Maeve Brennan finds a place at the table

Women writers and Irish-American literature: Angela Bourke pays tribute to Maeve Brennan in the first of a series to celebrate the centenary of her birth on January 6th

Maeve Brennan: in her friend Edith Konecky’s novel A Place at the Table, a character called Deirdre is a disintegrating Irish writer. She chimes in detail with the Maeve I knew

Maeve Brennan: in her friend Edith Konecky’s novel A Place at the Table, a character called Deirdre is a disintegrating Irish writer. She chimes in detail with the Maeve I knew

 

The small house in Ranelagh where Maeve Brennan sets so many of her acclaimed short stories is also where the actor Eamon Morrissey grew up. His father bought the Brennans’ house after they moved to Washington in 1934. His mother, another Maeve, knew the connection, and read Brennan’s stories as they appeared in the New Yorker in the 1950s and ’60s. The young Eamon had little interest, but when he was playing on Broadway, in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!, she sent him one of them. The hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up, he says, as he read it on the subway, and he managed to meet Maeve Brennan not long after.

When Morrissey brought Maeve’s House to New York in 2013, the Irish Arts Center, where he performed his moving one-man show, also advertised a two-hour Walk of the Town. Following Maeve Brennan’s footsteps, it began in Washington Square Park, and ended with a martini.

Brennan loved Greenwich Village, cradle of so much creativity. She lived there when she first arrived in New York. Later, especially in times of crisis, she often returned there to stay, usually at the Hotel Earle, now the Washington Square Hotel. As the Long-Winded Lady in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town, she wrote about the Village a lot, and it began to reciprocate her care before anyone organised walking tours in her honour. When readers arranged an event there to celebrate her, some years after my biography appeared, I couldn’t go, but Maeve’s niece attended from the UK. Afterwards she told me about a woman she’d met, who introduced herself as a friend from Maeve’s later life. This was Edith Konecky, a writer five years Maeve’s junior, still living in New York. I hadn’t heard of her, nor did she know of my biography, though I believe someone gave it to her not long after.

I had no plans to go back to New York at that time, and I could think of no good reason to bother a woman approaching 90, but I was fascinated. When I began to write about Brennan, piecing together fragments of evidence about her was like salvage in a flooded library. She had moved house constantly, and sometimes had no home. She had given things away or left them behind, and what little remained of her archive had not yet come to light.

William Maxwell had been her trusted friend and fiction editor at the New Yorker, where she became a staff writer in 1949. He had provided an evocative introduction in 1997 for The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, a new compilation by editor Christopher Carduff, the book that introduced Maeve Brennan to a new generation of readers. Maxwell died in July 2000, however, eight days after his wife, Emily. That fact, along with his stature as a novelist and the silence of other witnesses, meant that his brief account of Maeve’s descent into mental illness loomed over her four books by then in print.

Carduff had discovered The Visitor in a university archive and published it in 2000, by which time he had also brought out The Long-Winded Lady and The Rose Garden. “Many men and women found Maeve enchanting,” Maxwell writes, “and she was a true friend, but there wasn’t much you could do to save her from herself.”

I interviewed Maeve’s niece and other relatives, and spoke to men and women who had been her colleagues. One by one they spoke of feeling love, guilt and loss, recalling how she stopped talking to them in the 1970s. It felt like working with tweezers and blotting paper as I pieced scraps of testimony together. The men seemed to have known her far better, and much longer, than any of the women. I worried that her memory might vanish completely before I could make it a coherent story. I regretted that she seemed to have been denied the blessing of close women friends.

Recently I thought of searching for Edith Konecky’s writing. I got hold of two of her novels, Allegra Maud Goldman, a novel of childhood, set in Brooklyn, and A Place at the Table, about middle age, which begins, disarmingly, “My name is Rachel Levin/ I haven’t really got the time to write.” Both books are unusually candid and wise, but in A Place at the Table a character called Deirdre is a disintegrating Irish writer. She both rewards and frustrates Rachel, the narrator, who loves her but can’t save her, and she chimes in detail with the Maeve I knew from her letters to friends. Unlike the accounts I’d read by men who had known Maeve in good times and bad, however, Konecky’s portrait stays close and loyal. There is no rejection or distancing, just a sense of mourning as “Deirdre” fades out of her life. The book ends with a possible sighting and an imagined conversation. When a new publication of my own was about to bring me to New York in October last year, I emailed Konecky from Dublin. I didn’t know what to expect, but her reply came crisply back, inviting me to visit.

When I walked out of the lift on the ninth floor of her building, Konecky was standing with a wry smile in her doorway, leaning on the cane she uses indoors. She’s hard of hearing, and her own work takes no prisoners, so I waited to speak until she’d seated us both comfortably in her spacious living room.

“Nobody would tell me where she was,” she told me. I knew that in the 1980s the New Yorker had arranged a place for Maeve in the Long Island nursing home where she died in 1993. Now it seemed that in its wisdom, it had declined to reveal her whereabouts to anyone outside its own circle. Yet Maeve had stayed for weeks on end in Konecky’s apartment, alternating between white-knuckled, silent despair and imaginative solicitude. It was Konecky she phoned from the psychiatric hospital, after she broke the glass in several of the New Yorker’s office doors. It was Konecky she invited to accompany her to receive a literary honour, where she hid in her raincoat, refusing to remove it for lunch, or even while sitting on the stage.

And Konecky was not her only woman friend. She and Maeve first met in 1972, at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Maeve’s magnificent story, The Springs of Affection, had just appeared, and although it is her best, and Alice Munro counts it among her favourites of all time, it was the one that estranged Maeve from her family. She and Edith returned to MacDowell many times to write. Tillie Olsen was there too, and the three – all revered now, despite their relatively small output – were friends. I cheered to imagine them, scathing and irreverent, kind to each other, drinking and laughing together, talking about their work. Maeve wrote a blurb for the cover of Konecky’s Allegra, and Olsen wrote an introduction. Konecky gave me the paragraph Maeve wrote when Olsen must have been in one of those “silences” that she writes about so eloquently:

“I have been trying to think of the word to say to you that would never fail to lift you up when you are too tired or too sad not [to] be downcast. But I can think only of a reminder – you are all it has. You are all your work has. It has nobody else and never had anybody else. If you deny it hands and a voice, it will continue as it is, alive, but speechless and without hands. You know it has eyes and can see you, and you know how hopefully it watches you. But I am speaking of a soul that is timid but that longs to be known. When you are so sad that you ‘cannot work’ there is always a danger fear will enter in and begin withering around. A good way to remain on guard is to go to the window and watch the birds for an hour or two or three. It is very comforting to see their beaks opening and shutting.”

Olsen had this on her studio wall. Konecky copied it, and kept it above her desk. I find in it an echo of the sad, joking, letter Maeve wrote in 1959, about shooting herself in the back in St Patrick’s Cathedral with the aid of a small hand-mirror. Echoes too of things she wrote about her cats, and about her mother. Mostly I find comfort in it, so it’s now above my own desk.

Edith Konecky, intrepidly laconic in her mid-nineties, was kind to me, and highly entertaining. She misses Maeve, and mourns her.

Stinging Fly Press republished The Springs of Affection in 2015, with a new introduction by Anne Enright. The Long-Winded Lady is out now, in a new edition introduced by Belinda McKeon. Angela Bourke is the author of Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker. Her latest publication is the Famine Folio Voices Underfoot: Memory, Forgetting, and Oral Verbal Art

Women Writers and Irish-American Literature is a week-long series to celebrate the centenary of Maeve Brennan’s birth on January 6th, 2017, comprising articles on Maeve Brennan, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Cullinan, Mary Gordon and Alice McDermott, co-ordinated by Ellen McWilliams and featuring contributions from Angela Bourke, Claire Bracken, Patricia Coughlan and Sinéad Moynihan

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