March 25, 2013
Brian Moore: The Great Victorian Collection
To recap: Belfast-born Brian Moore (1921-1999) wrote twenty novels, and I am reading (and in some cases rereading) them in chronological order. You can see them all here. In fact to say he wrote twenty novels is not quite complete. He began by writing thrillers, initially in his own name and subsequently under two pseudonyms, first Bernard Mara and then Michael Bryan (were their books significantly different, I wonder?). He kept this up for a time after he began writing ‘serious’ novels, though unlike Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’, Moore’s pseudonymous thrillers (Wreath for a Redhead, A Bullet for My Lady, Murder in Majorca…) are forgotten. His first six novels proper - The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Feast of Lupercal, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, and I am Mary Dunne – all deal with a character at a time of crisis in their life, and some are more successful than others. You could extend this description to his seventh novel, Fergus, though it is definitely less successful. Then we had the problematic ‘documentary novel’ The Revolution Script, which fictionalised Quebec’s October Crisis, and was subsequently disowned by Moore as “journalism”; along with the early thrillers, it remains out of print. Next was the novella Catholics, which Colm Tóibín considers to be one of Moore’s three “masterpieces” (along with Judith Hearne and the 1985 novel Black Robe). One interesting thing about Catholics is that Moore’s usual blunt realism is held within a science fiction frame. That may be putting it too far, but it’s set in the future, and the reason I raise it is that his next book, The Great Victorian Collection, makes a further break with tradition.
The Great Victorian Collection (1975) is Moore’s tenth novel: the halfway point of his output. Its premise can be summarised in its opening paragraph:
There is still some confusion as to when Anthony Maloney first saw the Great Victorian Collection. Can it be said that he first envisaged the Collection in his dream? Or did he create it in its entirety only when he woke up and climbed out of his bedroom window?
There you have it. Anthony Maloney, a 29-year-old university lecturer from Montreal, is visiting Carmel in California when he dreams of a sort of marketplace in the parking lot outside his hotel bedroom window, the central aisle “dominated by a glittering crystal fountain” and the whole display filled with Victorian artefacts, objets d’art and curiosa. When he wakes up, the collection is really there. He recognises many of the pieces, and others he has read about. “It was as though I had memorised a huge catalogue.” He finds, to his surprise and excitement, that others can see the collection too – it really is there – and he does what any modern man would: he alerts the media. Experts are called upon, who confirm, reluctantly at first, that the items in the hotel car park are not fakes, but exact indistinguishable duplicates of the real items, which persist elsewhere, in the places where Maloney saw or read about them.
Moore’s narrative skill – his form as a thriller writer – means that the story gets going straight away, and pretty soon the reader stops waiting for Maloney to wake up again and begins to treat the odd scenario as given. This brings to mind – I never thought I’d say this about one of Moore’s books – Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and indeed it was Moore’s intention to write “an impossible premise treated realistically.” The tone begins with a certain detachment, that of a report or investigation, but Moore soon seems to forget this and gets on with it in his usual efficient style. There are no flashbacks, no switches in voice, just relentless pursuit of the story. Many of the people Maloney meets do not believe him that he dreamed up the collection (or, as it’s referred to throughout, the Collection) – but the reader does. We have no choice. We are in the hands of an expert manipulator: submitting to the power of a story means overruling your scepticism, willing the suspension of disbelief even where the events are impossible within the frame of the invented setting. The basis of The Great Victorian Collection seems arbitrary, and many of the character developments for Maloney seem directionless, but throughout the book I was itching to know what was coming – and the ending, though it could have followed many different middles, is inevitable and apt.
What makes The Great Victorian Collection interesting is the interpretations it offers to the reader. The Collection is, by definition, a product of Maloney’s mind: complete with pornographic materials in hidden rooms. It is hailed as “the first wholly secular miracle in the history of mankind,” and many of Moore’s characters are defined in part by their quest for a substitute for God. Moreover, though, the book read to me like an exploration of what it means to be a writer. Maloney must dream the same dream night after night to keep the Collection intact (or so it seems); like a writer, he has created something from nothing, and is now faced with the attention this draws to him, including religious observers who placard the Collection with warnings that GOD ALONE CAN CREATE. The Collection seems like a physical manifestation of his inner turmoil (I was reminded of Martin Amis, whom I recall saying of The Information that it was not a book about a mid-life crisis: the book was the crisis). The looseness of the plot in the second half of the book, until the end, shows Maloney prepared to go wherever the Collection – wherever his imagination – takes him. He is ambivalent about the possible loss of his ‘real’ job. The Collection, like a book, exposes Maloney’s soul to the public. “Fellows like you must be in love with yourselves. Otherwise, why would you dream up things to make the world take notice of you?”
At one point we get an odd exchange:
“See the green Chevy coming up behind us?”
“‘S not green.”
It disrupts Moore’s usual flow because it is obviously forced. The second line can only be intended, surely, as a reference to the famous coinage in the opening pages of Ulysses: “the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” The prose of Joyce and Ulysses are about as far as you can get, stylistically, from Moore’s clear pane of glass. Although Moore wanted to write something quasi-experimental (that “impossible premise treated realistically”), he remained clear in his view that his taste was for story and not style:
I’ve discovered that the narrative forms – the thriller and the journey form – are tremendously powerful[.] They’re the gut of fiction, but they’re being left to second-rate writers because first-rate writers are bringing the author into the novel and all those nouveau-roman things.
Does Maloney’s turmoil, then, represent a conflict within Moore about his own work, or perhaps about its perceived value? One of Maloney’s confidantes turns on him near the end of the story. “What a joke! The Great Victorian Collection. Never mind whether you dreamed it up or not, have you listened to what serious people have to say about it? Why, they say it isn’t relevant, it’s completely out of date, it has nothing to do with our contemporary reality. That’s what they say and they are right.” Ouch. The Great Victorian Collection is not, in my view, one of Moore’s best books – though it won awards both in the UK and Canada – but it has his usual effortless pull, and shows him stretching himself and earning the “chameleon novelist” tag that his first biographer gave him.