NEW YORK (Jul. 12)
On the second page of Lily Brett’s compelling new novel, “You Gotta Have Balls” (easy, the reference is to a meatball recipe), a friend tells the story’s protagonist, Ruth Rothwax, that she’s got to stop obsessing about the Holocaust. Never mind that Ruth, like Brett, is the child of Holocaust survivors.
“Grow up,” Sonia almost shouted. “So, your mother and father were in Auschwitz. My mother was in Theresienstadt and I can eat fried brains, stewed kidneys, diced liver and assorted legs, heads, necks and feet. You can’t be fixated about the Holocaust.”
“I’m not fixated,” Ruth said quietly.
It’s an unusual scene for fiction, particularly Jewish fiction, to call into question someone’s concern
about the Holocaust, especially when the writer and the character being chastised are survivors’ children. And it may seem especially notable coming from the pen of an author like Brett, whose parents were imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto and, later, at Auschwitz; who was born in Germany in 1946 and left Europe as a displaced child; and who has devoted much of her writing to examining the Holocaust’s dark shadow.
Even so, the slim, attractive Brett told JTA in an interview in advance of the book’s June 27 release, it’s a sentiment that exists in the real world.
“I think it’s actually quite a common thing,” she says. “It’s certainly not what I believe, but I think it’s a sentiment that’s voiced.”
And as such, it merits mention, lest recollections of the Holocaust descend into cliche. Another area where this becomes a danger, Brett says, is the sometimes-reductive depiction of Holocaust survivors.
“We’ve fallen into a world of cliches,” she says. “It’s all too easy for people to think of survivors as the poor, skinny, skeletal things.”
Similarly, Brett says, the depiction of Nazis as monsters is dangerous caricature.
“One of the things that’s been very important to me to have people understand is that they were not monsters, they were human beings just like you and just like me,” she says.
And so the body of her work represents, in part, an effort to combat these cliches, to fill out these narrow portraits — and to come to grips with what members of her family experienced during the Holocaust.
“I felt such a compulsion to understand what happened to my mother and my father,” she says.
Although the presence of World War II is less overt in this book than in some of her others, its menacing shadow lurks nevertheless in the psychological reverberations a generation later.
“I could write a book about a cross-country trip in America, but I’m not remotely interested,” Brett says.
Which isn’t to say her books aren’t entertaining. And Brett’s latest offering is no exception. With a keen ear for dialogue and a well-trained eye for the telling detail, “You Gotta Have Balls” is funny — sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.
“It gives me enormous pleasure to make people laugh,” says Brett, an amiable woman with a mellifluous voice who got her start in writing doing interviews of rock-and-roll legends like Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.
The book tells the story of Ruth Rothwax, a neurotic, middle-aged New Yorker who runs a letter-writing business that is segueing into a greeting card line. When her aging survivor-father, Edek — who spends a lot of time pestering her at the office — begins seeing more and more of a much younger, very buxom Polish immigrant who aspires to open a meatball restaurant on the Lower East Side — with a loan from Ruth — her equilibrium is disturbed. In the end, it is about squeezing the most out of life even when the pain of past survives into the present.
Beyond the pleasure of cracking people up, Brett says, growing up in a house “that I felt was full of dead people,” made humor become a necessity.
“I think having a sense of humor has been my saving grace,” she says. “If you can laugh, the world is OK.”
But it’s one thing to be funny in your home, another to be funny in your books — especially when they’re Holocaust novels. Brett says that when her work first came out in Germany, “it bothered a lot of people.” Over there, she says, the notion of writing a funny Holocaust novel was taboo.
“I’ve met a lot of readers who almost found it illicit that they were laughing,” she says.
But Germans, she says, acutely aware of the dangers inherent in bigotry and hatred, have come around — and she’s since done seven successful book tours in Germany.
“They kill themselves laughing when I write anything funny,” Brett says. “They miss that.” When the Nazis killed the Jews, she adds, they “killed humor there.”
Brett — whose other books include “Too Many Men” and “Auschwitz Poems” — says the tours have profoundly effected her as well.
“It has totally changed my life,” she says. “I found that there are the most striking parallels between the children of the victims and the children of the perpetrators.”
Both groups, she says, lived with “unanswered and unanswerable questions, suffered enormous guilt,” she says.
Brett, an Australian who has lived in New York for nearly 17 years, has found her largest audiences in Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
In 2001, her father joined her on a book tour in Austria. For the first two or three days, whenever he heard German being spoken in the street, Brett recalls, he would press himself up against a shop front.
“In the camps you had to appear invisible whenever you heard German,” she says.
But he was very moved by the large audiences that turned up for his daughter’s readings, says Brett, who is married to the Australian painter David Rankin and has three children.
“My parents were voiceless and I understood early on the power of language and the power of words.”
Reading to European audiences, Brett says, she appreciates “the privilege of having a voice.”