Brian Moore Moore, Brian (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the most impressive features of Moore's canon has been his ability to keep from repeating himself. Over and over again he has found fresh inventions which have developed his novelistic skills and enabled him to explore his obsessive themes and preoccupations in ways that have made for an increasingly complex continuity between old and new. (p. 53)

[His] novels may be grouped according to their settings which, since they correspond to the peregrinations of Moore's self-imposed exile from Ireland, are with one or two exceptions chronological divisions as well.

Four of the novels have been set in Ireland, three in his native Belfast. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne …, his first and best known book, is still the standard against which his subsequent performances are judged. This was followed … by another Belfast novel, The Feast of Lupercal, a somewhat slighter work ('a little bit too quiet' in Moore's retrospective judgment). Both novels are studies of losers, whose fates are determined by the claustrophobic gentility of Belfast and the suffocating weight of Irish Catholicism. Both illustrate one of the quintessential données of Moore's fiction: that (in his own words) 'failure is a more interesting condition than success. Success changes people: it makes them something they were not and dehumanises them in a way, whereas failure leaves you with a more intense distillation of that self you are'. Finally, both novels are similarly indebted to the example of Joyce's Dubliners: Judith Hearne and Diarmuid Devine, both 'outcast from life's feast' like Mr. Duffy in 'A Painful Case', are observed against a Dubliners-like background of religious and social stagnation; and the 'scrupulous meanness' of the style of both novels is only occasionally disturbed by unJoycean authorial interruptions caused by Moore's antagonism for the culture of Belfast and for institutional Catholicism.

The resemblances between these novels and Joyce's early fiction suggest what Moore's subsequent novels and certain comments he has made on his own work confirm: that the influence of Joyce, and the desire to avoid the over-influence of Joyce, have been determining factors in his artistic development…. 'When I came to think about writing a novel, one thing I didn't want to do was an autobiographical novel because I thought "Who can compete with [Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man]?"' He determined to write about a woman rather than a man because of the fear of being autobiographical and, as he explains in another interview, the 'abstract idea' of this woman's story was similarly determined because of the territory his precursor had previously appropriated: 'Joyce and other people [had] written about loss of faith in intellectuals: no one [had] written about loss of faith in a very ordinary person.'

Moore's conservatism as a novelist—he has described himself as 'anti-anti-roman' and until recently has eschewed anything even remotely smacking of the experimental, expressionistic, fantastic, or pyrotechnical—seems similarly influenced by the awesome shadow of Joyce. (pp. 55-6)

A final point of comparison between Moore and Joyce, self-exiled from an Ireland about which he never ceased to write, is apparent in The Emperor of Ice Cream…. Richard Ellmann has remarked that Joyce was more interested in paternal love than in sexual love: similarly, in Brian Moore's novels parental relationships are at least as important as sexual relationships…. This fresh, leisurely account of Gavin Burke's late adolescence in Belfast … [differs] from Joyce's Portrait in that it is more comic (in terms of both its frequently funny incidents and its affirmative conclusion) and more panoramic (there are a number of characters and scenes which relate only tangentially to Gavin's growth). (p. 56)

The subject of Catholics … are the cataclysmic changes that have taken place in the Catholic Church since Pope John XXIII first opened the windows to let in fresh air. In this spare and resonant tale, which illustrates what a powerful pressure the religion of his parents and of his youth has continued to exert on Moore's imagination, the antagonism of the early novels to Irish Catholicism is replaced by a sense of loss and regret for what is now gone. (p. 57)

Catholics, however, is not only about ecclesiastical politics and liturgical reform; it is also about the much more important matter of belief, and what it is like to have to learn to live without it. Its true subject is...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Mangan Inheritance] is mined from very dark depths, and written with sustained intensity. There are echoes and resonances from Moore's earlier fiction, but these are part of a process of continuation rather than repetition. Jamie Mangan, 36, is a Canadian of Irish descent, a failed poet, ex-newspaper reporter and part-time correspondent for the CBC in New York. His American wife, Beatrice Abbot, star of stage and screen, uses her vast income to manipulate people. When she leaves Mangan for another man, he tells himself ruefully that Beatrice is "one of the all-American winners. And if she ditches you, it's because you're a loser. A Canadian loser." A marital paradigm of U.S.-Canada relations. (p. 46)

Nearly 2 years after he wrote of Ginger Coffey's experiences as a proofreader for the Montreal Gazette, Moore returns to the offices of that newspaper. Jamie's father is the managing editor…. There is an unusual mellowness in Moore's treatment of the relationship between Mangan père and Mangan fils. It is free of the agony and psychological bloodletting of the father-son clashes in some of Moore's other novels.

While going through some family papers in Montreal, Jamie discovers a daguerreotype of a man who is his exact double. It is tentatively dated 1847. Could this be the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan, "Europe's first poète maudit," who died in 1849? Jamie feels that if...

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Tim Pat Coogan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moore's latest novel The Mangan Inheritance, is an "entertainment," most of which I found highly entertaining. Most, but not all.

It has every Irish cliché—guilt, mist, red hair, drunkenness, madness, poetry, lust, ruined castles, violence, a fair amount of sex and some incest, the kind of thing the Irish Censorship Board used to save us from in the days when Moore was a young Irish exile writing short stories in Canada.

In the novel, Moore writes in the phantasmagorical tradition of the old Irish "Seanachai" or storytellers who used to travel about the country weaving tales—usually for their night's drink and lodgings—in which the supernatural and the commonplace, fantasy and fact were all tools for the telling.

It is a genre which suits Moore, because sometimes when he is writing in the grip of that fundamental pessimism of the Irish, particularly of the Irish artist, he strikes me as finding it easier to tell an unusual story, than to empathize with his characters. (pp. 10-11)

The book's central theme is a highly ingenious idea, and Moore handles the research into poor James Clarence extremely well. This part of the book might be termed an Irish Roots….

[The] story unfolds almost like a film script, as it might have been written in a partnership between Charles Addams and Monty Python with acknowledgements to Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

The unfolding is better than the climax—a meeting between Mangan and a mysterious member of the family—an implausible old maimed man living hermit-like in improbable surroundings.

Mangan is revolted by what he discovers. A sort of bardic contest ensues, although Moore gives less weight than he should to the encounter. We might have been given some examples of the hermit's poetry, for instance, but Moore's writing seems to tire here. There are occasional opportunities for the kind of nit-picking reviewers are paid for….

Moore is melodious, and, as I indicated earlier, I am an admirer of his. He is a major writer of our time, and if one approaches The Mangan Inheritance as a kind of modern version of The Crock of Gold with sex, one will know what to expect. (p. 11)

Tim Pat Coogan, "Spellbound in Ireland," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), September 27, 1979, pp. 10-11.

Tim Heald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The narrative in The Mangan Inheritance] could easily have become absurd but, although the facts stretch one's credulity beyond the rational breaking point, [Moore] handles them with such a feel for place and such an accuracy of observation that you don't stop to think how far-fetched and silly it all is until it's over and done….

This is not the first time Moore has toyed with the supernatural. He did it in The Great Victorian Collection when he had a man create a real museum of Victoriana by, in effect, focusing his imagination. He has also written about the relation between the new world and the old, most effectively in Catholics, his novella about the abolition of the old tridentine mass. I prefer the second of the two interests, at least in Moore's case. I cannot think of another novelist with the ear and the ability to evoke both so effectively. He really is as assured in rural Ireland as he is in metropolitan New York and he is clearly interested in getting them both right….

Not for the first time either he includes an element of Canada. But, although Jamie Mangan is a Canadian with a Canadian father, he scarcely has a recognizable Canadian identity….

Montreal is, by Moore's standards, perfunctorily described and the only distinctive feature he really gets across is the extreme cold. He even retails the standard Canadian inferiority complex as if by rote. (p. 12)

[Moore] is sometimes compared with Graham Greene who apparently much admires him. This comparison is often thought to be something to do with their mutual interest in Catholicism, but I think their outsiders' sense of place is more important. They write about communities that are not their communities but which they have studied intimately. In doing so they provide insights denied the inhabitants. It would be intriguing to think that Moore is enough of an informed outsider to eventually write the great Canadian novel. Unfortunately, I doubt whether he himself finds the idea as intriguing as I do. In the meantime, we must make do with an Irish-American novel with little more than a ritual nod in the direction of the frozen North. (pp. 12-13)

Tim Heald, "The Wearing of the Gene," in Books in Canada, Vol. 8, No. 8, October, 1979, pp. 11-13.

Richard Stengel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The second half of Brian Moore's disappointing new novel, The Mangan Inheritance, takes place on the ould sod, as the style shifts from that of a conventional novel of manners to the wild improbabilities of a gothic romance….

The Mangan Inheritance is a good yarn, poorly told. Although there are some vivid and powerful moments, they are inevitably diminished by the flatness of the central character. We are told that Jamie is "an indifferent caretaker of his talent," yet nowhere is there a hint of this talent…. Jamie's overwhelming concern is himself. The entire book is, in a sense, the protagonist staring at himself staring in the mirror. Narcissism may be fun for the beholder, and voyeurism has its pleasures, but it's wearisome to watch someone we don't care about watch himself.

The Mangan Inheritance is a risky book. The problem is that we are always aware that Moore is taking a chance. He strains after lyricism, and labors to be both fantastical and shocking, but while his daring may be admirable, one hears the machinery creaking off-stage.

Richard Stengel, "End of the Line" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 43, October 22, 1979, p. 50.

Roy Foster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brian Moore remains a curiously unplaceable writer, in a variety of senses. The themes of his work have moved from Ireland to Canada and back again, from detailed psychological studies like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne to elaborate ghost stories like The Great Victorian Collection, from alienated middle-class heroines like Mary Dunne to the politicking clerics of Catholics. In treatment, too, his style embraces near-slapstick, allegory, and documentary-drama. It would be unreasonable to expect similar success, a similar sureness of touch, in all these incarnations; nor is it to be found. What one can rely on is his unpredictability. In The Mangan Inheritance, as usual, one's...

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John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brian Moore has a great wallow in Irishness in The Mangan Inheritance before his protagonist rejects his Irish ancestry, condemns the verses of the early 19th century poet, his namesake, as 'derivative, dull and pathetic', and gets the hell out back to Canada. It appears to have been Moore's intention to explore and explode certain myths, e.g. that there is something romantic, even magical, about Ireland, that priest, pig-breeder and poteen-drinker are all poets under the skin, that piety and respect for one's forefathers are particularly Irish virtues, but if that was his intention he seems to have succumbed to the influence of those myths while he was writing about them. For the greater part of the book, while he is in Ireland, James Mangan feels increasingly happy and at home; the myths more than compensate for the squalid conditions in which he lives…. It is in this long section of the book that Moore's writing is at its best, vivid in its descriptions of landscape and locals, altogether different from the flat, undistinguished first quarter of the book, and the final few pages, both of which passages are set in Canada.

If James's disillusionment at the end is to be dramatically effective, his initial coup de foudre should be convincing, and it is nothing of the sort. (pp. 128-29)

Perhaps one is wrong to search for meanings and messages, but the book does not have the feel of sheer entertainment. It is gravid with something, but with what remains obscure. It is 'corny but powerful', as James Mangan said of his namesake's poems—and a compulsive read. (p. 130)

John Mellors, "Dark Rosaleen," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1980), Vol. 19, Nos. 9 & 10, December 1979–January 1980, pp. 128-32.∗

Paul Binding

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

During the last ten years Brian Moore has moved away from the scrupulous and sober realism that distinguished his earlier novels. Judith Hearne (1955) and The Feast of Lupercal (1958), portraits of frustrated individuals enmeshed in the society of middle-class Belfast, resembled in their art the work of an anguished Dutch master. But in fact early on in Brian Moore's career an anarchic vein showed itself, and in a remarkable scene which occurs towards the close of what is perhaps the strongest of his pre-1970 novels, The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1966) we have a pointer and a clue to the overt and formal anarchies of the more recent fiction….

[Moore has said that this scene...

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