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Sad in the Suburbs

Brendan Mac Evilly

The Springs of Affection, by Maeve Brennan with an introduction by Anne Enright, Stinging Fly Press, 349 pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-1906539542

Call to mind Maeve Brennan: you’re likely to hold a picture in your head of a supremely elegant woman by the fireplace of a New York apartment, sitting or standing, with her head tilted toward you – one of Karl Bissinger’s iconic portrait photographs. So ubiquitous is that image that it comes as a surprise, time and again, to recall that Brennan lived to be seventy-six. She seems forever fixed as a young and glamorous New Yorker writer. Sadly, the personality and story of Maeve Brennan have loomed larger than the writer and her stories.

It’s even difficult to pin down what kind of writer she was, having turned her hand to so many forms: novellas, short stories, essays and criticism, fashion, colour columns. Then there are her short stories, some read as memoir while other groups of stories read like chapters of a novel. Her fiction is so rarely seen on bookshelves that it’s difficult call to mind a title. There’s a greater chance that you’ll have come across her biography, Homesick at the New Yorker, than one of her story collections; you’re more likely to have seen Eamon Morrissey’s play Maeve's House performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin than read her New Yorker diary entries.

Even The Springs of Affection, the title given to her Dublin stories, was not originally written as a collection but gathered posthumously in 1997 and had since fallen out of print in the UK and Ireland until recently reissued by The Stinging Fly Press. And while another posthumous publication – her novella The Visitor – gave many Irish readers a first taste of her fiction, it is fair to say that the weight of our attention has focused on Brennan the writer rather than the writing of Brennan.

“The myth was she’d died homeless on the streets of New York, that’d she’d become a bag lady,” said Roddy Doyle, whose mother was a cousin of Brennan and who met her clacking away on her typewriter in their garden on one of her trips home: “there was almost as much interest in that as there was in her stories. Then people began to discover the stories and realize what extraordinary stories they were.”

The Springs of Affection undoubtedly shows her as an expert chronicler of behind-the-scenes, middle class family life in the new Irish state. It opens with a series of short, autobiographical pieces where the protagonist is explicitly herself. The opening story, “The Morning after the Big Fire”, is the most endearing. The prose is beautifully gripping yet matter-of-fact in the way that one speaks, guiltily but boldly, when gossiping about neighbours. Young Maeve wakes up to news that the nearby garage is ablaze, and helps to spread word to the neighbours. “It was a really satisfactory fire, with leaping flames, thick, pouring smoke, and a steady roar of destruction.” There is an innocent lack of concern tinged with a more subtle tone of dislike for the garage owners, the McRorys, as if they were due some unexplained comeuppance. “Other people were opening their front doors by now, and I wanted everyone to hear the news from me.” The learned behavioural response is a greater reflection on the society of her time. Young Maeve refers to the “fun” and “excitement” of the fire, but it’s clear, from their “fascinated” minds and “delighted” faces, that the adult neighbours to whom she relates the story share her muted joy.

In “The Old Man of the Sea”, we watch as the mother of a young Maeve is punished for her generosity to “a poor Christian” who calls to the door with increasing vehemence to sell overpriced apples, a scenario which is predicted and gently mocked by Maeve’s uncle, who later reveals he saw the same fellow walking down O’Connell street in a fine suit with his married daughter by his side.

These early memoir pieces portray the young Brennan as curious, observant and precocious. They’re reminiscent in some ways of Dermot Healy’s Bend for Home, with its anthropological detailing of everyday life. “The Devil in Us” is the first story of greater complexity, where four girls, Maeve among them, are picked on at random by two spiteful nuns who wrongfully accuse them of not joining in their hymns. They are offered a show trial by the nuns as an opportunity to redeem themselves. But the continued accusation of guilt leaves them utterly baffled. “The reason for our guilt was hidden from us, but in a dim but comforting way we were now assured of its existence. We had not seen the shape of the devil, but we had felt his power, in our dry throats and thumping hearts.”

If the first fifty pages can be viewed as personal childhood memoir, then the dual series of stories detailing the relationship of two families, the Derdons and the Bagots, are more akin to a set of novels. The detailing of everyday anxieties, guilt, expectations and disappointments of everyday life connect the book.

The inner ruminations of Brennan’s characters are mirrored by her own ruminations on the intractable problem of these two semi-fictional couples. At the outset of each story, we’re introduced to the same characters, situated in the same house in which Brennan grew up – 48 Cherryfield Avenue, Ranelagh – where the same laburnum grows in the garden, and the same tennis club is in the field behind. All these details are given before Brennan attacks and interrogates the inner lives of the couples, their muted animosity towards one another – ranging from mild aversion to embarrassment and outright loathing. She works like a safecracker trying to break a lock to discover what lies at the heart of their emotionally fractured and disappointed lives; trying to identify and rupture the barriers to love.

Similar scenarios and motifs crop up time and again, Hubert Derdon leaving the house early, failing to hand over or begrudging the week’s shopping allowance to his wife, Rose, who might be fixing a boiled egg for his breakfast. Later, Hubert’s awkward return from work and their nervous anticipation of seeing each other again, their sometimes secret, sometimes overt wish to avoid each other physically or emotionally. The minute point-scoring is obscene and desperately watchable like high-soap or kitchen sink drama.

The stories become a series of engaging puzzles for the reader too. The minute details that Brennan too clearly and frequently reveals keep us guessing about which are the work of pure invention and which are drawn from creative memory.

The Bagots seem the more accurate representation of Brennan’s parents. Delia Bagot, like Maeve’s mother Una Brennan, has suffered the loss of an infant. Similarly, the fact that Martin Bagot slept separately from Una due to his late returns from work (a detail mentioned in four of the eight Bagot stories) is also true of Bob Brennan, whose work with the Irish Press meant late nights and separate sleeping quarters. The Bagots lack the means to express their feelings or show regular affection. In the story “Christmas Eve” they enjoy “the solid existence of love” without the “soft and tender colors given by demonstrativeness”. Brennan goes on, “the child grown old and in the dark knows that what is under his hand is a rock that will never give way”.

And so these stories of incompatible couples set in an oppressive, restrictive suburban environment, suggest something of Brennan’s motivations for writing – an attempt at understanding how things fester in such a milieu. The form of the stories – observant, obsessive, ruminatory, anxious – also reveal something of her own state of mind, or a state of mind she wished to evade.

Even if we don’t allow that the Derdons or the Bagots are her mother and father, she must come psychically close to them in the act of writing. There is bravery in becoming so intimate with both mother and father, artfully inhabiting their thoughts, and allowing them to betray their meanness and failures.

The final story, “The Springs of Affection”, is the most expansive and accomplished, an effort to get to the root understanding of the Bagots through the embittered eyes of Martin Bagot’s sister Min. They expose the unfeeling family from which Mr Bagot had come. Her words, her whole life, reveal a deep shame and embarrassment at overt expressions of love, where any displays of affection reveal “something lacking” in Delia Bagot, deeming her “not the right class of person”.

We leave the stories with a renewed interest in Brennan. Not in the circumstances and events of her life but rather in her inner workings and motivations as a writer, why her curiosity took her home to Ireland as often as it did, to ruminate on constricted, suburban marital relationships over and over – particularly when she was living an altogether different life in New York.

1/7/2016

Brendan Mac Evilly is a writer and arts organizer, and runs creativecareers.ie. His book "At Swim" was published in June by the Collins Press.

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