October 10, 2008

Brian Moore: The Revolution Script

Posted in Moore Brian at 8:00 am by John Self

One thing which may have escaped anyone who started reading my blog recently is that I embarked last year on what it pleased me to call a Mooreathon, that is, a chronological work-through of the novels of Belfast-born, Canadian-citizen, US-resident Brian Moore. Moore was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, was Graham Greene’s favourite living novelist (at least during one interview), was sometime pals with Richard Yates (who envied Moore’s success), and wrote the script for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (which was neither Moore’s nor Hitch’s finest hour, but led to Moore’s final settlement in Malibu, where he died in 1999). So if, as they say, you’ve just joined us, go here for the earlier instalments.

I invite you to do that because The Revolution Script (1971) is a bad place to start. It’s unrepresentative of Moore’s novels, far from his best work (he subsequently disowned it, considering it ‘journalism’), and it has never been reprinted since its initial publication. Nonetheless, it is well worth investigating for the seasoned Moore fan.

Five years after the publication of In Cold Blood, The Revolution Script is Moore’s own attempt at a ‘non-fiction novel’, concerning events – entirely news to me, almost four decades later – in October 1970 in Canada (“America, yet not America. Canada, but not Canada. Québec”), when separatist movement the Front du Libération de Québec (FLQ) kidnapped a British commissioner and a government minister. The outcome is detailed in large part in the blurb (and completely in the Wiki link back there) but for the uninitiated there are some surprises.

The biggest one is that Moore before now had produced seven novels intensely examining one person’s life in a moment of crisis: the best of these, in my view, being Judith Hearne, Ginger Coffey, and The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Here, however, he breaks that form dramatically and paves the way for his late period thrillers (which accounted for two of his Booker listings: The Colour of Blood (1987) and Lies of Silence (1990)). The writing is not yet pared down as it would become, and the relinquishing of control on one character means that Moore spreads his characterisation a little thin.

To some extent this is inevitable. Although he gives some convincing portrayals of the public figures – such as the “media-created character, the swinging Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau” – the members of FLQ remain an unknown quantity. Moore in his foreword tells us that he interviewed friends of the kidnappers, and listened to their taped discussions, but the slightness of their characterisation suggests that Moore recognised what the kidnappers and Trudeau did:

The truth was, the kidnappers’ Marxist rhetoric could not comprehend the complexities of the situation: they could no more have imagined the bargaining, the manoeuvring, the jawboning necessary to secure the extraordinary measures now afoot than could Trudeau understand what it was like to be young, enraged, impotent. They would never understand him: he would never think to comprehend them.

This failure of communication and understanding runs through the story. When the kidnappers – whom Moore presents not unsympathetically – are ready to drop most of their demands and release their hostage, another group kidnaps a government minister and takes a much harder line. They adopt the FLQ label, muddying the outside perception of the group and threatening their indirect negotiations with the government. Then again, Moore’s representation of the kidnappers as raving kids playing revolutionaries may simply be accurate, if the “sour Mao dough of revolutionary cliché” in their sombre and pompous press releases – “communiqués” – is to be believed.

Certainly from what I can tell having now read a little around the subject, Moore presents the facts faithfully and all the documents and public pronouncements by the parties involved are on record. This includes what seems to be Prime Minister Trudeau’s most famous statement on the crisis, when asked how far he would go to stop the kidnappers: “Just watch me.” The world did watch, and Trudeau (“the tough in the back alley, his blood up, eager to fight”) invoked the War Measures Act, which the blurb helpfully defines as “the most repressive laws ever invoked in a democracy in peacetime.” The FLQ as presented in the book numbered about half a dozen people, but under the War Measures Act hundreds of innocent individuals are rounded up at the PM’s pleasure – which cannot but bring to mind parallels with the ‘War on Terror’.

As a novel, it all just about works, particularly when the pace picks up after the halfway point, and gives us some surprising developments along the way: we can guess the Canadian government didn’t have much experience of dealing with terrorists, and they are late in recognising the power of the oxygen of publicity. For a Moore reader, The Revolution Script is not of major interest in itself, but it is an interesting development and precursor to what he would later do (and had done before, as he began his career writing thrillers under assumed names). It may well have shaken him away from the habit of his earlier novels – his next book, Catholics, would be another departure. For those new to Moore, start here. Or elsewhere, if you see what I mean.

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9 Comments »

  1. Tom Cunliffe said,

    What an excellent writer Brian Moore was. I’ve read Lies of Silence and The Colour of Blood and admire your determination to revisit his books. So many writer’s fade away – how many people read Graham Greene these days? Let’s hope Moore is remembered for years to come.

  2. dewitt henry said,

    You might enjoy my essay from PLOUGHSHARES on Moore’s novels, just as realistic fiction was being dismissed by the critical establishment. See
    Likewise my novel, THE MARRIAGE OF ANNA MAYE POTTS.

  3. John Self said,

    Thanks DeWitt – in fact I’m already familiar with your excellent essay, having discovered it when searching online for Moore matter, and have recommended it to others. Here it is for anyone else who may be interested. I’m pleased that you rate The Luck of Ginger Coffey as among his best; it’s sadly overlooked.

    Tom, the two you mention are from his late ‘thriller’ period and I think you might be surprised and pleased by some of his earlier stuff. Moore is definitely a writer worth keeping alive (as it were).

  4. KevinfromCanada said,

    Sorry to be late into this commentary but I took a holiday.

    I was a journalist (albeit in Alberta) when the FLQ kidnapping crisis happened. I was also a recently graduated, left-wing student — a number of my friends in Quebec got rounded up in the War Measures Act travesty.

    I’ve never read this book but I do remember something about it. Just as Moore regetted his foray into “journalism”, those of us who were journalists resented his intrustion into our trade — this book is neither fiction nor journalism, it is kind of mash between the two, was the prevailing wisdom. He should have either stuck to his trade or committed himself to a new one.

    In no way does that argue against this review, since it is a part of a larger project. But I do think it points out that this is a marginal work in the broader oeuvre — and one that I am having difficulty finding a copy to read.

    John, what is next in your Moorathon? I’d like to be up to date when you post and think I do have most in my library somewhere.

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks for the valuable background info, Kevin. The Revolution Script is most definitely a marginal work in Moore’s oeuvre, but I’m glad I read it.

    Next up is Catholics (also published in 1972), which I’ve read a couple of times but which has mostly faded from my memory. It’s Moore’s shortest book at just about 100 pages.

    After that it’ll be The Great Victorian Collection (1975), which is one of the four remaining Moores that I’ve never read. I daresay it’ll be a month or two before I read my next one though.

  6. Demob Happy said,

    Hi John,
    Interesting post – i’ve never read any Moore but I’m very interested in the ‘non-fiction novel’, or ‘New Journalism’ as others have called it (or is there a difference??). I have to say ‘In Cold Blood’ still tops the genre for me, though there are Norman Mailer (more The Fight or Armies of the Night, than The Exectioner’s Song) and Tom Wolff (Electric Cool Aid Acid Test) works that I admire. Any other recommendations in this ball park would be welcome,
    James

  7. Filipinoguy said,

    This is a great blog. I came across this site and never left since. I read all the book reviews and they’re all above expectations. John Self, you are a literature god and please maintain this. Keep the reviews coming! I am looking forward to see reviews from Nobel winners. Thanks! ;)

  8. John Self said,

    Er, thanks Filipinoguy – if your name had a link I would think your praise had an ulterior motive! As for Nobel winners – I have a Saramago I’m hoping to read soon, so keep an eye out for that.

  9. Filipinoguy said,

    Haha. I was just glad that I have discovered this blog of yours after browsing countless book blogs. I am really a Saramago fan. I’m looking forward to have his ” Death with Interruptions” reviewed. I was a bit surprised with how Le Clezio managed to get this year’s prize though. Never heard of him…


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