Maeve Brennan

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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,...

(The entire section is 1,495 words.)