Brian Moore Essay - Moore, Brian (Vol. 8)

Moore, Brian (Vol. 8)

Moore, Brian 1921–

Moore is an Irish-born Canadian novelist living in the United States. Typically, his subjects are self-deceived outcasts in need of self-redemption. His study of a pathetic alcoholic spinster in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is outstanding, a minor classic of Canadian literature. Eschewing experimentation, Moore is esteemed for his ability to write convincingly of society's aliens and misfits in a conventional style. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The Great Victorian Collection doesn't belong with Moore's finest work. There is too much the feeling of a good idea done to death; the transformation of the Collection into a commercial gimmick is not as funny as it might have been; and the influence of Borges is obtrusive. But the questions it asks about the nature of art and of reality are an inevitable development of the metaphysical preoccupation which lies at the heart of even his most naturalistic novels. (An object, for Moore, is more than the sum of its atoms. It preserves within it the racial memory of its raw material, as a wardrobe might have heard of the Crucifixion.) And there is some rare sorcery here. 'The final belief,' said Wallace Stevens, 'is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.' In its pristine condition, the Collection is Moore's correlative for such belief, a serene statement of purely aesthetic joy….

Derek Mahon, "Magic Casements," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 17, 1975, p. 479.

Despite its great technical skill and air of timeliness ["The Doctor's Wife"]…, about a woman tunneling her way out of an oppressive middle-class marriage with the trenching tool of an adulterous affair involving a lover 11 years younger than herself, is really quite old-fashioned in plot management and quite conventional in its implications….

[The] book is full of contrivances and tricks…. Moore frequently provides fail-safe devices in his plotting that reveal his expertise in the manipulation of readers….

When Moore is writing at his serious best, as in "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" or in "Catholics," that small, somber near-masterpiece, he ranks with the finest novelists of today. "The Doctor's Wife" is not serious in that sense. It may appear to raise many important questions about passion, family commitments, woman's self-determination—also about the interconnections of private and public violence and cruelty—yet even in storytelling a parade of appearances must not be confused with the real thing. (p. 7)

Julian Moynahan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1976.

There is much to admire in Brian Moore's The Doctor's Wife,… the story of … Sheila Redden…. There are briskly evoked settings in Paris and Villefranche, the scenes of Sheila's affair; discreet descriptions of Belfast, where Sheila's home and married life have been. There are remarkably sharp pictures of the inadequacies of the men in this book, from Sheila's weak, kind brother to her bullying husband, who to his own surprise is inflamed by his wife's infidelity and rapes her in Paris when he thought he had come to talk peace and take her back….

[The troubles of Northern Ireland] seem to have something to do with Sheila's plight, and this is where my doubts about the novel begin. Is Belfast simply a backdrop of violence and despair and confusion, a political stage for a personal muddle, or is Sheila, in spite of her disclaimers, a victim, or even an emblem of her country's ills? When Sheila and her lover are compared to "survivors walking away from a crash," is that an allusion to the bombs mentioned elsewhere in the novel, or merely a bit of careless writing? To change the ground a little, when Sheila is able to give her lover the slip because they were to take separate planes to America, is Moore suggesting a real shallowness in the American, who is prepared to spend the rest of his life with Sheila but not to give up the return half of a charter-flight ticket? Or is this merely the sound of the plot creaking, the squeal of the machinery which will send Sheila off to her loneliness? Similarly, when the narrator, who has access to Sheila's mind and sensations, including the trickling of menstrual blood down her thigh, calls her "Mrs. Redden," is that a distancing effect or merely a clumsy variation on "she" and "Sheila"?…

The limitations of The Doctor's Wife are perhaps simply the limitations of any novel that offers only to observe its characters rather than to animate them or attack them, or engage with them in any one of a dozen other ways. The straightforward imitation of life in literature tends to produce an imitation of literature. Moore's characters are plausible without being entirely convincing—even when the narrator is inside Sheila's head, he seems to be there as a tourist rather than a resident…. (p. 40)

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), September 30, 1976.

Brian Moore's eleventh novel is a literary event in three countries, as are all his books now. He has a public who have come to expect of him what he unfailingly delivers: lucidity, great craftsmanship, and perceptions that evoke our fears, dreams, and shameful absurdities. The Doctor's Wife is of such quality that after reading it twice—fervidly the first time, to find out what happens, closely the second, to unpick its subtleties—it took me hours to answer the question, "How come it's so good and yet so far from being what one hoped for in the opening chapters, so affecting and yet so aggravatingly flawed?"…

Moore is taking as his theme the great question of the decade, maybe of the century: the changing state of women, what it is they suffer from, want, and may never, God unwilling, have. Interwoven with this are further thoughts on other themes that are Moore's continuing concerns: Ireland and its pervasive provincialism, which both repels and compels him; Catholicism and the anguish of those who've lost their faith; failure and the awful regrets of the weak.

It's rich material which he treats sparingly. Moore is the master of the small, revelatory moment….

[The] novel is frequently so crafty one nods in admiration. But it's prevented from being more than that by the weakness of the characterization of Sheila Redden.

Moore has a reputation made from two previous novels, Judith Hearne and I Am Mary Dunne, for being able to transcend the barriers between male and female sensibilities. Better than anybody since Flaubert and Joyce, he has been said (mostly by male critics, it's true) to have gone inside the minds of women and turned them out to be aired.

The transcendence doesn't happen here. (And I'm beginning to wonder whether it ever did. Were we fooled by Judith Hearne and Mary Dunne because women hadn't turned out their own minds? Now that we've had Lessing in A Golden Notebook and The Summer Before The Dark and Jong in Fear of Flying—and a score, no, a hundred other writers, coming out of consciousness-raising into the light, writing, writing about what it's like to be a woman with so much acuity one longs to escape—would we find Judith Hearne so poignant, Mary Dunne so compatible?)

In any case, Sheila Redden is, for me, a male fabrication, put together from a hundred clever details. She's what a self-consciously sensitive man fantasizes a woman to be. Her memories are romantic, her flaws are adorable, her interests are, if not intellectual, certainly "artistic." Above all, she is passive. Almost everything is done to her. The passivity is revealed most tellingly in the passages that touch on sexuality—the "love" scenes with both her lover and her husband, scenes that are so masculine in the way they are perceived it is a painful joke.

In sum, she's a man's woman apparently without passions that spring from her own body's needs, desiring only that men desire, her sexuality tuning into theirs like an oboe section tuning into an orchestra as soon as the conductor waves his wand. (p. 68)

Sheila Redden is … an object. Were she more than that, this might have been a great book instead of just a skilful one, with a message so palatable it's already been sold to the movies. The message is simple: women, don't arise—if you do, you'll wind up alone in a bed-sitter, working in a dry cleaners. (p. 69)

Christina Newman, "The Phallic Fallacy of Brian Moore," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Night), October, 1976, pp. 68-9.

The Doctor's Wife is one of those bad books it's not easy to let slip past. Moore is a writer widely reviewed and often highly praised, a winner of serious and important awards, a writer published by one of the most respectable firms in New York. He's undeniably intelligent and genuinely gifted—few writers are more deft—and he has repeatedly proved his ability to turn out, like plastic Donald Ducks, the much sought-after "good read."

The Doctor's Wife, briefly, is about a woman, Sheila Redden, who falls honestly, passionately in love with a younger man who loves her in return. She decides to abandon her medical husband, her 15-year-old son, and her homeland, Northern Ireland (Ulster, in fact), and start over. The whole idea of the novel, make no mistake, is terrific. The idea of escape from a futile, stupid marriage and the idea of escape from a futile city are perfectly interdigitated. Sheila has all her life loved poetry and fiction, foreign places, the idea of romance, but because she is and has always been a practical woman, she married, long ago, a competent and dedicated but thoroughly insensitive doctor, a man who loves golf and scorns people like Joyce and Yeats. Ulysses, to him, is a "dirty book," and when he finds it in her library he looks with filthy interest to see if Sheila has other dirty books. (She doesn't.) He has no idea that the ideals of Joyce and Yeats have something to do with the Troubles now suffered in Northern Ireland, and if you tried to tell him he would shift the conversation to something serious. The truth seems to be that, as a doctor, he unconsciously enjoys the Troubles. Patients die or are maimed. It gives him something to do. It's interesting….

Philosophically speaking, the book is about promises and what happens to them in a world without faith or principle, a world gone absurd….

Moore creates vivid, convincing scenes. He writes clever dialogue that doesn't sound fake. His humor and much of the sentiment is authentic. For instance the scene in which Sheila and her brother meet in Paris, playing wacky Irish jokes though their hearts are breaking, is both hilarious and honestly touching. And Moore knows everything a novelist ought to know, the minutia that makes for verisimilitude and texture. Normally I hate sex and violence in novels, not so much for prudish reasons (though it's partly that) as because they're always so phony and cliche. Moore brings off both magnificently….

Moore is too good to be a cheap entertainer, and too cheap to be an artist….

The Doctor's Wife is a fake work of art. Its technique is cinematic, not novelistic; its characterizations are stereotypic, with the result that its suspense is mere melodrama; its symbolism is designed not to ambush truth but to preach a message; and its message is false and pernicious.

Cinema can be, as in "Cries and Whispers," great art, but it is not the same art as fiction. Fiction seeks out the darkest, most secret whispers of character, sometimes secrets not even the writer understands. Film, objective, tells its story by implication: it has far more to do with the masterful haiku than with the Iliad. Moore's scenes are not scenes in Tolstoy's sense, or Melville's or Dante's, but "shots."… The past of Moore's characters is invariably presented in cinematic flashbacks. The character remembers an image …, then remembers the complete dialogue of that moment, as never happens in life but can legitimately happen in the film cutaway, which is not memory but exposition….

In a really good novel, the reader is seduced into having a dream—the novel's story—more real than the room he's reading in. The moment the writer accidentally makes the reader wake up—by some technique that too clearly calls attention to itself (like cinematic voice overlay), or by some obvious lie (like oversimplified characterization), or by intrusive preachiness, the novel goes sour. No one can be sure, while watching "Othello," whether Othello or Iago is right. Othello is appealing, though sententious and dangerously innocent; Iago is foul, but what he says makes sense. Brian Moore takes no such risks. Sheila's husband is simply and unmistakably no good, and what the reader feels, watching him, is That's not what he'd think…. [It's] out of this pure war of good against evil that [Moore] builds his suspense….

All of us, probably, have people we hate, people of whom we say only the worst. The difference between art and life is that art gets to reconsider itself, can revise out the simplified angry opinions. The true artist does this, both as policy and as artistic craft. The fake artist makes hay on dramatically powerful oversimplifications.

Moore's message in The Doctor's Wife, though carefully qualified, is a false message, though one enormously popular in our time. The values of the past have failed, Moore claims—Ulster is his example, but he seems to mean all the world—and only an absurd faith in feeling can redeem our misery. The trouble is that Sheila, who escapes, and her brother Owen, who remains trapped, are instances, not universals.

John Gardner, "Brian Moore: The Technique of the Film in the Form of the Novel," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 17, 1976, p. N3.

A novel whose premise is a passive heroine buffeted by circumstance must be careful: Too much inactivity may prove boring. One line of defense for an author is to produce a gripping psychological analysis, to focus inward. Thus in The Doctor's Wife Brian Moore often ventures into the consciousness of his main character, Sheila Redden….

Unfortunately, what emerges is one woman's very dull mind, leaving Moore, already hampered by Sheila's inertia, to contrive potentially interesting situations to keep the reader's attention. (p. 19)

The novel offers several perspectives on this pathetic woman: her husband's, her son's, her brother's, her friend's, a Paris priest's, and even two English tourists' on the prowl for celebrities in Villefranche. The manipulations necessary to let us see Sheila from so many angles would be nothing more than a minor annoyance if any of these people offered insights into the workings of her mind.

On the last page, we see poor Sheila sitting alone on a park bench. Since the beginning she has had nothing to say. The single difference now, after 277 pages, is that she has no one to say it to. (p. 20)

Philip Lemmons, "Suddenly and Unexplicably," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), February 14, 1977, pp. 19-20.