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".
Born Dublin, 1917, died New York City, 1993
Maeve Brennan's life should have been a perfect fairy tale of happiness. There is a fey beauty in her face but I also sense 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 Sorings of Affection” is regarded by all as Maeve Brennan’s best work, Alice Munro loved it. This is the sixth of her stories to be featured during an
ISSM. Among Brennan’s favourite works of short fiction were The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Turgenev’s The Sportsman’s Notebook, any anything by Colette (I am drawing on an essay by William Maxwell who for twenty years was her editor at The New Yorker.) She had a photograph of Colette, from her older years, on the wall at the New Yorker office.
This magnificent story brought to my mind an equally magnificent classic Irish poem, “The Great Hunger” by Patrick Kavanagh for its focus on the emotional emptiness at the heart of many Irish lives, a hunger for a connection to others. In fact in both of the stories from Dubliners I featured this month as well as the very contemporary stories by Brian Kirk and Steve Wade, Dublin writers, develop this theme.
“The Springs of Affection” is a very sad story, heartbreaking for the cruelty of the people in the story to each other. The story is told by an eighty year old woman, for the last six years she has been living with and taking care of her twin brother. He has just passed and she feels relieved of a duty she resented and free to return to her own home. Growing up she lived with her brother, her two younger sisters and their parents. She thinks back to the day her brother, in action she never forgave, ruined everyone’s future by getting married. She sees his transferring his love from the family to his wife, an outsider as a deep betrayal.
“My mother was never the same after Martin married, she thought, and it was then, too, that Clare and Polly became restless and hard to get along with, and stopped joining in the conversation we always had about the family fortunes and talked instead about what they were going to do with their own lives. Their lives-and what about sticking together gether as a family, as we had been brought up to do? They got very selfish all of a sudden, and the house seemed very empty, as though Martin had died.”
We go back into her life when she was growing up. Her father cannot read or write. His wife gives him no love or respect. In a segment just so briiliant and sad the father acquires the money to buy some piglets. He soon finds in these pigs more love than from his family, he loves feeding them and is so gratified when they recognize him. One morning he walks in and slams some money on the table, telling his wife, “Here is your blood money”. He sent the pigs to the butcher. After that the father begins to wander. Once the brother marries, the other two sisters marry Protestants, not Catholics.
There is so much in this story.
Please share your experience with Maeve Brennan with us