In her introduction to The Springs of Affection, Anne Enright talks of searching the text “for some hint or indication of future madness”.
Like so many women writers, Maeve Brennan’s life ended in insanity and obscurity, and like so many of her sex, the posthumous interest in her work is inwrought with her appearance, her love interests and what she might represent for the rest of womankind. Despite her deliberate refusal to engage in “the bog and thunder” that was “foisted abroad” by so many of her contemporaries, her ethnicity is also a focal point of the Brennan revival.
This reissue by The Stinging Fly Press is no exception. The emerald-tinted cover splices together two images: the rainy Dublin streets, and the glamorous Brennan posing for the camera.
Beautiful, witty and self-destructive, Brennan could have been the inspiration for Capote’s Holly Golightly. In her fiction though, there is no superficial charm or kookiness, only complete integrity.
She writes of the ease with which life can be eaten up – love devoured by bitterness or cauterized by grief – and the terrible distance and loneliness that can open up between one person and the rest of the world. These are themes that resonate all too painfully with her own life story. Her end as a half-homeless paranoiac is chillingly foreshadowed by the incarcerated mad and mystical beggars who haunt the peripheries of her stories.
Brennan’s life is fascinating, and it is in no way regrettable if Angela Bourke’s great 2004 biography, Maeve Brennan: Homesick at the New Yorker, has brought her to more readers, but too much focus on the author’s life threatens to blot the most important reason to read this collection– her literary brilliance.
What Lies Beneath
Usually there is a passage that can be quoted to do justice to an author, but Brennan’s work is so much about the whole – the way that one thing resonates with another, the timing of a look, the line that casts new meaning back over the story – that no single passage can touch on the sheer wonder of these stories.
This collection enters the world of 1930s Ranelagh, and explores the ordinariness, the dullness, and the stasis of life there. Brennan’s prose is simple and exacting. Like someone scratching steadily at a dull, tarnished surface, she reveals without ceremony bright glints of what lies beneath. Suddenly the reader is confronted with the terror of isolation that comes with being human:
the room now seemed mysterious to him the way an empty house will suddenly seem mysterious and even frightening to children who never noticed it when it was occupied, and the way a bird’s nest lying empty on the ground after a summer storm will crowd the mind with thoughts that have nothing to do with wings and food and warmth and song: thoughts of vacancy, and thoughts of winter, and of winds that are too violent and nights that are too dark, and thoughts of stony solitude, endured in silence, and of landscapes that are too cold and flat and where no one cares to walk. The little nest, cast to the ground, contains an emptiness that is too big for us to understand.
A Character to Speak of
At first I was confused by Enright’s introductory assertion that Brennan’s characters have “very little ‘character’ to speak of”. Reading this collection, I was struck more than anything by how painfully real Brennan’s characters are.
But perhaps Enright is pointing out that Brennan’s focus is not on the witty or charming characters that might dance for us. Her subjects are feeble and timid souls, people with crushed spirits, whose worlds are demarked by material things – walls and carpets and the tree in the back garden – and whose lives are composed of ordinary, small events, characters who leave hardly a trace of themselves behind when they die.
The two strongest characters in this collection are also the weakest, the chronically “indefinite” Rose, and the heartbroken Delia, each caged into her home, begging for scraps of love from her husband and pouring all of herself into her children. “There was nothing to Delia,” says her widower.
It is this indefiniteness, this failure to articulate the self, to know a self, that Brennan portrays with utter clarity.
Rose’s husband wonders how he can mourn her, “when there was hardly anything he could remember about her apart from the obvious fact that she had been gentle, quiet, uncomplaining . . . He began to believe that she had been invisible.”
Through Brennan’s stories we see back through the lives of Delia and Rose, and into what is vibrant, kind, and strong in them. It is only through Brennan’s pen that we can enter this inner world; it is only the reader who will ever see it. To the characters around them, these women have nothing to them, and no character to speak of.
Delia Bagot may have been underloved, undermined and entirely at the mercy of her husband:
Martin had warned her often enough about thinking . . . What he had really told her was that she must stop forcing herself, stop trying to think, because her intelligence was not high and she must not put too much strain on it or she would make herself unhappy. “I don’t want you to make yourself unhappy,” he had said, and she remembered the nice tone his voice used to have when he spoke to her.
But the reader knows there was plenty “to Delia” – deep maternal love, grief, despair, compassion, and resilience. She is perfectly aware that “a woman should have a life of her own”, but there seems no way for her to have such a thing.
There are obvious feminist readings to be made – but the men in these stories are as pitiable as the women, and as bereft. It is not just patriarchy that renders them thus, but their own family histories, little disappointments and unfortunate events of nature.
A Strange Arrangement
This collection was edited after Brennan’s death and the first section sits slightly awkwardly with the rest. Really, it could be three separate books. It reads like one short collection of first-person memoirs, followed by two almost-novellas – two sets of stories, one about the Derdons, and the other about the Bagots.
Individually, these family stories are dynamite, but collected into sets like this they become more than the sum of their parts. This is partly due to their wonderful arrangement – they are not chronological but beautiful organised so that the right knowledge shadows our reading and resonates back through the collection.
These family stories are breathtaking. Compassionate and ruthlessly insightful, Brennan’s prose hops fluidly from character to character and uncovers the terrible spaces between. There is an ease about Brennan’s writing that seems to bypass all awareness of mechanics or craft, delivering the stories with rare immediacy.
The memoirs are wonderfully written – sparse, focussed, and unshowy, but rich with all the complexity of childhood, family ties and the tiny moments that change everything.
What makes Brennan’s stories so vivid is her incredible ability to create a stunning cameo in a quick phrase. When Delia’s baby dies she is tended by “a small, red-faced, grey-haired woman who enjoyed the illusion that life had nothing to teach her”.
While their husbands may be utterly at a loss as to how they might wring any meaning out of life, Rose and Delia have the insight to give form to experience. When the bishop visits, Delia sees:
that his blue eyes were vague and distant, as though they had seen enough and could accept no more impressions, and were no longer inclined to make an effort to separate faces he had seen before from the faces of strangers. He put his sticks together and held out his hand to Mrs Bagot with a humble and ministering forgiveness that was too calm to hold pity and too proud to hold reproach.
Looking at a beggar, Rose thinks how his:
eyes, blue, seemed weary enough to die, but still the poor natural mouth, obedient to its end, a mouth so lonely it appeared to have no tongue, opened itself to her in a thin, bashful smile of recognition and supplication. Never mind, never mind, never mind, no blame to you nor to me nor to anybody, the mouth said, only fill me.
Brennan also has a rare gift for writing children – both from their perspective and out of it, she captures the amoral joy, need and energy perfectly, as well as the helpless love within which they hold their mothers.
Without a Whisper
Brennan writes about the search for meaning that characterises human experience, which is the focus of so much literature – the driving force, perhaps, behind the very act of storytelling. She roots it in such specific and real characters, however, that it is never for a moment heard-it-before boring:
He had always felt uneasily that there was something people knew, something everybody knew and took for granted, but that he did not know. He had sometimes hoped that he might come across this bit of common knowledge, by luck, as he might come upon a touchstone that would guide him to the secret whose existence he felt, the secret that others had and that remained close to him. What he had thought out loud in his mind always was, “There must be more than this to life, there must be more to life than this.” Oh, indeed, indeed, yes, there must be more than this to it all, he used to think, and then, at such incredulous moments, he used to look into the faces of the people who passed him in the street and try to read in their faces what he was sure they must know that kept them going every day, because it was not everybody that had his strength, and it was not everybody— there was hardly anybody who could have the fortitude to keep on going day in day out in the bewilderment in which he himself lived . . .
What Brennan does in writing about characters who have no character, and the humanity that is in them, is as daring as Joyce writing about stasis, or indeed as any of the great modern works. What defines Brennan’s work, however, is a total lack of pretension – there are no writerly proclamations, there is no posturing – she breaks the mould with a whisper.
Brennan was not on the curriculum for Irish schools when I was growing up. Where we could have been reading her “The Lie”, we read O’Connor’s “First Confession”.
Although she was, for many years, a successful columnist for the New Yorker, her books were mostly out of print and unread until the late 90s. It was not until Enright included her deeply moving “An Attack of Hunger” in the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story that I am aware of ever having read her work at all.
It is difficult not to think of the author’s own fate, when the dance between hope and hopelessness, the fear of obscurity and wasted life, runs so deep in the heart of this collection.
The Springs of Affection was introduced by William Maxwell in 1997, five years after Brennan’s death. Her novella The Visitor, written in the 1940s, was published for the first time in 2000, to some acclaim. After reading this collection, I am hell-bent on finding a copy of The Visitor.
Brennan is a rare wonder, and it is only a pity that her work did not take its place sooner among the great Irish writers of the twentieth century.