‘I See You, Bianca’ by Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan’s ‘The Bohemians’ contains my favourite lines of hers: “They were a fine battered pair, marked for life by their ravenous hopes. They both had the glittering, exploring eyes of people who have never learned to control their dreams.” If it’s possible to be compassionately vicious, that assessment is. She was good at people with lives like chicken coops, which just about kept the fox out but very efficiently penned everything else in. But the story I like most is ‘I See You, Bianca’. It’s about Nicholas, and his two-room New York apartment, a “floor through” with a window at each end. Nicholas and his room, and his ailanthus, “New York’s hardship tree”, and his cat Bianca. Brennan’s focus seems to be wholly on the room, and the way Nicholas lives in it, and what he wants from it and from his city. There’s no narrative, just Brennan’s subjectivity, restless, aware, souped-up, into every shadow of the apartment, interrogating someone else’s expectations; but quite soon you recognise that Nicholas’s way of life is doomed. Brennan describes the room like this: “Sometimes it seems to be the anteroom to many other rooms, and sometimes it seems to be the extension of many other rooms. It is like a telescope and at the same time it is like what you see through a telescope.” This is a careful description of her own work, which is both what’s seen and the means of seeing it. All fictions should be instruments like this. Here, she encourages us to use the instrument to look out at Fourth Avenue in the rain, “with the cheerful interest of one who contemplates a puzzle he did not create and is not going to be called on to solve.” Because a view “is where we are not. Where we are is never a view.”

Can this piece, with its nonfictional structure and cleverly abrupt ending, actually be described as fiction? It’s perilously close to being one of her Long Winded Lady pieces for the New Yorker. I’m not sure I care. Though it appears to be more an assessment than a narrative, the tension is appalling, it mounts and mounts. And then there’s a massive resettlement of perception and intention concentrated across the last page or two. That’s enough for me. An event occurs, is recorded and is encouraged to roll over the reader in an unpredicted fashion, leaving no way out. You’re forced up against an understanding about the central character, but you aren’t sure what it is.

First published in The New Yorker, June 11th 1966. Collected in The Rose Garden, Counterpoint, 2001

‘The Springs of Affection’ by Maeve Brennan

I’m breaking the rules a little here by highlighting a collection of linked stories united by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. The autobiographical pieces on Brennan’s childhood which open the collection are followed by a series of stories on the Derdons, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, something that seems to have developed over several years. Brennan is particularly insightful on the small cruelties of human nature, the tricks we play on one another to score minor victories for the pettiest of reasons. If I had to single out one story, it would be the titular piece featuring Min, the embittered twin sister of the third occupant of the house, Martin Derdon. Min has spent most of her adult life resenting her sister-in-law, Delia, for taking Martin away from his family after their wedding. Now that both Martin and Delia are dead, the elderly Min is ensconced her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a perverse kind of satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions. It’s a brilliant story, shot through with layers of insight and meaning.

First published in The New Yorker. Collected in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, Mariner Books 1998. It is available to read online here.