March 28, 2008
Brian Moore: Fergus
In a recent bout of being unable to decide what book to read next, starting and abandoning several in quick succession – we need a name for that – I plumped for the reliable, though I hope not comfortable, Brian Moore, and the next book in my chronological Mooreathon, his seventh novel Fergus (1971). The cover below in fact is not the edition I read, but as the copy I have is a montage design (UK Vintage 1992, fellow publishing geeks) even messier than that below, and doesn’t even have a pert bottom on it by way of compensation, who’s complaining?
What’s particularly rewarding about reading a novelist’s work in order of publication is that – at the risk of stating the obvious – you get to see the progression of his themes and style, and indeed the recurrence of motifs and subjects as the writer tackles them from different angles. “The perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn,” to quote myself quoting someone else. In Fergus, we have what seems to be a culmination of several of Moore’s themes: the investigation into identity (previously seen in I am Mary Dunne); the writer’s work and its conflicts with ‘real life’ (from An Answer from Limbo); and the emigrant’s – the everyman’s – difficulty in escaping his roots (in pretty much everything from Ginger Coffey to the two already mentioned).
In Fergus, Fergus Fadden is an Irishman who has become a writer and whose success with his first two novels has attracted the attention of a Hollywood producer, who has now employed to write a script for his next film. Very Mooreish, because it was Brian Moore’s second novel The Feast of Lupercal which caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock, who then employed him to script Torn Curtain (an experience Moore famously described as “awful, like washing floors”). Hitchcock is said to be the inspiration for the character of Bernard Boweri in Fergus, although Boweri is a producer rather than a director. It’s an unkind portrait anyway:
They entered a large library. Fergus noticed a beautifully bound set of the Harvard Classics just inside the entrance and stopped, momentarily, to look at the book spines. ‘I like sets of books,’ Boweri said. ‘Look over there. That’s the entire Modern Library. When a new book comes out in the series, Bennett Cerf just sends it along. And look. That’s every fiction selection of the Book of the Month Club, since World War Two. A year ago, I look a rapid reading course. I liked it so much that for kicks I bought the company that sells the course. I put some money in, and since then it’s doubled its growth rate. I like to do things that are worthwhile. Cultural things, you know?’
In the course of the book, Fergus is anxiously awaiting Boweri’s decision on whether he is going to have to rewrite the script – again. He is also worried about his relationship with his girlfriend, Dani (like Moore, Fergus’s first marriage has ended by this time). But the living are the least of his worries. The bulk of Fergus is made up of literal hauntings from ghosts in Fergus’s past, who keep coming back as not so blithe spirits – his family, his friends – to confront him. These scenes are well done, managing to be human and not ridiculous – though the “high comedy” identified in the book by Moore’s biographer Patricia Craig didn’t seem all that evident to me, other than in snatches:
How like his father to appear, then disappear again without giving him a chance to say a word. That had been his father’s style right up his final vanishing trick, the night of his sudden death in the downstairs bedroom in Hampden Street in Belfast, his father’s heartbeat stopping at the precise moment that Fergus, all unknowing, had begun to masturbate in his own bed, one floor above.
All the sins the ghostly visitors chastise him for are, of course, in Fergus’s mind, like the ghosts themselves. He is tortured by the idea that his fine words (as a writer) are not enough to make up for moving on to a new life: his realisation when confronted with an old schoolfriend that “he had not thought of him since” leads to the feeling that “forgetting is the most terrible thing that can happen to a person. … Remembering, that’s what counts.” The repeated refrain is
A man is what he does, not what he says he does.
That Moore’s protagonist should be racked by old-fashioned Catholic guilt makes a change, as before the one thing all his emigres have had in common is that they know they don’t regret leaving the old country. Here the association – and conflict – between character and author is clearer than ever before, as Moore plays with notions of creation and authenticity. Moore is creating a character based on himself, who in turn is creating characters both on the screenplay page and in his memories, again based on himself (and therefore, to some extent, on Moore); the layers never smudge or blur. Fergus comments on the apartment where a friend lives:
Everything in these apartments is made of some type of synthetic material, which, if possible, is designed to look like the natural material it replaces. And these materials repel wear and tear. Stains wash off. I could live here for a year and leave no mark on anything. My presence would count for nothing.
This also works as a comment on the superficial and disposable nature of Hollywood life (and the ‘underappreciated’ role of the writer in the film industry in particular), as well as the artist’s yearning for a continuing existence beyond death through the survival of his work. What’s remarkable is that Moore has taken elements from his life and contemporary frustrations, which could have given rise to a boring rant of a book, and through some alchemy has made the ideas timeless and relevant.