Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"An Attack of Hunger" ; by Maeve Brennan (1998, from Springs of Affection)

Event Resources  Everyone Is Invited to Join Us for Irish Short Story Month Year Four

Ways to Participate-do a post on your blog and let me know about it-I will keep a master list and I will publicize your post and blog.

If you are an Irish author and would like to be featured, please contact me.   There are several options open.

If you would like to do a guest post on my blog on anything related to Irish short stories, contact me.

Maeve Brennan 

I first encountered  the work of Maeve Brennan during Irish Short Story Month I in 2011 when I listened to a wonderful podcast of of the story on the webpage of The New Yorker in which Roddy Doyle reads the story.   During Irish Short Story Month Year II in 2012 I posted on a truly wonderful cat story, set in her adopted home town of New York City, "Bianca, I Can See You".

Maeve Brennan's life should have been a perfect fairy tale of happiness.   There is a fey beauty in her face but I also see fear and a dark hunger.   

Brennan's father was the first Irish Ambassador to the United States.   Her father fought for freedom from British rule in  the Irish War for Independence.     The British imprisoned him for a while.    Brennan and her family lived in Washington DC until 1944 when her father returned to Ireland.   She stayed on in the US and moved to New York City where she got a job writing copy for Harper's Bazaar.   She also wrote a society column for an Irish publication.     She began to write occasional articles for The New Yorker.    In 1949 she was offered a job on the staff of the magazine.   She was incredibly beautiful, very intelligent, witty, petite, always perfectly dressed and made up.   She moved about frequently and had extravagant tastes.    Some people feel she was the inspiration for Holly Golightly, the lead character in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958).   In the 1960s people began to observe that she was now beginning to appear unkempt.    In the 1970s Brennan became paranoid and was an alcoholic.    She began to drift in and out of reality and was hospitalized   several times.    She ended up living either in transit hotels or in the ladies room at the offices of The New Yorker.   (I also read William Maxwell's introduction to one of her collections of short stories published posthumously and learned that to its great credit the magazine had secured for her a place where she could stay and be fed but she rarely went there.)    In  the 1980s she all but disappears.   She died in 1993 in the Lawrence hospital, a  ward of the state.    As I read this I could not help but be reminded of Jean Rhys but I think the story of Brennan is more tragic in that Rhys partially recovered from her years of darkness and was seen as a great writer while still alive. 

I really love the stories by Brennan I have had the great pleasure of reading.  Her own story is heartbreaking.  

"An Attack of Hunger" is pure unrelieved sadness.  It reminded me of Patrick Kavanagh's deeply beautiful poem "The Great Hunger".  One of the things I have seen in the Irish literary works I have read is a sense of a deeply pervasive sadness somehow caused by pervasive emotional restraint.  You can see this in stories from the masters like Joyce and John McGrath down to works published this year.  There is a hunger for love, a human connection that Irish culture seems to make it very hard to achieve.  
Expressing of emotion is often seen as weakness and happens only in extreme moments.  

I spoke last year about the idea that one of the pervasive themes of Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father.   In my 75 Q and A sessions I asked everyone about this issue.  The responses ranged from yes it is one of the dominant themes to no not at all.  Sometimes, maybe often in the Irish short story, a father can be physically present but emotionally absent.  

"An Attack of Hunger" deals directly with issues related to the Irish father and the emotional constraints in the Irish family.  I will advise readers this is as a terribly moving sad story.   As you read it, I think your perceptions will expand.  One begins to wonder if behind the supposed weak or missing father, is a smothering mother who somehow uses her son as the total object of her affections.  In the process she ends up perpetuating a cycle of weakness.  She pushes her husband away and in so doing reduces his own sense of manhood and fatherhood. 

There are only two on stage persons in this story, a married couple.  They have only one child.   He has left the home to be a priest.  The marriage has evolved into a cold near emotionally voided marriage.  The man gives the woman her household money every Friday.  She runs the house from a sense of duty.  All of her thoughts are on her son, John.  She recalls how the two of them, in her mind, were somehow united against the coldness of the father.  She still cannot believe he abandoned her to go in the priesthood.  She feels totally alone.  Everyday is the same.  Then there is a terrible fight in which she walks out.  I do not want to tell more of the plot as I hope you will read it.  At the close you may find yourself unsure what to think of the situation.  It is not as simple as we might have thought.  

The ending is just so moving, so sad in its projection of years of pain and emptiness.  

I read this story in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story edited  by Anne Enright.

Please share your experience with Maeve Brennan with us.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is wonderful, Mel. I love Maeve Brennan, and yes - her own story is heartbreaking.