Maeve Brennan Essay - Critical Essays

Brennan, Maeve (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brennan, Maeve 1917–

Maeve Brennan, an Irish-born American, writes meticulously crafted lyrical short stories. She is best known as a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

Miss Brennan, who is a specialist at handling the delicate relations of the servant class to the marginal society types they serve, permits her characters to uncoil with all the force that a splenetic imagination can summon. There is a dark lack of sentiment in Miss Brennan's view of these relations, and the fictional life shaped by that view is a cruel, waspish one. There is, further, a terrible sort of satisfaction to be gotten from the stories, for a punishment invariably befalls those who best deserve it, a punishment that is as spiteful—and sometimes as cheaply ironic—as they themselves are…. [There] is contrivance, but it is the best possible sort of fiction: the sort that yields a sense of surprise, and that possibility of continuing surprise, which makes for distinguished fiction. (p. 45)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 23, 1974.

Brennan's moral sympathy for the have-not, her Kiplingesque passion for revenge stop just short of overt moralizing. Interest in [Christmas Eve] comes from the witty characters; the balanced, tactile style; the charming, yet irritating, society Brennan criticizes while she describes. But weak plotting undermines much of the interest…. This mixture of sophisticated characters and gimcrack plotting is like finding Henry James' people in a script written for the Keystone Cops. (p. 28)

Peter Wolfe, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 27, 1974.

Maeve Brennan's characters live in ecological niches of the emotional world. Like birds that nest on the narrowest ledges or the tree that clings to the dust on a rock, they manage to survive within a set of circumscribed, ritualized relations. Because they have so few resources, so little latitude, the tiniest deviation from habit is a great risk, high drama, a roar in the silence of an otherwise tightly controlled universe. One story hinges on the closing of a door, another on a head pulled back from a confidence, a third on who will be warmed by a coveted water bottle.

Two major groups of stories compose "Christmas Eve." The first six take place in a fictional Westchester suburb called Herbert's Retreat, the second six in Ireland, and an entr'acte in a restaurant on West 49th Street. I was initially put off by the Westchester stories which detail the small acts of cruelty and malice of bourgeois households with Irish maids. But what I finally found compelling about them was a mood, like some street scenes of Balthus, of understated, surrealistic malevolence. When Maeve Brennan's maids rebel by a look or a word, it is as if the Papin sisters, the famous murderers who inspired Genet's "The Maids," had run amuck.

The Irish stories are richer, full of the fierce complexities of life. Most describe the cramped, withered, deformed spirits of those who have grown up without love and the accommodations they have been forced to make to survive at all….

The adjective that crops up most often in descriptions of Maeve Brennan's writing is "quiet." What is meant here is the calm, unassuming description of household detail, a literary approach perfectly adapted to Brennan's view of life. In "Christmas Eve" she states the axiom of both her technique and her philosophy, speaking of "the common practices of family life, those practices, habits, and ordinary customs that are the only true realities most of us ever know." In some families these practices serve to establish the existence of love so that "the child grown old and in the dark knows only that what is under his hand is a rock that will never give way."

Through the quiet description of the common practices of family life Brennan reveals the most passionate reality. For the most part, it is the reality of lives devoid of the rock of love, what they cling to and how they subsist. (p. 38)

Susan Edmiston, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), May 16, 1974.

Maeve Brennan is the kind of writer who can transform the arrival of a sofa in a lower-middle-class Dublin household or the cleaning of a carpet (one with big pink roses on it) into an extraordinary celebration of family love. She does this by a steady accumulation of detail and alternate flashes of passionate statement and raw insight. The accomplishment is formidable—something few writers attempt without sounding precious, dull, or both.

Her gift is flawlessly demonstrated in the title story from Christmas Eve, Maeve Brennan's first book in five years….

Love that is largely unexpressed, and the fear of losing it, dominates the lives of most Brennan characters. All of them, whether they survive in shabby Dublin gentility, bask in fashionable East Hampton, or simply hang on by their fingernails in New York City, live in a world of secret thoughts and elaborate private rituals that they cannot share. Brennan has always specialized in the involuntary victims of such isolation—children and animals….

Her old-fashioned method is the unabashed use of straight description, as in A Snowy Night on West Forty-Ninth Street, the one New York story in Christmas Eve. It begins, characteristically, in a very low key, as a painstaking portrait of a small French restaurant, and the people who shelter there from the snow. But the author finally produces a freeze-frame of private desperation, the characters savagely revealed in a moment of vulnerability and compromise. (p. 62)

Helen Rogan, in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright, Time Inc.), July 1, 1974.

Roughly half of the works in [Christmas Eve] are American—upper-middle-class exurban New York; the other half are Irish—lower-middle-class County Wexford. Perhaps some contrast is intended between the styles and values of the two cultures. If so, the point of the contrast is lost in the extreme artistic disparity between the two groups of stories. The American pieces are shallow, obvious, ill-composed and all but devoid of fresh observation, intellectual subtlety and emotional depth. The Irish stories, though unsensational, have a fine, mature, well-knit quality to them. The lyrics may be mournful and repetitious, but the best of them do sing. (p. 5)

If the American themes—money, divorce, and flirtations in the suburbs—seem to have been well-worn by O'Hara, Updike and others, the Irish themes—poverty, sexual repression, anger and domestic sterility—have been unforgettably explored by Synge, O'Casey and Joyce. But Maeve Brennan demonstrates that familiar, even shopworn subjects and themes, are not necessarily an impediment to fine writing. Nor does it really seem to matter that the author more or less dislikes all of her characters. Oh, it would be nice if now and then a likable character would stick his head in and say "boo" to the tedious, pompous, whining, ill-tempered, selfish, and stupid multitudes. One doesn't expect heroism, but a glimpse of good-natured intelligence would have been refreshing. But Maeve Brennan does not choose to refresh us that way in her Irish stories any more than she did in the American ones. Still—and here, then, is genuine artistry—the Irish characters do earn our sympathy, and their grim, gray, hopeless situations awaken our interest.

I think the reason for this is that Maeve Brennan is a lyrical rather than a dramatic writer. In the American stories, she writes against her own grain. They are full of dialogue and scenes and sets. They are stagey in an unsatisfactory way. Characters are forever making entrances and exits, maids are in and out opening doors, eccentric guests burst out with one-liners and then retreat to a corner, various groups gather for climactic "showdowns." One feels the author laboring beneath the weight of all this theatrical paraphernalia and wishes that she and we could find somewhere to unload it.

In the Irish stories, she finds and keeps her own voice. There is little dialogue, a phrase or a word here and there. The drab row houses and the lovely Irish countryside are not treated as sets. They pervade the thoughts and feelings of the people who inhabit them. There are no clumsily artful build-ups to momentous scenes, largely because nothing momentous ever happens. Life, birth, marriage, death—all seem to become muted, if not stifled, by a vague mixture of fear and nostalgia.

All of the Irish stories deal with family life and the various forms of loneliness which can exist within it. The final piece, "Family Walls," is the triumph of the collection. It is a fictional meditation on a marriage that begins in fragile expectation and ends in vacuity. As in all the Irish stories, it is not a scene or a moment but a mood which is the creative center. (pp. 5-6)

Robert Kiely, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 4, 1974.