Maeve Brennan's glorious short fiction is resurrected after far too many years

December 07, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Maeve Brennan died at 76 in 1992, 19 years after the last thing she ever wrote for publication. Off and on, for much of those last years, she was miserably insane. Well before that, in 1961, she wrote a short story for the New Yorker titled "An Attack of Hunger." In it, she said this, perhaps a foreshadowing:

"There was no one to look at her, and she felt that she had become invisible, and at the same time she felt that in her solitude she followed herself about the house all day, up and down stairs, and she could hardly bear to look in the mirror, because the face she saw there was not the one that was sympathetic to her but her own face, her own strong defenseless face, the face of one whose courage had long ago been petrified into mere endurance in the anguish of truly helpless self-pity."

The greatest valor is demanded by the fiercest fear. In the next dozen years, she wrote her most brilliant work. All of it is filled with courage.

Born in 1917, Maeve Brennan left Ireland with her parents for America at 17 in 1934. She joined the staff of the New Yorker in 1949, where virtually the entire body of her work appeared, much it anonymous, small reviews and reflective pieces, although many of her contributions to "Talk of the Town" were signed "communications from our friend the long-winded lady."

Her forte was the short story (she never wrote a novel). Several collections of that work had fallen out of print. Now comes "The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin" (Houghton Mifflin, 358 pages, $24).

Neglected form

What has happened to the short story? Many accomplished writers still pay huge attentions to it, yet precious few magazines any more regularly publish the stuff. Anthologies come out, but typically few sell very well. The market has largely been seized, I suppose, by television.

If you doubt that the short story is capable of things that no other device of prose - or for that matter poetry or theater or film or music - can do, read Brennan's stories.

Though Maeve Brennan spent most of her adult life in the United States, these stories are set in or about Dublin. Many are clearly ++ autobiographical - though never confessional or self-justifying. Her writing is free of self-indulgence, of argument, of persuasion, of polemic. It offers, it does not insist. It presents, it does not persuade

The heart of much in Irish literature is deprivation. In Brennan's work, deprivation is the vivid, unyielding essence of life. Yearning? No, for yearning holds the promise - however faint - of fulfillment. James Joyce, writing to the publisher Grant Richards, once described his stories of Ireland as "written, for the most part, in the style of scrupulous meanness," lest he "deform" Irish reality. Brennan's celebration of meanness could have made Joyce proud. Today's "Angela's Ashes" enthusiasts would feel at home.

These 21 stories can easily be read as disheartening, distressing, even depressing. Every character suffers relentless isolation. Yet somehow the effect seems to be the opposite; reading them, a warmth came upon me, a sense of the loveliness of life.

Why, I am not certain. But it has to do with the fact, I believe, that all true art is ultimately affirmative, not because it pledges hope, but because it pursues with courage - and conviction - some intensely special essence of human reality.

The stories mainly concern two marriages - Derdons and Bagots - two couples engaged in unending war in which there is no violence, and almost no words are spoken, except as tiny foil-thrusts breaking some petty convention, or grudging acknowledgments of the end of another pitifully pointless round of combat.

In "Christmas Eve," Brennan makes an astonishing statement: "The common practices of family life ... in some of us form a memory strong enough to give us something to hold on to to the end of our days. It is a matter of love, and whether the love finds daily, hourly expression in warm embraces and in the instinctive kind of attentiveness animals give to their young or whether it is largely unexpressed, as it was among the Bagots, does not really matter very much in the very long run."

Lovely! And yet almost everything in the book denies that declaration, makes every hint of love so ephemeral, so cold, so elusive that it is hard, within the stories, to believe in love at all.

Textures, alchemy

There is enormous power in Brennan's recording of her characters' sensations: a muscle stretching. The characteristic creak of a stair. The texture of a carpet with big pink roses on it. Such are the intimacies with which Brennan concocts the alchemy of revelation.

The power of her work, the drama, comes from the contrast of that awareness with the almost total failure of Brennan's characters to be conscious of life's purpose, their incapacity to affect their own destiny. The characters are doomed at best to joyless lives, vacant existences, and at worst to a kind of anger that lingers eternally just below the boiling point.

Yet, somehow, there is great beauty and indomitable humanity in the work. Read as a collection, the stories become a celebration of survival that, perhaps because of the very grimness of the lives, becomes celestial.

The book has a sweet, loving introduction by William Max-well, long Brennan's editor at the New Yorker, who gives dignity to his friend's last painful years. He records there a quotation from William Butler Yeats that one fine day Brennan wrote on the wall of his office: "A certain degree of self-esteem is necessary even in the mad. Conrad."

Maeve Brennan's self-esteem vanished in her madness. These stories confirm the tragedy of that. She was a magical writer. Her work has gained with age.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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