Sunday, August 17, 2014

Read This

Because it's fantastic.

It's an excerpt from a short Talk of the Town essay called "Howard's Apartment." It was written by Maeve Brennan, who wrote for The New Yorker as the "Long-Winded Lady" from 1951 to 1984.

This piece was published on November 11, 1967.

The setup: The Long-Winded Lady is house-sitting for a friend in a two-room Greenwich Village apartment on the third floor of a brownstone.  Her friend's apartment is in the rear of the building.  There is a party going on in the front apartment.  She hears the party in bursts, as the door opens and closes with each guest's arrival.  She is alone, listening to the party, and thinking of herself as a Goldilocks-style intruder in her friend's apartment when a rain storm sweeps in:

As the rose leaves fluttered, welcoming the downpour, the ailanthus trembled all over, and the flat red-and-black side of a large apartment building half a block away shone with color. Wherever the rain fell there was color, and the rain fell everywhere.  At the first moment of the storm, when the lightning flashed and the rain came thundering down, I stood up from the green velvet sofa where I am sitting and walked across to close the door to the terrace, and when I turned back, the room had become dim - nothing left of the brightness that had filled it all day. Now the room is vague and insubstantial and shows itself for what it really is - the accidental setting of an enigmatic but disquieting dream that I have dreamed before, in past rooms, and will dream again in rooms I have not yet seen.  It is a dream without people. The rain has gathered the room and me into the invisible world where there is no night and no day, and where walls and mirrors and trees and buildings are formed of advancing and retreating sound.  At this moment it is easy to see how mountains and oceans are created and erased by a shift in the light, and to understand that the solid earth may shrink without warning to the vanishing point underneath our feet.  The rain falls steeply, making cliffs as it falls, and its force has turned the room into a cave that is real only because it is hollow - a sounding place in which here is only one sound.  In the profound silence that rises here now, even echo and memory fade away.

A good friend of mine hunted down the 1997 reprint of the 1969 original collection of Brennan's Talk of the Town essays.  My copy, as per the publisher's note, includes a few essays that were not collected back in 1969.    I have kept the book next to my bed, along with Brennan's short story collection, The Springs of Affection (same friend).  The 1997 book is again out of print and there is no  e-book version.  This is proof that there is something really wrong with human beings.  

I have read both of my Brennan books in spurts, like you might eat some particularly expensive, complex cheese.  Each story or essay gives me so much to think about I can only manage a few pages before I have to stop and sleep.  In case you're wondering, this is high praise.

I'm not good enough at writing to put into words what makes these essays so good.  They are personal to Maeve Brennan, but also universal.  The incidents about which she writes are small New York incidents that are also common to us all.  E.g., a man on the subway offers her his seat and she, startled, says no thanks, I'm getting off at the next stop.  She starts thinking about what a nice, polite man he is, and how lucky his wife is, and then realizes she has two stops to go, and feels terrible because he will have misunderstood why she declined his offer. 

I find myself stopping at about every third sentence to wonder about Brennan's biography.  She came to New York with her Irish diplomat father when she was 17.  She became a New Yorker - to her toes - but not a fancy one.   (Although the Irish claim her, quite reasonably, as one of her own, q.v.).  From the essays you get the impression that she spent most of her New York time alone, on subways and sidewalks, in low-rent hotels, coffee shops, and bars. She was very beautiful, as the photo on the cover of my paperback shows, and she wrote about fashion at Harper's Bazaar before the New Yorker took her up.  Her romantic life was, however, a disaster.  She died alone, mentally ill, and camped out a lot of the time in one of the women's bathrooms at the New Yorker's old offices.   I visited those offices once, in about 1992.  I wish I had known she might have been lurking there. I wouldn't have known who she was, of course, and she might have whacked me with a shopping bag or otherwise terrified me, but I would treasure such an encounter now. Reading her essays tonight it occurs to me she was talented to the point of doom, like van Gogh.  If I was running the world, she would be as famous as he is.

I like to do you who stop by here favors sometime, and I am counting this post as one such.  If the excerpt I chose didn't blow you away, I hope you'll still look for the book.  It's full of other marvels, not quite so opaque, or that at least that you will come back here and look again some other time, maybe when things are strangely quiet.

Thanks to my friend who thought I would like Maeve Brennan.  Right again.