July 19, 2007
Maeve Brennan: The Visitor
I don’t often look too closely at my Amazon recommendations. They are usually along the lines of: We see you bought Book X by Author Y. Why not try every other book by Author Y in multiple editions? But recently they came up with this title: based on what, I’ve no idea. Maeve Brennan? Never heard of her. It turns out she was an Irish writer who lived most of her life in the USA and wrote for The New Yorker magazine. Collections of her stories are available in the US but not in the UK. The Visitor was discovered in typescript form in a university archive after her death, and was written sometime in the 1940s, making it her earliest known work of fiction. And it is a tremendous discovery: for the world of literature via the University of Notre Dame … and for me via Amazon.
The Visitor tells the story of 22-year-old Anastasia King’s return to Dublin after her mother’s death. She and her mother had lived in Paris following her parents’ separation.
Her thoughts went back to Paris; dwindling uncertain pictures formed in her mind. Again she was saying goodbye to her father. There he was in miniature, and she also, in a clear cold miniature room. He turned and faded out through the hotel door that opened inward. He looked a bit like a tortoise, all bent and curving in on himself, carrying his hat in his hand. For the first time she had wanted to say she was sorry, at last to say how sorry she was, but he was already down the corridor and around the corner and gone.
Anastasia goes to stay with her grandmother Mrs King in Dublin: she believes she is going to live there now her mother is dead, but Mrs King makes it clear she is only a visitor, for spiteful reasons. (“It might have been different, maybe, if you’d been with me when he died. But you weren’t here.”) Brennan creates the old grudgeful woman brilliantly, illuminating her character in brief slipped-in lines – “She smiled in anger” – while giving Anastasia’s experience of Dublin and memories of Paris an almost lyrical feel.
Mrs King sees nobody in her house, except another visitor Miss Kilbride, a Havisham-like figure who like Anastasia, nursed her mother until death and whose existence since then provides a warning to the younger woman. She entrusts Anastasia with a task, the outcome of which had me gasping despite its low-key status, thanks to Brennan’s control of the tension and atmosphere of the house and the city.
The Visitor is published in the UK by Phoenix, but the one I picked up and which I recommend is a dinky little edition from Irish publishers New Island. It’s small enough to slip in any pocket, and contains a fascinating introduction and editor’s note, giving details of Brennan’s life and the discovery of the typescript of The Visitor after her death. Both are readily available from Amazon. I owe them one, after all.