Maeve Brennan Redux

I have to pause in my reading long enough to remark upon what I've read thus far in The Springs of Affection. Maeve Brennan creates stories that are unaccountably powerful.  Unaccountably because taken separately the characters, the setting, the plot are all adequate, reasonable, the stuff of New Yorker stories (which these originally were.)  However, combined with her language and attention to detail these stories are, as William Maxwell wrote, "ferocious."

Fair warning--beyond this point lie "spoilers."  I don't think they will spoil anything, but some readers tend to be more sensitive to others.

What can you say about a man whose attitude toward his son is summarized by the following passage?

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

He had been disappointed when John joined the priesthood, but, to tell the truth, at the same time he had been relieved. John was a poor example of a fellow, weak and timid with no aptitude for anything and no inclination toward anything, and Hubert had never been able to imagine what he would do or could do with himself in the way of earning a living and making a life for himself. For a fellow like that, becoming a priest was as good an answer as any. He would be taken care of, and he would always be told what to do and what not to do. In time, as he rw older, he would probably get to walking and talking with as much authority as any of them, in his black clothes. What happened to John, his fate, could all be laid at Rose's door. She had ruined the boy. She had kept him all to herself all his life, and she had ended up by ruining him. It was a pity about John. Hubert did not like to think about John.
So, we have a lovely little portrait of Hubert--personally, I can't imagine being his son.

Ah, but there's more--of course there is more.

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

But the worst thing Hubert remembered about that unhappy day was the look of terror that had crossed Rose's face when he had spoken roughly to her. He had been shocked by the terror and hurt on her face. He had only struck out at her in natural annoyance and impatience--that is what he told himself--but the effect on her had been trampled. It tooked nothing and she was beaten to her knees.

Naturally, one just lashes out and takes umbrage at the fact that other people are disturbed by it.  Of course, one need not examine one's behavior and apologize.

Ah, but there's more.  Here Hubert meets his wife-to-be (or in the chronology of the story, his wife of 33 years.)

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

"I only wanted to tell you that I have to open the cigarettes for everybody," she said, "not just you."

"I know that," he said. "You told me that."

"I was afraid I had hurt your feelings."

"Oh, no, no. It's not that easy to hurt my feelings," he said, and he thought she seemed too excitable. He didn't like her running after him down the street like that, calling attention to him.

Rather than compassion, concern, perhaps even love--he sees a girl who is "too excitable."  This really doesn't seem the foundation of a good marriage--start with misgiving and irritation?

Ah, but Hubert isn't the only sterling character in the group.  Rose's own mother is a real delight as well.  She cautions Hubert to think long and hard about marrying her daughter and then proceeds to regale him with the following tale.

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

"I finally asked her if there was any excuse she wanted to make for herself, and do you know what she said to me? She said, 'But Ma,' she said, 'they would have been laughing at him if I hadn't turned up.' Did you ever hear the like of that in your life? They would all have been laughing at him, and of course she couldn't have that, oh, no, they mustn't laugh at him, even though she hardly knew the fellow, except to say hello to, and so to save his face, she must go and put herself in the way of being laughed at worse--laughed at and talked about.

Again, compassion is not seen as anything other than weakness, foolishness.  A mother chooses to share this story with a potential suitor.  I'm not a rah-rah self-esteem fan; however, I think there are some lines that probably should be drawn in sharing the shortcomings of one's own daughter.  Or not.

And Ms. Brennan caps her story with this delightful observation:

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

Rose left Hubert to read the full account of Mr. Kinsella's life and circumstances, which he had read earlier with less attention, because it had been in yesterday's morning new, and she herself looked idly through the back pages of the old Sunday paper, and found several items that she had missed on her first reading. When she remarked on this to Hubert, he observed that she had never learned to read properly, that she was a careless reader who skipped too often and did not concentrate onwhat she was reading, and it was a ptiy, because it was hard to form a good habit when you were older, and just as hard to break a bad habit once it had taken hold of you.

These meticulous and sharply recorded observers of each interaction help us to see the characters, understand them, sometimes sympathize with them, but more often than not draw back, if not in horror, at least in incredulity at the way they treat one another.

But another wonderful effect of the stories is that they ask you to look inside and see how you are behaving--where are you in the spectrum of character?  They point out the horror that is the relationship of others and then turn the mirror on each of us and say--so how do you compare?  It is a salutary act to look into that mirror long and hard and see how much of Hubert, Rose's mother, even Rose is in each of us.





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