- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker: An Irish Writer in Exile

By Angela Bourke.

New York: Counterpoint. 333 pages, illustrated. $25.00.

Reviewed By Merle Rubin

“To be around her was to see style being invented,” recalled William Maxwell, who was Maeve Brennan’s editor at The New Yorker and also one of her closest friends.

“Barely five feet tall, she almost always dressed in black,” biographer Angela Bourke tells us, “and the high heels of her Papagallo shoes sounded along the corridors with the same brisk ‘little short step’ that [childhood playmate] Mairead Parker remembered at Coolnaboy. Her ponytail made her look younger than she was, but she was never without dark lipstick and thick mascara, and a red rose, or a carnation, in her lapel… .Whatever private hurts she carried, Maeve’s sense of the ridiculous remained intact, as did her wit; like her predecessor Dorothy Parker, she could be merciless. The people she didn’t like found her watchful, silent, and even dangerous; otherwise, though, she was funny, charming, and sometimes absurdly generous.”

“A woman alone in metropolitan American” is how Ms. Bourke describes the subject of her biography, the Irish-born writer Maeve Brennan. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Brennan and her work found a home, of sorts, at The New Yorker magazine, which not only published her powerfully observed, exquisitely wrought short stories, but also featured her engagingly breathless, ruefully hilarious accounts of life in the Big City as “The Long-Winded Lady” in its famous Talk of the Town column.

The middle daughter of the diplomat charged with representing the Irish Free State to America, Maeve was 17 when she and her family left their home in Ireland for Washington, D.C. in 1934. Exactly why she decided, eight years later, to go off to live on her own in New York is not quite clear. But before long, she landed a job at Harper’s Bazaar and began leading the breezy, independent, semi-glamorous life of that new type of modern woman, the “career gal.”

Even then, she was already working on her fiction, embarking on the first draft of a short story that would not actually be published until twenty years later: “A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances.” Hardly the sort to rush into print (it wasn’t until 1950 that she first had one of her stories published), Brennan was a genuine artist: not only a meticulous craftsman with an instinctive sense of style, but one committed to probing the neglected byways of memory and the hidden depths of the human heart.

As a chic young journalist-about-town in the 1940s Brennan hung out with such New Yorker crowd members as Brendan Gill, Joseph Mitchell, Philip Hamburger, and cartoonist Charles Addams prior to being invited to join that august publication in 1949. Throughout the 1950s, she regularly wrote most of the short, unsigned book reviews that ran under the heading “Briefly Noted” and made peripatetic appearances as “The Long-Winded Lady.”

Generous, impulsive, delicately balanced, and far from grounded, she married a man who could not have been less temperamentally suitable: impulsive, talented, improvident, thrice-divorced, paranoia-prone fellow New Yorker writer St Clair McKelway. Their marriage ended after five years, in 1959.

Although Brennan’s work, including her superb short stories, continued to grace the New Yorker’s pages through the 1960s and into the 1970s, Brennan herself was falling apart. She was in and out of mental health facilities, on and off the medications she was supposed to take, and in the two decades before her death in 1993 at age 76, she was sometimes spotted among the homeless on the streets of New York.

Brennan’s story is so poignant, so unbearably fascinating, it is easy to understand why it would attract the attention of a biographer. The raw material would seem to have the potential to furnish to inspire biography of the highest order: the nonfiction equivalent of “The Portrait of a Lady.” But Angela Bourke’s rendition of Brennan’s life is not only a long way from being a triumph of the biographer’s art; it is not even altogether satisfying in the humbler role of serving as a source of information.

A Senior Lecturer at University College Dublin, Ms. Bourke was drawn to Brennan by a sense of their shared Irish identity: “I grew up in Dublin, between the River Dodder and the Grand Canal, as Maeve Brennan did. I lived in a house of the same shape, played in a back garden like hers, and walked to the same kind of school, along the same kind of streets. I even pushed a little brother in a pram, as she had a generation earlier.”

As it happens, what turns out to be the best part of Ms. Bourke’s book is its account of Brennan’s family background. Maeve’s parents were deeply involved in the Irish Republican movement, and her father was particularly close to its leader, De Valera. Taking us through some of the turbulent events of the fight for Irish self-government, the bitter Civil War between former allies that followed it, and the repressive and confining quality of life (especially for women) in the newly independent nation, Ms. Bourke enables us to understand what made it so difficult for someone like Maeve to go home again.

A factor that may have played a major role in shaping Maeve’s emotional landscape, she suggests, was the transformation of her mother from a spirited, idealistic young woman into a well-nigh silenced wife. Ms. Bourke’s attention to Bob and Una Brennan’s marriage provides insights into the many short stories that Maeve set in Ireland.

But when it actually comes to the central mission of any biography, which is to give a reliable and coherent account of its subject’s life, Ms. Bourke’s efforts must be judged glaringly inadequate. To begin with, the book is badly written in the sense of being lumpishly paced and lacking in narrative drive.

Large matters, such as a love affair, a political change of heart, or a mental breakdown, are given no more consideration, no more weight in the telling of the story than the most trivial details, things such as what kind of carpet the Brennans had in their living room. But beyond the irritations it creates for the reader, the awkwardness of the book’s pacing, narration, and organization is directly related to a more serious problem.

To put it kindly, this is one biography that does not seem to have been, as the saying goes, “exhaustively researched,” certainly not when it comes to the things that matter the most. It’s full of details about the dimensions of rooms, the colors of rugs, and the plants in gardens, but when it comes to providing facts or insights into Maeve’s love life or her marriage, or giving us some idea of the nature of her mental illness, or how she managed in those missing years, Ms. Bourke has very little to tell us.

Nor is she always even that good on the details: having tracked down the name of the speaker who addressed Maeve’s college German Club in 1937, for instance, and having told us that the club’s programs often focused on present-day (thus Nazi) German culture and politics, she doesn’t bother to find out who this speaker was or what his politics were.

Nor does this biographer bother to address, or discuss ? or even acknowledge ? the problem of how little she has to tell. As one reads this book, hoping for a closer look at its elusive subject, one feels a lack, not only of information, but of the intelligence and informed judgment that are essential to good biography.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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