March 28, 2008

Brian Moore: Fergus

Posted in Moore Brian at 8:47 am by John Self

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?

Fergus

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.

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11 Comments »

  1. kimbofo said,

    Great review. And another reason for me to try Moore. I have The Statement in my pile somewhere.

    I like reading authors in chronological order too. I did that with John McGahern (although I still have his last one lying in wait — I can’t bring myself to read it, knowing there’ll be no more McGahern in the queue) and it really allowed me to appreciate his development as a writer.

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks k. The Statement was Moore’s last-but-one novel, published in 1995, and is not one of his best I think. It’s one of his late-period thrillers, and of that particular bunch Lies of Silence (1990) would be widely agreed to be the finest. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, like The Doctor’s Wife (1976) and The Colour of Blood (1987, another thriller). I suppose what I’m saying is that if you don’t like The Statement, don’t be put off!

    I have only read one McGahern, Amongst Women, which I thought was terrific. I also have his last novel That They May Face the Rising Sun, his Memoir and the posthumously published stories Creatures of the Earth.

  3. [...] in Maugham W. Somerset at 1:43 pm by John Self One of the consequences of my inability-to-settle-down-with-a-book-recently (I told you we need a word for that) was that I read a few shorties to get back into the flow of [...]

  4. David B said,

    That They May Face the Rising Sun is a fantastic book, I think. Memoir is fascinating to read when you’ve read the novels and short stories as you can see how he transmuted his life into fiction. Or, I suppose you could read it first – it’s a bleak tale – but that might spoil the short stories, which are wonderful.

    I’ve read all of Brian Moore’s first fifteen novels at least twice and I have to say that I found ‘Fergus’ to be by far the worst (unless you count ‘The Revolution Script’ as a novel, but for all its cliches, it’s much more readable than Fergus), precisely because it mixes up all kind of stuff from his fiction and his life. I found it stupidly self indulgent – but since I last read it 28 years ago, maybe I should have another go.

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks for visiting David: I think critical consensus would be on your side with Fergus, but what can I say? It tickled my literary taste buds! I have The Revolution Script next on my list, more for completeness than through any expectations of brilliance.

    Can I ask why you haven’t bothered with his last five books? (By my reckoning that would be The Colour of Blood, Lies of Silence, No Other Life, The Statement and The Magician’s Wife.)

    I will read McGahern soon, probably That They May Face the Rising Sun first.

  6. David B said,

    Sorry, that was open to misinterpretation. I meant that I’d only read the remaining five books once. Though now I think about it, I’ve read all but one of those you list (the Magician’s Wife I’ll doubtless get round to again) twice. I think ‘No Other Life’ is his late masterpiece. The other one I’ve not reread is ‘Black Robe’. Brilliant, in its way, but, as I recall, there was something cold about it. His least Moore-like novel.

    I did start rereading Fergus in bed last night. The writing is great, of course, but the plot has yet to grab me. That said, now that I’m a middle aged writer, I may find more to relate to than the first two times around, when I was a 20 and 22 year old student, writing a dissertation on Moore, my favourite novelist, for my English degree.

  7. John Self said,

    …writing a dissertation on Moore, my favourite novelist, for my English degree.

    That’s terrific, David! Did you draw any conclusions about his work as a whole? The phrase that tends to crop up is following characters from “moments of crisis.” You clearly have a lot Moore (ahem) experience of his books than I do. I’ve read most of the late ones, but it’s the mid-period ones that I don’t know which I’m most looking forward to in my chronological caper. Checking now, the ones I haven’t read are The Revolution Script, The Great Victorian Collection, The Mangan Inheritance, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes and Cold Heaven. I agree that Black Robe is a ‘tricky’ one.

    While you’re here, I wonder if you’ve seen this piece from 1974 on Moore’s novels (or what we would now call his early novels). And whether you’ve read either of the biographies: Denis Sampson’s or Patricia Craig’s. I have the latter but a friend who read it recently thought it wanting.

    Or maybe in asking all this I’m overestimating your current interest in Moore!

  8. David B said,

    You’ve still got some great ones left to read, then, John. Thanks for the link. I don’t remember that piece, though I’ve still got a pile of dusty articles somewhere in the attic. Read the Sampson biog, which was informative, but not the Craig. Is it considerably better?

    I don’t remember if I drew any firm conclusions about Moore, except that, at the time, I argued that ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ was his masterpiece, the work that all of his previous novels had been leading up to, and the most fully realised novel. But he kept evolving as a writer, confounding expectations by never writing the same kind of book twice, which is a very hard thing for a writer to do.

    I retain a strong interest in Moore. I’m still collecting UK first editions of his books (two to go!). I’ll try to write something about him on my own blog when I’ve finished rereading ‘Fergus’. Then maybe we can continue the conversation in my comments box.

  9. John Self said,

    I haven’t read either of the biogs. I have the Craig one, which I use as a reference work to read ‘around’ each novel after I’ve finished it: to find out about the writing, publication, reception etc. Hers is the authorised biography, so it may have stuff Sampson’s doesn’t. There was an amusing spat between Sampson and Craig in the London Review of Books in 2000. You can read their exchange here and here.

    Certainly I don’t think any of Moore’s books has given me more pleasure than The Doctor’s Wife (though The Emperor of Ice-Cream came close, and I still can’t believe it’s out of print), so I’d be with you there (or with your 22-year-old self!). Did you know that after being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the book was ruled out of contention when one of the judges, Mary Wilson, objected to the sexual content? I got that from Craig’s biog.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on Fergus on your blog in due course.

  10. David B said,

    Ah, that’s very interesting, knew nothing about that exchange, but Craig’s tone doesn’t make me want to rush to her book. Indeed, a knowledge of the seven pulp novels, which Moore evidently wanted suppressed, is kind of essential to an understanding of Moore’s later work. I’ve only read a couple of them (the prices on abe and eBay are very steep, indicating the continued interest in Moore’s work, plus they’re not that good) and they do show you a little of the thriller sensibility that came into Moore’s work from ‘The Colour Of Blood’ onwards. Pity Toibin’s review isn’t on line. I may have to dig it out of the university library. Thanks.

  11. John Self said,

    David B, who commented above, has kept his word and posted an excellent overview of Fergus and Moore’s work on his blog.


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