Review by Karen Langley
There has been a resurgence of interest in the fiction writing of author Maeve Brennan recently, with her short stories in particular having gained much critical acclaim since her death in 1993. Born in Ireland, she emigrated with her family to America when she was 17, and remained there living and working for the rest of her life. A regular writer for the New Yorker, which began publishing her stories in 1950, she also provided journalism for them and was responsible for a long-running series of sketches about New York under the pseudonym ‘The Long-Winded Lady’. A compendium of many of these pieces was published under that title in 1968, with a later edition gathering some extra essays. This has now been reprinted in a handsome edition by Peninsula Press and it makes wonderfully evocative reading.
The pieces are not collected here in chronological order, and vary in length from what could be called fragments to essays spanning several pages. This format captures beautifully the discursive and random wanderings which Brennan took round the city, in true flaneur fashion, and as she roamed, she observed. People catch her eye; she dines alone near the windows of restaurants, book in hand to disguise her interest in everyone who passes. Her encounters and observations are recorded in crisp, clear, almost detached prose, yet Brennan is always interested in what is going on around her.
There is a great deal of virtue in feeling unseen.
Like Vivian Maier with her photographs of city streets and people, Brennan seems to be able to move anonymously through the streets, attracting no attention. A solitary wanderer, she moves from the subway to Broadway to Washington Square; takes in the old brownstones and new constructions; and watches parades, fights and fellow diners, all with the same precise and controlled eye. The picture of the city she builds up is vivid and haunting, almost as real as if you were right beside her, taking in the same things she’s seeing.
It was one of those lucky evenings when the white summer day turns to amber before it begins to break up into the separate shades of twilight, and in the strange glow the towering outline of the city to the south turned monumental and lonely. The Empire State changed color suddenly, and lost its air of self-satisfaction. Nothing was really certain anymore, except the row of pigeons standing motionless on the western wall of the pink terrace, and beneath, the old lady calmly reading her letter.
Brennan writes beautifully, it has to be said, and her descriptions are often elegiac. As you read on through the collection, something of a running theme emerges and that is of the loss of old New York. Her pieces span nearly 30 years, during which period there was much reshaping of the city taking place; she mourns a lost New York and regrets the new modern buildings wiping out its heritage of brownstones and quirky neighbourhoods. The new ‘office space giants’ as she refers to them will never replace the character which is disappearing from the city.
To walk along Broadway is like being a ticket in a lottery — a ticket in a glass barrel, being tossed about with all the other tickets. There are eyes everywhere. I watched the crowd that roamed along there last night, moving through the lonely light that comes after sunset, during the hour when the sky is vacant and the moon is still powerless. High in the fading sky, the big lights glimmered faintly, creating an architectural mirage that was like the reflection of another city — the New York no one has ever found, perhaps.
Despite the melancholy threading through the book, there is often dry humour too, although the overall tone is usually as downbeat as the city itself can be. A short piece from 1963, Balzac’s Favourite Food, is a perfect piece of writing and a perfect slice of life which captures a small scene in a bookshop where some noisy time-wasters disrupt the browsing. The book is full of such gems.
Brennan’s last appearance in the New Yorker was in 1981, and the period between that and her death in 1993 was not a happy one. Increasingly prey to erratic behaviour, she became destitute and homeless, apparently ending her days in a nursing home. However, she left behind a remarkable body of work in the form of these brilliant and evocative essays, and it’s a joy to see them back in print and readily available. The collection is introduced by Sinead Gleeson, who describes these pieces as “some of the most important writing about New York”; and I have to agree with her. Compelling, fresh and quite stunning, the Long-Winded Lady is a character you’ll never forget and reading about her meanderings will give you a marvellous look at a lost world. Quite exceptional!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and loves to mentally be a flâneuse in lost worlds (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
Maeve Brennan, The Long-Winded Lady (Peninsula Press, 2024). 978-1913512446. 212pp., hardback.
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