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Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Old Man of the Sea - Maeve Brennan

The issue of The New Yorker
in which the story was published.
Click through to read abstract.

The Old Man of the Sea - Maeve Brennan

As I outlined in a previous post, I intend to contribute  few posts on Irish Short Story for The Reading Life's Irish Short Story Week.

This is only the second short story that I have read by Maeve Brennan and like the first , The Morning after the Big Fire, it is brief, at 8 pages. It was originally published in The New Yorker in 1955.

The story, which may well be partly autobiographical, is a low key  slice of suburban life which is given mythical overtones when the narrator, who is nine and called Maeve, compares it to the legend of the Old Man of the Sea, who "had attached himself to Sindbad the Sailor" and when "Sindbad began to hate him" dug his "cruel, talon like hands" "into Sindbad's shoulders."

The old man is selling apples, and has to cart around a huge basket full of apples. When the narrator's mother buys "a dozen apples for eating and a dozen for cooking" her mother's brother (Uncle Matt) tells her she bought too many and that the pedlar will now "be on your back the rest of your life".

And indeed this seems to be the case. The following week the man returns and has the two dozen apples already packed in paper bags. Gradually the mother starts to resents 'feeling I have to buy them" but her resolution to buy less or none always crumbles in the face of the old appleseller's apparent need.

When her attempts to be resolute fail the next move is avoidance, and it's made clear that this is not the first time this stratagem has been employed.  "Derry" (Maeve's brother) "and I exchanged a glance of anticipation. We were going to pretend we weren't in. We had done that before when unwanted callers came, and we enjoyed it very much."

The children's enjoyment contrasts with their mother's discomfort and her charitable view of people contrast's with her brother's cynicism. Maeve sides with her uncle, believing his intuition, at the story's end, that a woman he saw with the old man's daughter, was  "his married daughter from Drumcondra"*, facts he "knew" "by the way she was wearing her hat."

This story is wry and witty and I look forward to reading more of the collection I am reading, called The Springs of Affection, a collection that, along with another called The Rose Garden, includes the two collections published in Brennan's lifetime plus further stories. I think I will be searching out The Rose Garden when this is finished.


*Drumcondra is a well to do suburb on the northside of Dublin. The narrator lives in a southside suburb called Rathgar, where the real Maeve grew up.


11 comments:

  1. It's great that you reviewed Maeve Brennan. She sounds like an intriguing writer and I need to read one of her stories soon. I like the idea of the mythical overtones. The story I have is "An Attack of Hunger".

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    1. Caroline - I have An Attack of Hunger in the collection I have. She is certainly an intriguing writer with a very intriguing life.

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  2. Thanks so much for participating in Irish Short Story Week Year Two-I read Maeve Brennan's "Christmas Eve" last year. A beautiful story. As you know the latter years of her life were very sad. To its credit her employer The New Yorker tried to help her, even paying for an apartment for her but she preferred to live in their rest room.

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    1. Thanks for giving me the impetus to get back into reading short stories! I hope to rad and post on a few more over the week.

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  3. Seamus-I was on Google Books today and they have online the two short story collection by Brennan-some of the stories have pages left out but there are a number of complete short stories to be found-among them this one-there is also a very good full introduction by William Maxwell, editor of The New Yorker and Brennan's boss.

    Before someone starts reading a story from Google books just look and see of they left any pages out-

    thanks again for joining in

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  4. I posted on another of her stories yesterday, "I See You, Bianca" a wonderful story. I linked back to your great post. I hope one day to read all of her stories. To all interested parties, my event on Irish Short Stories is open until July 1.

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    1. Mel, thanks for dropping by. I have two other posts on or including Maeve. Just click on her name under labels in the right hand column. I've been dropping in to your series of posts every now and then. I might manage to cover some more Irish Short Stories before it's finished.

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  5. I just printed this off to read later. She spent some time here in New Hampshire at the MacDowell Artist retreat, Peterborough.
    Great site, delighted I stumbled upon it
    Imelda

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    1. thanks for your kind comments. Maeve Brennan was a great writer. Reading this makes me want to read the story again.

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  6. Hi-just stopping by to let you know that from March 1 to March 3 I will be conducting Irish Short Story Month Year Three. I wanted to invite you to once again participate should you have time-thanks very much for making the event interesting lat year. Maeve Brennan is a greater writer and had a very sad final years of her life

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    1. Will try to. I don't read enough or write enough about short stories.

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