Maeve Brennan. The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from The New Yorker. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009. 268 pages. $15.95 (paper).
Except in our minds, there is no connection between the little American farmhouse and the Hungarian cats and the Hungarian pigeon, but in our minds these stories remind us of what we are waiting for — a respite, a touch of grace, something simple that starts us wondering. I am reminded of Oliver Goldsmith, who said, two hundred years ago, “Innocently to amuse the imagination in this dream of life is wisdom.”Imagine a solitary figure in an Edward Hopper painting who turns from the usual window, moves to a desk, and begins to write of what she has seen: that would be Maeve Brennan. From 1954 to 1981, Brennan (1917–1993) contributed unsigned items to the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker, each item introduced as the work of “the long-winded lady.” That name must have been a matter of a self hard at work deprecating: the fifty-six items gathered in this volume are nothing like long-winded. Almost all are just a few pages long, the work of a writer in search of something that will start her wondering, a writer given to noticing and thinking about her fellow strangers. Brennan is an observer, not a reporter: even when the people she studies seem available for questions, she asks none. She seems to speak only to tobacconists and waiters, and even then her words are implied, not stated.
From “The Farmhouse That Moved Downtown,” first published in the March 18, 1967 issue of The New Yorker.
“There is a great deal of virtue in feeling unseen,” Brennan writes in 1969. Feeling unseen, she looks down to the street from a high hotel-room window (she lives in a series of hotels); feeling unseen, she looks out to the street from a table in a nearly deserted restaurant (she likes restaurants with windows). Or she follows events at another table as she drinks a martini or eats a dish of coffee ice cream. Her Manhattan is a lonely town: quiet, somber blocks without the glare and hum of, say, Frank O’Hara’s city. In Brennan’s Manhattan, there is always just one thing happening, and the writer’s responsibility is to attend to it.
Brennan attends to the most modest details: an ailanthus tree, a plate of broccoli, a coffeeshop at 5:00 a.m., a Californian waiting for a Fifth Avenue bus, some boors in a bookstore, a newspaper story about cats and a pigeon. The content is sometimes slight, and reading too many of these pieces at a sitting might leave a reader too aware of their sameness. But Brennan is a maker of beautiful descriptive sentences, and that is what most draws me to her work:
Washington Square Park was being very satisfactory the other morning at six o’clock. It was a dripping green morning after a night of rain. The air was mild and fresh, and shone with a faint unsteadiness that was exactly like the unsteadiness of color inside a seashell.I began writing with the intention to comment on these sentences and then thought to let them speak for themselves. I must though point out the adverb exactly in the first passage. Remove it and what remains is merely a strained comparison. The slightly defiant exactly commands the suspension of disbelief and is, here, exactly right. Exactly right too is the word dripping, which seems to me one specific trace of the general influence of James Joyce’s Dubliners on Brennan’s prose, the word recalling the “dark dripping gardens” of “Araby” and the “dripping tree” of “The Dead.”
The few people who were about wore light-colored summer clothes, and they sauntered and strolled and paused to look around like the extras in an operetta just before the principals walk on and take the center of the stage.
The rain that had fallen all day today had stopped, leaving the air damp and the streets wet and shiny, tinted with city lights.
To read The Long-Winded Lady in 2012 is to read about a lost Manhattan. But in this book the city is already disappearing, its three- and four-story buildings giving way to the empire of “Office Space.” The names of now-defunct restaurants and stores appear here like the names of the dead, remembered now by fewer and fewer of the living: the Adano Restaurant, Bickford’s, the Eighth Street Bookshop, International Book & Art Shop, Le Steak de Paris, Longchamps, Marta’s Restaurant, The Old Place, Schrafft’s, Zucca’s. In Maeve Brennan’s writing, these places and their city still live.
[“Maeve Brennan of HARPER’S BAZAAR looking through store window.” Photograph by Nina Leen. United States, 1945. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a larger view.]