Brian Moore Essay - Critical Essays

Brian Moore American Literature Analysis

Even though Moore wrote many highly praised novels, he was rarely considered in books or essays dealing with contemporary fiction. Such British peers as John Fowles, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, Anthony Powell, William Golding, Muriel Spark, and Julian Barnes have received far more attention. Moore’s limitations have been noted: His canvas was often small, his subject matter was usually restricted, he seldom broke new ground in either theme or technique, he sometimes yielded to temptation by writing slick melodramas, and he seemed unable to create a masterwork that would show his powers at their highest level.

Granting all this, a powerful case can be made for the view that Moore was one of the most distinguished voices in modern fiction. His prose is clear, spare, taut, apparently flat yet cumulatively lyrical, with a rare metaphor producing a powerful impact. His highly accessible books teem with convincing details and are populated by characters who speak and act vividly. His tonal command can mix the poignant with the droll, the sardonic with the tragic. He mastered a matrix of substantial themes that include failure, loneliness, loss, exile, and meaninglessness. Moore excelled in dramatizing crisis points in which people are compelled to confront the core of their lives, which are often led in quiet desperation.

Moore was not a popular writer, as his subject matter is unexciting and his treatment of it pessimistic and never sensational. Except for sexual affection, emotional intimacy between men and women did not engage his imagination. Over and over again, he strikes his deepest notes in the chords of parental relationships, risking sentimentality to arrive at ordinary truths of behavior in such novels as The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, and Fergus (1970). Whereas other modern writers fizz, soar, and flash on stylistic sprees, Moore’s voice remains quiet and sober. His consistently high artistry earned him a solid reputation among other writers—Graham Greene called Moore his favorite living novelist—but his preoccupation with personal defeat, renunciation, and unhappiness cost him the wide readership his talent deserves.

On the literary horizon, Moore cast himself as a shadowy presence, because his fiction cannot be conveniently classified. He chose to reject what he acidly termed, in an interview, “Barthian byways . . . Borgesian mazes . . . Beckett’s crossroads.” He was averse to such symbolic fiction as Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King (1959) and such philosophic narratives as Bellow’s Herzog (1964). He also expressed his distaste for the school of the New Novel inspired by Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and he dismissed the postmodern works of such writers as Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino, and Thomas Pynchon as lacking a sense of real life.

Real life is what Moore’s fiction focuses on: the ordinary, frequently dull, always recognizable world in which parents and relatives, friends and enemies all live. His fictive mode is that of such realistic probers of the ethical life as George Eliot, Henry James, and E. M. Forster. By far the leading influence on his work, however, is the example of James Joyce.

Like Joyce, Moore chose to write about Ireland from the perspective of exile. Joyce’s obsession with Irish paralysis and death is comparable to Moore’s preoccupation with Belfast’s stagnation and decay. Moore’s first two novels, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, are directly indebted to Joyce’s great collection of his stories, Dubliners (1914). The protagonists of both books are “outcast from life’s feast,” like Maria in “Clay” or Mr. Duffy in “A Painful Case.” In several interviews, Moore stated that he found the experimental Joyce of Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939) to be “inimitable,” but the Joyce who celebrates life’s commonplaces was his prime mentor.

In 1993, Moore surprised many of his readers by issuing, for his first time, a political novel, No Other Life. The book deals with a messianic Catholic priest’s rise and fall from power on a corrupt, poverty-stricken Caribbean island; the parallels to Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s career are numerous. Yet the work is only superficially a roman à clef. It focuses on the relationship between a French Canadian missionary, Father Paul, and his brilliant black protégé, Jeannot. Father Paul nourishes Jeannot’s soul and promotes his career until Jeannot becomes the leader of the island’s dispossessed, only to be forced into exile. The book becomes a meditation on the struggle between religious and temporal faith, spiritual doctrine and public deeds. Moore finds himself, after all, once more in his familiar domain.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

First published: 1955

Type of work: Novel

A fortyish Irish spinster loses her last hope for a husband, her faith, and her mind.

In The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Moore’s first novel, he introduces all the themes that will flower in his distinguished career. He takes a large risk by making his protagonist an unmarried, plain, narrow-minded woman over forty who is impoverished, lonely, conventionally pious, and secretly alcoholic. He is tender with her, even inviting the reader to like her as he describes in impressive detail her confused interior life. Honoré de Balzac would have made her a villain, as he did the brooding title character in La Cousine Bette (1846; Cousin Bette); Flannery O’Connor would have mocked her with gothic glee; Eudora Welty would have drawn her comically; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner would not have imagined her; Vladimir Nabokov would have disdained her.

Joyce, though, might have joined Moore in empathizing with Judith Hearne as a loser whose fate is determined by the suffocating weight of Irish banality, hypocrisy, and empty religiosity. Hearne is an aging, long-faced Belfast music teacher with barely one hundred pounds a year to her name, in a land where a good man is almost impossible to find. Yet she longs for such a husband, and the merciless way in which her hope is broken makes for the action of Moore’s most moving novel.

Before the book’s present time, Hearne has spent years caring for her aunt, a selfish, domineering woman whose life, like that of Eveline’s mother in the Dubliners tale, lays a crazy spell on her. In dour, drab, and dreadful Belfast, spinster Hearne has been evicted from a series of boarding homes because of her drinking. She ends up in a house run by a malicious, slimy-voiced woman whose son is a Machiavellian lout. The landlady’s vulgar brother, James Patrick Madden, has returned from New York and is rumored to be rich; it turns out that the only fortune he ever made was a small sum compensating him for having been run down by a city bus. His American occupation was that of a doorman.

Madden is equally deluded about Hearne: Her air of high breeding and an expensive wristwatch given her by her aunt lead him to hope that she is wealthy and might finance his scheme to open a hamburger joint for Yankee tourists. As their mutual illusions crumble, Hearne locks herself in her room and opens her secreted cache of whiskey. Later, she beseeches God in a dark, empty church; God gives her no sign. In despair, Hearne withdraws her meager savings from the bank, checks into Belfast’s best hotel, and goes on a bitter binge.

Moore skillfully balanced Hearne’s understandable drive to fulfill her sexual and social needs with the repressive institutional forces in Belfast that deny and taunt, humiliate and defeat her. He superbly chronicled her movement from hope to despair to nihilism. Knowing the grim truth leaves her emotionally and spiritually bankrupt, hopelessly tangled in the net of her lace-curtain destiny. Hearne’s passion mounts to unrelieved suffering, too pathetic even for tragedy.

An Answer from Limbo

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

An examination of an ambitious writer’s commitment to his career at the price of destroying his family.

In An Answer from Limbo, Brendan Tierney, a thirty-year-old Irishman who has emigrated to New York City, is supporting himself, his wife, and their two bratty children by working for a magazine while also trying to write his first novel. Moved to competitive action by a younger friend’s announcement that his own novel will soon be published, Brendan hits on what he regards as a great solution to speeding his creative career: He brings his mother from Belfast to look after the children, encourages his wife, Jane, to take a job, quits his own, and devotes himself unreservedly to his novel.

Brendan’s maneuvers prove as simplistic as they are selfish. Mother Tierney...

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