Here in the UK, Waterstone’s booksellers have a slogan on their carrier bags which reminds us that “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” Well, they’ve obviously never read Wuthering Heights. Anyway, many of Brian Moore’s novels fall into the first category. Having raved this year already about his first novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and his third novel The Luck of Ginger Coffey, I thought I would fill in the gap with his second, The Feast of Lupercal (1958). It’s so out-of-print (but widely available second-hand on Amazon etc…) that I couldn’t even find a decent cover image online, and had to scan in my own copy. Can you tell it’s not a recent publication?
For an author renowned for never writing the same type of book twice, The Feast of Lupercal doesn’t half have a lot in common with Judith Hearne. Again we have a stunted, sheltered protagonist approaching middle age in the coldly religious world of 1950s Belfast. But it is far from a retread. Here Diarmuid Devine, 37, is a teacher in Ardath College, a Catholic school run by priests. He is happy to be a part of the school’s brutal culture, caning boys at the slightest excuse (“hearing the same excuse one day later in a senior class, Mr Devine realised it had become usable currency. If he accepted it again, he would be imposed upon”) and without mercy (“Deegan doubled over in pain. At Ardath, stoicism is regarded as folly. Stoics made a master think he had missed”).
Devine is single and sexually inexperienced, and when he overhears a colleague refer to him as “that old woman!”, he recognises that his life is slipping away from him. This too separates him from Judith Hearne, who was less educated and intelligent than Devine, and had little insight into how others saw her. Nonetheless, Devine is not above making a fool of himself, and when he goes to a colleague’s house party, he meets his pretty young niece, Una Clarke. After a brief exchange of smalltalk – they swap names and professions – Devine is already making us cringe:
He was glad he had worn his best suit. He looked at her hands and saw they were slightly reddened. Chilblains? Any ring? She was too young, of course. But by jingo, here he was, flirting with a girl. It was pleasant, was it not? Very.
To begin with I thought that The Feast of Lupercal was less focused than Judith Hearne, and gave us too much in the way of extraneous details about school life in Ardath. But then we realise that what Moore is giving us is the beginning and the end of life under the dead hand of Northern Ireland religion in the 1950s, the cause and the effect, for Devine himself “had been a boarder at this very school, shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man.” (The school scenes too were a form of catharsis for Moore.) The misadventures which follow for Devine with Una Clarke are appalling (“He approached the bed like a man condemned”), but somehow borderline comic, which is more than you can say for the conflict that arises with his colleagues as a result. This brings in with full weight the case against church-run education, or what we would now call faith schools.
The book builds in force and has some breathtaking scenes toward the close, and the end is not at all what I expected (though it fits in with his later novel of an illicit affair, the superb The Doctor’s Wife). It was a pleasant curiosity for me, too, to see Belfast depicted in a real work of literature, even if unflatteringly, full of “small, red-brick houses, their bay windows thrust out to repel the stranger” and where school bells go “echoing across wet playing fields to die in the faraway mists over Belfast Lough.”