Brian Moore Moore, Brian (Vol. 5) - Essay

Moore, Brian (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moore, Brian 1921–

Moore, an Irish-born Canadian novelist living in New York, is widely acclaimed for his sensitive delineation of the inner struggles of his frail and luckless characters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

At the end of Brian Moore's … novel, Catholics…, an abbot kneels in front of the tabernacle in the abbey church to lead his monks in prayer. He believes the tabernacle to be empty; he knows that the effect of his prayer will be his own experience of horror at the emptiness of the universe. In Moore's first book published in 1955 [The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne], a neurotic spinster appalled by her growing conviction that the tabernacle is empty, blasphemously assaults it in an effort to discover if God is inside. The question of the vacancy of the tabernacle or its overwhelming fullness lies at the center of Moore's work, for to that question are tied two others with which he has struggled in his novels, out of which he has created his novels. With the fullness of the tabernacle, Moore associates an objective world which is created and ordered by a father whose absolute power is synonymous with a terrible sadistic energy. With its emptiness he associates a void in which a person floats, trapped forever in his own solipsistic dream. On the great presence or the great absence depend the reality of the world outside the mind and the legitimacy of the novelist's commitment to his own imagination.

The creating of fictions is the central subject of the seven novels Moore published between 1955 and 1970. In each of them, he presents a single character whose every vital energy is given to a private life in fantasy. That character, no matter the facts of biography or of sexual designation, is very strongly identified with Moore the novelist, although it is not until his fourth book that the fantasizer emerges as a novelist. In each of the first four books [Judith Hearne, The Feast of Lupercal, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, and An Answer From Limbo], the dream life of the central character is a guilty one, for he has treacherously withdrawn from the morally valid world of the father; in each book he is rightly punished for that betrayal. Yet the world which the fantasizer has denied is one in which he has been brutally humiliated by the very power which has created it—and created him. As Moore develops as a writer, the rebellion of the fantasizer against the father as God becomes personalized, explicitly attached to Moore himself and to his complex relation to his own father. In his first two books, however, the fantasizer's struggle against reality and defeat by it are presented through a study of the lives of two aging and powerless celibates in the Belfast Catholic community. Both characters are carefully dissociated from Moore personally…. The rebellious artist is disguised in these first two books as a spinster alcoholic and an impotent schoolmaster; the overwhelming father is hidden in the powerful social institutions of Catholic Belfast—family, church, school. The concealment gives the apparently dispassionate realistic studies of two wasted lives in a restricted provincial town an extraordinary intensity. (pp. 13-15)

Moore suggests [in Judith Hearne] that withdrawal from the community into the isolated imagination is a contemptible regression to childhood. At the same time, however, he shows that the community insists that its adult members remain forever in a sanctioned childhood. (p. 22)

The community breaks its members, but it also guards them. It both destroys and protects the individual person.

The book does not resolve this contradiction, and the reader is in effect trapped within it. In spite of a clear indictment of family and religion as the parts of a ruthlessly repressive mechanism, the presentation of the sheer human decency and happiness of the O'Neill family justifies the system, and the values on which it is based. The reader must accept at one and the same time the irreconcilable notions that Judith Hearne's problems would have been solved if only she had been pretty enough and lucky enough to have attracted a good Catholic husband, and that she cannot marry because she is the victim of repressive cultural forces…. The reader is left at the end of the book in a state of painful confusion, a confusion I would suggest, which is the counterpart of Moore's ambivalence toward the ordered world over which his father presided. In his second book, The Feast of Lupercal…, Moore solves the technical problems raised by this ambivalence. He creates as his victimized central character a person who, unlike Judith Hearne, does have a reasonable chance for happiness and whose inability to actualize that chance is rooted solely in the conditions which have formed his experience. (pp. 23-4)

At the opening of the book, Devine is what everyone in his world expects him to be. He is steady, solid, unfailingly reliable. He appears to be an adult acting responsibly in society; however like Judith Hearne, he is trapped in a prolonged childhood, a fact which the external circumstances of his life reveal. (p. 25)

Dev's childlikeness, like that of Judith Hearne, is shown to be contemptible, and contemptible for the same reason. He too has withdrawn from the community into the isolated world of fantasy. (p. 33)

In the withdrawal inward to fantasy, Dev has done what the community does by religion—he has escaped the generational realities of sex and death; he has denied his humanity and the significance of the daily actualities of his life. The imagination in this book, as in Moore's first, merely isolates; it does not liberate from the life-denying abstractions of the community ideal. In Moore's Belfast, there is no Stephen Dedalus. The spinster alcoholic and the impotent bachelor who once thought of himself as the Irish Baudelaire lack the intelligence of Stephen Dedalus, but more crucially his power and his sense of the overriding validity of the life of the imagination. (p. 34)

The realistic surface of The Luck of Ginger Coffey remains opaque unless we view the book in relation to the recurring concerns of Moore's fiction and in relation to the essential biographical fact that Moore made a reputation for himself as a serious novelist with two books that were written in Canada about life in Belfast. The relation of the failure Coffey to the successful writer Moore is the source of the novel's complexity and interest. (pp. 35-6)

Coffey represents what should have happened to Moore. Coffey is a character in a coherent and embodied fantasy who gets the fate which his creator at a deep and irrational level believes that the fantasizer deserves.

In An Answer From Limbo…, Moore explores all the aspects of the struggle between his condemnation of the fantasizer and his own career as a successful novelist. Beneath the realistic surface of this novel, as in The Luck of Ginger Coffey, lies a demonstrably coherent symbolic pattern which is concerned with the activity of the novelist himself. The underpattern in the Canadian book conveys its author's guilt at his successful exploitation of his Irish past. The underpattern in An Answer From Limbo ties authorial guilt to complicated aggressive forces which are felt to impel the creation of fiction. The figure of the fantasizer appears here at last in the shape in which its relation to Moore in unmistakable, that is as the Ulster-born novelist Brendan Tierney. The facts of Tierney's life are not precisely the facts of Moore's, but Tierney represents Moore as he conceives himself in the role of novelist. (pp. 49-50)

The idea that writing a novel is an act of destruction is implicit in the way in which Moore varies the narrative perspective within the structure of the book, and it is an explicit element in Brendan's thinking about his art. (p. 50)

This linking of punitive aggression and literary creation should be related to the linking in The Feast of Lupercal of sadistic punishment and sexual intercourse…. In both these books, Moore uses man's sexual punishment of woman as the paradigm for all expressions of power. All creation—physical, cosmic, aesthetic—involves the punitive exercise of masculine energy. In An Answer From Limbo, spirit is persistently associated with the male. Aesthetic and actual fathers fade into God, as does the hierarchy of fathers at St. Michan's in The Feast of Lupercal. Mrs. Tierney in her judgment dreams sees her own father in the role of God the father; Brendan in writing his book becomes an omnipotent creator. Women, on the other hand, are shown to be rawly corporeal, inviting and obscurely deserving the punishment they receive. The omniscient perspective gives the suffering and death of Mrs. Tierney and the sexual degradation of Jane the weight of inevitability. When Brendan withdraws from them, they are abandoned to a fearful punishment which the linking of events in the narrative suggests comes to them from an all-knowing, unforgiving, brutally sadistic God. (pp. 51-2)

[Moore] implies that women can be protected from divine sadistic energy only by the love of the men who have proper authority over them within the family system….

Yet the generational world is a horrifying one. Though human love within marriage and the family mitigates its brutality, its essential processes are inseparable from masculine cruelty and feminine degradation. (p. 55)

The change [in his life] which Moore acknowledges [in interviews] … is clearly reflected in his fiction, not only in The Emperor of Ice-Cream…, but also in the two novels which followed it [I Am Mary Dunne and Fergus]. The Emperor of Ice-Cream shows significant changes in the recurring patterns of Moore's fiction. Once again he gives us the conflict between the fantasizer-son and the rigidly authoritarian father, but this time the conflict lacks the deep, driven pain characteristic of its earlier appearances, and the issue of the conflict at last is the reconciliation of father and son, the father's acceptance of the son's triumph. It is interesting that at this point in his career, the Christ-as-victim pattern disappears entirely from Moore's work. (p. 64)

The transformation of the omnipotent sadistic father into comic components and the frank authorial affection for the fantasizer hero are significant changes in this book [The Emperor of Ice-Cream] which should be related, I think, to its weakness. The book is flawed by Moore's use of the techniques of narrative realism when he no longer has a view of the world which can be expressed by such a convention. The view behind the first group of Moore's fictions is that there exists outside the mind a world fixed and defined in eternal validity, created and ruled by paternal power. Against this rigid order, as we have repeatedly seen, the fantasizer builds an inner world, subversive of the true one, and therefore evil. The use of the Wallace Stevens poem to name this book suggests Moore's new perspective on the world, one in which the imagination is at last accepted as legitimate. The poem's view of mind, however, remains unarticulated in the form of the novel. The poem itself seems awkwardly used in the book. It is quoted in fragments … at wide intervals in the book, but Gavin's understanding of it seems subservient to his delight in discovering that other people know the poem too. (pp. 69-70)

Moore is clearly interested in writing a timeless fable of testing and reconciliation which has particular significance for himself as an artist. But Moore's fable gets tangled with the trappings of a realistic novel: a very large cast of characters, careful description of the physical terrain of Belfast, and location in a specific and limited historical period. In the earlier books, realistic elements are charged with their own being and with hidden meaning in relation to the fantasizer. In The Emperor of Ice-Cream, they exist only as background for the testing of the hero and they lose validity….

In I Am Mary Dunne…, the reader is at every point made aware that the closely woven realistic density of the novel is a triumph of the creative imagination. Moore's title echoes Flaubert's "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," and in so doing establishes the fact that the character Mary Dunne is the creation of the novelist Brian Moore, and that in the character as artifact, he will reveal himself. The epigraph of the book reinforces the point: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?" In this book, the novelist will reveal himself in the practice of his art. (p. 71)

A new attitude toward experience which Moore reveals in this novel permits him to view the creation of fiction, both in private fantasy and in the work of the artist, as a morally acceptable action. Since every person's perception and experience of the objective are seen to be shaped subjectively, the life in the mind is no longer a solitary aberration of the impotent and rebellious, but a universal fact of human experience. In An Answer From Limbo, Moore's sense of the fictional world as subversive of the real and the true caused him to present the novelist character as the destroyer of Mrs. Tierney. In I Am Mary Dunne, his more complex view of the interaction of the subjective and the objective in human experience permits him to present himself as novelist in the act of creating Mary Dunne. (p. 74)

Moore's presentation of Mary Dunne shows that a humane tolerance has replaced the rigid moralism of the first four books. This new tolerance frees Moore to reveal in the book itself his own skill in the act of imaginative creation. (p. 79)

Fergus … explores the objective and subjective experience of a single day in the life of Fergus Fadden. Fadden is Gavin Burke grown up and Brendan Tierney grown older. (p. 81)

Moore brings An Answer From Limbo and The Feast of Lupercal into this novel. Like his predecessors, Fergus made his peace with the powerful ghost by withdrawing from Ireland into the imagination. His own name expresses a retreat, for Fergus is the deposed king in the sagas of the Ulster cycle whom Yeats presented in a poem admired by Stephen Dedalus as a man who left the real world for the world of dream. What Fergus realizes on the day of his revelations is that he is the source of his own guilt and fear, that the tragically tormented Sweeney element of his being, is like his life and his work, his own creation. (p. 83)

Fergus can at last demythologize his father, accept him as a man, release him from the role of tyrant and god he has held for so long in the depths of his son's being. (pp. 87-8)

Seen in the light of Moore's previous work, The Revolution Script is clearly an exercise in projection: Moore's historically existent revolutionary youths and middle-aged men, disembodied by the media, distanced from him by nationality, are given in the book a shape of particular significance to Moore. There is something unethical in this projection of the deeply personal onto public events involving real persons. The subject matter of Moore's book demands the scrupulous impersonality of the journalist, not the private emotional energies of the novelist. This naive and self-indulgent book sentimentalizes and degrades Moore's constant and honest preoccupations. We are given precisely what the title promises: the script for a media melodrama in which there are heroes and villains, and in which human suffering is reduced to a cheap cliché. "The hearse moved off on Pierre Laporte's last automobile ride, the journey to the grave." … Such casual brutality is only possible in a context from which all of the weight of common humanity has disappeared.

In Catholics … Moore restores the hierarchically ordered objective world which he attacked in the first phase of his career and disintegrated in the second. In this … [book], he approaches a structured and divinely sanctioned world from the viewpoint of the order-giving father, rather than that of the rebellious child. It is true that he presents that world at the moment of its disappearance, but the fiction is ordered to show that the disappearance is the ultimate proof of that world's validity. Catholics is quite literally an apocalyptic book, and apocalypse as Moore conceives it depends on the existence of God and of the Roman Catholic Church. The book is set in the 1990s; the ominous year 2,000 hovers just beyond its range. The Roman Catholic Church, committed to ecumenism and social change, is about to absorb yet one more world religion—Buddhism. (As every Catholic school child used to know, just before the last day, there will be one fold and one shepherd.) Images and lines from Yeats's "The Second Coming" flash through the book, and a helicopter out of Bergman's apocalyptic Through a Glass Darkly violates Muck Island with its inhuman menace. (pp. 92-3)

In this book, Moore returns to the old view of the world as objective and ruled by God through a human network of fathers, and to Ireland for setting. The media paradigms for experience, as used in Fergus and The Revolution Script, have vanished, their only trace the Bergman helicopter. This book is intensely literary; in it Moore seems at pains to join himself to the great Irish writers who opened the century which his book implies is the last one. Moore's Abbot is a hawklike man,… a man like the old artificer whom Stephen Dedalus recognized as his father. Yeats's "Second Coming" is closely woven into the language of the book, and Synge's journal of life on the Aran Islands is woven into both its content and its language. Moore … seems at peace, for the moment, with all fathers. Like the Abbot, he seems to be now in the world of the father, which is a complex and mysterious new one, waiting to be explored. (pp. 95-6)

Jeanne Flood, in her Brian Moore (© 1974 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1974.

Catholics, [Brian Moore's] last, much-acclaimed novel, was a tight, controlled, intensely projected story about an isolated community of monks who courted modern heresy by their sturdy adherence to the Old Church. In The Great Victorian Collection, his 10th novel, he is again concerned, less interestingly, with the real world as it impinges upon the ideal—or in this case—the dream world. And he has added a new concern: the artist, responsible for his own beautiful creation, is taken over and profited from by commercial interests. His life is, ultimately, lost, destroyed by the "collection" he creates.

Or is it possible that the novel is about something else entirely: the nature and power and destructive force of dreams?

The story is so simple that it may be hard to believe in it in the bare telling, a difficulty which also arises in the reading. Maloney, an obscure young historian of the Victorian age, an assistant professor at McGill University, sleeps one night in a motel in Carmel, California, dreams of a magnificent collection of Victorian antiques, artifacts, erotic books, tools and general memorabilia. He wakes. Outside his window in the motel parking lot is his dream collection, every detail of it perfect, more real than the actual objects in existence, certainly real because some of the objects no longer exist except in the written accounts which Maloney, in his research, has read.

"I am a historian who was witness to that first moment in history when a man's dream literally came true." Maloney at first exults at his responsibility for the secular and scholarly miracle. Like any true artist he gloats over its completeness, hovers over it, refuses to leave it because he suspects his presence is necessary for its integrity (indeed the one time he leaves Carmel a sudden, local rainstorm showers down upon the collection). The outside world questions its authenticity, his account of its conception, ridicules his person and, finally, takes it from him….

The idea of the book is intriguing and the Victorian descriptions are wonderfully, accurately, detailed and interesting (in the same way that Evan Connell's The Connoisseur held the reader fascinated because it communicated so well the lonely passion of the collector). The whole, however, lacks the kind of convincing force, the propulsive persuasion that Catholics carried. Parable or science-fiction, psychodrama or fine flight of fancy, whichever, the novel's hinges and structural wires, its blueprint, show too clearly. The characters are actors in the parable rather than people, playing out the ingenious but indecisive events and leaving us, like people in a dream, unconvinced.

Doris Grumbach, "An Antic Dream," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 1, 1975, p. 2.

Brian Moore's The Great Victorian Collection is a bit of a dangler—a fast moving and gripping novel, mixing science fiction fantasy with hard California fact, but it's unresolved, quirky, occasional. When I'd finished it I had to go back to Judith Hearne, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, and I Am Mary Dunne to recall what it was that made me think Moore great. What can be said so far about the Moore oeuvre is that it exhibits a keen sense of the observable mannerisms of various psychologies and that the novels are as important or unimportant as the characters Moore chooses to portray. The situations of Mary Dunne and the others reverberate in universal experience. The hero of The Great Victorian Collection is curious but not important. (pp. 64-5)

[Two] things point to a seriousness in Moore's purpose: the death of this hero …; and a compelling documentary style….

What, exactly, does Moore have against Tony? His youth? His academic position? His failed marriage? Surely it can't be just dreaming a dream. There's not the slightest suggestion anywhere that Tony has isolated himself in an ivory tower. He transgresses no value in the story for which he must be punished.

At one point I thought that Moore was having a go at the Anglo-Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley…, who said that the world exists because God continues to think it. A character even says that Tony, an atheist, has brought about "the first wholly secular miracle in the history of mankind." A madman picketing the collection with a placard saying Only God Can Create seems to add support. Something was perhaps being said about the doom of proud materialistic man, but Moore never connected these ideas.

Again I wondered if Moore was attacking the kitsch cult, and John Fowles' manipulative spin-offs….

The failure of The Great Victorian Collection is that although Tony is as real as Judith Hearne, Ginger Coffey, or Mary Dunne, he's trapped in a butterfly net and he's too much of a gentleman to break out. Tragedy becomes farce when the hero's plight is strange, wonderful, and particular. Fantasy doesn't mix with Moore's psychological insights. Poor Tony is too real to be even a clown. He's neither Lear nor Loman; attention need not be paid. (p. 65)

Anne Montagnes, "Dreaming a Victorian Fantasy," in Saturday Night (copyright 1975), July/August, 1975, pp. 64-5.