Moore Brian

Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife

(This post is part of my Mooreathon, a project to read all of Belfast-born author Brian Moore’s novels in order of publication.)

After The Great Victorian Collection, Brian Moore quickly published The Doctor’s Wife – just a year later. The speed was a result not of writing the book quickly but of a delay in the publication of the previous novel. It brought him acclaim previously unknown: it did well critically and commercially (“On this book, unlike others, I have finally tasted the smell of riches which most successful authors must sense,” he said), and gave him his first Booker Prize shortlisting. It didn’t win, reportedly because one of the judges, poet and prime minister’s wife Mary Wilson, vetoed it due to its explicit sex. (She also vetoed Julian Rathbone’s King Fisher Lives: “I couldn’t be party to giving the prize to a book about cannibalism.” The prize went to David Storey’s Saville.)

Brian Moore: The Doctor's Wife

The Doctor’s Wife (1976), Moore’s eleventh novel, also holds a special place in my reading history: it is the only novel that my wife (who reads very little fiction) and I both loved. We raced through it consecutively, and that’s a tribute to Moore’s unfussy style and storytelling ability. The plot is simple: a woman travels to France and falls in love with a man ten years younger than her. In other words, this is another of Moore’s novels – like, to degrees, his first seven – which examines one life at a time of crisis. The woman is Sheila Redden, 37, married to a doctor and living in Belfast. She is interested in books and is attractive to many men, “like Pat Lawlor down at Mullen’s Garage who, when she drove in for petrol, would pull a comb out of his overalls and arrange his hair over his bald spot. Or the young butcher at Kennedy and McCourt’s who would bully his other customers to make up their minds so that he could get over to serve her.” Her husband, Kevin, is portrayed as staid and stuck, and it has taken a couple of years for Sheila to persuade him to revisit their honeymoon resort in the south of France. When we meet her in the book, she has just arrived in France, alone – Kevin has some last-minute surgery work to do and will join her in a day. “All of her life, it seemed, he had forced her to wait.”

Throughout the book, the narrative refers to Sheila only as “Mrs Redden”. She is identified by her marital status and husband’s name, just as in the title it is her marital status and husband’s occupation. It reflects how she is perceived by the society at the time (and Moore had previously played with questions of how name informs identity in I am Mary Dunne). This fits with the slightly formal style of her story and the presentation of her thoughts. It seems more 1950s than 1970s – more Judith Hearne than Sheila Redden – but it fits the social conservatism of Northern Ireland, where the old joke when arriving by air – “Please set your watches back 30 years” – still has some currency.

What makes it clear that this formality is a deliberate presentation by Moore rather than his own limitations as a writer – and he is no stylistic experimenter – is the frank portrayal of sex in The Doctor’s Wife. Sheila and her lover, American student Tom, are at it frequently and graphically. More interestingly, we get a little of it when Sheila is recalling her early days with her husband.

Kevin was the one, whenever we’d come up to this room to change, the wine in us, the minute I’d take my dress off, he’d be pulling down my knickers, with a big cockstand on him, always wanting.

It’s poignant (the occasional ridiculous word notwithcockstanding), because it reminds us that Kevin and Sheila once had a vital sex life, perhaps one as good as she now has with Tom – and that this new one too will likely decline, and indeed that this sort of entropy is a common feature in human relations.

Brian Moore: The Doctor's Wife

I have said very little about the plot of The Doctor’s Wife so far. There isn’t much, really, other than the affair and its consequences, though there are a few dramatic moments and reversals, not least bang in the middle of the book. This gives it a unity and force that drives the reader on. There is some background unrelated to the characters: this was Moore’s first novel with a (part) Northern Irish setting since the beginning of the Troubles, and they feature here as static interference. “‘They done Divis Street last night,’ Mrs Milligan said. ‘A big bomb. They say it was the UDF.'” It feels tacked on, however, and Moore may himself have realised that he could do better on the subject, which he did with his 1990 novel (and third Booker shortlisting) Lies of Silence. The book also exhibits Moore’s trademark psychological insight. A quote on the back cover of my edition says “No other male writer, I swear (and precious few females), knows so much about women.” I am in no position to judge that (though Moore at the time of writing this book had had practice at perfecting his female viewpoint, from Judith Hearne to Mary Dunne), but he certainly has people down pat. He gets the semi-logical way of thinking, how we justify things to ourselves, how we cope with things we can’t accept, how ideas and desires creep in from the fringes of our consciousness and eventually become unignorably central.

I’ve noted previously that Moore’s books explore the death of God in Northern Ireland (at least for some people: see link earlier) and how the resulting void is filled. Sheila Redden fills it not with sexual satisfaction per se, but with what it teaches her about living in the moment: “there is no past, there is this, just this.” She imagines what could happen if she could “forget my past forever. My past, that small story which is my life.” Not easy, when it involves not just a husband but a fifteen-year-old son. “My son. He is what I did in life.” So there is no guarantee of happiness, or even peace. The question is whether Sheila will stay with her lover, or return home. If she does, she will be reminded that Schadenfreude could be an Irish word. “As the old women in Donegal used to say of a pregnant unmarried girl, ‘Now she’s crying the laugh she had last year.'”

So The Doctor’s Wife is, in its way, a blast and a breeze. Its weakness is that it is never surprising: not in plot but in structure and form. Moore is so expert, and so courteous to the reader, that we know the only shocks will be the elegantly detonated ones we are expecting from the beginning. He is writing to his strengths, which is why The Doctor’s Wife is one of his best books. But where The Great Victorian Collection was (it seemed to me) in part about his limitations as a writer, here there is just the odd reference to the other end of contemporary literature. Sheila, early in her holiday, picks up a book by Muriel Spark that she has brought with her. “She had read a good review of this book, but after a few pages she put it aside: these new novels were strange, not like the early ones.”

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.

Brian Moore: The Great Victorian Collection

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.

Brian Moore: Catholics

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.

Brian Moore: The Revolution Script

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.

Brian Moore: Fergus

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?


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.

Brian Moore: I am Mary Dunne

Anyone who browses this blog regularly is probably right about now thinking, “Not another frigging Brian Moore novel.” Perhaps I am overstating his importance? But if you don’t believe me, I’m not the only one getting excited about his output. Try the blog of Lizzy Siddal, a recent Moore convert, and her second blog set up solely to celebrate yer man’s oeuvre, irresistibly titled The Moore the Merrier. Also there’s a thread dedicated to him on book forum Palimpsest, admittedly begun by me, but picked up with enthusiasm (like his books) by many others. And his first novel has featured in an extensive book group discussion there, and the title which is the subject of this post is this month’s book group read.

I am Mary Dunne

Moore is often celebrated for his portrayal of female characters, particularly in his 1953 debut The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, and his 1976 Booker shortlisted novel The Doctor’s Wife. But his sixth novel I am Mary Dunne [1968] is the first which the narrative is an uninterrupted internal monologue by a woman. As a result it has greater unity than some of his earlier books, but is less strongly plot driven.

Mary sets out her stall clearly on page one: she believes “we are what we remember,” which immediately put me in mind of James Salter’s comment on his masterpiece Light Years, “It was to be a book of pure recall … There was a line of Jean Renoir’s that struck me: the only things that are important in life are those that you remember. That was the key.” But Moore is not a stylist like Salter, and his character’s concerns are self-consciously ‘smaller’.

She was born Mary Dunne in Canada but has been married three times, and has been Phelan, Bell and now Lavery, a New Yorker. Little wonder then that at the beginning of the book, Mary momentarily forgets her name. The rest of the book describes the events of the rest of that day, cut with the background which she believes brought her to where, and who, she is.

Perhaps part of my uncertainty about who I am these days is because, living with Terence, I am introduced to everybody as Mrs Terence Lavery. ‘You mean the Terence Lavery, the British playwright, that one?’ Yes, that one. When Terence and I meet new people, eyes go to him. If I start talking to a stranger at a party and Terence comes up, I find I may as well forget whatever it was I was saying. Oh, I suppose men still look at me, but with this difference. When they hear who I am they at once ask if Terence is with me and what he’s doing these days. Then we talk about Terence.

Her husband is a playwright and Mary, symbolically enough, is an actress, but starved of good parts. She is haunted with guilt over the death of her second husband, ‘Hat’ Bell, which she fears had its seeds in her abandonment of him, just as she abandoned her first husband (“I seem condemned to relive those few days, to go over and over them in my mind so that now, with time and repetition, those events are a play of which I remember every line, stage direction, entrance and exit”).

Mary fears that she has so long been defined as an adjunct to someone else that she no longer has an identity of her own.

I am no longer Mary Dunne, or Mary Phelan, or Mary Bell, or even Mary Lavery. I am a changeling who has changed too often and there are moments when I cannot find my way back.

She defines herself by how others regard her (“in that moment I wonder what sort of woman they must think me to be and then began to wonder myself”). It could be an attempt to disengage from this which leads to her rejection of her husbands, and even the traditional child’s distancing from her parents, the purest form of unrequited love:

I made tactful excuses, too busy to come this summer, hoping for Christmas, spring at the latest. And you who once were my whole world, you became – what? A letter from Nova Scotia. A letter once a month, written in that convent hand, the hand that the Sacred Heart nuns taught you fifty years ago, that hand which writes cold all week and snow and Dick’s eldest, a hand which forms sentences I skim over, half reading, until this morning in that same hand, in among those years of sentences, the doctor says I’m to go in this week and have it out, it’s a lump of some sort – and oh, Mama, darling, darling, darling, oh, my poor old, God spare you now, that God you trust, that God I no longer know.

Mary is also surrounded in the book by people who are not what they seem: a lonely man who may be a con artist, a respectable gentleman who makes obscene suggestions, a friend who is hardly worthy of the name. The book becomes an investigation into identity and how much our own sense of self can exist independent of others, and how “in the carnival hall of mirrors which is our memory, we distort what we see”. At one point Mary reflects that “Dostoevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, Yeats. They knew who they were and, because they did, we, posterity, will always know.” But those writers, like any writer, like the overlooked Brian Moore, live on only in the reader’s mind and now they, too, cannot exist without our perceptions of them. I suppose that is the least we can do for them in return for what they give us.

Brian Moore: The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Experiencing Brian Moore’s novels in order of publication has given me greater reading pleasure than almost anything else this year. From the stagnations (alcoholic and sexual, respectively) in Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, to the tragicomic portraits of ambition in Ginger Coffey and An Answer from Limbo, each of his first four novels has something (and usually a good deal) to recommend it. His fifth novel, The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965), is the first where reading it has been a miserable experience. And why? Because for such a great novel – a masterpiece, it seems to me – to be out of print, when publishers should be fighting for the right to reissue it as a modern classic, is a tragedy.

Tragedy is more or less how Gavin Burke sees his life in Belfast as the second world war breaks out. As with Moore’s earlier novels, Belfast – “this dull, dead town” – is a place which crushes its people through stagnation, parochialism, and the ever-present dead hand of religion (“all would remain still in this land of his forefathers. Ireland free was Ireland dead. The terrible beauty was born aborted”). This is Moore’s most autobiographical work: not only does Gavin’s attitude reflect his own, which led to his fleeing the city forever in the 1940s, but he also has the same wartime job as Moore: working for the FAP (First Aid Party) of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), a post which seems simultaneously not manly enough (“a paradise for parasites”) and a bridge too far for his parents, who want him to return to school. But Gavin, reading poetry by Yeats, Eliot and Wallace Stevens which he knows none of his family would understand (actually, for Stevens, include me there), has hopes:

How could you tell him that for you, the war was an event which had produced in you a shameful secret excitement, a vision of the grown-ups’ world in ruins? It would not matter in that ruined world if Gavin Burke had failed his Schools Leaving Certificate. The records would be buried in the rubble. War was freedom, freedom from futures. There was nothing in the world so imposing that a big bomb couldn’t blow it up.

Gavin is not the only one who sees the war as an opportunity. A middle-class Catholic lad, he is well aware of the nationalists in Belfast who reject British rule, like one of Gavin’s colleagues, ‘Your Man’ Gallagher:

What most of his Falls Road neighbours felt about this war could be summed up in the fact that they considered it a point of honour to leave a light shining in their upstairs windows at night in case any German bombers might come over the city. Your Man, a former member of the IRA, agreed with the slogan that England’s adversity was Ireland’s opportunity, but he no longer had any great hopes of the IRA as a force to overthrow the British. He put his money on Hitler.

Other FAP men also want the bombing to begin in earnest, “so that people will stop making fun of them. Heroes can’t be heroes without disasters.” (Even when it does, the old divisions remain: one old woman, being rescued by Gavin and his friend Freddy, cries, “Let go of me. Are youse Fenians?”) The FAP men are a motley crew indeed, “a thread of lonely people, willing to put up with any charade in order to spend their evening hours in the company of others.” What Moore does so well in The Emperor of Ice-Cream is invest them all with a full personality with apparent ease, not least the leader of Gavin’s group, Mr Craig, who exhibits the megalomaniac qualities of any man with limited power in one arena and none elsewhere in his life. This fine line in grotesques extends to minor characters like the boor Bobby:

Ah, but you didn’t hear about my little game last month in Portstewart. I got heaved out of a Methodist church. We were passing by, Sheila and I, and we heard these sweet young voices singing hymns. So we went in, went up to the church loft, and there were all these children. And a lovely little soprano, about fourteen, I think. When she started her solo, I slipped in beside her and put my hand up her skirt. She ended on a very high note indeed.

Moore’s triumph in this deft characterisation also is to make Gavin sympathetic to the reader, despite his delusions of grandeur and self-defeating behaviour. He maintains conversations with the demon on his shoulder, his ‘Black Angel’:

The White Angel sat on his right shoulder and advised the decent thing. The Black Angel sat on his left shoulder and pleaded the devil’s cause. The White Angel was the official angel: everybody had one. It had all been explained to him in catechism class when he was a little boy. In catechism class the Black Angel was barely mentioned. The trouble was, the Black Angel seemed more intelligent; more his sort.

This enables Moore to present internal monologues with wit and life, particularly in Gavin’s conflict with his parents, who don’t accept his youthful desire to do things differently, and his flirtations with communism and rejection of religion. “Gavin wondered if his mother would ever speak to him again if she could spend just thirty seconds inside his mind. He doubted it.”  His father seems to Gavin to be a man who “read the newspaper as other men played cards, shuffling through a page of stories until he found one which confirmed him in his prejudice.”  Yet we see the wider picture too, not least through the development of Gavin’s character through the story, from youthful rebellion to one who realises, as the Black Angel side of him is silent in adversity, that “as always, the one who egged you into things had no words when retribution came.”

The Emperor of Ice-Cream is a novel which seems to me to have everything, not least a fresh perspective on the much-novelised subject of the second world war.  It is a coming-of-age story and a portrait of an era.  As the last of that triumphant run of Moore’s early novels to take mid-century Belfast as its setting, it is a high point in his output and could not be bettered, a perfect amalgam of multi-faceted subject and unfussy form, keeping numerous plates spinning at once.  It confirms Moore in my mind as one of my favourite novelists and elevates him, for me, into the twentieth century greats.  With five of his books in my chronological Mooreathon (TM) now read and another fifteen to go, it is with enthusiasm and confidence than I can say: Moore!  I must have Moore!

Brian Moore: An Answer from Limbo

The fourth book in what I will inevitably come to refer to as my Moore-athon is also his fourth: An Answer from Limbo (1962). It’s not clear why his first novel Judith Hearne and third novel Ginger Coffey should be in print, while his second, The Feast of Lupercal, and this, should not. Or perhaps it is clear: the better known books have a more immediate appeal, and a more singular protagonist, but all four share qualities that make them linger longer in the memory after reading than most other novels I’ve read this year.

Like The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo deals with ambition (a subject I find fascinating) in an Irish emigrant in north America, but the approach and the outcome are very different. This time it’s Brendan Tierney, a man who left Ireland to live with his wife in New York, and who at the age of fourteen hoped “that I would become a great poet, that I would devote my life to the composition of a masterpiece and that, at the age of thirty, coughing blood in a last consumptive frenzy, I hoped to die, my gift still clear and unmuddied.” Now he has almost reached 30, and his masterpiece – a novel rather than a poem – is not yet complete. He is consumed with drive, mainly via his feelings for his friend Max, whose book has been accepted for publication:

How many works of the imagination have been goaded into life by envy of an untalented contemporary’s success? More, I would wager, than by any sight of talent rewarded.

The main problem is the ‘pram in the hallway’ – Tierney has a wife and children to support, and has to hold down a job to keep them in their apartment in Riverside Drive, “once an elegant address but now running down.” So, when he receives word from back home that the money he is sending his mother is not enough, he hits on the bright idea of bringing his mother over to New York to look after their children, so that his wife Jane can go out to work and he can be freed to work on the magnum opus.

The story that follows is told from the points of view of all the people whose lives unravel around Tierney as a result of his selfishness. His mother (“the stranger who is my parent”) does not conform to her son and daughter-in-law’s godless ways. His wife Jane dreams of “dark-haired ravishers.” He puts his own needs before his children (“But they have their whole lives ahead of them. This is my one chance”). The new family unit does not thrive:

Brendan said something harmless. The talk staggered up on its feet and went on in weary pilgrimage, talk about the flight, talk about the children, talk about New York, talk that was like the meeting of three strangers in a dentist’s waiting room, talk to pass the time until they could decently get free of each other.

And that’s to say nothing of the downturn in Tierney’s sexual relationship with his wife (“What’s the matter?” I said. “Nothing.” “Well, come on, then, take your dress off”). Tierney begins to see everyone in life as either with him – and his novel – or against him (“What enemy could I strike dumb with this tale?”).

Moore’s ability to keep all the plates spinning is impressive, and the story moves on with his usual smoothness. Nonetheless I felt that the dozen or more characters whose minds he inhabits were a handful too many, and the book would have had more force and directness if it came from the points of view of just the central characters. There is drama throughout, and like Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, it builds to highly charged scenes toward the end.

We also see the substitution of religion which was to become a theme in Moore’s fiction (as in The Doctor’s Wife). “My book for me,” says Tierney, “is the belief that replaces belief.” He denounces his mother’s traditional faith – “a performance of deeds in the expectation of praise” – while seeing that this describes his own writing perfectly.  For me, my belief in Moore is unshaken, even if this is not his finest book.  I have faith in this man.

Brian Moore: The Feast of Lupercal

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.”

Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Having acquired, via the wonders of online marketplaces, copies of all of Brian Moore’s books recently – over half are out of print – I thought it was time to return to his 1955 debut, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It remains his most famous book, even though the over-explanatory title was added only on release of the film version in 1989: for the first 34 years it was titled simply Judith Hearne. Now we’re told what to think about the title character before we meet her, which is a shame and, with Moore’s precise destruction of her character, needless.

Someone once suggested that Judith Hearne, among other Moore titles, offered reasons why Moore had left his native Belfast in the 1940s: the city and its society in the mid-20th century does not come out of the book well. We see it not only from Miss Hearne’s viewpoint, but also that of James Madden, who – like an embryonic Ginger Coffey in Moore’s third novel – left Northern Ireland for north America, and who failed too in a less comic way than Coffey. As a result Madden has nothing but contempt for the home (“an insult to senses attuned to immensity”) he has been forced to return to:

Walking alone, he remembered New York, remembered that at ten-thirty in the morning New York would be humming with the business of making millions, making reputations, making all the buildings, all the merchandise, all the shows, all the wisecracks possible. While he walked in a dull city where men made money the way charwomen wash floors, dully, alone, at a slow methodical pace. … In the city’s shops housewives counted pennies against purchase. In the city’s banks, no great IBM machines clattered. Instead, clerkly men wrote small sums in long black ledgers.

One of the refreshing features of the novel is Moore’s ability to slip from one character’s thoughts to another’s, without ever seeming clumsy or muddling the point of view. Madden was, for me, an interesting enough character in his own right, and there are frequent diversions for us to see the world through others’ eyes, but always in the end Moore returns faithfully to the object of their fascination, derision, and horror, his title character.

Miss Judith Hearne is a Belfast woman in her ‘early forties,’ and at the beginning all we know of her is that she has moved to a new lodging house, in what “used to be one of the best parts of the city,” and where she spends most of her evenings “waiting like a prisoner for the long night hours.” She suffers, as we know, from loneliness, cripplingly so, though it is not her only ailment. She shuttles between her church, unloved and unloving friends, and useless hopes built on a man she has just met. The depth of her desperation is made cruelly clear by Moore when he shows us her daydreams of married life:

He came into the room, late at night, tired after a day at work in his hotel. He took off his jacket and hung it up. He put his dressing gown on and sat down in his armchair and she went to him prettily, sat on his knee while he told her how things had gone that day. And he kissed her. Or, enraged about some silly thing she had done, he struck out with his great fist and sent her reeling, the brute. But, contrite afterwards, he sank to his knees and begged forgiveness.

Judy Hearne, she said, you’ve got to stop right this minute. Imagine romancing about every man that comes along.

What Moore gives us is a harrowing but vivid and gripping portrait of a woman chasing after the end of her tether as it disappears from view. There are some exceptionally powerful scenes involving both Miss Hearne and the other boarders in the house (a motley crew who sometimes recall the wartime misfits of Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude), which it would be scandalous to reveal. Faith, in this mid-century Ulster where religion stifles all, is always an obligation and never a comfort. Moore has the cold eye and courage of Richard Yates, and rather more ability to mix a compelling plot with his devastating character portrayals. In fact it is the storyline which reveals the occasional weaknesses of the book, with a couple of forced developments along the way, and almost too much neatness by the end for such an otherwise beautifully messy tale.