The Springs of Affection, by Maeve Brennan

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Maeve Brennan was a staff writer for The New Yorker, and by all accounts a colorful character. In his Introduction, William Maxwell described some of her antics such as hanging her large framed photograph of Colette by Louise Dahl-Wolfe on the wall above his desk, removing it later when he said or did something she didn’t like. One day it was back again. It came and went “like a cloud shadow. I never knew why and thought it would be a poor idea to ask.”

The stories in this book, all quite stunning, are set in Dublin where Brennan grew up. The first set seem to be autobiographical. They are in first person and the characters have the names of Maeve and her family. The home is the rowhouse on a dead-end street in a Dublin suburb where Maeve grew up.

Each recounts some incident—whether small, such as a man coming to the house to sell apples or the delivery of a new sofa, or large, such as a fire in the garage out back or raids by men looking for her father during a time of dissension between those in favor of a Republic and those supporting the Free State—but imbues it with such accuracy and character that it seems to hold a whole lifetime.

These stories remind me of writer and teacher Meg Rosoff advising us writers to look at the incidents that stick in our memory’s colander, those seemingly unimportant bits of the past. Yet there is a reason we remember them, and if we dig deeper we may be surprised by what emerges.

The second section is a series of stories exploring the particulars of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s unhappy marriage. Their only son John has become a priest, leaving Rose bereft. Over the course of the stories, details emerge about the family dynamics and the psychological burdens borne by the couple.

The stories in the third section are also about a marriage, not quite so fraught as the Derdons’ but held in a precarious balance. Martin and Delia Bagot lead mostly independent lives, he working late while she is responsible for the house, garden and two girls. However, the eponymous final story, told through Martin’s twin sister Min after the couples’ deaths, gives us a different slant on their relationship, though not perhaps the one Min intended.

What especially fascinates me about the Derdon and Bagot stories are the narrative scenes. As writers we usually balance narrative, also known as exposition, with dramatic scenes. These scenes usually have action and dialogue and conflict between characters. However, it is possible to write scenes that are all narrative. Usually writers are advised not to include long narrative passages, as they can be boring and slow the story to the point where momentum is completely lost.

However, a narrative scene is different, containing all the drama and emotion of an action scene. C.S. Lakin says, “What makes for great narrative scenes is the character voice.” I agree, but Brennan in these stories also shows the value of burrowing deep into her characters’ hearts and minds. Her astute understanding of their psychology, their fears and dreams, their upbringing and social context makes for stirring reading.

For example, 87-year-old Min is still furious about Martin having married Delia, even though both of them are now dead. She believes that his doing so broke up their family, saying of their mother:

. . . who had sacrificed everything for them and asked in return only that they stick together as a family, and build themselves up, and make a wall around themselves that nobody could see through, let alone climb. What she had in mind was a fort, a fortress, where they could build themselves up in private and strengthen their hold on the earth, because in the long run that is what matters—a firm foothold and a roof over your head. But all that hope ended and all their hard work was mocked when Delia Kelly walked into their lives.

This is telling about something that happened instead of showing it in a scene with action and dialogue. Yet it works, because of the vivid language, the voice—can’t you just hear Min?—and the accuracy and precision of the author’s insight into this character.

As I closed the book, moved by Min’s unconscious revelations about herself and by the two couples and Maeve herself as a child, I found myself thinking about my own childhood. Like Brennan, like all of us I suspect, those early years of family and the house that contained us have almost mythic status in my imagination. I can understand how she wanted to return again and again to that well of inspiration.

Have you read a collection of short stories that you’d recommend? Perhaps they carried you away to a faraway place or gave you a new understanding of human nature? Perhaps they introduced characters whom you can’t seem to forget?

Calyx, Volume 24, No. 1

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Cleaning out a box, I came across this copy of Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. I’m not sure where it came from, but I could tell right away that I had never read it. The opening story was so gripping, I knew I would not have forgotten it.

In “Goulash”, by Anna Balint, the fourteen-year-old narrator is in Budapest, Hungary with her parents and younger brothers visiting Uncle Zoltan and his family: Auntie Eszter and their daughter Gizi. They are all on their way out into the countryside, a trip Zoltan didn’t want to take and Eszter is still angry about. But Mum fought for it, Mum who refuses to speak Hungarian, who claims she is “English, English, English.” There is much here about language and heritage and what we choose to remember, about denial and loss, all wrapped in a story full of enticing scents and sounds, the taste of apricots and hot peppers, singing in the night, and outstretched hands.

The poetry in this volume, too, is stunning. Each poem resounded deep within me. Such innocent images at first, drawing the reader in, ever further in, through forests of joy or comfort or peace. Take “Doorpost”, by Laurie Patton:

There is a lightness
when we cross a threshold—
. . .
No matter the sorrow,
every door holds a hope

And then the memories summoned by the room’s objects begin to multiply, memories of joys and losses, of days past, days that can seem like a future—all conveyed in just a few lines. And then the final lines subtly tie these memories to the image of the door, the threshold, the liminal space between past and future.

There is art here as well, black and white photographs of paintings and sculptures, starting with four pieces by Leah Kosh that seem to unearth hidden memories in me, truths I once knew but have let slip away. Kosh says, “My paintings most often explore the belief that there are a multiplicity of realities co-existing and that these realities are our shadows and our mirrors—always with us, rarely acknowledged.”

Four substantial reviews of books by women close the volume.

Each piece in this issue is a gem. I am stunned by the quality of the works and their diversity. There are stories of a girl who sees her absent mother as a star floating in a pond, of a young woman whose boyfriend’s age seems to be going backwards, of an older woman who has suffered one too many accidents. There are astonishing poems about crows and dancing and walking in the dark.

There are hundreds of literary magazines out there. I used to subscribe each year to a different one, until I hit a rough patch timewise and decided to get through the backlog before continuing. However, there has always been one so consistently good that I’ve continued to subscribe to it and read year after year.

I think I’ve just found a second one.

What literary magazines have you enjoyed reading?

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

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This new anthology comes in the middle of the centennial of the Great War, later called World War I. Usually when we think of centennials we think of celebrations, but this occasion is one for remembrance, with all the mixed emotions memory evokes.

I have written before about the reasons for my intense interest in this war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon took me beyond the dry facts of schoolroom history. My fascination grew as I began to realise just how much those few years changed Western culture and influenced all that has happened since.

These stories all take place, at least in part, on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended, not in victory or defeat so much as in exhaustion. They are love stories: romantic love, love between parent and child, love of a native or adopted country. They express on a personal level what that day meant.

The authors—Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig—come to that day in different ways. Some stay firmly in that day while others start before or after. Stories are set in Paris, Brussels, Kenya, Dublin, the English village of Brimsworth, even Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

All are haunted by loss. The indescribable losses of those years, falling on a population accustomed to peace and plenty, left everyone terrified whenever the postman stopped at their door, as Hazel Gaynor describes in her story “Hush”. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces experienced 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom died. French and German forces also suffered huge numbers of casualties.

Yet even with the omnipresent losses, these are stories of unexpected connection. Evangeline Holland’s narrator in “After You’ve Gone”, Morven, is a woman of color from Scotland, without money or friends in Paris when she meets a man who has a surprising link with her past. In Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph” set in the present day, Bridie learns something new about her beloved great-aunt that helps her find a way forward in her current troubles. In “Hour of the Bells” Heather Webb’s heroine, Beatrix, the native German widow of a French clockmaker-turned-soldier, undertakes a journey out of despair that leads to surprising encounters.

If there is consolation to be found in contemplating these cruelly hard times, it is this: that in the midst of death, we are alive. Even in our great grief, we can be touched and at least a little healed by love.

What stories of World War I have you read?