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, July 15, 2015

"The Holy Terror" - Maeve Brennan's First Short Story (1950) - The Reading Life Maeve Brennan Project Commences

I offer my great thanks to Max u for providing me with a gift card that made this project possible. 

There are numerous ways to approach the incredibly vast short story universe.  One way is to read kind of at random and I have done some of that.  Another way is to pick out a writer whose short stories interest you and read extensively.  I have in the last few years read the complete short stories of Katherine Mansfield (in the published corpus), Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bowen, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O'Connor.  Most recently I read and was blown away by the forthcoming collection of the complete short stories of Clarice Lispector.  In order to commence a short story project I need to have as my reading source an E Book.  I have begun to reread Katherine Mansfield.  There is no time limit on a project and my interest in these writers is permanent.  

Today I decided to commence Ths Reading Life Maeve Brennan Project.  Her published body of work, most of her stories and articles first appeared in The New Yorker, is under a 1000 pages so I hope to read her in full.  The Rose Garden is a posthumous collection that includes stories set in her birth country Ireland and stories placed in New York City.

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 great 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. 

"The Holy Terror", 1950, is her first published short story.  I loved it and I bet the readers of The New Yorker who were the initial readers did too.   The central character is Mary Ramsey.  Mary is the attendent in the ladies' rest room at the Royal Hotel in Dublin.  She was acerbic and sharp tounged which made her an "Irish character" to the American guests.  She has been in her job for more than twenty five years.  She was the queen of her realm, terrorizing the rest of the staff.  Unlike most staff, she had a small room and got free food.  But nothing last forever and the new assistant manager, the very chic Miss Williams decides Mary needs to share the restroom, and the decent tips, with a new employee.  Needless to say Mary is not happy.  She goes to the manager to complain and ends up telling him about all the bad things the other employees do, from stealing to sex with guests.  Plus she falsely tells the manager Miss Williams bad mouths him at every opportunity, wanting to take his position.  I won't tell more of this beautifully rendered story.

Brennan brought Mary Ramsey and the world of the Royal Dublin Ladies' Room totally to life for me.

Please share your favorite Maeve Brennan stories with us.  

Mel u

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