January 1, 2008
Brian Moore: I am Mary Dunne
Anyone who browses this blog regularly is probably right about now thinking, “Not another frigging Brian Moore novel.” Perhaps I am overstating his importance? But if you don’t believe me, I’m not the only one getting excited about his output. Try the blog of Lizzy Siddal, a recent Moore convert, and her second blog set up solely to celebrate yer man’s oeuvre, irresistibly titled The Moore the Merrier. Also there’s a thread dedicated to him on book forum Palimpsest, admittedly begun by me, but picked up with enthusiasm (like his books) by many others. And his first novel has featured in an extensive book group discussion there, and the title which is the subject of this post is this month’s book group read.
Moore is often celebrated for his portrayal of female characters, particularly in his 1953 debut The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, and his 1976 Booker shortlisted novel The Doctor’s Wife. But his sixth novel I am Mary Dunne  is the first which the narrative is an uninterrupted internal monologue by a woman. As a result it has greater unity than some of his earlier books, but is less strongly plot driven.
Mary sets out her stall clearly on page one: she believes “we are what we remember,” which immediately put me in mind of James Salter’s comment on his masterpiece Light Years, “It was to be a book of pure recall … There was a line of Jean Renoir’s that struck me: the only things that are important in life are those that you remember. That was the key.” But Moore is not a stylist like Salter, and his character’s concerns are self-consciously ‘smaller’.
She was born Mary Dunne in Canada but has been married three times, and has been Phelan, Bell and now Lavery, a New Yorker. Little wonder then that at the beginning of the book, Mary momentarily forgets her name. The rest of the book describes the events of the rest of that day, cut with the background which she believes brought her to where, and who, she is.
Perhaps part of my uncertainty about who I am these days is because, living with Terence, I am introduced to everybody as Mrs Terence Lavery. ‘You mean the Terence Lavery, the British playwright, that one?’ Yes, that one. When Terence and I meet new people, eyes go to him. If I start talking to a stranger at a party and Terence comes up, I find I may as well forget whatever it was I was saying. Oh, I suppose men still look at me, but with this difference. When they hear who I am they at once ask if Terence is with me and what he’s doing these days. Then we talk about Terence.
Her husband is a playwright and Mary, symbolically enough, is an actress, but starved of good parts. She is haunted with guilt over the death of her second husband, ‘Hat’ Bell, which she fears had its seeds in her abandonment of him, just as she abandoned her first husband (“I seem condemned to relive those few days, to go over and over them in my mind so that now, with time and repetition, those events are a play of which I remember every line, stage direction, entrance and exit”).
Mary fears that she has so long been defined as an adjunct to someone else that she no longer has an identity of her own.
I am no longer Mary Dunne, or Mary Phelan, or Mary Bell, or even Mary Lavery. I am a changeling who has changed too often and there are moments when I cannot find my way back.
She defines herself by how others regard her (“in that moment I wonder what sort of woman they must think me to be and then began to wonder myself”). It could be an attempt to disengage from this which leads to her rejection of her husbands, and even the traditional child’s distancing from her parents, the purest form of unrequited love:
I made tactful excuses, too busy to come this summer, hoping for Christmas, spring at the latest. And you who once were my whole world, you became – what? A letter from Nova Scotia. A letter once a month, written in that convent hand, the hand that the Sacred Heart nuns taught you fifty years ago, that hand which writes cold all week and snow and Dick’s eldest, a hand which forms sentences I skim over, half reading, until this morning in that same hand, in among those years of sentences, the doctor says I’m to go in this week and have it out, it’s a lump of some sort – and oh, Mama, darling, darling, darling, oh, my poor old, God spare you now, that God you trust, that God I no longer know.
Mary is also surrounded in the book by people who are not what they seem: a lonely man who may be a con artist, a respectable gentleman who makes obscene suggestions, a friend who is hardly worthy of the name. The book becomes an investigation into identity and how much our own sense of self can exist independent of others, and how “in the carnival hall of mirrors which is our memory, we distort what we see”. At one point Mary reflects that “Dostoevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, Yeats. They knew who they were and, because they did, we, posterity, will always know.” But those writers, like any writer, like the overlooked Brian Moore, live on only in the reader’s mind and now they, too, cannot exist without our perceptions of them. I suppose that is the least we can do for them in return for what they give us.