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Lily Brett was only 2 when she had her first taste of Paris. It was 1948 and she was with her parents – both survivors of the Holocaust – who were desperate to sample a few months of normality after years of death and horror. They were on a circuitous route to a new life in Melbourne.
Today Brett is back in Paris – not, though, for the first time – where on Tuesday she became the first Australian and only the fourth woman to win the Prix Medicis Etranger for her most recent novel, Lola Bensky. The prize is given to an author of a work that has been translated into French from another language and previous winners include Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, Dave Eggers and Orhan Pamuk.
Brett has a photograph taken of herself on a carousel during that early stay in Paris. She is dressed in a white rabbit fur coat: “My father had wheeled and dealed on the black market in Germany because we were displaced persons to buy me that coat. I haven’t looked at the photo for a very long time and I thought to myself I looked overjoyed.”

She is certainly overjoyed to win the prize. “I was ecstatic to be on the shortlist. One of the wonderful things for me is that it’s coming on the heels of Richard Flanagan winning the Booker. I have often thought there’s something about growing up in Australia and being educated in Australia that gives you room to think. And learn to have an imagination.”
But the prize differs from the £50,000 ($92,000) Booker in that it has no financial reward attached. “What you get,” Brett says, “is honour. It is probably one of the only major literary prizes that doesn’t come with a huge wad of cash. But the French are all about honour.”
Brett says Lola Bensky, which like her earlier novel, Too Many Men, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, is the closest of her six novels to her own life.
Lola Bensky by Lily Brett.
Lola Bensky by Lily Brett.
It tells the story of the eponymous heroine who lands a job as a journalist on a rock magazine in the late ’60s and interviews musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, all of whom are destined for early death. Lola keeps list about them, and also of her own dead relatives. As she grows older and experiences more of what life has to offer she discovers another sort of writing talent.
Brett worked for Australia’s first pop-music paper, Go-Set, and “in the book I wanted to bring in my parents’ past and its aftermath and put it in the context of what it was for me when I was young”.
She got the job by walking into the office one day and asking. “Neither of the two editors asked me if I could write. I might well have said I didn’t know if they asked. To this day one of them says they hired me because they could see how clever I was, but they hired me because I had a car – and they needed a car.”
But working for Go-Set revealed two things to Brett: the importance of language and her love of words. “That job, it changed my life entirely. I have a book out now, Only in New York, it’s my 16th or 17th but I’m not sure I would have done any of them if I hadn’t got that job on Go-Set.”
The shadow of the Holocaust hangs over all Brett’s writing. “I was lucky to grow up in Australia, which had no anti-Semitism. Here in France and a lot of Europe there’s a very unnerving rise in it.”
Brett has lived in New York for 25 years with her husband, painter David Rankin. Her father lives there too. Father characters frequent all her books and they all have parts of Max Brett in them. “None of them are him, but the really strange part is that he is convinced that he has done some of the things that I have written about. I say ‘Dad, I made that up’ and he says, ‘you can tell other people that but not me’. And we haven’t done it.”

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