were now dead, lots of them part of the infamous 27 club. I do wonder how she was able to talk about real people who are still alive, such as Mick Jagger, who she is complementary towards, and Pete Townsend, who she definitely isn’t, without the risk of being sued. Maybe all the conversations with them are real then. I also enjoyed reading about Lillian Roxon, a rock journalist from Sydney, who Lola meets in New York. I read Robert Milliken’s biography of Lillian Roxon last year and enjoyed it enormously, and it tallies really well with the characterisation of her in this story.
The second thing about the book is the absolutely consistent characterisation of Lola and her gawkiness, which doesn’t waver for even one single word. It makes me wonder how close to Brett’s own personality she is, because Lola as a character is rendered with such unwavering coherence. Or maybe she just a superb character writer. Yet again, I’ve noticed the constant repetitiveness of character and its making me think long and hard about this in my own writing. You just have to know characters so well to achieve this consistency.
But one thing that interests me about Brett’s writing is that she appears to break one of the golden rules amateur writers have drilled into them over and over – she ‘shows’ a lot, rather than ‘telling’. We don’t always get to experience Lola’s psychological scars as action but often get told them. There’s whole sections where she talks about how Lola is feeling, what her internal dialogue is and yet, the book doesn’t seem to suffer for it. I guess those rules are made to be broken.
We now know that Lola Bensky didn’t win the Miles Franklin but it surely deserves its place on the longlist.