Gateway to Maeve Brennan on The Reading Life
January 6, 1917. - Dublin
November 1, 1993. New York City
“A feuilleton is best described by what it isn't. It isn't news. It isn't the metro report. The opposite of an editorial, a feuilleton is descriptive, philosophical, meandering and poetically inclined. Though the word is French, the form reached its apogee in fin-de-siècle Vienna. An early master, Alfred Polgar, said, ''Life is too short for literature, too transitory for lingering description . . . too psychopathic for psychology, too fictitious for novels.'” Jeffrey Eugenides
Maeve Brennan's life should have been a fairy tale of one happy and exciting day followed by another. It was not.
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 Long Winded Lady - Notes from The New Yorker is composed of the contents of her 1969 collection of that name plus ten additional works added for the posthumous 1998 edition.
To call them essays seems somehow inappropriate. Using a word i learned in a café in Vienna in early 1930s, i think they should be described as feuilletons. Joseph Roth, who would have fallen for Brennan, is a master of this art. Maybe the days when such pieces can be published in mass journalism is over.
My main and nearly my only reason for this post is I want Maeve Brennan on The Reading Life, in these dark ignorance worshipping times.
I decided to begin my exploration of collection with a piece entitled “Balzac’s Favourite Food”. I have been working my way his La Comédie Humaine so this seem a natural starting place. It is about a visit to a book store, in the days when book sellers loved books. Brennan’s elegante prose is just a joy:
“The afternoon was a slow one, and the city was amiable and groggy —no complaints that I could hear. Such a siesta mood is remarkable in New York City and, in the very middle of the city, strange. It was a mysterious occasion and a lighthearted one, as though all the citizens had just been given their seasonal allotment of time and had found that they had enough and to spare —plenty of time, more than they ever would have imagined. In the bookshop, all was calm. You might have been far away, in some much older city, browsing alongside the antiquarians. The pace was intent and unhurried as the customers meandered among the works of Henry James and Rex Stout and Françoise Mallet-Joris and Ivan Turgenev and Agatha Christie and the rest, more and more names turning up in front of my eyes as I stood looking. I had already collected all I intended to buy —five books under my arm —and I was looking through another book, one I cannot remember the name of, and I was reading a description of Balzac’s favorite food. What he liked best was plain bread covered with sardines that he had mashed into a paste and mixed with something. What was it Balzac mixed into his sardine paste? I was just looking back to find out, reading it all again and thinking how delicious it sounded, when my ears were insulted by hard voices screeching right outside the door —people making remarks about the books in the window. “Hey, Marilyn Monroe has been reduced!” a man’s voice shouted. “Five seventy-five to one ninety-two!”
The Long Winded Lady is available as a Kindle for $1.95