Wednesday 22 November 2017

Irish literary heavyweight that time forgot

Fiction: The Springs of Affection Maeve Brennan, Republished by The Stinging Fly, pbk, 349 pages, €15

Lost in time: Maeve Brennan, while working for Harper’s Bazaar, looking through a shop window. Photo: Nina Leen/Getty
Lost in time: Maeve Brennan, while working for Harper’s Bazaar, looking through a shop window. Photo: Nina Leen/Getty
The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan.

Sophie Gorman

Maeve Brennan's collection of short stories are a lesson in saying so much with so little flourish, writes Sophie Gorman.

How easy it is to write off a life in a single sentence - and how wrong? A drunk, a derelict, a madwoman. Or what about an intellectual, a literary heavyweight, a dramatic beauty, a feminist icon? All of these have been used to describe Maeve Brennan. But none of them are sufficient to paint even an outline sketch of this intricate fascinating writer, forgotten for far too long.

Who was Maeve Brennan? She was born in Dublin on January 6, 1917, in a house on Eccles Street on the city's northside, the same street James Joyce made home to Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. And the Joyce connection is strong as this short story collection by Brennan has been compared to his Dubliners in how it chronicles the insider view of Dublin life.

She grew up, though, in the leafier suburb of Ranelagh on the southside, a house and a neighbourhood that features prominently in these stories. Her father, Robert Brennan, considered himself something of a writer, which contributed to a complicated relationship with his much more successful literary daughter.

Robert had strong political allegiances to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and had been involved in the Rising. His wife Una was also a staunch activist and herself one of the first female members of the IRB. During Maeve's childhood, their Ranelagh home was often raided by Free Staters searching for her father. And Maeve used this turbulent household as the setting for many of her stories.

A crucial moment in the family's life, and Maeve's in particular, was in 1934 when Robert was appointed the Irish Free State's first minister to the United States, bringing the whole family to live in Washington.

Her parents and two sisters returned to Ireland after WWII, but Maeve decided not only to stay in America but to move to New York, where she largely remained until her death in 1993. Over those 50 or so years, she went from being an elegant and beautiful columnist in The New Yorker - an independent woman in a dogged man's world - to falling between the cracks, never knowing where she belonged and becoming quite obliterated from the literary memory.

She was appointed to the staff of The New Yorker at the age of 32, where Brennan was quickly recognised as a writer with great observational skill. She put this ability to good use in her Long-Winded Lady column in the magazine. Interestingly, her alias is somewhat contradictory as her ever eccentric observations on city life in her adopted home of New York were not the most loquacious. She has always had a distinctive clarity to her writing.

In her hands, a small unexceptional moment takes on more profound meaning. The exchange between an aged man arriving weekly to sell apples to her mother, who is buying them at first out of pity and then out of resentment, becomes an examination of the complexities of our responses to social interactions. Brennan reveals how we can begrudge ourselves our own reactions.

This apple seller story, 'The Old Man of the Sea', features in The Springs of Affection, a posthumous collection of 21 of her short stories. It was first published in 1997, four years after Brennan's death.

Almost all of the stories were originally published in The New Yorker. These stories involve her own family and are very strongly an autobiographical memoir. They also involve two other families, the Derdons and the Bagots. Fact and fiction are often intertwined and impossible to separate.

For all that Brennan was described as dour and sharp, there is much love at the heart of these stories - love in new romance that gradually evaporates, love that is the foundation stone for normal family life, love that is simply there without ever being acknowledged.

The stories themselves often appear quite incidental, dealing with the small and personal, rather than the epic. Some of the tales are very short, others contain entire lives. There are stories of growing up in Ranelagh, of the neighbours, the tennis club nearby, of being a young girl, of wanting to be the centre of attention, of desperately wanting some sign of affection and acceptance.

They describe a Dublin and a people from a bygone age but are themselves quite timeless in their purity and quietness. Brennan is careful about her writing, intentionally understated, all explosions are internalised and forcibly contained.

This important collection of stories has now been republished by The Stinging Fly Press, with an intuitive, honest and personal introduction by Anne Enright.

As Enright profoundly describes: "Each one of Brennan's stories is a victory over sameness and the loss of meaning: she makes a bid for her sanity, one sentence at a time."

And the title story is one of the best of them. So much is said with so little flourish. In it, the central character Min Bagot was the only member of her family not to get married. "She had never wanted to assert herself like that, never needed to."

Min has survived them all, she almost gloats how her self-control has helped her to outlast them.

The last to go was Min's 87-year-old twin brother Martin - he had survived his wife Delia by six years, a wife Min never could understand him marrying.

She remembers Martin's wedding day 50 years earlier. How it was the beginning of the end. How her sister Polly "always seemed to be listening in time to turn your words against you".

We gradually realise how Min was trapped, her own life never fully began, a complicated mixture of having an elevated sense of her own self and being stuck without real ambition. Now she is utterly alone and it is as if, finally, she can begin to live just as her life is almost over.

Brennan's own fate was even more tragic - she died after being lost for so long, never finally achieving that moment of acceptance.

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