Posts Tagged ‘Maeve Brennan’

It was the reviews of other bloggers that first pointed me in the direction of Maeve Brennan, and I read her slim novella The Visitor for reading Ireland month last year. Luckily for me Jacqui from Jacquiwine’s journal found she had two copies of The Springs of Affection and sent me her spare. A large collection of short stories – possibly one of the best collections I have read. It is a fairly large format paperback – and over 350 pages, which feels long for a story collection, however it certainly isn’t too long, it is simply glorious.

The stories gathered here are the very best from one of The New Yorker’s most celebrated writers. All but three of the stories in this collection were first published in The New Yorker between 1954 and 1981. Divided into three sections, this collection explores three different Dublin families. Here we see all the different kinds of love between people, and how sometimes that love fades, twists, or turns sour.

The first seven stories are autobiographical, stories of Maeve and her siblings growing up. These stories are all quite short, and I longed for more of them. Although not a huge amount happens here, they are simply perfect. There is gossip and excitement after a large fire at the shop round the corner from Maeve’s house. An old man comes to the door selling apples, after which it is hard to get rid of him. The most notable event from a story called The Day We Got Our Own Back – a group of plainclothes men carrying revolvers ransack the small suburban house where Maeve lived, looking for her father. At the time (1920s) Maeve’s father was for the Republic but against the Irish free state, and was on the run because of his beliefs. Nothing terrible occurs, Maeve and her siblings are surrounded by love, good sense and what looks like happiness. In The Lie she recalls the time she began to make her confession, and the lie she told her mother and how the penance she received from the priest gave her away.

The second set of stories feature Mr and Mrs Derdon. Rose and Hubert are a middle aged couple when we first meet them in the story A Young Girl Can Spoil her Chances. It is the forty-third anniversary of Mrs Derdon’s father’s death – she was just ten when he died – and she is going out early to have a mass said for him. Therefore Mr Derdon must breakfast alone, and he is resentful, sulking upstairs until he thinks he hears her leave the house.

“Hubert knew that look. She only wore it outside the house. Hubert disliked having the order of his day disturbed. He didn’t like to have his breakfast all topsy-turvy, and he didn’t like seeing his wife running around the house at that early hour of a weekday morning with her hat and her gloves on, and her big bulging prayer book in her hand, but what he disliked most of all was to see her go out to face the world wearing the face that she showed to the world, the face she imagined impressed people – as if anybody ever noticed her.”

Immediately from this story we get a sense of this marriage. The stories of Rose and Hubert don’t all run chronologically, some acting almost like a flashback moment to an earlier time in their lives. In one of my favourite stories A Free Choice we see Rose and Hubert as a young couple, they aren’t even officially courting yet, though Hubert has been visiting her at home with a view to making it more official between them. They are at a dance at Mrs Ramsey’s, Rose’s father had worked at Ramsey’s shop, had made the curtains that hang in the room where Rose finds herself stood watching the dancers. She remembers him telling her about the curtains. In this story we see the beginning of the relationship, and it’s not auspicious, Rose has had her head turned by another young man, who dances with her then leaves her stranded in the middle of the room. Hubert comes along at just the right moment.

There is so much unspoken pain and misunderstanding in this relationship, it feels quite suffocating and Brennan portrays these people perfectly. Rose and Hubert have a son, John, who left home for the priesthood, there is even resentment here, Hubert jealous of the love Rose has for her son, John suffocated by it. Each of them try in small ways to deceive the other, not very well, there is a cool anger and small petty hatreds in these stories. Even when one of them dies, the other is unable to grieve.

The third section of stories are about another family. The Bagots; Delia, and her husband Martin and their two daughters, there was a baby son who died, from which Delia has never recovered. Delia’s whole life is wrapped around her children and the pets she insists on having but that her husband hates. Martin has begun sleeping in the small spare room, ostensibly because he always comes home very late, often in the early hours, but what started out as a practical solution has simply turned into the norm. These are gentler stories, stories of domesticity – the opening story, The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary Delia gathers flowers for Martin’s room, arranging them in a glass bowl. Martin hasn’t forgotten the anniversary, but is resistant to acknowledging it. He feels encumbered by his family. In other stories we see Delia’s pride in a carpet decorated with pink roses, she beats and brushes it outside. In another story a new sofa is delivered, and there is all the excitement and anxiety a big purchase like this has for us all. Still there is a lot to remind us of Rose and Hubert, as this is another unhappy marriage by most people’s standards. In The Shadow of Kindness, the children go away on holiday without Delia, to stay with an aunt. Delia is instantly lost without them.

“Martin had given up sleeping in the big front bedroom, because she and the children got up early and disturbed him, moving about, and now he slept in the small room next to the bathroom, on the landing halfway up the stairs. Lately she had been hoping he would say something to her that would give them both a chance to talk, but he had said nothing. She knew things were not how they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see.”

The final story, The Springs of Affection – is deliciously sharp. Both Delia and Martin are dead. Martin’s twin sister Min, an elderly woman herself kept house for Martin after his wife’s death. Min has now brought as much of the contents of Delia and Martin’s house as she can back to her home in Wexford. She hated Delia passionately, she never forgave Martin for leaving their happy family home and getting married. She slipped the wedding ring from his dead hand as he lay in his coffin and now wears it on her own.

This is an incredible collection, which could almost be read as three novellas.

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Two book reviews in one post from me today. Not something I usually do, but both these books were read for #readingIrelandmonth21 and one is just a very small novella. It also gives me the opportunity to catch up very slightly. Both novels concern visitors – someone returning after a period of time to a place in Ireland.

Time After Time is one of the novels that Molly Keane published later in life – her writing life spanned many years and there was a big gap in the middle. It came a couple of years after Good Behaviour but is a rather less dramatic novel than that. It is in fact a really quite sophisticated novel – here Keane uses great subtlety, pealing back the layers of complexity within a family of elderly siblings. A dark tragic-comedy shot through with Keane’s wicked sense of humour – it gets off to a slow start but the sense of place and the characterisation are just fantastic.

Living in genteel poverty in rural Ireland in the house their mother left them are the Swifts – three sisters: April, May and June and their brother Jasper. Each of them is maimed in some way, Jasper lost an eye as a child, April is almost completely deaf and May has a deformity to one hand, June is small and naïve – and perhaps what may have been termed a little slow. As Emma Donoghue says in her introduction Keane uses these disabilities ‘to create a sense of the grotesque.’ That was something I was conscious of right away; I was just a little uncomfortable to begin with – yet she balances these disabilities with some wonderful abilities and vibrant personalities. Jasper is a wonderful cook the kitchen is his domain and from it he rules the house. June – still called Baby June by everyone – is practical and looks after the outdoors, she cares for the animals with understanding and love. May restores ornaments and makes beautiful pieces of art out of wool, fabric, and flowers; she is president of the flower arrangers’ guild. April the only one who ever married is still in old age beautiful and elegant makes beauty treatments.

This is not a harmonious household, however. These elderly siblings have little in common save their memories of better days, their beloved mother, and a shared youth. The four of them bicker continually, never happier than when getting one over on one of the others. They each have their little foibles – April smokes the odd joint, May sometimes steals things, June is rather fond of the farm hand, Jasper enjoys consulting with a young monk from the nearby abbey and dreams of creating a truly spectacular garden. They each also have their own pet – the sisters each have their own dog of whom they are very protective while Jasper owns a cat.

Into this world comes Leda, a cousin from Vienna who they haven’t seen in decades – and who they assumed rather callously had perished in the war. Leda is blind now, but still every bit as beguiling as she was in her youth – when she was feted and adored like a fairy-tale princess by each of the siblings. For Leda, the past is still very present, everything and everyone still exists for her as it once was.

“These were the submerged days that Leda’s coming rescued from a deep oblivion. Since she could not see Durraghglass in its cold decay, or her cousins in their proper ages, timeless grace was given to them in her assumption that they looked as though all the years between were empty myths. Because they knew themselves so imagined, their youth was present to them, a mirage trembling in her flattery as air trembles close on the surface of summer roads.”

Leda has a motive for suddenly turning up unannounced – she still feels bitterly about something that happened decades earlier. She is a woman who says and does just what she wants – and that takes some getting used to. By the time she leaves change will have come to the house and to the inhabitants. Molly Keane is so good at just turning the knife a little at the end – not everything is as you think it will be.

I had previously read reviews of Maeve Brennan’s stories and possibly of this novella by other bloggers and was determined to try her soon. Read Ireland month gave the perfect excuse. This lovely little edition comes from New Island books – who I discovered when I bought a couple of Norah Hoult books last year.  

The Visitor concerns a young woman, Anastasia King who returns to her grandmother’s house in Dublin after six years in Paris. Anastasia is just twenty-two – when she was sixteen she had followed her mother to Paris after the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Still, she is trying to reconcile herself to that breakup and to abandoning her father. Her mother has recently died and the grieving young woman wants to return to the place she once thought of as home.

However, the welcome that awaits her at her grandmother’s house is less than warm.

“She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes. The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room. She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall. She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her. Anastasia thought, she is waiting for me to make some mistake.”

 Her grandmother, Mrs King is still angry about the breakup of her son’s marriage – a bitterness that increased after he died. She feels Anastasia was disloyal choosing her mother over her father. She blames them both for his death. With her grandmother lives Katharine – some sort of housekeeper – the two have slipped into a sad, joyless routine. Any expectation Anastasia had of a warm home-coming is quickly dispelled. We see the grandmother as a domineering personality – one Anastasia’s mother had to escape, the marriage to her older husband had not been a success – and naturally, their daughter’s loyalty was horribly divided.

That both the past and the present have begun to have an effect on Anastasia becomes all too apparent – and the image we are left with is a striking one.

I don’t want to say too much more – for to do so might be to spoil it. Brennan’s story is sad and a little disturbing, and really quite unforgettable.

This really was a beautifully rendered little novella – not a word is wasted. I really haven’t done justice to it in this short review. It’s really a little masterpiece. Extraordinary that it was discovered in a university archive after Maeve Brennan’s death.

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