April 28, 2011

Brian Moore: Catholics

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

In the first 18 months of this blog, I wrote about Brian Moore’s first eight novels. Somewhere along the way this process became the Mooreathon, where I determined to read all of my fellow Belfast man’s novels and write about them here. You can read the earlier posts by clicking this link. Since the last, The Revolution Script, I’ve allowed two and a half years to pass, perhaps because that one was the weakest of his novels, or perhaps because I knew the next book in publication order was one I’ve already read twice and I was in no hurry to get to it. Anyway, here we are at last, back on track.

Catholics (1972) is Moore’s shortest novel – at 95 pages, barely a novella – and as much a departure for him as The Revolution Script was. In that book, he moved from studies of an individual at a time of crisis to a documentary ‘non-fiction novel'; here, he dabbles in a parallel universe. OK, that may be going too far: but technically Catholics should count as speculative fiction in the same way as, say, Never Let Me Go. Like Ishiguro, Moore has created a version of our own world as a springboard for exploration of human drama.

This is a world where the Catholic church has enacted not just Vatican II but also Vaticans III and IV. The latter has brought in significant changes to the worship and practice of the religion, including the banning of private confession (it was this that made me, a religious ignoramus, recognise that it was a parallel world) and the ending of the traditional Latin mass. There is a holdout, however: Muck Abbey, on an island off the coast of county Kerry in southwestern Ireland, continues to celebrate its mass as it used to be. As a result, the abbey has featured on a BBC TV programme and now attracts so many tourists that it has to perform special masses outdoors on the mainland to accommodate the “pilgrims”.

Most could see the Mass rock and the priest only from a distance, but all heard the Latin, thundering from loudspeakers rigged up by the townsfolk. Latin. The communion bell. Monks as altarboys saying the Latin responses. Incense. The old way.

Needless to say, this heresy attracts the attention of Rome. A young American priest, Father Kinsella, is sent to Muck (“The fog lifted. The island was there”) to ensure that the liturgical changes are adhered to. This is initially an opportunity for Moore – a northern Irish Catholic who was not so much lapsed as crashed – to explore the potential conflicts in making modernising alterations to the worship of God’s unchanging word. I found it hard not sympathise with the monk, Father Manus, who first confronts the ecumenical priest with the abbey’s way of thinking.

Look, we did nothing to start all this, we went on saying the Mass the way it was always said, the way we had been brought up to say it. The Mass! The Mass in Latin, the priest with his back turned to the congregation because both he and the congregation faced the altar where God was. Offering up the daily sacrifice of the Mass to God. [...] And the Mass was said in Latin because Latin was the language of the Church and the Church was one and universal and a Catholic could go into any church in the world, here or in Timbuktu, or in China, and hear the same Mass, the only Mass there was, the Latin Mass. And if the Mass was in Latin and people did not speak Latin, that was part of the mystery of it, for the Mass was not talking to your neighbour, it was talking to God.

The monks deplore the “playacting and nonsense” the Church has introduced in order to make it more appealing to today’s congregations. Moore deals with the issues as efficiently as we might expect (or rather more efficiently, given the skimpy page count), but his forte, as always, is the exploration of personalities. If the abbot of Muck is a problem for the young American priest sent by the Vatican, then the abbot has problems of his own. “It takes a special vocation to live in a place like this. Not many have it. I do not have it myself, I sometimes think.” “But you have lived on this island for most of your adult life?” “That does not mean I like it.” Here, spiritual aims clash with selfish – with human – interests, and the abbot measures himself against his ability to withstand the latter. Father Kinsella, on the other hand, is torn between the clearly devout and sincere practices of the monks at the abbey, and desire to curry favour with his Father General: are his aims godly, or ambitious and ingratiating?

The questions raised by Moore on a liturgical level are no more searching or revealing than those which will have occurred to any observer in the modern age – such as the recent ‘clarification’ by the Church on the theory of Limbo for Infants. “How can something be a miracle one day and not a miracle the next day?” one monk asks Father Kinsella, when advised that the Mass is to be regarded no longer as a miracle, but as a “pious ritual”. The whole book seems, on my third reading, to be somewhat thin fare by the standard of Moore’s other works – perhaps inevitably, given the page count. Nonetheless it has a purity and single-minded vision which makes it more memorable than the likes of Fergus. And his flirtation with speculative fiction, if we can call it that, would give him the confidence for more otherworldly experiments in later novels such as The Great Victorian Collection (which is next in the Mooreathon) and Cold Heaven. Catholics feels like a trying-out and a working-out, but it remains worth reading on its own merits too.

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19 Comments »

  1. [...] John Self (Asylum) on Catholics [...]

  2. Lee Monks said,

    I have pledged to read a Brian Moore novel this year, but I’m not sure this will be the one. What do you suggest? And “The fog lifted. The island was there” sounds very Hemingway indeed.

  3. John o said,

    I am intrigued.

    I liked the cover immensly.
    I liked it’s length.
    I like the premise.

    I will seek it out.

    (On subject of length though, does the number of pages really qualify whether or not it is novel, novella or short story? Surely that aspect is more to do with its construct. There could potentially be long or short novellas, long or short novels too. There are even some fairly long short-stories. But I do think a book’s length suggests something about the author’s approach, whatever that something might be. For me, I am particularly keen to see what a book can do in 100 pages, or thereabouts, and rarely find myself thinking such a work too short.)

  4. John Self said,

    That’s the opening line. No, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to start with, though I know others rate it highly. My favourite Moores are (in order of publication):

    The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
    The Luck of Ginger Coffey
    The Emperor of Ice-Cream
    The Doctor’s Wife

    Three of the above are reviewed on this blog. I also liked two of his later thrillers (both Booker-shortlisted): The Colour of Blood and Lies of Silence, but it’s so long since I read them that I can’t say more than that.

    • Lee Monks said,

      Right, then. I will read the first you listed. Cheers.

      The length issue is an interesting one. Booker judges rarely seem to consider shorter tomes worthy, whereas what might be considered heft is often enough a lack of focus. But they do seem to hanker for their ‘big’ books. If I see that a minor author has published a tank of a novel, I avoid. You can hear the conversations. ‘This is your chance, Philip. To join the canon. I won’t cut a needless 400 pages out of it, let’s give them value and the suggestion of greatness!’ About 40% of all pages in ‘name’ writer books are pointless ego.

      • John Self said,

        Philip? Whoever can you mean?

        Yes I agree Lee, though let’s not forget that just sometimes, a minor author comes up with the goods in an extraordinary fashion, eg Adam Mars-Jones. It may even make him a major author.

      • Lee Monks said,

        It was just a, you know, apocryphal-type name to throw in there, ahem…

        Sorry, my use of ‘minor’ there is in no way snarky – Mars-Jones is a major writer at any length. Pilcrow is beefy and yet is perfectly justified at that length as the writer knows exactly what he’s after and gets it. Many a writer seem to be wafting up the numbers and hitting a lot of singles.

  5. John Self said,

    Sorry John o, your comment appeared while I was typing mine, so the above was in reply to Lee.

    You make an interesting point about the length of a book and how we categorise it. Is The Death of Ivan Ilyich a story, a novella, or a novel? (Or, the dreaded mongrel category, a novelette!) It’s a question which also comes up routinely with the Booker Prize, which is for a “full length novel” but has in the past shortlisted works as tiny as J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (not much more than 80 pages in its current Penguin Modern Classics edition). But yes, Carr’s book is undeniably a novel because of its ambitions and structure and sense of scale.

    Like you, I rarely think such a work too short, and as Chekhov said, “Odd, I now have a mania for shortness. Whatever I read, my own or other people’s works, it all seems to me not short enough.” Yet Catholics did seem to me a little spare where it could have been more full and giving.

    • John o said,

      Is there really such a thing as a novelette? that does sound bad; as though an author couldn’t bear for it to be a short story, so opted for something “twee”.

      Since Hemmingway has already been mentioned above, I don’t mind mentioning him again, and how his Old Man and the Sea is around the 100pp mark and was a major influence (I presume) in his Nobel Laureateship of the following year. Two older classics: “Jekyll & Hyde” and “Baskervilles” are both very short, yet none of these works seem at all lacking.

      Of course, such a discussion over size could go on forever without reaching a satisfactory conclusion as to what constitutes a novel/la/ette. Good work is good work, whatever the length.

      But I do agree with Lee about this modern propensity to write “big” books. A sort of “mine’s bigger than yours” mentality. Perhaps from the outside, yes, till one realises it’s mostly padding.

      Nothing against the needfully long book, of course; a great work that goes on and on without ever a dull moment is indeed a great thing; though perhaps much rarer than publishers would have us believe.

  6. Hugh Odling-Smee said,

    I liked Catholics a lot John, very different from Moore’s normal fare, but I always got the feeling he got bored of it himself. I couldn’t warm to the Luck of Ginger Coffey, as it seemed to much melodrama and to Coffey never seemed to move from the desperate or euphoric state.
    Emperor of Ice Cream is my favourite, perhaps not his best, but it captures a world changing beautifully.

    great website by the way.

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks Hugh. What I love about Ginger Coffey is the (to me) unexpected revelation that Moore could do comedy, which he’s never shown much propensity for elsewhere in his fiction. To me it’s a very funny book.

    I’m glad to see another fan of the almost-forgotten Emperor of Ice-Cream. I have tried to interest publishers in reissuing it, but to no avail so far.

  8. leroyhunter said,

    I like the look of The Mangan Inheritance and had planned to start there…doesn’t hurt that a smart new NYRB edition is in the works.

  9. Guy Savage said,

    My Moore-a-thon began with The Doctor’s Wife. I loved that book. I have The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne next to the bed (which is a priority position). Thanks for the review.

  10. Mary Gilbert said,

    I agree with Guy Savage about The Doctor’s Wife and can recommend The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne ( made into a good film with Bob Hoskins if I remember rightly – though it was a very long time ago). I’ve just finished John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope which has given me more than enough of Catholicism and its doctrinal creativities so I’ll give this one a miss.

  11. If you decide to expand the Mooreathon into further exploration, a significant number of his papers are in the University of Calgary library (related to the earlier works that he produced while in Canada). Mrs. KfC and I would be happy to house you and family — we have room.

    On another note, when I searched Chapters site for Moore works (again the Canadian connection comes into play) I got a dozen critical studies before I got to one of his actual works. The most popular have been reprinted here, but the catalogue is limited. I get the impression that he is one of those authors who was publisher-difficult, if you know what I mean, and bounced from one to the other — which is a disaster when it comes to keeping works in print.

    Finally, I discovered that he also produced a stage version of Catholics presented at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre. It doesn’t seem to have had any other productions.

  12. Alan? If so, I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to bump into your blog…

  13. It sounds very interesting in terms of addressing certain questions that have always seemed problematic to me. How can something be doctrine today but not tomorrow? How can supposedly timeless truth be altered by a committee?

    Not perhaps interesting enough to read though. Not before Judith Hearne anyway.

  14. [...] of the under-rated Brian Moore. I remember one memorable class where I presented on the novella Catholics. It was the first time I had ever delivered a report at a post-grad seminar. It was the first time [...]

  15. Robyn said,

    Addresses belief in the miracle of traditional Latin Mass, the tabernacle, & the Eucharist. Brilliant & beautiful. Confused for a few pages, until I realized a “parallel world” was being presented, a future-day Vatican, to 1972, when novel was written. Story addresses problematic questions, as Max, above states: “How can timeless truth be altered by a committee?”


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