November 26, 2007
Brian Moore: The Emperor of Ice-Cream
Experiencing Brian Moore’s novels in order of publication has given me greater reading pleasure than almost anything else this year. From the stagnations (alcoholic and sexual, respectively) in Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, to the tragicomic portraits of ambition in Ginger Coffey and An Answer from Limbo, each of his first four novels has something (and usually a good deal) to recommend it. His fifth novel, The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965), is the first where reading it has been a miserable experience. And why? Because for such a great novel – a masterpiece, it seems to me – to be out of print, when publishers should be fighting for the right to reissue it as a modern classic, is a tragedy.
Tragedy is more or less how Gavin Burke sees his life in Belfast as the second world war breaks out. As with Moore’s earlier novels, Belfast – “this dull, dead town” – is a place which crushes its people through stagnation, parochialism, and the ever-present dead hand of religion (“all would remain still in this land of his forefathers. Ireland free was Ireland dead. The terrible beauty was born aborted”). This is Moore’s most autobiographical work: not only does Gavin’s attitude reflect his own, which led to his fleeing the city forever in the 1940s, but he also has the same wartime job as Moore: working for the FAP (First Aid Party) of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), a post which seems simultaneously not manly enough (“a paradise for parasites”) and a bridge too far for his parents, who want him to return to school. But Gavin, reading poetry by Yeats, Eliot and Wallace Stevens which he knows none of his family would understand (actually, for Stevens, include me there), has hopes:
How could you tell him that for you, the war was an event which had produced in you a shameful secret excitement, a vision of the grown-ups’ world in ruins? It would not matter in that ruined world if Gavin Burke had failed his Schools Leaving Certificate. The records would be buried in the rubble. War was freedom, freedom from futures. There was nothing in the world so imposing that a big bomb couldn’t blow it up.
Gavin is not the only one who sees the war as an opportunity. A middle-class Catholic lad, he is well aware of the nationalists in Belfast who reject British rule, like one of Gavin’s colleagues, ‘Your Man’ Gallagher:
What most of his Falls Road neighbours felt about this war could be summed up in the fact that they considered it a point of honour to leave a light shining in their upstairs windows at night in case any German bombers might come over the city. Your Man, a former member of the IRA, agreed with the slogan that England’s adversity was Ireland’s opportunity, but he no longer had any great hopes of the IRA as a force to overthrow the British. He put his money on Hitler.
Other FAP men also want the bombing to begin in earnest, “so that people will stop making fun of them. Heroes can’t be heroes without disasters.” (Even when it does, the old divisions remain: one old woman, being rescued by Gavin and his friend Freddy, cries, “Let go of me. Are youse Fenians?”) The FAP men are a motley crew indeed, “a thread of lonely people, willing to put up with any charade in order to spend their evening hours in the company of others.” What Moore does so well in The Emperor of Ice-Cream is invest them all with a full personality with apparent ease, not least the leader of Gavin’s group, Mr Craig, who exhibits the megalomaniac qualities of any man with limited power in one arena and none elsewhere in his life. This fine line in grotesques extends to minor characters like the boor Bobby:
Ah, but you didn’t hear about my little game last month in Portstewart. I got heaved out of a Methodist church. We were passing by, Sheila and I, and we heard these sweet young voices singing hymns. So we went in, went up to the church loft, and there were all these children. And a lovely little soprano, about fourteen, I think. When she started her solo, I slipped in beside her and put my hand up her skirt. She ended on a very high note indeed.
Moore’s triumph in this deft characterisation also is to make Gavin sympathetic to the reader, despite his delusions of grandeur and self-defeating behaviour. He maintains conversations with the demon on his shoulder, his ‘Black Angel’:
The White Angel sat on his right shoulder and advised the decent thing. The Black Angel sat on his left shoulder and pleaded the devil’s cause. The White Angel was the official angel: everybody had one. It had all been explained to him in catechism class when he was a little boy. In catechism class the Black Angel was barely mentioned. The trouble was, the Black Angel seemed more intelligent; more his sort.
This enables Moore to present internal monologues with wit and life, particularly in Gavin’s conflict with his parents, who don’t accept his youthful desire to do things differently, and his flirtations with communism and rejection of religion. “Gavin wondered if his mother would ever speak to him again if she could spend just thirty seconds inside his mind. He doubted it.” His father seems to Gavin to be a man who “read the newspaper as other men played cards, shuffling through a page of stories until he found one which confirmed him in his prejudice.” Yet we see the wider picture too, not least through the development of Gavin’s character through the story, from youthful rebellion to one who realises, as the Black Angel side of him is silent in adversity, that “as always, the one who egged you into things had no words when retribution came.”
The Emperor of Ice-Cream is a novel which seems to me to have everything, not least a fresh perspective on the much-novelised subject of the second world war. It is a coming-of-age story and a portrait of an era. As the last of that triumphant run of Moore’s early novels to take mid-century Belfast as its setting, it is a high point in his output and could not be bettered, a perfect amalgam of multi-faceted subject and unfussy form, keeping numerous plates spinning at once. It confirms Moore in my mind as one of my favourite novelists and elevates him, for me, into the twentieth century greats. With five of his books in my chronological Mooreathon (TM) now read and another fifteen to go, it is with enthusiasm and confidence than I can say: Moore! I must have Moore!