Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Springs of Affection

Maeve Brennan / Holly Golightly?

The Springs of Affection - Maeve Brennan

This selection from the short stories of Maeve Brennan contains three suites of stories, each suite having the same characters. They almost work as episodic novellas, particularly the final suite of stories about the Bagots. I have already posted on the first two stories The Morning after the Big Fire and The Old Man and the Sea. 

Most of the stories take place on a road in Ranelagh identical to the one where Brennan spent her formative years. The houses are grey and the geography described within almost all the stories is very limited. Indeed the colour gray and the phrase dead end could be considered the watchwords of this collection.

The final story of the first 'suite' - The Clever One -  ends with the two sisters in America, similar to events in Brennan's own life. In a circuitous way a childhood of clandestine sororitorial warfare is revealed, and layers of untruths revealed in very few pages. The stories in this suite are short and read like embellished episodes from Brennan's early childhood.

The stories in the other two suites are somewhat longer and are concerned more with adults than children, although children are caught up in the webs of mutual loneliness woven by these malfunctioning adults.

The couples are caught in their own worlds and vest blame for the failures of their own lives in their partners. The men's minds turn on their careers and their appearance in the eyes of the world, the women's on housekeeping and their children. Her vision of marriage and the family home seems like an elaborate, repetitive trap, gradually stripping hope and meaning from life, layer by layer.

She manages to have sympathy for unlikable characters by bringing us into their sad logic, their fears and their slavery to habit. Their victories - a small room of his own, a shelf of inherited books, out-surviving her family, the cleanliness of a carpet - are sadder than their failures.

In the story An Attack of Hunger,  Mrs Durdon is left alone with her husband Hubert after her son had disappeared into "the commonest crevasse in Irish family life - the priesthood". "The thought that Mrs Derdon was not putting up with (because she never faced it) was, oh if only Hubert had died, John would never have left me, never, never, never. He would never have left me alone... But she was putting up with the secret presence of this thought in her spirit, where it lived hidden, nourishing itself on her energy and on her will and on her dwindling capacity for hope."

We often know more than the characters, seeing through the lies they tell themselves. But, and it is particularly evident in An Attack of Hunger, the characters are steadfast in refusing to see the truth about themselves.

This is a wonderful collection, full of razor sharp observation and a mordant wit and a collection of pathologically repressed Dubliners, some whose withered blooms have blown in from more vital places where "the springs of affection are rising."

I will be digging out her other collection The Rose Garden and posthumously published novella The Visitor. I may even feel the urge to buy a biography - I think there's only one. Her life sounds fascinating, if tragic. It has even been speculated that she was the model for Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffanys). She certainly seems brilliant, glittering but brittle from what I've read.

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