SOURCE: "Passage Through Limbo: Brian Moore's North American Novels," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1970, pp. 5-18.
[Foster is a Canadian critic and educator who has written extensively on Anglo-Irish literature. In the following essay, he examines the central characters in Moore's early novels who, after being expelled from their communities, attempt to gain admission into new social groups and struggle to maintain their identities.]
Critics have persisted in forging similarities between Moore and his compatriot-in-exile, James Joyce. Jack Ludwig, for instance, saw Moore in 1962 as Joyce's heir in the genealogy of Irish fiction ["Brian Moore: Ireland's Loss, Canada's Novelist," Critique 5 (Spring-Summer 1962)]. Hallvard Dahlie, in a well-written and perceptive account of Moore's work, sees Joyce's progress from Dubliners to Ulysses reflected in Moore's own development from The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) to I Am Mary Dunne (1968) [Brian Moore: Studies in Canadian Literature (Toronto, 1969)]. He perceives in both authors not only a shift from naturalistic techniques to experimentalism but a movement from despair to affirmation.
Such a comparison might pass muster if critics did not also assert that Moore's work, like Joyce's, is a fictionalization of the central dilemma facing man today. That dilemma has been capsulized for us by two Moore critics. According to Ludwig, Moore's characters "ask themselves the question facing twentieth-century man: knowing what he does about all things political and social how does man still get out of bed in the morning?" John Stedmond in his introduction to the Canadian edition of Judith Hearne claims that this novel "probes what David Daiches has called the central question in modern fiction: 'How is love possible in a world of individuals imprisoned by their own private consciousness?'"
These approaches to Moore are misguided. Moore's fiction strikes me as interesting and refreshing precisely because it does not focus upon an essentially twentieth-century predicament. The dilemma faced by Moore's important characters—with few exceptions—is in fact a primitive rather than modern dilemma. It is created by the characters' exclusion from the community and their subsequent occupation of a ritual limbo through which they seek to pass as quickly and as successfully as possible. Though Moore occasionally diverges from this theme—most notably in An Answer from Limbo—each of his novels remains to greater or lesser degree a variation of it, but a variation that contributes to the pattern of the total canon. As I have tried to show elsewhere, Moore's two early Belfast novels explore ritual failure and the punishment and exclusion attendant upon such failure in a rigidly structured and provincial community ["Crisis and Ritual in Brian Moore's Belfast Novels," Eire-Ireland, Autumn, 1968, pp. 66-74]. Ritual failure I define as the inability to perform the rites of passage on the way to self-fulfilment within one's own group. This theme extends with variation into the North American novels, but later gives way to the cognate theme of ritual displacement which Moore exploits most fully in I Am Mary Dunne. Ritual displacement occurs when the individual is unwilling or unable to perform the rites of incorporation into a new society and thereby find happiness and fulfilment. Since Moore is a novelist and not a sociologist, I want to make it clear that I use the term "ritual" not in reference to specific rites and ceremonies, but rather to the rhythms of separation, initiation, and incorporation common to all societies and communities.
The Luck of Ginger Coffey , Moore's third novel, balances the two themes of ritual failure and displacement and is thus a pivotal work...
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in the development of Moore's thematic concerns. Coffey does not fail sexually, as do Judith Hearne and Diarmuid Devine (inThe Feast of Lupercal), but rather in his inability to carve out for himself a successful career in a world which deems professional success a desirable form of social advancement. As a result, he almost loses his wife and daughter to a more successful man.
Failure breeds failure for Ginger Coffey, creating in him a besieged state of mind in which paranoia can take root. The CRIPPLE MATE CASE he follows on newsstand headlines is a soap-opera fantasy of self-pity in which Coffey is the innocent victim of a conspiracy, guilty only of an incapacity he cannot help. Self-pity gives way to infantile regression during which he envies his child neighbor for living in a world of toys where no demands are made and no responsibilities are exacted. Moore presents a cruel symbol of this regression when he has Coffey find a job at Tiny Ones Inc., a Montreal diaper service.
The reversion to fantasy in the face of failure and bewilderment was a favorite resort, also, of Judith Hearne and Diarmuid Devine. There are other correspondences: in all three novels the social repercussions of failure are the same—exclusion from the community and the retraction of roles for the failure to play. Because he is unwilling to take a job unequal to his ambitions, Ginger Coffey finds his roles as husband and lover, father, and breadwinner challenged and for a time seriously threatened. As in the two previous novels, the failure is simple but the repercussions immense.
The Luck of Ginger Coffey, then, like its predecessors, is a novel about the price society exacts for failure. In each of the three novels, there is a climactic scene in which the confrontation between victim and society is brutally apparent. In Judith Hearne it is the scene in which Judith Hearne is forcibly ejected from the convent; in Lupercal, the scene in which Devine is caned. In Ginger Coffey it is the scene in which Coffey is booked on an indecent exposure charge after urinating in a doorway. In this scene, as in the other two, there is injustice at work as society misinterprets and overreacts—comically in this novel—to a minor transgression. Moore here bestows on Coffey, as he did on his two Belfast characters, something approaching the status of community scapegoat.
Though Ginger Coffey is structurally a much simpler novel than either of the earlier Belfast novels, in terms of Moore's work as a whole it represents a thematic advance. Ginger Coffey has been a failure in Ireland and, half-outcast, has withdrawn from the scene of battle. His failure within his own community is largely self-originating as was Judith Hearne's and Devine's. But when he emigrates to Canada, his subsequent failure becomes more complex and the responsibility for it less easy to assign. Coffey in Montreal is a stranger in a strange land and occupies the limbo of all newcomers. The dilemma of ritual failure has become the dilemma of ritual displacement; to the limitations of his own small talents is added the task of weathering the formidable if informal initiation rites facing him as a New Canadian. In terms of the ritual status of the individual, failure and displacement are two sides of the same coin: both result in exclusion and isolation, dangerous conditions of existence from which he struggles to extricate himself.
Coffey brings with him from Ireland the slap-happy heartiness, transparent manner and sheepskin jacket mentality of a bluffer who imagines himself a Dublin squire. He finds, alas, that these are flimsy credentials in a country preoccupied with hard talk, hard work, and equally hard cash. Only by lying can he survive and even then it is a precarious survival. In one sense, the novel is Ginger Coffey's education into the economic and social ways of Canada: it is no coincidence that the man to whom he almost loses his wife is a nattily-dressed, smooth-talking, getahead native Canadian against whom New Canadians have to compete. The novel is strewn with those who found the competition too stiff and who went under—old Billy the Irishman, for instance, in whom Coffey sees a terrifying prefiguration of himself.
And yet, in another sense, Coffey is Canada itself, uncertain, callow, occupying that limbo between Dominion and sovereign Republic, between the old country and the United States, between the promise and fulfillment of nationhood. Among the pub-frequenting proofreaders, this is a favorite if obscurely understood topic. "Poor old Canada," laments one, "not even a flag to call its own." "They sneeze in the States and we get pneumonia here," observes another. "Greatest mistake this country ever made was not joining the United States." The same men are willing to defend Canada vigorously when Coffey denigrates it, and thus exhibit what seems at times to amount to a national political schizophrenia.
Perhaps these two interpretations—Coffey as both hapless immigrant and as Canada herself—are not as far apart as they seem: the education of Coffey into the ways of a new and brutal world might be seen as the education of Canada into such a world. I imagine that such a view might strengthen the claim that in Ginger Coffey Moore has produced Canada's best novel to date, a claim that ought not, however, to inflate the novel's reputation.
Part of Coffey's difficulty in adjusting to Canadian life is due to the fact that he has not separated himself fully or decisively from his past in Ireland. And so the mores of Irish provincialism continue to haunt him. They are even embodied for him in the figure of Eileen Kerrigan, the Irish immigrant who recognizes Coffey from the old country as he stands, mortified, in his Tiny Ones uniform. And the patronizing admonitions of his former parish priest ("… if you burn your boats, you'll sink. You'll sink in this world and you'll sink in the next …") stay with him; little wonder, for they illustrate graphically the vicious parochialism of a people who both despise and envy those who attempt to shake off the spiritual and moral shackles that bind. The Irish exile is always admired, never forgiven.
But if Coffey cannot blot out the past, he can at least ensure a future. By the end of the novel Coffey has successfully performed the rites of incorporation—hardship, humiliation, temporary loss of social and personal identity—into Canadian society. The indecent exposure charge can be seen as the last "initiation rite" Coffey must endure before becoming a genuine Canadian, without the qualifier "New." The novel is thus more optimistic than the two previous novels because it ends, though Coffey may not recognize it, on a note of success.
But acceptance into Canadian society is only the beginning. In terms of Coffey's ability to forge a successful life within his new group, the ending is less optimistic. That is to say, he can begin afresh, and receives legal and emotional warrant to do so (having won back both his wife and his freedom), but he must drastically lower his standards. To this extent the ending spells resignation, though a healthier resignation than Judith Hearne's or Diarmuid Devine's. Their resignation is the abandonment of all hope whereas his refuses to countenance total defeat. "Life was the victory, wasn't it?" he asks, with characteristic melodrama. "Going on was the victory. For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health …" Like Judith Hearne and Devine, he has come to know his limitations. But his are fewer and less crippling. He has his wife and daughter and the genuine hope of a job befitting his meagre talents. He has stopped, acknowledged, and is ready to begin in a new way.
Only one of the three plotlines of Moore's fourth novel yields to a ritualistic interpretation, though it happens to be the most successfully handled of the three. Let me briefly mention the others.
Among other things, An Answer from Limbo is Moore's Kunstlerroman. The question whose answer echoes from limbo is that confronting Brendan Tierney the struggling writer: is he prepared to sacrifice anybody or anything for the sake of his work? He is, and the resulting emotional abandonment of his wife, children, and mother constitutes one of the main themes of the novel. Behind the question of emotional sacrifice is another: should he sacrifice integrity and quality in order to gain instant success on the popular market? Tierney's crisis is a legitimate imaging of limbo but is not the kind of ritual or social limbo with which I am here concerned. The ethical and aesthetic problems facing Tierney face every writer whether it be in Florence, Italy or Florence, Oregon. Since they do not spring directly from the mores of the writer's context and location, a ritualistic reading would be unilluminating.
For a similar reason I do not wish to spend any time on the second plotline of the novel: the lapse into infidelity and indignity of Jane Tierney during her search for a dark ravisher. This is the weakest part of the novel, for her dark ravisher, Vito Italiano, never in name or deed rises above the level of crude caricature. This might ironically reflect upon the kind of woman this frustrated writer's wife becomes, but no amount of intended irony could possibly compensate for over-simplified characterization, especially when genuine characters are being created alongside Italiano. The figure of Jane Tierney herself is interesting mainly because she seems in some respects to me a warmup for a later creation, Mary Dunne.
It is the novel's third thematic strain that most forcefully links this work to the rest of Moore's canon: Mrs. Tierney's passage from Ireland and her subsequent destruction at the hands of an alien culture. Brendan's mother is the most successfully realized character in Limbo and after Judith Hearne perhaps Moore's happiest creation.
Mrs. Tierney, unlike the major characters of Moore's previous novels, is successful in worldly terms. She was pretty when younger, reflects Brendan at the close of the novel, married to a successful man, well-off, and widely loved. "Yet," he reminds himself, "she died alone in the limbo of a strange apartment and lay dead until, by accident, a stranger found her." Her isolation at the end is therefore contrasted to the fullness of her past life in Ireland.
Mrs. Tierney's material success is not the only difference between herself and Moore's previous heroes. While they attempt to escape the bondage of their past, she wishes strenuously to preserve hers and thus to prevent her absorption by an alien culture. Fittingly, her life ends with the ritual affirmation of her past in prayer and supplication, and in an implicit denial of the new world she finds so hostile. Yet Mrs. Tierney's career in the novel can still be seen as a passage through limbo, but a return passage through memory back to the ritual celebrations of her life—her children's births, her daughter's marriage, her husband's death.
Mrs. Tierney is a more admirable character than Ginger Coffey, if only because she makes an attempt to reestablish in New York the important values of her life in Belfast. This cannot be explained away simply in terms of her age and inflexibility set against Coffey's youth and adaptability. Coffey never did and never will have values that promote any kind of spiritual well-being. He is, as he says, "neither fish nor fowl, great sinner nor saint." This typically hand-me-down Coffey metaphor is as far as he is prepared to pursue the matter. On the other hand, Mrs. Tierney is a devout Catholic who suddenly finds herself in a Godless home and a Godless society. Intolerant and atavistic, she is the perfect foil to Brendan and Jane whose hypocritical and facile tolerance renders her less unattractive to the reader than she would otherwise appear.
Alarmed at the spiritual condition of her grandchildren, she surreptitiously baptizes them and the discovery of her act results in the final estrangement between mother and son. Neither her God nor her piety is welcome in the chic New York apartment and she goes off to die alone with her empty pleas for help and her invocations to an ancestral God. Her death—a familiar Moore victimization scene—three thousand miles from home in a strange apartment is a cruel irony for a woman who sets great store by the primitive delights of neighborliness and community. And it is an irony compounded by the fact that she dies at the feet of a blaring television set, as though it were some Christian or pagan divinity instead of the mass-producible apostle of amorality it actually is.
In Mrs. Tierney, Moore has abandoned the theme of ritual failure and concentrated upon the theme of ritual displacement. Like Ginger Coffey, Mrs. Tierney suffers the isolation of the newcomer which in her case proves fatal. As always, Moore appears critical of the community and society that victimizes his character. Mrs. Tierney is destroyed because she refuses to abandon both the past and its values in order to gain entrance to the world Brendan and Jane represent. This is not to say that Moore assents to her values: quite clearly he would reject them as he did in Judith Hearne and Lupercal. It is rather a matter of comparative evil, as if during his Greenwich Village stint Moore found something to fictionalize even worse than Irish-Catholic bigotry and intolerance—the wilful jettisoning of integrity, dignity and belief. And so, for once in Moore, provincialism becomes a virtue, a bulwark of sorts against the erosive hyprocisies of modern, cosmopolitan life.
How far the theme of ritual displacement can be taken is explored in Moore's sixth and best novel since Judith Hearne. In I Am Mary Dunne, Moore brings important thematic tributaries of his first five novels together in a fictional confluence and tour de force.
Moore establishes in his latest novel an analogical series of movements which represent, literally and metaphorically, the stages leading to the crisis of limbo. Mary's husbands and suitors—Jimmy Phelan, Ernie Truelove, Hatfield Bell, Terence Lavery—constitute the series of roles Mary has had to fill, and at the same time roughly parallel her wanderings from Nova Scotia to Toronto to Montreal to New York. These phases of her life she remembers during and after a day's activities that provide the chronology of her recollections in bed that same evening. Mary Dunne is therefore a cleverly wrought work and, less spacious than An Answer from Limbo, a return to the claustrophobic confines of a woman's fevered mind, where it all began for Moore. But the differences between Mary Dunne and Judith Hearne are several and large.
For one thing, whereas Judith Hearne is imprisoned in her past and her unchanging identity, Mary Dunne struggles throughout the novel to find one identity among many in which she can heave to and find refuge. This points up one crucial difference between ritual failure and displacement. The failures, Judith Hearne and Diarmuid Devine, find themselves unable to change and to move forward. Theirs is the limbo of stasis. Conversely, the displaced, Mrs. Tierney and Mary Dunne, find their continuum of identity splitting and strive to mend the breach, Mary Dunne through a neurotic recapitulation of the past, Mrs. Tierney through a sense of the past bolstered by her religious belief. Theirs is the limbo of instability. Ginger Coffey is the transitional figure in all this: the failure who forces himself to change by putting his identity up for grabs in a new country.
The threat to Mary Dunne's identity is much greater than that to Mrs. Tierney's. She is now Mary Lavery but she was Mary Bell and before that Mary Phelan. Each marriage required of her a different role to satisfy each husband:
… I play an ingenue role, with special shadings demanded by each suitor. For Jimmy I had to be a tomboy; for Hat I must look like a model: he admired elegance. Terence wants to see me as Irish: sulky, laughing, wild. And me, how do I see me, who is that me I create in mirrors, the dressing-table me, the self I cannot put a name to in the Golden Door Beauty Salon?
Similarly, she accuses herself of obscuring her real identity behind a mask in each of her careers: "… weren't they just roles I acted out? Even acting itself." She has been student, writer, actress, provincialite, wealthy cosmopolite moving in sophisticated New York theatrical circles. She has cast off and put on so often that she seems to live between roles as frequently as she does within them.
Her upward social mobility is paralleled by a kind of upward sexual mobility. Two things haunt her: the memory of her father's death during an act of adultery, making her fear her own strong sexuality; secondly, her guilt-inducing treatment of her second husband, Hatfield Bell. Among the men, it is Bell who dominates the novel, eclipsing Mary's current husband as a character and a force in her life, though it is with Lavery that she claims to have found sexual and emotional happiness. Mary outsexed Bell as she did Phelan before him. This must be seen as a factor in Mary's insecurity before, and after, her marriage to Lavery. The inadequacies of her men she long believed were due to her own unattractiveness, and the feeling persists in nightmare. Her movements from place to place and man to man can therefore be seen as a quest after sexual and emotional fulfillment.
But if Mary has achieved material and sexual success as Mary Lavery, why does she affirm her identity at the end of the novel, and after a symbolic as well as physical act of sexual intercourse with her husband, as Mary Dunne? Has she, like Mrs. Tierney, returned safely to her origins and thus resolved the identity crisis of the novel?
A proper reading of the end of the novel is crucial for an understanding of what Moore is trying to do. Mary's crisis apparently lasts but one day, but we are to assume I think that this identity crisis, though precipitated by premenstrual tension, is an accumulation of the smaller identity crises of her past. How we interpret the ending of the novel will therefore determine how successfully we think Mary, postmenstrually, will pull out of this biggest crisis of her life. Here is the last ringing sentence of the novel:
… I know who I am, my mother said tonight that I am her daughter and while she lives I will be that, I will not change, I am the daughter of Daniel Malone Dunne and Eileen Martha Ring, I am Mary Patricia Dunne, I was christened that and there is nothing wrong with my heart or with my mind: in a few hours I will begin to bleed, and until then I will hold on, I will remember what Mama told me, I am her daughter, I have not changed, I remember who I am and say it over and over and over, I am Mary Dunne, I am Mary Dunne, I am Mary Dunne.
Dahlie sees this as an act of desperate affirmation, and elaborates:
… in the act of remembering her past, she attains the identity spelled out by the book's title: the identities she had temporarily assumed as Mary Phelan, as Mary Bell, as Maria, and now as Mary Lavery, cannot obscure the only unchangeable fact about her, that she is, and always will be, Mary Dunne … no legal or social vicissitudes can alter what she was born—Mary Dunne.
Elsewhere he calls Mary Dunne's affirmation an "attainment of calm" ["Moore's New Perspective," Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1968].
Dahlie misses the central irony of the novel. We have to note that what looks like an affirmation is an attempt to affirm, which is not at all the same thing. Mary's repetition of her identity, in the anxiety of imminent menstruation, is like a captured soldier's repetition of his name, rank, and serial number—affirmation of a formalized, legal identity that satisfies neither himself nor his captors. Again, Mary's dependence upon what her mother has said in a brief telephone conversation testifies to her utter insecurity, not to any degree of certainty whatever. This "affirmation" caps the irony of the novel: in her current relationship with Lavery, Mary has found emotional satisfaction, as well as material success, yet in a crisis hearkens back to a past she cannot bother to recollect in detail.
For it is not Mary Dunne we come to know but rather Mary Phelan and, supremely, Mary Bell. We know Mary Dunne only as the child who suggested that the Cartesian maxim, cogito ergo sum, might better be rendered as memento ergo sum. This is a curious emendation on the part of the child: we might even on the strength of it view Mary's subsequent life as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as if she had received philosophical license during childhood to wander whither and with whomever she pleased in the comforting knowledge that her identity remained safe at home in Butchersville, Nova Scotia. But even though she holds under duress of premenstrual tension to her Cartesian modification, her life and her recollections of that life disprove it. She is Mary Dunne, but is also each of her subsequent identities, not at once but successively. She is, in fact, the changeling she fears herself to be.
It is tempting to view Moore's North American fiction as more optimistic than his earlier Belfast fiction. The shift from parochial to cosmopolitan settings and from the burdensome piety of the chief Belfast characters to Mary Dunne's practical morality would seem to represent a movement from bondage to emancipation. It is almost as if Moore's novels trace the growing fortunes in a new continent of one hypothetical immigrant who has escaped Belfast's lower middle-class tedium. In accordance with this view, we might also see the characters of the North American novels as less constrained by ritual forces and community dogmas, making a ritualistic reading of the novels less pertinent.
Yet we should be careful not to oversimplify the direction Moore's work is taking. There are, we should remind ourselves, significant interruptions in the flow of the canon. Ginger Coffey is clearly more optimistic than Mary Dunne because one of its themes is ritual success. And Mrs. Tierney, an obviously sympathetic character, never in spirit leaves the restrictive Irish world Coffey flees in the preceding novel. Even more important than these interruptions is the discovery by Moore's latest characters that the absence of community dogmas is an even more terrifying predicament than their smothering presence. The world that Mrs. Tierney rejects is the world Mary Dunne inhabits: a faithless, structureless, impersonal world. Mary Dunne's response to this "emancipation" is to deny it by mistakenly stating that her identity resides in her beginnings. Yet it is clear to the reader that her problem, insofar as it is not simply premenstrual, can only be solved if she stays with Terence, establishes roots, forgets her past and constructs a future.
And so there is no suggestion in Moore's latest novel that happiness and identity lie outside ordinary human relationships and group values. Certainly Mary Dunne's plight cannot be construed as the "dreadful freedom" of the existentialists, or even as the plight of the twentieth-century man Stedmond and Ludwig are talking about. For the heroes of a great deal of contemporary fiction, neither society nor the community is desirable or possible as a lasting source of strength and identity. On the other hand, we sense that Mary Dunne's crisis is her failure, not society's. As a Nova Scotian woman who in thirty-two years has changed her social circumstances more often than most people do in a lifetime, she is clearly an atypical figure with an unrepresentative problem. She is the primitive outsider, a perpetual stranger who has denied herself the comforts of ritual and community. Whereas Ginger Coffey and Mrs. Tierney pass through limbo, one into death, the other into the life of the community, Mary Dunne's cry of false certainty barely masks the fear of eternal isolation.
Brian Moore 1921–
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Bernard Mara and Michael Bryan) Irish-born Canadian and American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.
The following entry provides an overview of Moore's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 19, and 32.
Moore is a prolific novelist who uses traditional narrative structures and an unadorned, straightforward prose style to examine what he calls defining "moments of crisis" in his protagonists' lives. Praised for absorbing plots, insightful characterization, and the skillful evocation of time and place, Moore's works often reflect his Roman Catholic background and investigate spiritual, psychological, and social issues. Lawrence Seanlan has written that Moore "has shown wonderful range … and asked important questions—of faith and passion, of ambition and solitude, of the writer's place in society."
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Moore was raised in a strict, religious household. Although he attended Catholic schools, he rejected his family's Catholicism and left school at the outbreak of World War II. After serving with the British Ministry of War Transit in North Africa, Italy, and France, Moore emigrated to Canada in 1948, living intermittently in Thessalon, Toronto, and Montreal. To support himself in Canada, he began writing—reporting for a Montreal newspaper, publishing several pulp novels, and selling short stories. Moore won literary acclaim with the publication of his first major novel, Judith Hearne, in 1955, and since then has steadily produced new works. Retaining his Canadian citizenship, Moore eventually moved to New York City and then to Malibu, California.
Moore's early novels often draw upon his observations of society and religion in his native Belfast, as well as his experiences in Europe and Canada during the first years after he emigrated. Examining such psychological themes as self-awareness, delusion, and repression, he frequently explores the emotional effects of estrangement from community in his writings. For example, Judith Hearne, the eponymous heroine of Moore's first major novel, is an isolated Belfast spinster who finds solace in imagination and in alcohol. The Feast of Lupercal (1957) is also set in Belfast and focuses on Diarmuid Devine, a middle-aged virgin who dreams of love but does not allow himself to become involved with women. Moore also explores the emo-tional consequences of alienation in subsequent novels that portray Irish émigrés struggling to negotiate the cultural differences between Ireland and their adopted countries. The Luck of Ginger Coffey, published in 1960, depicts the title character's struggle to earn a living and win social acceptance after transplanting his family to Montreal. In An Answer from Limbo (1962) an Irish-American magazine writer named Brendan Tierney decides to publish a novel, summoning his elderly mother from Ireland to care for his children while he works. The novel delineates the conflicts that arise between the fully assimilated and secularized Tierney, his American wife, and his traditional, staunchly Catholic mother. Further exploring the tension inherent in religious change, Catholics (1972) focuses on an insular monastic community considered heretical because its commitment to traditional Roman Catholic dogma is at odds with the greater social orientation of the contemporary Catholic Church.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, Moore also wrote several novels in which characters become painfully uncertain about their identities under changing circumstances. I Am Mary Dunne (1968) depicts a young woman who has been married three times, lived in Nova Scotia, Montreal, and New York, and rejected her childhood Catholicism. Over the course of several days she contemplates the changes that have occurred in her life and becomes shaken in her sense of self-identity. Sheila Redden, the main character in The Doctor's Wife (1976), leaves Ireland for France, where she enters into a passionate, adulterous affair with a younger man. In The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1981), a middle-aged businessman becomes infatuated with a twenty-year-old shopgirl whom he desires as an object of worship. In several works Moore compounds the ambiguities of identity by introducing supernatural events. In Fergus (1970), he represents the Irish memories that torment an émigré living in California as actual ghosts. The Great Victorian Collection (1975) demonstrates the difficulty of distinguishing between appearance and reality when a young historian awakens one morning to find the parking lot adjacent to his motel filled with the Victorian artifacts of the previous night's dream. Cold Heaven (1983) concerns a woman who witnesses her husband's death in a boating accident. The next day his body and personal effects disappear, suggesting that he has returned to life. Moore investigates spiritual themes and guilt as the woman attempts to interpret these events in light of both her religious convictions and her marital infidelity.
Moore's most recent works reflect a commitment to investigating the relationship between individual moral choices and their political and religious contexts. Black Robe (1985) traces the journey of Father Paul Laforgue, a seventeenth-century Jesuit, and the Native Americans who guide him from Quebec to a Huron settlement in western Canada. While the Indians do not resent Laforgue's efforts to convert them to Christianity, they are not eager to change their beliefs or behaviors. The Color of Blood (1987) is set in an unnamed Eastern European country where Cardinal Stephen Bem struggles with the ambiguous relationship between his Church and the country's totalitarian government. Lies of Silence, published three years later, is set in Northern Ireland and concerns a Belfast hotel manager, Michael Dillon, who must decide whether or not he will help the Irish Republican Army bomb his own hotel—if he complies, he will save his wife, whom IRA terrorists hold hostage; if he defies them, they will execute her. Complicating the moral and ethical implications of his choice are Dillon's plans to leave his wife for the BBC reporter with whom he has been having an affair. No Other Life (1993) portrays the relationship between Jeannot, a young, black messianic priest who espouses a politically active brand of religious vocation, and Father Paul Michel, the elderly white priest who mentors him. Narrated by Father Michel, the novel is set in a country reminiscent of Haiti, and Jeannot has often been compared to Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Judith Hearne brought Moore international attention, and some critics have characterized it as the best novel to emerge from Northern Ireland. The novel remains the most popular and acclaimed of Moore's early works, all of whose protagonists, Murray Prosky notes, "create dream kingdoms to defend themselves against their fear that life has somehow passed them by." John Cronin, observing that anxiety and delusions also characterize Moore's exiled protagonists, considers him "the prose laureate of human mediocrity and embarrassment." Yet John Frayne believes that Moore's affinity for failures expresses a dour view of human potential, which has led several scholars to liken Moore to English poet Philip Larkin. Although the protagonists of Moore's most recent novels are generally stronger and more decisive, these works have received mixed reviews, with some critics faulting them for their reliance on thriller conventions and pacing at the expense of character development. However, most commentators laud Moore's ability to sustain narrative tension in these works and praise the detailed descriptions of diverse cultures in Black Robe, The Color of Blood, and No Other Life. Widely-read in Great Britain and Canada, Moore's readership has recently increased in the United States. A prominent figure in contemporary literature, Moore is respected for his skill in representing female characters, for his portraits of personal crises suffered by alienated individuals, and for his investigations of moral dilemmas that reflect and influence larger religious and political contexts.
SOURCE: "The Artist-in-Exile: Brian Moore's North American Novels," in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XII, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 14-33.
[In the following essay, Scanlan maintains that the protagonists of the novels Moore wrote between 1960 and 1971 are often Irish émigrés whose memories of the old country impede their efforts to establish new lives in North America.]
The landmarks of Ulster, so prominent in Brian Moore's first novels, fade into the background of his later fiction until they are sometimes almost completely obliterated by time, distance, and the premeditated stratagems of art. Yet the passage from Belfast to the New World, detailed so persistently and in so many guises in each of Moore's works, from The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960) to Fergus (1970), is no simple act of exorcism, a putting aside of old symbols of repression in favor of a new and freer life. For if St. Finbar's Church, St. Michan's School, and the Cenotaph have no literal place in the memories of characters like Coffey and Mary Dunne, close substitutes emerge as part and parcel of their common Irish heritage, and are reflected in the social, political, and religious institutions of the divided Canada where they spend a considerable portion of their lives. So abiding, in fact, is the memory of a tribal childhood, fenced in by all the proscriptions and antagonisms of the Belfast ghetto, that even in a late work like The Revolution Script (1971), overtly "non-fiction" and anti-autobiographical, ghosts of the IRA and the Sixth and Ninth Commandments stand at every window. In An Answer From Limbo (1962) and Fergus, however, the ghosts walk. And, thus, obsessed by their own feelings of guilt, the expatriate heroes of each are assaulted with hallucinations out of their own troubled past and find themselves incapable of fully distinguishing the imagined promise of New York or California from the remembered humiliations of Belfast.
Whatever the battle with the past signalled by Moore's own emigration and manifested in his fiction, then, its importance cannot be measured by any simple standard of success. Instead, in a fictional universe where every new experience recalls an old analogy or is threatened by the re-incarnation of half-forgotten years "over there … across the street" [An Answer From Limbo], the struggle to become something new attains its true significance only when it is recognized for what it truly is: a limited attempt to solve an infinite problem, a creative act conceived in opposition to the inexorable claims of memory. Seen in this light, Moore's fiction of exile is at least partially interpretable in terms of the similar difficulties his characters face when attempting to find fulfillment in their native culture or in some apparently freer substitute. For in both instances, self-expression is opposed to the stultifying power of tradition. Since self-imposed exile is evidently an attempt to evade that tradition, and since evasion is itself threatened by long tentacles of guilt having their source in unresolved conflicts with remembered principles of authority, nothing bars us from viewing Moore's North American fiction, at least in part, as an epoch in a Freudian quest for maturity.
Yet even an emphasis on the continuing interaction of communally defined forces of authority and a private need to revolt will tell us nothing about the characteristic form, and characteristic outcome, of that revolt in Moore's later fiction. For unlike earlier figures like Judith Hearne and James Madden, who apprehend the limits of their existence, but lack any appropriate language to confront them in order to give life some additional meaning, all of Moore's permanent expatriates are given literary or thespian talents and ambitions. Thus, the most noteworthy difference between a character like Madden and one like Brendan Tierney is not simply the choice of exile, for we know that both once sought a more satisfactory life overseas; instead, it lies in the different perspectives on the past, present, and future that distinguish a writer's vision from that of a man desirous of selling hamburgers in Dublin. Similar distinctions separate the guilt-ridden, yet self-dramatizing Mary Dunne from Moore's first heroine, lost in the midst of her own introspective agony. For in An Answer From Limbo and I Am Mary Dunne (1968), as in all of Moore's fiction of irrevocable exile, art functions as the mirror that allows his central characters to understand their circumstances and gauge their own development.
By serving as the instrument for increased self-regard, art thus offers Moore's later spokesmen and spokeswomen an imaginative identity which precedes—and to a large extent, parallels—the self-confidence and freedom they seek in a new land. Yet because the same sensibility that actively seeks to create an alternative to the past is likely to be obsessed with it, an inherent contradiction quickly surfaces in Moore's treatment of the artist-in-exile. Thus memory, which is presented in several of his novels as an impetus to art and one of its major sources, is more often displayed as the chief enemy of creation, blighting every trace of individual talent with its cold traditional breath. Accruing its lethal force almost directly in proportion to the distance Moore's writers and actors put between themselves and the place of their birth, memory therefore possesses a negative significance that effectively puts to rest any overly-sanguine view of expatriation. For instead of moving toward creative apotheosis, Moore's artists drift inexorably westward toward emotional debilitation and expressive paralysis in California. In the first stages of their journey, though, they are still bouyed by their own sense of creative destiny. The Gavin Burke who chooses to leave Belfast at the end of The Emperor of Ice Cream (1965) walks with a jauntier air than a late figure like Fergus Fadden, whose name recalls both the land to which he is bound in memory and his own sense of diminution as he regards the personal history he has helped bring into being with his art.
In the strictest chronological sense, Gavin Burke is something of an anachronism. Appearing in Moore's fifth novel, a work depicting life in Belfast during the initial phases of World War II, his story is set in a personal and historical landscape apparently abandoned for good with the publication of The Luck of Ginger Coffey and An Answer from Limbo. Although The Emperor of Ice Cream does not address itself as directly to the problem of exile as either of its immediate predecessors, it gives us considerably more insight into the personality, circumstances, and ambitions of the nascent artist at the moment of his departure. Instead of beating an atavistic retreat back to the paternalism of Catholic Ulster, the novel employs Burke to trace expatriation back to its cultural and emotional roots, and center itself on the particular, aesthetically oriented sense of alienation that prompts its hero to divorce himself from his past. Thus, while all of the rest of Moore's fiction prior to Catholics (1972) treats departure from Ireland as an accomplished fact, only The Emperor of Ice Cream treats it as an untested hope. Gavin Burke, therefore, occupies the pivotal position in Moore's heroic pantheon, standing midway between the culturally repressed Judith Hearne and the culturally deracinated Fergus Fadden. His decision to forge a new life for himself divorces him irrevocably from the former, however, and places him at the beginning of the path trodden by Moore's other artists and writers.
Gavin Burke is Brian Moore's closest equivalent to the young Stephen Dedalus [From James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man], whose extreme sensitivity to his environment, coupled with a strong interest in language and poetry, leads finally to the conscious acceptance of a literary vocation pursued away from home. Yet Gavin is by no means so precocious as Stephen, and until comparatively late in the novel he lacks any trace of that arrogant self-assurance that allows Joyce's hero to confront the clergy, catechize his friends, and proclaim his ambitions in high mythological terms. At an age when Stephen has already experienced all of the pleasures of venery, has renounced his family and religion, and has sought to redefine Aristotle's aesthetic, Gavin is still uncertain of his own sexual and social maturity, only vaguely aware of the potential of the literary life, and only tentatively attracted to the freedom of London. And while The Emperor of Ice Cream does indicate that he gains sophistication, self-esteem, and a modicum of ambition in the course of his wartime apprenticeship, it never shows us a process of development as steadfastly revolutionary and literary as that manifested in A Portrait of the Artist. Instead, the Gavin we see at the end of the novel seems equally enamored of modern poetry, puppet theater, and socialist drama. He exits his father's house with vague hopes of becoming another Wallace Stevens, Ronald Colman, or David Garrick, and a half-formulated plan to go to England and join the R.A.E. Yet the handshake Gavin shares with his father at the close of The Emperor of Ice Cream is ultimately as decisive as Stephen Dedalus' refusal to please his mother and make his Easter duty. For despite its apparent rectitude, it signals a new interpretation of the present and a new vision of the future. In both instances, the novelty presents itself most obviously in the guise of personal freedom. But, as in Joyce, it is a freedom having its deepest sources in the creative imagination and, therefore, entails as one of its ends the production of art.
It is doubtful, though, if Gavin completely understands the motives behind his handshake, or completely perceives the relationship between his interest in poetry and drama and his desire to express his independence from an overbearing parent. Probably the only concrete feeling that accompanies his complex gesture of salutation, recognition, and farewell is a sense of relief, derived from the fact that he has indeed listened to a "new voice," that he has finally broken free of his "condemned house," and can now contemplate his changed situation without feeling guilt or courting recrimination. For in and of itself, the handshake serves merely to confirm a process that, in the course of the novel, has involved nearly every aspect of Gavin's personality, including his feelings about his own worth, his attitudes toward religion, politics, and art, and his relationship with parents, priests, male friends, and assorted members of the opposite sex. Gavin himself can sum up this process, as he does on the novel's first page when, in a monologue addressed to a statue of the Infant of Prague, he says: "I'm escaping from you and the likes of you." But in his role as talented adolescent, he lacks insight into the full dimensions of his desired escape, and does not consciously define the "new voice" that encourages it.
To the observant reader, though, it is apparent that the forces he wishes to escape are not simply religious, but include all of the stultifying and repressive experiences that have combined to shape his personality. Reacting against an authoritarian father, a parochial education, restrictive social mores, and the social divisions in Belfast, which set Catholics like Gallagher against Protestants like Craig, Gavin quite clearly faces the same basic problems confronting Moore's earlier Belfast protagonists. Although not sufficiently emphasized by any of the novel's earlier critics, it is almost equally clear that what distinguishes him from figures like Judith Hearne and Diarmuid Devine is his greater ability to visualize the forces arrayed against him, to dramatize them, and to resist them. Each of these talents derives from several sources, including his very different historical situation, his greater cultural sophistication, and his innate desire to regard particular experiences in terms of a more universal art.
We can, then, begin to explain Gavin's capacity to rebel by citing his youth. For, unlike Hearne or Devine, he appears before us as an adolescent, still malleable, still capable of paying heed to his instincts. And, as we learn from the novel's many references to masturbation and English girls "hot as coals," Gavin's instincts are by no means stunted and can speak to him every bit as persuasively as his censorious Catholic conscience. Similarly, his antagonism to his father's bullying and mother's complacency emerges, not as a pathetic consequence of arrested development, but as a simple attempt to achieve maturity according to the conventional Freudian pattern. Yet Moore's depiction of Belfast's social atmosphere typically centers on its resistance to change, its ability to thwart individual growth and to institutionalize the strictures of adolescence.
Indeed, one of Gavin's more significant insights is his recognition of this deep-rooted conservatism and its possible effect on his own development. Thus, even in the first phrases of The Emperor of Ice Cream, he is capable of observing the ageless, ambitionless, seemingly eternal social dependency of those that work beside him, and is moved to assert: "They and their condition are what I fear; they are my failing future." And later, in a scene reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus' visit to the medical college in Cork, he achieves a sort of negative epiphany while regarding a hospital portrait entitled "Medical Staff and Interns. 1930":
He looked into the photograph and felt uneasy. Nothing had changed in this room since 1930. Nothing would change. Out there, in the world, governments might be overthrown, capitals occupied, cities destroyed, maps redrawn, but here, in Ireland, it made no difference. In convent parlors, all was still … [in the 1980's] this photograph would still be here…. Nothing would change. The care of this room would continue as would the diurnal dirge of Masses all over the land, the endless litanies of evening devotions, the annual pilgrimages to holy shrines, the frozen ritual of Irish Catholicism perpetuating itself in secula, seculorum.
To be successful in overcoming the force of "frozen ritual" in all of its religious and social manifestations, Gavin must therefore rely on something other than instinct. In this, he is aided by the special circumstances obtaining in Belfast during the years in which he approaches maturity. For as Hallivard Dahlie has indicated in Brian Moore (1968), in his chapter on The Emperor of Ice Cream, Gavin's "rebellion" is "buttressed by a significant historical event," namely, the opening phases of World War II, "which included the bombing of Belfast." Evaluating the significance of the novel's military backdrop, Dahlie argues persuasively that the external course of events influences Gavin's personal development even as it provides a symbolic representation of his shifting attitudes. Thus, we can accept without demurral Dahlie's contention that the phony war provides a lull in which values will naturally be questioned; and similarly, we can agree that "symbolically, the dropping of the bombs on Belfast indicates that nothing less than a total destruction of old values will suffice." For as Gavin himself indicates in the novel's first chapter, a passage quoted by Dahlie, "war was freedom, freedom from futures. There was nothing in the world so imposing that a big bomb couldn't blow it up."
Yet the literal explosion Gavin needs to achieve liberation, despite its major role in the novel, is only one manifestation of the war's far-reaching influence. For although Gavin joins his friend Freddy Hargreaves in a litany celebrating the destruction of the old order as they watch bombs falling on churches, shipyards, and residential neighborhoods, the atmosphere evoked by the war is not reducible to cynical joy "inspired by long awaited annihilation." And this is particularly true in Gavin's case, even though he considers himself a rebel and socialist and admires "the poets [who] knew the jig was up; [who] knew the rich and famous would crumble with the rest." For if, as Dahlie suggests, "his view of the world has been shaped in large part by a number of modern poets," it is equally true that his response to these poets has been largely conditioned by changes in the Belfast cultural atmosphere fostered by the war. Those changes, while they have little effect on the majority of the population, seem to promote a fairly active creative life for the socially and artistically committed few.
There is considerable irony and not a totally negative irony, either, in Gavin's assertion: "I was just wondering how many pavement artists this war is going to produce." For although he regards "sidewalk" art with some scorn, judging it an instance of the failure he customarily fears, an avocation of broken-down old soldiers, an exercise in a corruptible medium, a debased form of self-expression characterized by "… coloring in horrid childish landscapes" and affixing sentimental legends, even this sort of drawing emerges as a sort of symbolic action promoted by the war, an act of creation arising out of destruction. And it is this second tendency that seems to spring up in Ulster during the period described by the novel. Thus, The Emperor of Ice Cream gives us isolated images of surprising cultural sophistication as it is evinced in the lives of soldiers as different as the "studious seeming private" reading The New Statesman and the drunken "Captain" listening to Bach. And similarly, Gavin's service in the ARP brings him into contact with the kindred spirit of Freddy Hargreaves, and hence, to "Jews, left-wing ministers, pansies, poets, boozers, puppeteers: this was a grown-up world, undreamed of in the St. Michan's school philosophy." The war thus threatens the past, not only with direct annihilation, but also with burial under an onslaught of new experiences. And it offers Gavin entry into this generally progressive, generally aesthetic world by giving him a role in a play by Clifford Odets at approximately the same time it gives him lessons in first aid and sexual maturity.
By transforming Gavin into a fledgling actor even as it dramatizes his break with the values of his parents, school, and religious and political compatriots, The Emperor of Ice Cream therefore suggests that the factor tipping the balance in favor of freedom is neither youth nor a simple sort of anarchic rebellion, but rather a sense of revolt tempered with art. For without poetry and without the theater, Gavin's life promises to be as empty and dissatisfying as the lives of his fictional predecessors. Inspired by a belief in art, however, he can look forward to a future informed by socialist ideals and brightened by a sense of personal ambition. But since socialism is only an ephemeral element in Gavin's personal makeup, since it is only one characteristic of many—but by no means all—of the writers he admires, and since nothing in The Emperor of Ice Cream suggests that Belfast is prepared to embark on a new political course, we would not be justified in considering the ideological promise of literature as the compelling element in the novel's essentially optimistic portrayal of art. Instead, the most important aspect of Gavin's aesthetic development seems to be internal and seems to depend not so much on the magnitude or permanence of any anticipated social change, as on the illumination provided by a personal, aesthetically heightened participation in history.
Gavin's interest in the Wallace Stevens' poem that supplies the title to the novel is indicative of this mode of viewing the world, since it weds an appreciation of the imagination refined to the point of hermeticism to a didactic interpretation of the poem's pragmatic import.
… give thanks for this job which will grant you independence from your father's do's and don't's.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.
But if Stevens is ultimately a more important influence on Gavin than the Oxford Left poets, Yeats is ultimately a more important influence than Stevens. For it is Yeats who most explicitly links the historical processes of destruction to the romantic joy of personal expression; and it is Yeats who provides the specific metaphorical framework within which Gavin can attempt to achieve the same ideological reconciliation.
Thus, it is Yeats who assigns both political idealists and poets parts in the "casual comedy" and "tragic play" that constitute the two guises of life. And it is Yeats who insists that, in both instances, the assumption of the dramatic role "transfigures" history, and transforms the actor into the architect of a change that, however transitory, exists as something "terrible", "beautiful", even "gay." For Yeats, then, the decisive act is to choose history, to elucidate and celebrate one's own role in it, irrespective of final consequences. Yet, to choose history is precisely the difficulty of Moore's typically passive heroes and heroines, who lack any sense of active or willing participation in the world they occupy. And at the beginning of The Emperor of Ice Cream, this is Gavin's difficulty as well. Obsessed with the competing forces of superego and id, "White" and "Black angels," he feels doomed to failure. His most characteristic emotion is disgust at his own inability to act: "As usual, he had done nothing to save himself." And even as he matures and begins to achieve a degree of independence, he remains fearful that Yeats' qualified optimism is unwarranted: "Nothing would change." Yet after the bombing of Belfast, Gavin is able to conclude: "Tonight, all was changed." And his emotion upon watching Belfast burn is entirely consonant with Yeats' line, "A terrible beauty is born."
Admitting that this response is partially anarchistic, the natural consequence of Gavin's upbringing, it is still possible to assert that his new emotional state is largely creative, and signals the fruition in time of a commitment to action nurtured and directed by a relationship to the theater. Thus, Gavin's development both as an artist and as an individual is intimately connected with self-conscious role-playing. Initially, this role-playing is totally internal, a series of imaginary discussions with Black and White Angels and the Infant of Prague, and imaginary apologies to the angry Sally. Just as in The Feast of Lupercal (1957), however, a literal stage play brings the dramatic sense out into the open. But, while exposure ultimately crushes Devine, who is not strong enough to act out his fantasies, it affects Gavin in quite another way. For, as the Black Angel tells him, "So the play's not the thing, eh? It's your thing."
Indeed, as the novel progresses, that judgment proves increasingly true. For Gavin's development is ultimately confirmed by his ability to confront his experiences dramatically. Thus, relatively early in the novel, Gavin manages to accomodate himself to the ARP by performing in front of Sally:
He told her. He told her all about Craig's mad drills and how the men hated him. He told her about the pub and what was said. He found himself standing up, acting different parts, imitating voices. When he had finished, he was quite pleased with his performance.
And later, he accommodates himself to his new, mature role in the morgue by dramatizing his courage: "Nonchalant, an actor on stage, he cut into the roast beef." His relationship to his family and his time is thus defined, finally, by his ability to transform the present into the moment in an ongoing play. The war contributes to this ability, even as it is interpreted in terms of it: "Tonight, history had conferred the drama of war on this dull, dead town in which he had been born." By moving from the "drama of war" to the drama of personal expression, as he does in the hand-shaking scene that brings the novel to a close, Gavin asserts his freedom from the limiting influence of his parents and Catholic upbringing, and moves inevitably in the direction of art awaiting its perfection in exile.
Gavin Burke stands as Moore's archetypal romantic, self-conscious, rebellious, who strives with the aid of art to create a new life for himself even as he acts to destroy the old. Gifted by history with the opportunity to demonstrate his emerging maturity to himself and others at the very moment he is attempting to shake off his past, he is able to celebrate change, to find joy in the creative impulse that emerges out of, and runs counter to, destruction. His thematic successors are not nearly so lucky. For although Ginger Coffey, Brendan Tierney, Fergus Fadden, and Mary Dunne all cut themselves off irrevocably from their native soil, and although the last three share many of Gavin's characteristics even to the extent of invoking art as a means of creating and confirming their new identities, each of these characters is forced to take a hard look at the psychological limits of a foreign existence. Lacking Gavin's youth and Gavin's opportunity for literal heroism, each stands further from impassioned adolescence; each is subject to more bitter memories, and each approaches the task of re-vitalizing the present burdened with a greater number of quotidian concerns. And each is faced with the necessity of generating a sense of personal worth single-handedly, without the aid of any transcendent world event or traditional audience. Therefore, for writers like Tierney and Fadden, and for a woman like Dunne who seeks to give dramatic or literary form to her life, self-imposed exile exists not only as the consequence of a long-standing desire to be free, but also as a condition that imposes its own strictures on creation. The task for each is thus to find a mode of expression manifesting a personal sense of accomplishment even in the presence of forces that continue to challenge the idea of identity and personal worth. Given their own evaluation of the troubled, often antithetical relationship between creativity and a sense of the self depending heavily on the remembrance of things past, it is difficult to imagine how any of the three can achieve a real measure of success.
Thus, An Answer from Limbo (1962), Fergus (1970), and I Am Mary Dunne (1968) all share a theme largely absent in The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), and which seems no longer relevant to Gavin Burke at the end of The Emperor of Ice Cream (1965). That theme, differently elaborated in each of the three novels, centers on the persistence of the past and on its ability to condition the present and hoped-for future even for those who have emotionally rejected memory in their attempt to find individual freedom.
The effect of the past on characters struggling to justify their lives is portrayed more directly and with more feeling in Fergus and I Am Mary Dunne than in An Answer from Limbo. Yet Brendan Tierney, although subject to fewer disturbing memories or moral qualms than Fadden and Dunne, is still portrayed as a man living in the shadow of his adolescence. And Moore forces us—and to a lesser extent, forces Tierney—to evaluate his present literary ambitions against that background. Brendan emerges in An Answer from Limbo as Moore's most promising artist, a man certain to "succeed" because he hungers after fame, has talent, and possesses a quality of ruthlessness, which his best friends recognize, a quality that enables him to put aside all familial and social responsibilities in favor of his writing. Several times he compares his appearance to that of Napoleon, but, as the novel makes clear, the comparison extends well beyond a "lock of hair over one eye" and "hard" "young" "accusatory eyes." For in terms of ego, Brendan has always been imperial. We learn that even as a child he proclaimed his ambition to be a great writer, that he considers his every word a manifestation of "genius," that he thinks his writing has religious significance, that he hopes to find his yet-to-be-written works placed reverently beside those of "Kierkegaard and Camus, Dostoyevsky and Gide." Finding himself in New York at the begining of the novel, he characterizes himself as a refugee from "provincial mediocrity" now resident "in the Rome of our day." It is apparently his desire to reign as literary emperor in the literary capital of the world.
His ambitions are grandiose, and fitting for one who wishes to assume the mantle of romantic artist. Brendan seems capable of fulfilling Gavin Burke's promise, of achieving that passionate intensity which is for Yeats, despite its moral ambiguity, the hallmark of all genuine creation. And as the novel progresses, we are given no reason to assume that Brendan's ambitions will not bear actual fruit, for a book that will earn critical plaudits and substantial royalties seems clearly in the offing. Yet, despite the fact that he can look forward to all of this, his final perception of himself in An Answer from Limbo is bitter, perhaps despairing: "I have altered beyond all self-recognition. I have lost and sacrificed myself."
With this expression of self-awareness and disgust, we, as readers, cannot help agreeing. For long before Brendan has achieved any substantial insight into his charcter, we have had the opportunity to regard his literary aspirations in the light of their effect on his personal conduct. And because the novel employs a narrative approach giving not only Brendan's first-person account of things, but also a third-person omniscient account of how Brendan's wife and mother feel, we are able to judge that conduct on the basis of its consequences as they are amplified in the consciousness of its victims. The Faustian theme of the artist who sacrifices his happiness and security for his art is thus supplemented with a vision of that same artist blithely destroying the happiness of those who, in the past, have helped to give his life some meaning. Commenting on this tendency at his mother's funeral after he has finally been brought face-to-face with his own destructive egotism, and has thus gained some insight into his treatment of Jane, the much-neglected wife, Brendan recollects and underlines an earlier fantasy:
Standing by his wife's bedside watching her face contort, the better to watch her death agony. He can't help doing it. He's a writer. He can't feel: he can only record.
Aware of his own responsibility for his mother's death and his wife's infidelity, and aware also that his always watchful, always calculating "stranger within" denies him the fulness of remorse and any possibility of change or absolution, Brendan perceives himself, at the end of An Answer from Limbo, much as we do.
Yet it is doubtful whether Brendan ever becomes fully aware of the broader implications of his mother's death, either as they relate to his characteristic treatment of her or to his particular status as a self-proclaimed "exile." For, throughout the novel, Brendan is drawn more persuasively by dreams of the future than he is by any conscious tie to the past. Indeed, his entire career seems dedicated to putting Ireland behind him. Thus, he tells us that he left Ireland not so much to fulfill his vague hope of becoming a writer, as to escape the religion of his youth. And the "need to run," which he describes, has led him to take an American wife and pursue fame in an American setting. From the moment that he sets foot on the channel steamer where bottles of whiskey and stout are being passed around and a girl is singing "Come Back to Erin," Brendan, gifted with a cynic's eye, becomes an outcast. Contemplating the mechanical landscape of a New York air terminal, he can proclaim as no other of Moore's Irish spokesmen can: "Exile now means … my Island is no longer my home."
And of course Brendan is partly right: he has achieved some sort of accommodation with New York; he no longer feels any conscious desire to return to "Erin." Yet the uneasiness that plagues him in the novel's last scene, when he becomes aware that he has "altered beyond all recognition," is more than a momentary recognition of selfishness and unconscious cruelty: it is also an insight into the emotional void he has created for himself by leaving the world of his childhood while lacking the means to enter completely into another world, sentient and fully alive. I would argue, then, that John Wilson Foster, generally a good reader of Moore and probably the most sensitive interpreter of Mrs. Tierney's role in An Answer from Limbo, nevertheless misses the point somewhat after he defines "ritual displacement" as the emotional dissatisfaction that "occurs when the individual is unwilling or unable to perform the rites of incorporation into a new society and thereby find happiness and fulfillment" ["Passage Through Limbo: Brian Moore's North American Novels," Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction XIII, 1 (1971)]. After identifying this sort of dislocation as the primary focus of Moore's North American novels, Foster fails to develop or apply his aperçu with regard to Brendan Tierney's situation. For while Foster is at least partly correct in stating that "the ethical and aesthetic problems facing Tierney face every writer whether it be in Florence, Italy, or Florence, Oregon," and while much of the appeal of An Answer from Limbo does derive from the universality of the crisis Brendan, as a writer, faces, given the novel's many references to exile, its many explicit and implicit comments on Brendan's sense of himself as a displaced Irishman, its extensive treatment of other Irish men and women adrift in America, and most importantly, its place in Moore's fictional canon, it is difficult to believe that at least some of Brendan's difficulties "do not spring directly from the mores of the writer's context and location."
Thus, while Brendan may have no conscious desire to return to Ireland, and may proclaim himself an agnostic and unalterable foe of paternal cant, there is no doubt that he continues to measure his present self against his parochial past. At times, this measurement is premeditated and overt, as when he calls upon his father to witness "that I am about to change my life," or defines his ambition in terms of the need to prove himself to his former teacher and classmates. At times, it is merely intuitive, "a sudden wash of nostalgia" that casts his contemporary image of himself into doubt:
I forgot Jane, I forgot the present. Over there, just across the street, was the simple provincial life I had left behind. Over there Ted Ormsby waited, pint in hand, ready for an evening's talk. Over there. Home. Across the street.
But whether premeditated or instinctual, Brendan's need to find personal justification through the recollection of a past from which he has forever cut himself off situates him closer to his roots—and to his mother—than either he or Foster seems to recognize.
For Mrs. Tierney, like Brendan, the friend of stay-at-home Ted Ormsby, expresses in her antagonism to New York's spiritual wasteland and, in her lonely dreams, feelings that sometimes afflict her son, but which he has spent his entire adulthood trying to repress. In a sense, Brendan's situation is like Frank Finnerty's, the cousin and host in whose apartment Mrs. Tierney dies. Frank is described as an emigrant who has lived 31 years in the United States and remembers almost nothing about Ireland except the potatoes. He does not even wear green on Saint Patrick's day, and dismisses the land of his birth as a "dead issue." Yet upon coming into contact with Mrs. Tierney and hearing her talk about Creeslough, he is brought in touch again with his memories of a waterfall, "the sound of home." And that memory produces for him both pleasure and pain, a fleeting sense of old values, a renewed recognition of his present treadmill existence, and of the loneliness accompanying it. Brendan, who attempts to escape this sort of recognition and who partially succeeds, does so only by putting his mother out of mind, by effectively killing her. But the price that he pays for his indifference is a sacrifice of integrity that is not only moral, but also cultural, historical, psychological. For, by choosing a literary career at the expense of his family, Brendan not only cuts himself off from home attachments, but also cuts himself off from a part of himself that once gave his life significance. More particularly, he cuts himself off from his Irish past and the faith and social codes against which he has always revolted, yet in which he has always found a standard capable of helping him achieve self-definition. His problem is, therefore, not simply the universal one of isolation and self-awareness which comes with art and age and introspection. Instead, it is that problem intensified by the extreme contrast between the standards and ideals of the Irish provinces and the "Rome of our day." Perceived in these terms, the antitheses between past and present, self and society are intensified until identity itself is threatened. Or, as Brendan says, prompted by the image of the Negro boy scouts boarding his subway train: "… if Scout Brendy Tierney were to sit down in the subway beside me, his merit badges sewn on his sleeve, what password could I give to prove our common identity?"
In terms of our study, that question is probably the most important raised in An Answer from Limbo. For it brings us back to the central problem Moore faces in his North American fiction, namely, the interrelationship of exile, freedom, and art. Since Gavin Burke essentially equates freedom with creation, and then creation with a vague ambition that can best be fulfilled by leaving Ireland, this problem really hardly troubles us when we read The Emperor of Ice Cream. It assumes more reality, however, when we discover that Brendan Tierney's exile does not completely free him from a concern with the past, even though it distances him from it. Will Brendan's guilt affect his writing, we are tempted to ask. And what, given Brendan's rejection of the past, his distaste for New York intellectuals, and his lack of interest in his immediate family, will he attempt to write about? An Answer from Limbo manages to sidestep both questions, however, by ascribing to Brendan the "ruthlessness" necessary to ignore guilt, and by telling us nothing at all about the subject of his uncompleted masterpiece. Thus, while more shadows gather on Brendan's horizon than on Gavin's, he is still portrayed as a figure moving toward conditional "success." It is apparently only when self-doubt becomes totally obsessive and when a regard for the judgments of the past interferes actively with the creation of a future that the bonds of exile become as onerous as the bonds of a traditional culture that has never been challenged. For Mary Dunne and Fergus Fadden, however, that limit is apparently reached. Both, despite substantial differences in their portrayal, emerge as artists of a sort who wage a losing battle with memory.
Of the two, Mary Dunne is the more unlikely artist, the more uncertain failure. Portrayed in the novel as a woman who once studied acting in Toronto and performed professionally for a year, she nevertheless disclaims any real talent, and dismisses her theatrical career as insignificant "enthusiasm"—mere role-playing. Similarly, after portraying herself as a person who would once have sought to turn her experiences into stories and after expressing her admiration for "Dostoevski, Proust, Tolstoi, [and] Yeats," she dissociates herself from the company of writers, saying, "They wrote, therefore they are, whereas I, sitting glum on that sofa, was nameless, lost, filled with shameful panic." What we are dealing with, then, is either someone who has made the belated discovery that she has no creative ability, and so has renounced all artistic ambition, or someone who has decided that her talent is an onerous gift, and so has decided to put it aside. Since Mary Dunne continues to identify her own actions throughout the novel as theater, characterized by "play-acting out on the fire escape" and a "frightening, unreal play going on inside my head," and since she serves, at least in memory, as the narrator of the novel bearing her name, it is the second answer that is obviously correct: she is afraid of her own literary and dramatic talents. And she is afraid because, even more than Brendan Tierney, she perceives her present in terms of her past and, in a manner very similar to his presentiment in the subway, she feels a radical, perhaps irremediable discontinuity between the person—or people—she once was and the person she is.
Her basic conundrum is expressed in the novel's Yeatsian epigraph, as Dahlie cogently suggests. But the impossibility of knowing "the dancer from the dance" is not necessarily reducible in her case to "an essential harmony existing between the various facets of her being." Rather, in this instance the image of dance and dancer intertwined seems to suggest the impossibility of disentangling any permanent identity from the rapidly changing circumstances of life. As Foster points out in his nearly definitive interpretation of the novel, her attempt at affirmation at its end is only an attempt, and "it is not Mary Dunne we come to know but rather Mary Phelan and, supremely, Mary Bell." And thus, as Foster again suggests, "She is Mary Dunne, but is also each of her subsequent identities, not at once but successively. She is, in fact, the changeling she fears herself to be."
Mary Dunne's problem with art is tied to her growing knowledge that drama or literature can confirm her fractured identity, but cannot mend it. For her sense of drama generates no apotheosis, but only the Mad Twin, a schizoid particle of her own personality, who has much in common with Judith Hearne's animate artifacts and Gavin Burke's Good and Bad Angels. Mary Dunne's attempt to explain herself by remembering every moment of her past is foredoomed by her prior realization that
… when people say they can remember everything that happened in their lives, they're deceiving themselves. I mean if I were to try to tell anyone the story of my life so far, wouldn't it come out as fragmentary and faded as those old snapshot albums, scrapbooks, and bundles of letters everyone keeps in some bottom drawer or other?
Thus memory, which she elevates at the beginning of her soliloquy as the source of all psychic value—"memento, ergo sum"—leads her to an awareness of all that she no longer is, and reminds her of her own mutability:
I can no longer find my way back to the Mary Dunne I was in my schooldays, to that Mary Phelan who giggled and wept in the Blodgett's bedsitter, or to that girl who laughed long ago in a winter street when Hat cried "Mange la merde," when I was Mary Bell. I will not even be able to go back to today when I am Mary Lavery, for today was a warning, a beginning. I mean forgetting my name, it was like forgetting my name that day, long ago, in Juarez, I will forget again. I will forget more often, it will happen to me every day and perhaps every hour.
Mary Dunne, who admires Yeats, and who echoes Molly Bloom and emulates Proust in her act of recollection, is, despite her literary heritage, incapable of saying "yes" to her personal history. By distancing her from her past, denying her transcendent faith in her art, and forcing her to contemplate the possibility that because she "cannot remember history" she may be "condemned to repeat it," Moore consigns her, not to Byzantium, but to the private "rag and bone shop" of her heart. In doing so, he is certainly expressing a universal theme, namely, the difficulty of maintaining a romantic image of the self in the face of experience and age. And by choosing to write about the life of a Canadian woman, he gives every indication of eschewing an obsessively autobiographical fiction, of expanding his geographical scope, and of further developing the insights into feminine psychology which served him so well in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Despite reservations we might have about the book's merit—it may well be too long, too repetitious, too replete with names and undramatic local references, too schematic and cruel in its portrayal of characters like Janice and Eunice, and it may well tell us too much about Hatfield Bell without, however, turning him into a compelling or totally realistic character—we can assent to Dahlie's assertion that "Mary Dunne emerges as a competent and promising departure from Moore's more traditional phase" (118).
Yet, even as a departure, I Am Mary Dunne continues to touch many of the same chords that Moore emphasizes in his portrayal of the specifically Irish exile. Perhaps the least important of these are the specifics of Mary's Irish ancestry, or the similarity of her response to Toronto and the response Burke and Tierney make to the Belfast they are intent on leaving. More significant seems to be the similarity of her obsessions to those of other characters who share an Ulster childhood. Thus, despite the fact that she comes from Butchersville, Ontario, and has never attended St. Michan's School, Mary Dunne's need to confront her past seems to stem from a continuing need to come to terms with her sexuality, her father, and her religion. Universal concerns all, their conjunction in Mary Dunne echoes the specifically Irish conjunction Moore has earlier tied to the prevailing social atmosphere of Ulster. In her identification of her father with the divine figure addressed in the "Our Father," in her hatred of that authoritarian figure and her fear that she may be too much like him, "promiscuous," doomed to live out the series of "naked" encounters "with naked men" about which she has so often dreamed, Mary Dunne seems to play an Irish Catholic Electra in the same hybrid play that features Brendan Tierney playing Oedipus.
But had Brendan broken up his lines to weep, Moore would have been capable of wheeling in another, somewhat higher-strung candidate for the part. For Fergus Fadden, hero of Fergus, recapitulates and brings to a logical close the theme of the displaced Irish artist who, having renounced his parochial upbringing, is, nevertheless, incapable of freeing himself from its debilitating effects. Probably Moore's worst novel—peopled with one-dimensional characters, who are physically present, and scores of hardly more credible apparitions, who enter and re-enter the novel with all the subtlety of Marley rattling his chains—Fergus unfortunately affords us few new insights beyond the obvious one that life, ever the servant of art, may finally have dealt with Moore as he, in his American novels at least, has been prone to deal with his characters. For Fergus, to put it briefly, is a writer who, because he is haunted by his parents, brothers, sisters, and an entire Belfast neighborhood replete with priests, theologians, dentists, and patriots, is unable to write anything in the United States except movie scripts. Either because he has some integrity left, or as seems more likely in view of the omnipresent, hectoring spirits, because he has completely lost the ability to organize his work, Fergus is in danger of losing even that limited skill. Concurrently, he worries about his divorce and his deteriorating relationship with Dani, his young and very "California" girlfriend. The same memory that destroys his ability to create contributes to a sense of guilt, and incomplete images of former sexual encounters deprive him of his present sexual satisfaction. Since the ghosts of everything past have put him on an unending windmill of Fellini-esque reminiscence, he has little hope, short of a heart attack, of stopping his downward slide. Only a vague recollection of some small gesture of goodwill toward a woman with the meticulously recorded name of Elaine Rosen promises Fergus anything beyond despair.
It would serve no useful purpose to speculate about Moore's personal reasons for writing Fergus (1970). Nor, despite its many obvious flaws, need we dwell on it and insist that this, after all, is what Brian Moore, the author of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), has inevitably come to. For Catholics (1972) and The Great Victorian Collection (1975), Moore's two most recent works, are both infinitely better novels, and strongly suggest that, when he turns his attention to a slightly different theme, Moore is still capable of producing excellent fiction. But that judgment carries us to the threshhold of another phase of Moore's career. What is important here is that Fergus is the ultimate expression of a theme that achieves its full definition in An Answer from Limbo (1962) and The Emperor of Ice Cream (1965), and which already seems to be suffering from enervation and repetition in I Am Mary Dunne (1968). Seen in this light, the paralysis that afflicts Moore's later pilgrims, for whom nothing of significant psychological or creative value seems to exist except in an irredeemable past, seems finally to threaten Moore's own definition of himself as an artist. Lacking Joyce's willingness to yield himself entirely to his remembered adolescence, and unable or unwilling in much of his middle fiction to ignore, abstract, or romanticize the past, Moore courts disaster by producing re-cycled portraits of old influences and old antagonists. Unchanging, their predictability robs them of their vitality, and strips them of the power they once had to enlighten, to anger, and to shock.
The Executioners (novel) 1951Wreath for a Redhead (novel) 1951French for Murder [as Bernard Mara] (novel) 1954Bullet for My Lady [as Bernard Mara] (novel) 1955Judith Hearne (novel) 1955; also published as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, 1955Intent to Kill [as Michael Bryan] (novel) 1956This Gun for Gloria [as Michael Bryan] (novel) 1956The Feast of Lupercal (novel) 1957; also published as A Moment of Love, 1965Murder in Majorca [as Michael Bryan] (novel) 1957The Luck of Ginger Coffey (novel) 1960An Answer from Limbo (novel) 1962 ∗The Luck of Ginger Coffey (screenplay) 1964The Emperor of Ice-Cream (novel) 1965 †Torn Curtain (screenplay) 1966I Am Mary Dunne (novel) 1968Fergus (novel) 1970The Revolution Script (novel) 1971Catholics (novel) 1972Catholics (teleplay) 1973The Great Victorian Collection (novel) 1975The Doctor's Wife (novel) 1976The Mangan Inheritance (novel) 1979 ‡Two Stories (novellas) 1979The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (novel) 1981Cold Heaven (novel) 1983 §The Blood of Others [based on the novel Le sang des autres by Simone de Beauvoir] (screenplay) 1984Black Robe (novel) 1985The Color of Blood (novel) 1987Lies of Silence (novel) 1990 ∗∗Black Robe (screenplay) 1991No Other Life (novel) 1993
∗This film was directed by Irvin Kershner.
†This film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
‡This work contains Preliminary Pages for a Work of Revenge and Uncle T.
§This film was directed by Claude Chabrol.
∗∗This film was directed by Bruce Beresford.
SOURCE: "Brian Moore: The Realist's Progress," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. VII, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 183-200.
[In the following essay, Stovel argues that Moore shifted from "traditional social realism" to "impersonal" fiction to parables over the course of his first twelve novels, a transition which "recapitulates the major changes in fiction itself within the last century or so."]
Brian Moore has written eleven novels in a career that now extends over a quarter-century. It is a distinguished body of work, and one distinguished, more than anything else, by its realism. Elusive as the term is, some sense of its meaning for Moore emerges from his own views on fiction. He has said, "I think we're in a sort of camp period with novels" [Richard B. Sale, "An Interview in London with Brian Moore," Studies in the Novel, vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1969] Calling himself "anti-anti-roman," he believes most experimental writing fails because it does not portray actual life: "Life is all about very mundane things. It is all about ambition, jobs, worries about your children's health, fear of death…. There are no jobs in modern novels; everybody lives in some limbo." In fact, though, "most people still live in the old-fashioned world of the nineteenth-century novels" [quoted by Donald Cameron in "Brian Moore: Tragic Vein of The Ordinary," in Conversations with Canadian Novelists, 1973]. What makes the great novelists great for Moore is their realism: "Faulkner's gothic America is based on real people, real relationships between white and Negro, real feelings of hunters…. The finest things in Ulysses and in the Portrait rest on a naturalistic basis, on character and on [Joyce's] ability to write about ordinary people and ordinary—even banal—situations. I think that is strength; take that away and the books disappear" [quoted by Sale].
These beliefs are interesting, not so much in themselves, but for what they imply about Moore's plots and narrative methods. For realism is not a matter of content, nor a credo, but a formal term describing a certain kind of story told in a certain way. I would like to define Moore's realism in these terms and suggest the changing uses he has made of it. Moore's fiction does change in important ways. He employs a traditional social realism in his first five novels; the fifth, The Emperor of Ice Cream (1966), is highly autobiographical and seems to have laid many ghosts, formal as well as personal. The next two novels, I Am Mary Dunne (1968) and Fergus (1970), present a subjective realism new to Moore. After two works which reveal an uneasy compromise between parable and realism, Catholics (1972) and The Great Victorian Collection (1975), Moore returns, a little exhausted from his travels, perhaps, to traditional realism in his two most recent novels, The Doctor's Wife (1976), and The Mangan Inheritance (1979). Moore's growth from traditional realism to what Wayne Booth calls the impersonal novel to fable recapitulates the major changes in fiction itself within the last century or so; it also reflects our diminished belief in a shared reality. "The nineteenth-century novelist was a part of his community, a recorder of a world he knew and understood. But today's writer, particularly if he is an exile, tends to become what Mary McCarthy called a machine à écrire" [Brian Moore, "The Writer in Exile," Canadian Journal of English Studies, 2, 2 (1976)]. Moore is indeed an exile, in time as well as in space. He says defiantly, "I believe in a real world because I was brought up in it" (Sale), but time and change have made that world increasingly distant. Tracing this realist's progress, then, not only helps to understand Moore's fiction, but also offers some hints about the changing nature of realism itself.
Moore's first five novels all employ a traditional, objective realism. The central drama, in each case, lies in the conflicts between the characters' inner demands and the fixed social framework in which they find themselves. This framework, in other words, is necessary for presenting the dramatic movement from self-delusion to self-recognition and self-acceptance. Speaking in 1971, Moore said, "When I wrote most of my novels I was interested—I'm not sure that I'm much interested now—in presenting the moment in a person's life, the crucial few weeks or months, when one suddenly confronts the reality or unreality of one's illusions, because that, to me, is what the drama of a novel is" (Cameron). Each of these early novels is, as perhaps all works of traditional realism are, a bildungsroman: they trace the process of growing up, of changing from child to adult. Gavin Burke of The Emperor of Ice Cream has the delusions and discoveries of normal adolescence; he is not what Joyce called "a painful case." But all the other central characters are: they must make the transition in their thirties or early forties, an age when delusions have become habitual and change is much more painful. Judith Hearne, the spinster heroine of the first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), is the classic instance: she penetrates, in the course of the novel, the genteel disguises she has erected to keep herself from recognizing her own desperate loneliness. If, as her crisis begins, she stands in line with the children for confession, she can sit before the mirror in the final chapter and say to herself, as she could not have a few weeks earlier, "That is an old woman." Diarmud Devine in The Feast of Lupercal (1957) sees in the final chapter that he has allowed himself to be caned by his fellow teacher, Tim Heron, as "a form of expiation" for being, metaphorically, a barren woman; Dev, too, has come a long way from the shame and indignation with which he rejected the overheard reference to himself as "that old woman." In The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), Ginger, a man who lives in boy's clothing and boy's dreams, exchanges his Alpine hat and hacking jacket for "the uniform, anonymous and humiliating," of a diaper deliverer; he is "aged white in one moment" by snow in the climactic scene. Brendan and Jane Tierney in An Answer from Limbo (1962), themselves parents, are presented as overgrown children, each absorbed in delusions of revenge and final triumph; the childishness appears in the words with which Jane expels her mother-in-law: "I didn't want you here, I never wanted you to come, life's miserable with you on top of us all the time and then you go interfering with my children, you sneaky, deceitful old—poop." In the end, both Brendan and Jane are forced to face their delusions: "We have lost our dream," Jane reflects. When the emperor of ice cream comes to Belfast, Gavin Burke discovers what his favourite poems are really about: he can then let "be be finale of seem" [from the poem "The Emperor of Ice Cream" by Wallace Stevens] and move from indecision to decision, from subjection to his own guardian angels to guardianship of his own father.
In short, the fixed social setting of the novels is presented, not for its own sake, but as a means of dramatizing the protagonists' education—the process by which they are "led out of" themselves and into adult reality. This process is comic in nature, since the conflict of inner and outer is finally reconciled. Paradoxically, it is failure, not success, which produces the moral victory of self-knowledge, as Moore explains in an interview (Cameron). Devine is described at the start of The Feast of Lupercal as "a man whose appearance suggested some painful uncertainty"; Dev, like the other protagonists, is a child in his father's Victorian clothes, torn between allegiance to a reassuring past and the need to live in the present. By the end of the novel, his pains are at least known and accepted. Even Judith Hearne, that most sombre of novels, ends on a generic note of renewal and reconciliation. When Judith puts up her two ikons once more, she reflects that if her Aunt D'Arcy—whose opinions (delivered with a sniff of superiority) have always consoled her—is dead and gone, Aunt D'Arcy is still part of Judith's own persisting self; in the same way, she accepts the Sacred Heart as literally gone, but alive as part of her. In An Answer from Limbo, the presence and fate of Mrs. Tierney modify the inherently comic bildungsroman form; nevertheless, the novel takes its shape from Brendan's slow growth from painful uncertainty to painful certainty about the question, present in his mind from first to last, of whether he is willing to sacrifice himself to his writing. We should note that Brendan's ambition as a novelist, the moving force of the action, is presented throughout as a social and moral, not a literary, fact; Brendan indeed provides "A portrait of the young man as artist."
Objective realism is the key to understanding Moore's use of point of view in these five novels. Moore has described Ginger Coffey as "a first-person novel written in the third person" [quoted by Robert Fulford in "Robert Fulford Interviews Brian Moore," Tamarark Review, 23, 1962], and the phrase applies to all five early novels. In each, the action is experienced from within the central character (in An Answer from Limbo, from within three characters in rapid alternation); yet the central character is also presented to us as a social being, seen from outside. In fact, the hero of The Feast of Lupercal is, from first page to last, "Mr. Devine." The interplay between inner experience and fixed social reality is created largely by frequent shifts to the viewpoint of secondary or peripheral characters, especially at or just after moments of crisis. This device is Moore's signature on these early works. Judith Hearne's fellow boarders, the Rices, the O'Neill family, cashiers, clerks, taxi drivers, and Father Francis Xavier Quigley all punctuate and distance her harrowing drama. Similarly, dance instructors, tailors, amateur actors, schoolboys, Father McSwiney, and Dr. Keogh all provide a rhythm of crisis and relaxation, a blend of sympathy and detachment, in The Feast of Lupercal. A clear instance of the effect of these shifts occurs in the final pages of Ginger Coffey; Ginger, drunk on straight self-pity and a mixture of sherry and Coca-Cola, is glimpsed first through the shocked eyes of the new man on the job, Mr. Rhodes, and later from the perspective of the constables who arrest him. The effect is to keep our view of Ginger external and ironic at his moment of greatest humiliation. In An Answer from Limbo, our distance is preserved by brief glimpses of the main action through the eyes of the children, Frank Finnerty (an Irish cousin), Ted Ormsby (Brendan's former friend), Vito and his pathetic sidekick, Lester, and, once more, the post-crisis policeman. Even Gavin Burke, the protagonist we sympathize with most directly, is kept at what Moore calls [in "Brian Moore: An Interview by Hallvard Dahlie," Tamarack Review, 46, 1968] "a very distinct remove" by extended scenes rendered from the viewpoint of his co-workers in the A.R.P. and by glimpses of Gavin as he is seen by his girlfriends and his mother.
If the purpose of these shifts in viewpoint is to give us an ironic grasp of the social situation and the protagonist's place within it, the shifts are merely one sign of Moore's prevailing attitude and strategy: irony. Moore's style artfully conveys ironic awareness to us, his readers, without interrupting our sympathetic participation in his protagonist's own experience. If we look at the extended passage early in Judith Hearne in which the heroine plays with her image in the mirror and then descends for the first time to the dim, over-furnished dining room of the boarding-house, we see that Judith's simple, hopeful perceptions are presented in a style that allows them to convey a great deal more to us than they do to her. Similarly, Ginger Coffey relies upon "his habitual processes of ratiocination" to convince himself that all is well; the phrase conveys both Ginger's trust in his own optimism and some less flattering implications. Many of the most memorable passages from these novels reveal, when examined, this flexible union of sympathy and judgment, of first-person experience and third-person awareness. Take, for example, the following:
A drink would put things right. Drink was not to help forget, but to help remember, to clarify and arrange untidy and unpleasant facts into a perfect pattern of reasonableness and beauty. Alcoholic, she did not drink to put aside the dangers and disappointments of the moment. She drank to be able to see these trials more philosophically, to examine them more fully, fortified by the stimulant of unreason. (Judith Hearne)
Moore's irony is thus compassionate. If it reminds us that Judith's choices contain dimensions that she cannot understand, it also asks us to recognize her conflicts, if not her actions, as our own.
Ironic distance is also maintained by the use of two or more plots. In each of these books, Moore sets separate strands of action in motion; this forces reflective distance upon us; unexpected and suggestive patterns develop as the plots interact. Much of the art of Judith Hearne, for instance, lies in the way the social plot, in which Judith's lonely passion is a lonely romance, touches off a deeper, metaphysical plot, in which Judith's passion is a crucifixion. Losing the one passion throws her upon the thorns of the other. Ironically, the connection is thrust upon her by Bernie Rice, who intends to complete the rout of Madden in the social plot; he overreaches himself in that plot but, at the same time, begins Judith's torments by articulating her own doubts in the other. Devine's struggle for self-definition in The Feast of Lupercal is framed by the increasingly direct struggle between two priests for control of the Jesuit boys' school at which Dev teaches. His climactic confrontation with authority becomes merely an occasion for the old order, embodied in Dr. Keogh, to discomfit the sadistic careerist, Father McSwiney. Ginger Coffey's job worries and marriage worries are essentially separate, as his foolish pledge to base the fate of one upon the other underlines; when he is arrested, Ginger gives a false name, Gerald MacGregor, an amalgam of the two separate enemies who have, he thinks, brought him to this pass. Like Ginger, Gavin Burke finds himself "becalmed in indecision between adolescence and adult life" with both Sally Shannon and his career worries; the two plots conclude with matching, but separate, resolution scenes, in each of which "a new grown-up voice" informs Gavin that he is free of both Sally's and his father's demands. There are three plots in An Answer from Limbo—Brendan's struggle to become a recognized novelist, Jane's affair with Vito, Mrs. Tierney's missionary activities in the New World—and they interact intricately. Jane's rejection by Vito provokes her hysterical and guilty desire to punish Mrs. Tierney; Mrs. Tierney, by contrast, understands, sympathizes with, and helps Jane, rather than judges her. One of the novel's major ironies is that it is Mrs. Tierney, rather than Brendan or Jane, who shows tolerance; her harsh code is turned wholly upon her own life. Brendan, who has created this domestic hell, remains emotionally immune to both the women in his life; he lives in the limbo of those who refuse to choose.
These separate plots keep us at a reflective distance, since we must stand back if we are to see the plots counterpoint and converge. Ironic distance is a condition of another primary feature of these novels: humour. Here, again, the fixed social setting is instrumental; it throws into relief grotesques like Bernie Rice, Mr. Mountain, and Post Officer Craig. Ironic distance also allows us to see the comedy as well as the pathos in major scenes—for instance, in Judith Hearne's happiness in being at church with a good man beside her, while that man, James Madden, worries about his assault on the serving-girl the previous night and then falls asleep. Ginger Coffey is inflamed with desire for his own wife—once she has denied herself to him and he can imagine her infidelities with Gerry Grosvenor. The same sympathetic, yet humorous, irony prevails in The Feast of Lupercal. The quietest of the early novels, it is also very funny. Devine, a good Catholic, can only make love to his first girl by worshipping at the altar of her body: "But her mouth opened, her tongue probed. The reverence was profaned. He knelt back swiftly on his heels, hearing the short shocked gasp of his own breath." Dev then prays desperately for a miracle: "I will honour You all my life if only this will not come to pass." The final confrontation in Dr. Keogh's office mingles Dev's total humiliation with an exhilarating comic comeuppance for the hateful Father McSwiney.
The elements outlined so far can be found in almost all novels of objective realism. But Moore uses realism for one further purpose in these novels: to present a dramatic cycle of shame and self-pity. Other people are necessary for Moore's central characters, not so much to provide love (which all want and none receive), but to provide the judgment upon themselves that makes their own lives real. Ginger Coffey's dream of living for years in saintly renunciation of all human ties is rudely interrupted by the realization, "What good was it, doing something, if nobody in the whole world knew you were doing it?" Moore's characters are always and essentially aware of living before the eyes of others. Social and moral self-awareness is simply knowledge of the communal judgment. Judith Hearne turns her two household gods to the wall when she opens her bottles; Devine has the nervous habit of twisting his father's ring, seemingly consulting this symbol of bondage, in moments of crisis. Self-consciousness, in other words, consists of other people's real and imagined reactions to oneself; characters as different as Brendan Tierney and his mother illustrate this. Shame is thus, in these novels, much more powerful than guilt: Devine suffers less during and immediately after his sexual fiasco than he does when he sees the writing on the wall and "seemed to hear three hundred boyish voices chanting in eerie unison … drawers down, drawers down."
Such dependence on what other people think is resented. Gavin Burke imagines being able to say to Sally, "Darling, you were right, I am ashamed of this job and I'm ashamed of being ashamed, if you know what I mean." Gavin's words hint that the first response to overwhelming shame is to try to escape it through self-pity: a person who cannot win esteem may still gain pity for his intense and abject suffering. Judith Hearne, Devine, Ginger Coffey, Gavin Burke, and, in more subtle ways, Brendan and Jane Tierney all seek refuge from shame in wild binges of self-pity. Of course, these binges only create further shame, as Father Quigley is quick to tell Judith. The characters' only hope of escaping this cycle lies in choosing to act in defiance of shame and self-pity, rather than simply suffering them; if Moore's protagonists do so, they find, to their surprise, that they can bear humiliation and not be annihilated.
Objective realism is necessary to convey this drama of shame and self-pity: the world around the characters is both the cause of their painful self-consciousness and the field in which it is tested. We feel Devine's shame so strongly, for instance, because we have been shown the strength of the social code he has violated. Here the demands of Moore's psychology coincide with the larger, formal patterns of realism. Shame and self-pity are, after all, adolescent emotions; the passage to adulthood, for Moore, can only be made by confronting them.
Moore was apparently anxious to turn to something very different after completing The Emperor of Ice Cream in 1966. In that novel, which he calls "my Bildungsroman" (Dahlie interview), he gives his most direct depiction of the Belfast world that he grew up in and believed to be real. At the same time, though, the novel's very realism may have seemed self-indulgent and evasive. In being true to his personal history, Moore wrote his only novel set in the past; Gavin's story is as much Moore's nostalgic Goodbye to All That [title of Robert Graves's autobiography] as his bildungsroman. Whatever the cause, Moore's impatience is evident in 1967; after stating that most experimental writing is camp and doesn't really work, he adds, "Yet at the same time I don't want to write realistic disguised autobiography" (Sale). He also speaks of personal reasons for a new departure: "Emperor was written at a crucial time in my life…. I started a new life half-way through the writing of it, I fell in love, remarried and so on. My new book was written and is being finished in this new happiness which is my present life" (Dahlie interview).
I Am Mary Dunne, Moore's "new book," indeed marks a new beginning. For the first time, Moore tells his story entirely in the first person. We never leave Mary's mind, as we did in the earlier novels, to gain distance and an ironic grasp of the actual situation; no larger, ironic consciousness conveys the action to us. Instead, like Mary, we must live with uncertainty. Is she going mad, in premenstrual depression, or in some intermediate state? Does her present husband, Terence, love her or does he protect her out of compassion for the wounded? Is she a moral monster, using and then betraying the people she has known, or is her life, as she would like to think, a series of successful struggles for fulfilment against those who would bind with briars her joys and desires? If she has sex on the brain, as her friend Janice charges, is she healthy or deformed thereby? Is she a Macbeth, as she fears, or is her role in her second husband's suicide that of stage-prop or even victim—Duncan and not Macbeth? Is her state of mind best explained by Catholicism as sin, by Freud as guilt about the sexuality her father bequeathed her, or by the Yeats epigraph as self-creation through the exercise of memory and imagination? Does she finally recover from her crisis or not? The novel's questions are left open: Moore now lets seem finale of be. As he said in 1967, "there's something onanistic about first person because you cannot really do anything with the character's own perceptions" (Sale). Judith's delusions, measured against a fixed actuality, give way to Mary's necessary illusions. If judgment is in abeyance, imaginative sympathy is now Moore's central aim: he means to make us feel as intensely as possible what it is to be his heroine. He says, and asks us to say after him, "I am Mary Dunne." We can measure the change by recalling the carefully-distanced use of first-person narration in An Answer from Limbo; there, only parts of the novel are told by Brendan Tierney, and the dramatic focus is not on Brendan's inner life.
Fergus, Moore's next novel, is a pale male version of a female tour de force, just as The Feast of Lupercal is an underplayed reworking of Judith Hearne. Fergus, like its predecessor, is the drama of an isolated person's confrontation with the ghosts of his past. The narration, though in the third person, never leaves the consciousness of Fergus Fadden, the aging novelist; in fact, almost all the other characters in the novel are incapable of seeing Fergus from outside, since they are projections of his own mind. This subjectivism is the appropriate method of presenting a world in which, as Fergus's sister tells him, "You are your own god."
Time exists in both novels as a subjective medium, just as it does in, say, Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury. The present-tense action in each takes place within a single day, but, unlike Moore's earlier protagonists, who must have the courage to act, Mary and Fergus must have the courage to face their own thoughts. Thus there is no place for a double plot. The protagonist's mental life is a single, inescapable whole; present events provoke, and so contain, the persisting conflicts within Mary and Fergus. The plot in each case is subjective. Just as the thoughts of Quentin Compson or Leopold Bloom spiral inward, forming a mental journey that counterpoints the external events of a single day, so the minds of Mary and Fergus move obliquely toward a central recognition which they know and yet resist acknowledging. Mary's mind builds to, and finally contemplates, her discovery of her second husband's suicide. Fergus's mind must meet his own father, not as the all-too-convenient caricature of the novel's opening pages, but as the ground of his identity. Fergus's deepest self has demanded the climactic recognition scene with his father from the start; his father ended his ludicrous first appearance to his son with the words, "Yes, I'd be delighted about your writing…. But, your present life, well, that's another matter. Thank God I'm not around to make judgments on that. I should hope, though, that if I were, I'd be kinder to you than you are to me." In fact, one gauge of Mary Dunne's structural superiority to Fergus is its greater unity of action. Mary's past and present are a seamless whole: confronting her guilty memories makes her feel even less worthy, even more unsure, of Terence's love, while his efforts to shield her remind her how much her past actions put her in need of protection. In Fergus, on the other hand, the present is dramatically inert: Fergus's ghosts neither affect not are affected by his relationship with young Dani and his decision not to revise his movie script.
In both novels, the subjective plot traces the sudden unravelling of a stable self. This is implicit in Mary's hysterical inability to remember what her name now is; Moore's working title for the novel, interestingly, was A Woman of No Identity (Dahlie interview). The final title, I Am Mary Dunne, suggests the counter-movement that occurs in each novel, the creation of a new and larger sense of self from the pieces. The epigraph to I Am Mary Dunne suggests that, like Yeats in "Among School Children," Mary ends by composing painfully separate selves into a single and connected image. By her own inner efforts she has achieved a persisting and coherent selfhood, one that she knows can fight her dooms. Similarly, Fergus ends up able to wave goodbye to the inner forces which have divided him, "releasing them"—and himself as well. The psychological integration of past and present replaces, in both novels, the bildungsroman reconciliation of inner and outer reality.
If these two novels have no fixed social framework, no outside views of the central figure, no ironic distance, and no counterpoint of separate plots, the humour of the early novels must be transformed—and it is. Characters and speeches that might earlier have been laughable are now more painful than ridiculous, since they hold too much power over the suffering protagonist. We might think, for instance, of the outpouring with which Hat Bell consigns Mary to "this poor Beatle bugger," an outpouring, which haunts Mary, or of the many pungent Irish voices which sound so vigorously from Fergus's past. An important change in perspective and texture has been made; once again, the 1967 interviews shed some light on Moore's achievement. Moore says that he wrote I Am Mary Dunne first in the third person, then "in the historical present," and finally in "first-person, non-historical present … in one day with movements into the past." He explains that in the rewrite of the novel in its final form the last third of the book caused problems "because the character I introduce at the end, who has not been met up to then, is too grotesque. The first time around, I tended to emphasize his grotesque qualities, and now I'm trying to change him completely around" (Dahlie interview). The section Moore describes consists of one long, unbroken scene with Ernest Truelove, who is grotesque, even in name: his monstrous and tyrannizing self-pity in the name of love, his mixture of lust and chivalrous devotion, his clumsy attempts at sophistication which only make him "a professional hick"—everything about Ernie is ridiculous. But, as Moore implies, he is no grotesque to Mary, since he is the terrifying and stubborn embodiment of her own past; hence the treatment of him had to be shaded from grotesque humour, suitable for a James Madden or a Post Officer Craig, to a nightmare-like intensity suited to Moore's new subjective method of presentation.
In this new form of realism, Moore's dramatic cycle of shame and self-pity is replaced by a subjective cycle of guilt and depression. Mary Dunne, who believes in her amended version of Descartes, memento ergo sum, has no trouble rejecting the tenet of shame, "They saw it, therefore I am"; similarly, Fergus's ghosts appear in order to bewilder, not accuse, him. And if guilt is internalized shame, a feeling of self-defilement, the terror that Mary calls depression need not be caused by shameful action, as Mary realizes: "I do not know my fault, the Juarez dooms are not about real things, I do not think about Hat's suicide, I do not know what it is I have done, and so, not knowing, I cannot forgive myself." If guilt causes depression, depression only creates further guilt, and, since the cycle is a purely subjective one, action offers no release from it. Both protagonists can only resolve not to cease from mental fight against these inner enemies, but only after Mary has been driven to the brink of suicide and Fergus to a heart attack. The real source of both guilt and depression is the fear of forgetting one's past; if identity is derived from memory, then to forget something is to die by so much. Mary realizes this from the outset: "As now, perhaps, I am beginning to die because some future me cannot keep me in mind." The moral struggle with memory, in which Mary and Fergus must face things which they are afraid to remember, is only part of a metaphysical struggle, in which both must face the terrors of forgetting. The climactic scene of Fergus turns on the hero's being able to recall a woman he can barely remember, a woman with whom he knows he did nothing shameful, simply because: "Don't you see? Forgetting is the most terrible thing that can happen to a person."
These two novels are still realistic, particularly if we follow W. J. Harvey and assume that a rich and complex presentation of character is the central feature of realism. But Moore's realism is now subjective, not objective; still, like the fiction of Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, and other modernists, it extends, rather than repudiates, traditional realism. I Am Mary Dunne and Fergus present not those who are still children, but those who are adults and must renew contact with a childhood they fear they have lost; realism, though of a different kind, is still needed to tell this second kind of story, since both protagonists say, with their author, "I believe in a real world because I was brought up in it."
Fergus, like its autobiographical predecessor, The Emperor of Ice Cream, used up a body of material and a narrative method. The reader of Moore's earlier novels is familiar with its characters (Dr. Keogh) and its character types (the parents, the intellectual mentor), its scenes of ritual (the family rosary), and its dramatic moments (the missioner's hellfire). Technique, too, seems pushed to a point where it becomes obtrusive and redundant. Moore seems to have had an urge to put his realism to new uses after Fergus; at any rate, his next book, The Revolution Script (1971), is a "non-fiction novel" about the Quebec terrorist kidnappings of 1970. And his two subsequent works, Catholics (1972) and The Great Victorian Collection (1975), make realism subservient to parable, though the compromise is, in each case, an uneasy one. What Moore recently said of The Great Victorian Collection is true of both books: "I was writing against all the strengths I have" [quoted by Hubert de Santana in "Who Is Brian Moore?," Books in Canada 6, No. 8 (1977)].
Catholics is a fable set in the future and not quite a novel at all. It is less than half as long as Moore's other books and the only one not to treat relationships between men and women. Its status in Moore's eyes is perhaps indicated by the fact that it is his only book to date not dedicated to a person. Like his early novels, though, it contains two cleverly-connected plots and makes dramatic use of changes in viewpoint.
The first two-thirds of the novella is presented through the eyes of the calculating young careerist, James Kinsella, and depicts a social conflict between new and old Catholicism. This part of the novel is a dystopia, a satiric projection into the future of trends in contemporary experience; imaginative verve, not realistic texture, is the necessary means of conveying Moore's reductio and absurdum of the strange paradoxes in modern culture. For instance, Kinsella takes heart from the words of his mentor, Hartmann: "You must show them that while you are the Revolution and they are the Tradition, the Revolution is the established faith and will prevail." Similarly, contemporary religion is presented as estranged from its own fixed and actual structures; in place of the stone walls of Muck Abbey, "that bareness which contains all the beauty of belief," we have Kinsella's new conception of community: "Today's best thinking saw the disappearance of the church building as a place of worship in favor of a more generalized community concept, a group gathered in a meeting to celebrate God-in-others." Moore's title, in short, contains a pun: all the world is about to become Catholic, since the word has regained its original meaning, all-embracing. But, of course, to be everything at once is to be nothing at all. As in most dystopias, the social forces satirized are those most hostile to imaginative activity; Moore, the realistic novelist, is threatened by all that Kinsella represents—loss of faith, loss of humility, denial of mystery and miracle, rejection of tradition as irrelevant, loss of community, even loss of individual identity.
Yet realism reappears, and with a vengeance, in the final section of the novella. There we switch to the viewpoint of Kinsella's opponent, the Abbot, who benefits from a cunning Lockwood-effect: Kinsella's rational secularism has been so limited that we sympathize all the more readily with the Abbot when we learn of his inner struggle for belief. The action thus moves, as it had in Judith Hearne, from a social plot to a metaphysical plot; Kinsella's triumph in one is only a means of producing the Abbot's spiritual triumph in the other.
But Moore's realism is too little and too late. The Abbot's character, as J. W. Foster says, is "sadly underdeveloped" [Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction, 1974]. Compared to the agony of Judith Hearne, the Abbot's thoughts as he, like her, contemplates a tabernacle empty of God, seem simply that—thoughts. We think of him throughout as the Abbot, an official in the Church, rather than as Tomás O'Malley, the green-grocer's son; he has a spiritual history but no personal past. The Abbot, we may note, is born at the same date as his author; that is, he is a projection into the future of Moore himself. But the Abbot only symbolizes, and does not embody, Moore's real world of childhood.
The Great Victorian Collection is another uncertain mixture of parable and realism, though parable of a very different kind. Moore's model here is the most influential of contemporary anti-realists, Jorge Luis Borges. Moore recently said, "The idea of writing The Great Victorian Collection didn't come from Borges, but reading him gave me the courage to try" ["Interview: With Author Brian Moore," Maclean's (11 July 1977)]. But Moore's Borgesian fantasy, paradoxically, is an epistemological exploration of his own realism; speculations implicit in Catholics are taken up and developed here. The body of objects dreamed into existence by Anthony Maloney accurately reproduces the world he has known; the objects d'art are neither "original" nor copies of actual objects, but a "wholly secular miracle." The first and all-important rule governing the Collection is that it is a unit: take any one object out of its place in the exhibit and it becomes a Japanese fake—a notion Aristotle would readily grasp. Maloney, like Moore himself, can only dream what he knows, the Victorian past; his agent and other self, Vaterman, turns on him with the charge, "Never mind whether you dreamed it up or not, have you ever listened to what serious people 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 Maloney's creation should possess and finally destroy him is a special instance of a general truth for Moore: "People's lives change them" (Dahlie interview).
If the action consists of playful fantasy about realistic creation, the narrative method is similarly Borgesian and non-realistic. Events are presented from Maloney's point of view—we never see him through the eyes of another character—and yet not from within his own consciousness. This narrative perspective is new for Moore. It is pseudo-documentary, a mock-realism, as the following sentences from the opening pages illustrate: "He later said that when he entered the motel bedroom the blind was drawn and the bed was turned down. This has since been confirmed by Mrs. Elaine Bourget, wife of the proprietor, who customarily performs this service for guests." The realistic surface is ironic, but rather than conveying a larger than human meaning, the details convey their own lack of meaning. Much of the novel consists of transcripts, in documentary style, of TV interviews, researchers' reports, press conferences, and Maloney's own diary (as later published in a scholarly journal). The refusal to provide any omniscient framework is heightened by Moore's style, which often has the austere eloquence, the dramatic variation, of Borges: "Until then, he had believed that, by his actions, his inattention, his unworthiness, he could destroy this Collection he had so miraculously and fortuitously wrought. But what if the Collection, singular, faëry, false, had, with true artifice, begun to destroy him?"
As suits this parable, Maloney has little distinct personality. Like the Ancient Mariner, he is the blank, passive protagonist of a dream. He feels little, as his lack of response to the wife who has left him shows, and he sees even less—he has to be told by Mary Ann that Vaterman's belief that her father does follow her everywhere is false. In fact, as Maloney grasps, it is the very lack of any apparent source in his everyday life that makes his dream so remarkable: "I'm not a freak, I'm an ordinary person. It's what I've done that's extraordinary…. In fact, it's probably because I'm not interesting that I became a dreamer and dreamed up this stuff."
But Moore, inveterate realist that he is, fleshes out his parable with all the paraphernalia of realism. Maloney has a childhood and youth in Montreal, job worries, marital problems, a struggle for independence with his mother, shadowy memories of his dead father, and much more. A good deal of the novel is given over to developing elements superfluous in the parable. Maloney has, for instance, in dim and shadowy form, the inner life of shame and self-consciousness that we have seen in Moore's realistic fiction; early in the novel he examines his "Judas face" in the mirror in typical Moore fashion. These realistic elaborations jar with the prevailing narrative method. In the major scenes, Moore seems unable to decide which method to use; Maloney's desperate flight with Mary Ann presents fantasy, guilt, and self-pity as both dream-states and as realistic action. If Maloney's dream finally consumes him, Moore's own realistic imagination takes over and undermines his parable.
In his two latest novels, The Doctor's Wife (1976) and The Managan Inheritance (1979), Moore has returned, at least ostensibly, to the objective realism of his first novels, just as Sheila Redden of The Doctor's Wife is once again from Belfast and even recalls the "Fairy" Rice of Judith Hearne from her days at university. Once more a social framework is used to present a story of maturation, "the crucial few weeks or months, when one suddenly confronts the reality or unreality of one's illusions." Sheila Redden ("Mrs. Redden" to us), a thirty-seven year old mother who is really still a child under her husband's care, has such a confrontation; her brother can see its effect at the novel's end: "Something had changed. He could not say, exactly, but she looked older." Once again, we have a story told primarily from within the heroine's own consciousness, but in the third person, with frequent shifts in viewpoint to other characters—her brother Owen, her husband, her friend Peg, even the casual voyeur, Mr. Balcer. Again, too, these shifts provide ironic distance: the novel's prologue, told from Owen's point of view after the major events have taken place, tells us in advance that the heroine's sexual idyll will not be permanent; Mr. Balcer takes over at the moments of greatest eroticism, forcing us to see the lovers from outside.
Moore's realism gives the novel its subtlety. The action builds to the heroine's decision; her sexual emancipation, which occupies the first half of the novel, serves this end, since it gives her faith that she can choose her own future. But choosing is such a painful state that she is soon referring to her new happiness in the past tense; finally, she is driven, like Mary Dunne and Maloney, to contemplate suicide as a release from conflict. Yet her decision, when made, shows that her growing pains have taught her to discriminate. She has decided not to return to her life with her husband in Belfast; she also sees that to be directed by her lover to a new life in America is not enough of a change from being managed by her husband. Furthermore, she must be sure that she has not used Tom Lowry, her younger American lover, merely as an instrument for her own liberation. From the start, her mind has recoiled from memories and dreams of raw horror in Belfast; even before she became involved with Tom, she was tempted to walk out of her life there, just like "those men you read about in newspaper stories who walk out of their homes saying they are going down to the corner to buy cigarettes and are never heard from again." If she must clarify her own motives, she must also give Tom a chance to test his; before she realizes fully what her question means, she asks him, "Supposing you were told you would never see me again. What would you do?" Moore's realistic presentation of character and conflict gives the decision its complex scrupulousness.
But the novel is raw romance as much as it is in Moore's earlier vein of realism. If the title alludes to Flaubert, it also suggests drug-store Bovarisme, a ladies' thriller. And if the setting is social, it is hardly fixed: with the help of planes and phones, we hop about glamorously from Belfast to Paris to the Mediterranean to Paris to London. This geographical fluidity corresponds to moral and psychological fluidity. There are no codes for the heroine to violate, no barriers to break through: "It seemed like another life," Sheila reflects, "that long-ago time or rules and rewards, when prayer and sin were real." Moore's heroine is, literally, shameless. As a result, her discoveries about herself—for instance, her realization that she married simply to escape life at home—occur abstractly and without dramatic force. Also, unlike the early novels, The Doctor's Wife has only one plot; this contributes to a lack of ironic distance from the central character. If secondary characters like Sheila's domineering husband and even more domineering sister-in-law provide a familiar kind of humour, there is no laughing when Sheila, like Devine earlier, falls to her knees in sexual worship. Tom Lowry, as a result, is too blandly and insubstantially good, a latter-day Will Ladislaw to our post-Freudian Dorothea; it is significant that he is the one main character whose point of view is not explored. Just as Sheila Redden is from Belfast, but not in it, so Moore can not simply return to his original domain, objective realism.
Realism and crude romance mingle even more strangely in The Mangan Inheritance. On the one hand, the opening situation is exactly that of the early novels: Jamie Mangan is a thirty-six-year-old painful case, a would-be poet and occasional journalist who has drifted through life directed by first his father and then his wealthy and famous wife. He is "lifelike, but not alive" until his wife jolts him by walking out and then by her death only days later in a car crash. Mangan, ironically, inherits her money: "at thirty-six he had been given a second chance." Moore once again contrasts North America and Ireland—in word and intonation, in ritual and belief, in kind of community—and we expect social texture to frame, once more, a plot tracing the movement from adolescent dreams to a facing of adult reality.
But this is not quite what happens. The money frees Mangan from worrying about his social identity—in that world of jobs, money, family ties that Moore had insisted was real—and allows him to embark, a latter-day Hawthorne hero, on an obsessive quest for the truth about his second inheritance, his Irish blood. The middle section of the novel, more than two-thirds of its length, is devoted to Mangan's search for his previous incarnations in southwest Ireland. If Sheila Redden was from a real Belfast, but not in it, Mangan comes back to Ireland, but as a stranger trying to penetrate a rainy Gothic mystery. And Gothic it is, for Mangan finds there his own eerie resemblance to past Mangans, an unspeakable family crime, the ruined ancestral home which draws and yet threatens, kindly warnings that he would be wiser to stop asking questions and go home, his involuntary and growing resemblance to his ancestors as he re-enacts their crimes, and a final revelation of the horrible act and its Grand Guignol punishment—a revelation made by the criminal himself in the ruins of a castle. And thus, if Sheila Redden's self-discoveries were inert, Mangan simply makes none at all: he has no self-deceptions to be exposed. He is more of a blank everyman, like his fellow Montrealer Tony Maloney, than a man with a personal past that affects his present. Suitably, his story is told without the shifting point of view that characterizes Moore's objective realism, and so without much irony or humour. Yet, unlike Mary Dunne and Fergus, the protagonists of Moore's subjective realism, Mangan lacks an intense and interesting inner life; though the story is told throughout from his point of view, he, like Tony again, is passive and motiveless (except for his one obsession). In the end, Mangan seems to have learned nothing from his adventures. He does make an important decision after hearing the criminal's confession and refusing benediction—but we don't know what that decision is. We hear that "a decision began to form in his mind," but news of his father's sudden illness recalls him to North America before he can disclose or act upon it. The six-page final section of the novel in Canada resolves neither the North American (realistic) nor the Irish (Gothic) plot strands, nor does it connect the two. It seems that Moore himself, like Mangan, has failed to integrate his two inheritances.
This analysis suggests that Moore has at least not been content to repeat his successes. It also suggests another reason for following his future work with interest: since his movement from objective realism to subjective realism to parable embodies in brief the history of the novel form, his next novels may well reveal the possibilities still open to realism itself.
McIlroy, Brian. "A Brian Moore Bibliography: 1974–1987." Irish University Review 18, No 1 (Spring 1988): 106-33.
Bibliography which includes Moore's novels first published after 1974, earlier novels reprinted after 1974, and scripts. McIlroy also lists secondary sources including interviews, whole books and chapters, dissertations, articles, and reviews.
Banville, John. "Honest-to-God Alarms." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4690 (19 February 1993): 22.
Praises the sustained tension and "existential terror" that the critic finds in No Other Life.
Bradbury, Patricia. "Moore Shatters Illusion in the Search for Spiritual Survival." Quill & Quire 53, No. 8 (August 1987): 29.
Favorable review of The Color of Blood. Bradbury admires both the novel's gripping plot and its emphasis upon "personal forgiveness and honesty."
Breslin, John R. "The Savage Mission." Commonweal CXII, No. 10 (17 May 1985): 313-14.
Praises Moore's depiction in Black Robe of the ambiguities in both Native American and Jesuit culture.
Coren, Michael. "Brian Moore's Love among the Ruins of Belfast." Quill & Quire 56, No. 4 (April 1990): 28.
Admires the structural complexity of Lies of Silence and Moore's astute analysis of the strife in Northern Ireland.
Cosgrove, Brian. "Brian Moore and the Price of Freedom in a Secular World." Irish University Review 18, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 59-73.
Analyzes The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Doctor's Wife in terms of George Lukacs's theory that the novelistic form developed in response to the disappearance of God in an increasingly secular world. According to Cosgrove, both Judith Hearne and Sheila Redden exemplify Lukacs's claim that, in such a world, individuals must construct their own meaning.
Craig, Patricia. "Moore's Maladies: Belfast in the Mid-Twentieth Century." Irish University Review 18, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 12-23.
Characterizes Moore as a "strong social critic" who analyzes some of the social, sexual, and intellectual problems that trouble Belfast in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Feast of Lupercal, and The Emperor of Ice Cream.
Cronin, John. "The Resilient Realism of Brian Moore." Irish University review 18, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 24-36.
Provides an overview of Moore's career, focusing on his shift away from the lonely and conflicted Irish exiles who figure prominently in his early novels to the "new, un-Irish fables which are proving impressively effective vehicles for his enduring speculations about the human condition."
Dahlie, Hallvard. "Black Robe: Moore's 'Conradian' Tale and the Quest for Self." Irish University Review 18, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 88-95.
Identifies similarities between Marlow, Joseph Conrad's narrator in Heart of Darkness (1902), and Laforgue, Moore's protagonist in Black Robe.
Eder, Richard. Review of Black Robe, by Brian Moore. The Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 April 1985): 1.
Asserts that while Moore's effort to represent seventeenth-century Native-American culture is often strained, his depiction of the Indians is more substantial and realistic than his portrayal of Father Laforgue.
Flanagan, Thomas. "Dangerous Amusements." The Nation (New York) 245, No. 10 (3 October 1987): 345-46.
Examines the varied novelistic settings in which Moore has explored what Flanagan considers his central concern in The Color of Blood, "the fragility of the self." Flanagan also discusses a Canadian Broadcast Corporation documentary on Moore's career.
Foster, John Wilson. "Crisis and Ritual in Brian Moore's Belfast Novels." Eire-Ireland III, No. III (Autumn 1968): 66-74.
Maintains that both Diarmuid Devine in The Feast of Lupercal and the title character in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne confront "a primitive rather than a twentieth-century dilemma": how to live when rejected by a "compassionless community."
Frayne, John P. "Brian Moore's Wandering Irishman—The Not-So-Wild Colonial Boy." In Modern Irish Literature: Essays in Honor of William York Tindall, edited by Raymond J. Porter and James D. Brophy, pp. 215-34. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
Overview of Moore's first seven novels. Frayne discusses Moore's depiction of the conflict between Irish and American values and argues that his belief in failure as a distiller of personality produces "static" and "self-defeating" characters.
Leahy, David. "History: Its Contradiction and Absence in Brian Moore's The Revolution Script and Black Robe." World Literature Written in English 28, No. 2 (Autumn 1988): 308-17.
Challenges the claim, advanced by Moore and many of his critics, that Moore's realism is "ideologically innocent." Leahy argues that The Revolution Script and Black Robe, by ignoring contextual complexities and suppressing subversive voices, re-inscribe hegemonic values.
Long, J. V. "The Cardinal's Virtues." Commonweal CXIV, No. 19 (6 November 1987): 634-36.
Lauds Moore's characterization of Cardinal Bem, the central character in The Color of Blood, as a spiritual innocent who nonetheless demonstrates the "shrewd practice of virtue" during a complex political crisis.
McIlroy, Brian. "Displacement in the Fiction of Brian Moore." English Studies in Canada XV, No. 2 (June 1989): 214-34.
Uses psychoanalytic and postcolonial theory to assert that Moore's Irish characters play language games reflecting their status as colonized subjects and participation in "the mediation of repression in Moore's fiction."
McSweeney, Kerry. "Brian Moore's Grammars of the Emotions." In his Four Contemporary Novelists: Angus Wilson, Brian Moore, John Fowles, V. S. Naipaul, pp. 56-99. Quebec: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1983.
Asserts that the settings in Moore's fiction reflect his own circumstances and divides the novels into categories: those set in Belfast, those set in Europe and Canada, and those set in the United States. McSweeney also notes similarities between the novelist and English poet Philip Larkin.
O'Connell, Shaun. "Brian Moore's Ireland: A World Well Lost." The Massachusetts Review XXIX, No. 3 (Fall 1988): 539-55.
Examines the ways in which Moore's early novels represent Ireland as repressive and limiting. O'Connell further proposes that the Irish émigrés depicted in later novels often prove unable to progress beyond the paralysis that characterized their lives in Ireland.
O'Donoghue, Jo. Brian Moore: A Critical Study. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1990, 266 p.
Analyzes Moore's fiction according to geographic and thematic categories, for example: novels set in Belfast, "novels of exile and escape," novels that explore the consequences of rejecting God, and novels that explore "politics as morality."
Ricks, Christopher. "The Simple Excellence of Brian Moore." The New Statesman 71 (18 February 1966): 227-28.
Commends Moore's early fiction, asserting that his focus on ordinary emotional experiences renders the novels widely accessible.
Roberts, Paul. "Black Robe: A Terrible and Touching Beauty." Quill & Quire 51, No. 6 (June 1985): 38.
Praises the verisimilitude and objectivity of Black Robe.
Shepherd, Allen. "The Perfect Role of the Outsider: Brian Moore's No Other Life." New England Review 16, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 164-67.
Praises Moore's "creation of a multiplicity of perspectives on Jeannot," the main character in No Other Life, and asserts that the novel succeeds more because it is absorbing than because it is topical.
Sigal, Clancy. "Cardinal Bem on the Run." The New York Times Book Review (27 September 1987): 11.
Favorable review of The Color of Blood, which Sigal admires because, within an absorbing thriller format, Moore explores the complexities of the relationship between church and state in Eastern Europe.
Turbide, Diane. "Bombs and Betrayal." Maclean's 103, No. 25 (18 June 1990): 66.
Praises Lies of Silence for fusing detailed characterization with suspenseful plotting.
Sale, Richard B. "An Interview in London with Brian Moore." Studies in the Novel 1, No. 1 (Spring 1969): 67-80.
Relates Moore's observations regarding his childhood, the authors who influenced him, and various techniques he has employed in his fiction.
SOURCE: An interview in In Their Words: Interviews with Fourteen Canadian Writers, Anansi, 1984, pp. 168-83.
[In the following interview, conducted in 1982 during the James Joyce Centenary in Toronto, Canada, Moore discusses the treatment of political and religious issues in his novels, and explains why he prefers straightforward narrative to experimental fiction.]
[Meyer and O'Riordan]: We live in an age where often there is more attention paid to a writer's life than is paid to his work. Has this been a problem for you?
[Moore]: There are people now reading biographies of W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell, who probably have read very little of their work. And then you have the examples of Mailer, Capote and Vidal, whose lives are of more interest to people than their work. So, in the case of a writer like myself, who has simply a private life and not a very colourful legend, the only things people can fasten onto are details like my nationality. I think it is irrelevant myself because with a writer it is what he writes that is of interest and not his life. If in my book I seem to be an Irish writer, then the reader thinks he's in the presence of an Irish writer. If he thinks I'm a Canadian, then he thinks he's in the presence of a Canadian writer. I think nationality is something Canadians worry about unduly. A good example is Nabokov, who at one time was a White Russian, then had British citizenship, and then became an American citizen. Then he left America when he had made enough money and went to live in Montreuil for the rest of his life. But the Americans always accepted him as an American author. In all the years I've lived in America, there's always been this question of whether or not I'm a Canadian author. Overall, though, I'm a writer who has no personal grievances because for the past twenty-five years I've been able to write what I wanted to write, and that makes me one of the lucky few.
Graham Greene has called you his favourite living writer. Do you return the compliment?
Well, I've wondered if it is often the case that writers you like also like you. I admire Graham Greene's work and I've learned a lot from him. Greene and Waugh are the two pre-eminent English writers of their generation. They are pre-eminent in prose just as Larkin is in poetry. People that like Greene usually like Waugh. And people who like Waugh and Greene usually like Larkin. One tends to like writers in which one sees something of oneself. I'm very lucky that Graham Greene said that about me because it has helped my sales enormously. For instance, in faraway countries where they've never heard of anyone other than Graham Greene, his reference to me has been particularly useful. In one South American edition of The Doctor's Wife, Greene's quotation about me was used and it helped sell thirty-seven thousand copies. If I sold that many in the United States of a hardcover edition, I'd be very lucky.
Have you ever met Greene?
I met him once years ago in Montreal. It was only very briefly. I had only just finished my first novel and was introduced to him by the editor of The Montreal Star and we went out on the town together for the evening. I met him on one other occasion in Montreal when he passed through, but I can't really say that I know him.
Many of your novels don't deal directly with politics per se, except in the case of The Revolution Script. In this sense you are also like Greene.
Well, I started as a newspaperman and I learned from that that novelists can't possibly keep up with all the news and information today. For instance, if you set out to write a novel today about El Salvador, by the time it was published nine months later, it would probably be out-of-date. So I fear political subjects are very ephemeral. They are not a great subject for a novel today unless you have an exceptional experience like Solzhenitsyn. But to go and report on things journalistically, as novelists did in the nineteenth century, is a waste of time. Other media will cover these things much more accurately. Also, it is interesting that a political situation such as that in Northern Ireland has really not been touched directly by any major writer. Seamus Heaney doesn't write directly about it and neither does anyone else. My feeling about novels is that people are born, married, they fight and they die and various things happen to everyone—these are the subjects which interest me more rather than whether they were born on the right or wrong side of privilege.
Nevertheless, you did tackle a political subject in The Revolution Script.
That was a mistake. I wanted to do a non-fiction book and I started to do it out of a belief that Trudeau, in invoking the War Measures Act, was acting in the same way as the British had in Northern Ireland for twenty years. He was repressing liberty. And I saw too that the anglophone liberal people here were completely blind to that because they were afraid of the French. When I started to write the book I was trapped by the fact that I couldn't make direct contact with the terrorists. When the terrorists were allowed to flee to Cuba in the middle of my book, I had to make them fictional characters. I knew they weren't going to come back and sue me. (Laughter.) The book was an experiment but I don't regard it as part of my work but rather as some journalistic exercise.
You seem to write a great deal about the loss of faith in the face of personal adversity. You suggest that it is very important for one to develop some system of personal moral values, in order to stay sane, to have some constants and anchors in one's life. For instance, Judith Hearne has pictures of her aunt and the Sacred Heart and Ginger Coffey has his family. In traditional literature it is the artist, the intellectual, the aristocrat who has come to terms with the problems of faith in himself and in others. You seem to be more interested in the ordinary person's loss of faith. Do you see that as the common theme in your work?
There are certain continuing preoccupations in my novels, but, yes, I decided very early on that Joyce had written about an intellectual's loss of faith in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I decided I couldn't complete with that. I also recognized, however, that Joyce himself, my great hero, had said that his work was a celebration of the commonplace, and I feel that my writing is also a celebration of the commonplace. I believe that the most interesting lives are the lives of ordinary people. Most of us can't relate to someone who is extraordinarily intelligent or extraordinarily dumb because most of us fall somewhere in between. I am interested in the point in ordinary people's lives when, like all of us, there's a carrot held out in front of them—like ambition. My novels often revolve around the moment in that person's life when to remove that carrot of ambition or desire, the person is forced, within a certain period of time, to re-evaluate their lives and make a decision about what they are going to do. I'm interested in the moment in which one's illusions are shattered and one has to live without the faith, whatever that faith was which originally sustained them. I also like in novels to start the clock ticking. I like the novel to take place within a certain time. I have to explain to the reader what made this particular time different. That to me is the natural moment of fiction, the natural moment of crisis. I do this in order to inject an element of suspense. I've come to have a greater interest in the element of suspense as I grow older. For instance, I will now look at Conrad's The Secret Agent in a way I would not when I was young. I look at the suspense in Graham Greene or Borges in a way which didn't interest me when I was younger. My new book, Cold Heaven, is a curious book in that for the first one hundred and fifty pages you believe you are reading a thriller because you don't know what's happening to the character. It moves very quickly, but on a rather mundane level, the way thrillers do, and then you discover, halfway through the book, that this isn't an ordinary thriller—it is a metaphysical thriller, about something more mysterious than that contained in an ordinary thriller. I don't think I would have written a book that way ten years ago. This is a culmination of my experiments along the same lines in The Temptation of Eileen Hughes and The Mangan Inheritance. Cold Heaven goes one step further. So, willy-nilly, I'm going through a cycle of books in the suspense genre. It is important to realize that what I'm trying to do is not write books that are detective stories, but rather are novels of suspense in the detective mode. The power of withholding information from the reader, but not dishonestly, the power of narrative, of unfolding a story by turning pages, builds narrative suspense, which is interesting for your writing because it forces you to write more leanly—in a direct, clear, clean way. My style has been evolving towards a more plain style. Reviewers have said that when I use a simile or metaphor it stands out. It is not simply piling on description. When I do finally say something about a character, it hits, it has a very big power. I think that is something which is the result of this very visual age we live in. People can't read in the way they used to because their mind's eye is making cinematic cuts. We see prose passages now as films because children are brought up looking at film all the time. I've always thought that the modern reader made jump-cuts just like directors in films. I think we could move fiction into the realm of short-takes, a way which has not really been attempted. Someday, someone will come up with a type of fiction which approximates the cinematic, and that will have a very interesting effect.
What about Kosinski and Robbe-Grillet?
There's no movement in Robbe-Grillet. He just pans around and looks at furniture, and as for Kosinski, he's just a bad writer, so I'm not the person to really discuss him. Whereas, if you take an older writer like Evelyn Waugh, he can take two men in a room and you can see exactly what they are doing, but in very understated prose. Similarly, Greene is one of the great scene-setters of all time. Their techniques are very cinematic. We tend to take cinematic as a pejorative word in writing, but I'm not using it that way at all.
You seem to be saying that the novel has a future.
I don't have any theories about "the novel". I find that experimental writing, unless it is truly experimental, is one of the most easily fakeable things in the world. One of the most truly experimental writers in the world is Flann O'Brien. The writing goes beyond Joyce into something that is absolutely brilliant. Borges is a truly experimental writer, also Gabriel Garcia Marquez. John Barth isn't. With these academic writers, it's all just Twenties' hokum revamped and regurgitated. It is unreadable and it is junk. I think most writers in their heart of hearts suspect that it is junk.
So when someone sits down to read a book of yours….
I want them to read for pleasure, I want to move people. I find that unless I'm going to do better than Ulysses, I don't want to write an experimental novel. Although, I am among Joyce's greatest admirers, I think Finnegans Wake is a great mistake. No one reads Finnegans Wake for pleasure, nor have they ever. The suspicious thing about most of this so-called experimental writing is that it is instantly teachable. The old, bad schlock writers like Irving Wallace and Robert Ludlum—all these people like the old storytellers, write in a very bad way, a very cliched way, but they write within a very strong framework of narrative, a strong framework of dream. Their books are wet dreams for college-educated people. They have that power. They are the obverse to me of the Barthian academic novelist, who is equally cliched and equally bored. I suffer from two things that prevent me from having a big audience. One is that I'm a nomad, and, two, I don't write the same book over and over again. There isn't a continuity to my books where people can say: "That's a Brian Moore". I have a continuing set of preoccupations, but I experiment with form. It is like what Greene said about me, I'm like a lion-tamer with the novel. It hasn't been a conscious strategy of mine to avoid being labelled English-Canadian or Irish-American because I would like to be claimed by everybody, and to have a readership in each of these places. I didn't have an Irish readership for a very long time because the clergy had my books banned in Ireland. Irish people thought for a long time that I was an American or a Canadian. The only good piece of luck I've had in this matter is that since my first book was published in England, the English always treated each book as a book by itself. So right from the very beginning in England, I've always had respectful, good reviews of my work. They are the only people who have never mentioned my nationality.
You mentioned that there were certain continuing preoccupations in your novels. Could you talk about some of them?
I suppose unlike most male novelists today, Catholicism continues to be something that I write about. I'm interested in the church as an organism. I'm interested in loneliness. I've always considered myself one of life's rejects. I came from a family of successful people—my father was a great achiever in examinations and things like that. I failed my examinations at school. I was very bad at math which in those days was the end—if you couldn't get math you couldn't get anything. I could never become a doctor because I was not good at chemistry. I was thirty before I wrote my first novel so I had quite a bit of experience at being a failure before I became a quasi-success.
Your novels tend to contain a rather bleak vision….
I think that's true. I tend to try to examine the dichotomy between what people think they are and what they do. A wonderful book could be written about Hitler's image of Hitler. Hitler didn't see himself as he was and neither did Attila the Hun. It is interesting that monsters don't know they are monsters and to my mind everyone has a totally false notion of their own worth. Some people are modest to the point of not realizing their true worth, but they are a small minority.
Did you ever have a mentor or a particular teacher who influenced you or encouraged you when you were young?
Yes. When I was seven or eight, I remember the headmaster calling me in, and asking me to fill a notebook with essays on topics like what I did on my summer vacation. I was very flattered and happy to take the week off from studies to write for him. I wrote seven or eight essays and he used those essays for three or four years after. So, I was given this inflated notion of myself when I was very small. I wasn't as successful in any of my other subjects, so I got this notion of myself as a writer, but I was intimidated by other writers that I read and thought I could never equal them. So, I thought the next best thing I could do was to become a newspaper reporter. It was only after I had read a couple of bad books written by people that I knew that I decided I could do better than that. I thought that poor books were more important to read than Tolstoy.
Like Brendan Tierney in An Answer from Limbo?
Yes. I use that example. I seem to be at variance with most modern writers. When you read interviews with them they seem to say that writing is torture, that it is hell and how when they go through it they sweat blood and this sort of thing. I find that writing is torture. It is hell to get it right, but I'm only happy when I am writing. Why I write so much is that I'm happy when I am writing, not when I'm teaching or being interviewed. (Laughter.) I can live quite a solitary, monkish life because I'm not intimidated by the act of getting up in the morning and continuing to write a novel. I suppose that there are more writers like me, but they feel that it is impolitic to admit it.
When you were writing The Mangan Inheritance you had a very severe illness, and you've said that the act of writing helped you to pull out of it. Has writing become something a little more special for you since then?
I discovered during that period that I was too tired and too ill to read but I was able to write. So it had an influence. I was very close to death for quite a long time. That focussed my attention very closely on the years that I have left. Until I had the illness, I felt life was a perpetual party. After the illness I became aware that it might not be.
Also during the composition of The Mangan Inheritance you switched genres from a novel of manners to a gothic horror. This was quite a gamble. Do you see yourself as a literary risk-taker?
I do, indeed. For many reviewers and readers The Mangan Inheritance was too big a gamble. If I had a commercial mind, I would have written The Mangan Inheritance as a gothic horror and the book would have opened in Ireland. I would have had an enormously successful book because the whole Irish section is written in a more elevated, charismatic way, and the characters seem more interesting. The Canadian-American part of that book is written on a realistic level. One editor in fact suggested to me that I put the Canadian-American past in simply as a flashback. But I felt, as I always feel, that that would be a deception for the reader. The interest in The Mangan Inheritance should be that this is a person like you or me who is projected into this milieu. He should act as you or I would in a similar predicament. I knew I was taking risks, but I also knew that I would be cheating if I did it any other way.
How does a novel start for you?
I start with a character and keep changing my opinion of him. By starting that way I feel I get to know him or her. It is like when you first meet a stranger. You have some fixed ideas about what they are like and gradually you get to know them and trust them. In my writing you trust to the instinct of the character which makes you know not to make them do something outré because they just wouldn't do that. That defines your plot. I hate killing people in a novel because you don't go around indiscriminately killing people in real life. Death in a novel should be as momentous as it is in real life.
You've never written a novel that was entirely a flashback, but you have indicated that you once thought of writing a screen-play for Judith Hearne, which would have been almost entirely in flashback. Do you think in retrospect that the novel would have worked better as a flashback or did you simply think that, in cinematic terms, it would have worked better as a flashback?
I must have been desperately trying to find some way to answer an interviewer's question. (Laughter.) I've talked to students about flashbacks in that way. Quite often when young writers start a story they start with a scene and the scene may last for two and a half pages, and then they decide I've got to tell the reader all about this person and they go into a flashback which lasts five and a half pages. I say to them, flashbacks should be small digressions. I have very strong feelings that you should never have a whole chapter in flashback because it can become another book. Either the narrative must keep moving forward and can't be interrupted or else the digression must neatly fit into the narrative. You can't be back-peddling. If you keep flashing back, then why should you go on?
Flashbacks take away from the element of building up suspense.
Yes, they do. You're damaging the narrative in that sense. The flashback is also a convention that was much more prevalent twenty years ago.
In both journalism and the cinema, one to a large extent is forced to shape the narrative in the present tense. Has your background as a journalist and as a screenwriter for John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock influenced you to write primarily in the present tense?
Yes, insofar as in the newspaper business you are concerned with the same questions that concern the novelist—who, what, when, why, where. Also, as a journalist, you get a microcosm of what is going on in society. You have to deal with present-day events—which bank was robbed today, that sort of thing.
How did you come to work with Alfred Hitchcock?
Alfred Hitchcock read my book, The Feast of Lupercal, and liked it. He had also gone to a Jesuit school and so identified with the setting of the novel. As a result of reading that book, he hired me to do the screenplay for Torn Curtain with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.
How did you and Hitchcock get along?
The problem I had with Hitchcock was that he was a living legend. He'd done fifty films and I'd done zero, so I tended to take his word for everything. When we finished doing the script I thought it was very bad. I felt the characters were cardboard, and I made the mistake of telling him that. He was never a person who would have a confrontation with you to your face. He just simply hired two other screen-writers, and they were not able to change it. So I wound up getting sole credit for the script, which I'm not very proud of. I don't think I'm a Hitchcockian writer. I think by the time I met him he believed his own legend. It was hard to explain to him that these characters didn't seem real to me, that I didn't think it was going to work. One of the problems was that it was one of the most expensive films that Hitchcock ever made.
How about John Huston? He was also a legend by the time you met him.
Well, Huston was totally different. He is one of the few really brilliant people I've ever dealt with. He came to see me about my novel, Catholics, and suggested that I turn it into a film. He said, "It should only take you two or three weeks". Well, it almost killed me. These things take longer than that. He then called me and said that it would make a good television film, rather than a feature film. I thought, then, that he was kind of brushing me off, but actually he wasn't. He said he would direct it, but unfortunately the television network didn't see it that way because they felt he would be too expensive. He would have been a very interesting director to work with. You know he bought Judith Hearne at one point.
Katharine Hepburn was supposed to star in it wasn't she?
The studios didn't want her for the part. I had no say, of course, in that decision. This is one of the objections I have to working in film. The writer just has to do what he is told to do. I mean, the problem is that there is so much money involved. It is as if when you are writing a book you are told from the outset that this must sell 250,000 copies in paperback and be a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and be translated into eighteen foreign languages, or else it is a failure. There are too many masters to please in film. There's a confusion in people's minds today between art and commerce, which I think has made for a situation where even serious books are a risky business as compared to twenty-five years ago. When I first started being published it didn't cost very much for a novel to be published. You could live comfortably on five-thousand dollars a year. If you sold enough to cover the costs of a small paperback edition then everybody was happy, and you could go on to the next book. I think it is very sad for the young writer today who has a first novel. He has to be an instant success so he doesn't really have time to develop as a writer.
Do you think the novel will go the way of poetry, in terms of substantially decreased sales and influence?
I would hate to think that. Part of the confusion is in our own minds. We do tend to equate, certainly the Americans do, literary with commercial success, even at the highest level. Can you think of a Canadian writer who is more highly regarded even though he has smaller sales than any of those who have the large sales? We tend to think of the successful writer as the one who sells a lot.
Did you ever write poetry?
No, not really. I would love to have had it in me.
Which Canadian writers do you read yourself?
I've read quite a lot of them. I think my favourite Canadian writer at the moment is Alice Munro. Once again, I like those people whose writing has some affinity with my own. Alice Munro, for me, captures a sense of Canada. I like Richard Wright. None of the writers I like are what I would call academics.
Can you tell us what you're working on now?
I've had to write five hours worth of a television script based on a book by Simone de Beauvoir and I had to invent new characters. I know the period and I know France well, so I had an advantage in that. The people who hired me were very enlightened, compared to the average movie people, in that they left me alone to work on it. I didn't have to attend a lot of meetings about it and I was able to get it done in time—in four months.
Are you ruthless with your time?
Yes, I have to be. I did meet with them yesterday and they agreed with my judgement that we had to cut it down by an hour. So that's what I'm doing now.
How did you feel about working with someone else's novel?
It is easier than working with your own, because you have already seen your novel as a novel. Someone else's work you can approach just as a story—this one is a love story, a period story about Vichy and the Jews.
One other thing we've noticed about your work, there are very few overt, literary references.
Yes, well I don't think of my work in Ph. D. thesis terms. I've always felt that if you can illuminate a particular situation, absolutely and truly, and if the situation is intrinsically of interest, that will become the archetypal situation. The mistake made in so much bad fiction is to try to take an archetypal situation and then try to get a character to fit the thesis of the novel—the novel written around a thesis. For instance, a writer decides, "I am going to write a novel about infidelity or about the loss of God". Well, my own approach would be: "What if so-and-so lost their faith? What would they think? How would they behave? What would they do?" I didn't realize it, but in Judith Hearne I was writing about the loss of faith, about the loss of faith in one ordinary person. But what I did without knowing it was write an archetypal model of a novel about lonely women. Of all my books it is the one that has stayed in print most constantly. It touched some very raw, sensitive nerve among women and especially among lonely women, or women who feared they would be lonely. It has outlived feminism and every faddish shade of opinion about women. If I had planned that the book should have this effect, it would be dead and forgotten—as would all my books.
SOURCE: A review of Black Robe, in The New York Times, March 25, 1985, p. C17.
[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt praises Moore's characterizations, his "unadorned but evocative prose," and his depiction of spiritual conflict in Black Robe.]
As Brian Moore explains in an author's note that precedes the opening of his unusual new novel, Black Robe: "A few years ago, in Graham Greene's Collected Essays, I came upon his discussion of The Jesuits of North America, the celebrated work by the American historian Francis Parkman (1823–1893)."
A passage cited by Greene, about the extraordinary dedication of one particular 17th-century Jesuit Father, led Mr. Moore to read Parkman's great work and to discover that his main source was the Relations, the voluminous letters that the Jesuits sent back to their superiors in France. In the Relations themselves—and in "their deeply moving reports" revealing "an unknown and unpredictable world"—Mr. Moore found the inspiration for Black Robe.
If the route to his material is somewhat remote, the ground he arrives at will be familiar enough to anyone who has followed Brian Moore's fertile and inventive career as the author of 14 novels, among them The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, The Emperor of Ice Cream, The Great Victorian Collection, and his last, Cold Heaven. For it is understanding God's mysterious ways that concerns Mr. Moore in this imagined account of a dangerous trek through the wilderness north of Samuel de Champlain's Quebec settlement.
Whose version of the spiritual realm was more valid, Mr. Moore seems to be asking—"the Indian belief in a world of night and in the power of dreams" or "the Jesuits' preachments of Christianity and a paradise after death"? Could one set of beliefs be comprehended by followers of the other? What if Christianity was actually inimical to "Les Sauvages", as the Indians were collectively known to the French? What if the Jesuit fathers, or "Blackrobes," as the Indians called them, were corrupted by savage spirits?
If this summation makes Black Robe sound like thesis fiction, it is not altogether misleading. "This novel is an attempt to show," Mr. Moore concludes his introductory note, "that each of these beliefs inspired in the other fear, hostility, and despair, which later would result in the destruction and abandonment of the Jesuit missions, and the conquest of the Huron people by the Iroquois, their deadly enemy."
Yet if he is painting by the numbers, he has done an admirable job of modulating the colors within the spaces of his canvas. A reader is immediately intrigued with the figure of Father Laforgue, the guilt-infested missionary who is trying to reach an Indian community up north where disease has broken out and a priest has been murdered. Mr. Moore's unadorned but evocative prose creates a powerful sense of the lonely North American wilderness. "The day passed. The sun, high in the sky, dipped until it barely cleared the tops of the trees. A wind rippled the water into waves, a wind which numbed Laforgue's cheeks. He remembered what Father Bourque had told him of a second false summer which came in mid-October, bringing a few days of heat at the end of the autumnal season. That false summer was ending. Winter was near."
Mr. Moore has done a particularly good job of representing the Indians, succumbing to neither the noble-savage nor the lo-the-poor-Indian cliche, but instead representing what is known to have been their obscene and joshing banter with a liberal dollop of four-letter words. Most admirably of all, he has balanced perfectly the two spiritual worlds. When Laforgue recovers suddenly from an illness for which his Indian escorts are threatening to kill and ditch him, it might with equal plausibility be credited to the God to which he prays, or a hump-backed Indian sorcerer who is convinced Laforgue is possessed by a demon, or just plain chance.
The novel's realism breaks down only in the speed with which Laforgue and an Algonquin family recover from the tortures inflicted upon them by some Iroquois who capture them. It is a necessary part of Mr. Moore's grand design to illustrate both how and why the Indians "practiced ritual cannibalism and, for reasons of religion, subjected their enemies to prolonged and unbearable tortures." Yet having made his point—in scenes where the Iroquois "caress", their victims most horrifyingly—he hurries on a little hastily, and the reader must wince in sympathetic pain at what their injured persons are asked to perform.
But it is with spirits and not bodies that Brian Moore is ultimately concerned. And it is spirits that finally suffer the real and lasting damage in Black Robe. "We have become as bad as the Normans themselves," argues one Algonquin leader, referring of course to the French. "We have become greedy and stupid like the hairy ones."
And at the point where the plague-ridden Indians finally accept the offer of baptism out of fear that the priests have cast a spell on them, Laforgue reflects, "What are these baptisms but a mockery of the Church, of all the saintly stories we have read of saving barbarians for Christ?"
Yet despite these realizations both the Indians and the priests continue to work at cross purposes. The result is inevitable and tragic—the mutual destruction of their souls.
SOURCE: "The Ordeal of Father Laforgue," in The New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1985, p. 7.
[An ex-Roman Catholic priest, Carroll is an American novelist, poet, nonfiction writer, and dramatist. In the following highly positive review of Black Robe, he argues that Moore encourages readers to recognize similarities between the seventeenth-century clash of cultures and ideologies represented in the novel and modern attempts "to divide the world into separate camps of good and evil."]
Black Robe is an extraordinary novel. Part adventure story, part the life of a saint, part parable, it is an exemplary act of imagination in which Brian Moore has brought vividly to life a radically different world and populated it with men and women wholly unlike us. His novel's achievement, however, is that, through the course of its shocking narrative, these strangers become first figures of great sympathy and finally images of our own humanity. By the end of Black Robe, we recognize its fierce, awful world as the one we live in. We put Mr. Moore's novel down and look at ourselves and our places differently.
The novel is set in the wilds of North America in the early 17th century, and it concerns the journey of two Frenchmen from Champlain's Quebec to a besieged outpost in distant, unexplored and unfriendly territory. One of the Frenchmen is a Jesuit missionary, the Rev. Paul Laforgue, the Black Robe of the title and the novel's central character. A young man, new to America, drilled in his religious discipline and dependent on it for what steadiness and resolve he can muster in the face of a nightmare situation, the priest must survive betrayal by his Algonquin guides, torture by his Iroquois captors, abandonment by his fellow Frenchman, young Daniel Davost, the superstitious twisting of the meaning of their sacred mission by his Jesuit confrere, the ailing Rev. Fernand Jerome, whom he meets at the fever-ridden village of Ihonatiria, and the collapse of what he thinks is his faith in God.
Black Robe has an almost mythic purity. It is a classic dark-journey story, a passage through great difficulties in which a man's weaknesses are laid bare, his strengths discovered and for the first time claimed. But it is in no way high-flown. It has the essential elements of popular fiction—suspense, narrative drive, surprise and action. Despite the alien quality of the world it creates, the novel is so believable and consistent in its detail that the hazards and the consolations of the plot, unimaginable until now, seem natural, even familiar, to us as soon as Mr. Moore evokes them. Yet Black Robe depends not at all for its power on the stock images we have of such adventures and such characters. On the contrary, one of Mr. Moore's accomplishments is his original rendering of both the Indians and the priest.
It is no surprise that Mr. Moore can write compellingly about the interior conflict of a priest. He did it memorably in Catholics, and the collapse of faith is a main concern of several of his many novels. But Indians? And their interior conflicts? Their ways of speaking and eating and sleeping and courting and grieving? Their spirituality? Because it follows the early French usage, Mr. Moore calls them "Savages" throughout his novel, but there is nothing pejorative in his attitude toward them. He shows us the horrifying aspects of their culture—their torturing of enemies, their cannibalism. But he shows the touching aspects as well—the joyfulness of their sexuality, their generosity, their communality, their regard for the spirit world. One of the great pleasures of this novel is reading about the daily lives of these Algonquins, Hurons and Iroquois. It shocked me to realize how little I knew of these people about whom I've been hearing since childhood.
Of course, Mr. Moore's purpose in writing about the Indians is not anthropological, any more than his purpose in writing about a Jesuit missionary—one of those the Roman Catholic Church remembers as the North American Martyrs—is hagiographic. His subject is the collision of two cultures. Each culture is seen whole, with intelligence and sympathy, and considering the clichés that prevail about both Indians and priests, that alone makes Black Robe special. If Mr. Moore writes as a descendent of a culture that completely supplanted another, his story still is imbued with a sense of the profound tragedy it was for the Savages when they first had the Good News preached to them.
One can celebrate the arrival of Europeans in America and regard the worldwide missionary work of Jesuits as gallant and humanizing while also understanding the ambiguity of such things. The great mystery is not that evil exists but that it exists within the good, within civilization, even within the church. A vision that respects such complexity is hard to sustain, but it is more necessary now than ever, when the truly primitive impulse to divide the world into separate camps of good and evil is once again ascendant and so heavily armed. We can read Black Robe and see our own times in it. We can read it and remember that human beings can reach across vast divides to find one another. We can read it and understand that history, the endless story of colliding cultures, is tragic for everyone. Father Laforgue, the Black Robe, comes at last to the kind of wisdom, forbearance, humility and tolerance that in his view make him forever unworthy as a priest. But his view is what is primitive about his culture. He came to the New World to be a saint, and he failed because instead of "saving" the people he found there, he loved them.
SOURCE: "Blue Streaks," in Canadian Literature, No. 110, Fall, 1986, pp. 150-52.
[In the following review, Lynch criticizes what he considers the sparse prose and often-underdeveloped characters of Black Robe, but praises Moore for suggesting that the Jesuit missionaries were in some respects as "savage" as the Native Americans they attempted to "civilize."]
Black Robe is both an extension of and a departure from Moore's earlier work. It is an extension of explorations begun in earlier novels because it is concerned with a test of religious faith. It is a departure because its protagonist is a seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary in Canada, a man who cannot be labelled one of Moore's "ordinary people"; and it is a departure formalistically, being a historical romance of the kind written by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Seemingly incongruous with its form, Black Robe is written in a pared-down style that Moore believes complements the self-sustaining power of suspenseful narratives. (This faith in narrative and concern with the appropriate style first emerged in The Great Victorian Collection, 1975.) [In In Their Words: Interviews with Fourteen Canadian Writers, 1984], Moore observed to [Bruce] Meyer and [Brian] O'Riordan that an overriding interest in narrative "forces you to write more leanly—in a direct, clear, clean way. My style has been evolving towards a more plain style." What such a style gains in narrative and poetic force it risks (in the hands even of such post-Hemingway adepts as Norman Levine and Moore) in verisimilitude and atmosphere; and with Moore we are talking of a writer who, as this quotation attests, values story. In Moore's recent novels, Cold Heaven (1983) and The Temptations of Eileen Hughes (1981), this plain style gains much and loses little. In Black Robe the writing is often flat, attenuated to dissipation, seemingly beaten in revision to too airy a thinness. For my taste, Brian Moore writes most splendidly when he imaginatively embeds his talents in the consciousness of his isolated protagonists and goes off in a white heat of defensive, offensive, and hopeful words, giving us characters such as Judith Hearne, Ginger Coffey, Brendan Tierney, Mary Dunne, and James Mangan. Surely a verbal dynamo can drive a narrative as well as does a plain style. Whatever, Moore has chosen the way of stylistic austerity, and an austere novel is what he has given us in Black Robe.
The narrative of Black Robe is the journey towards the Jesuit mission in Huronia (before the massacre there in 1640) of Father Laforgue, his young Norman assistant Daniel, and their Algonquin Indian guides, who abandon Laforgue and Daniel. The priest and young man are later rejoined by Daniel's alluring Indian lover and her family. But only Laforgue is credible as a character; and the details of the journey upriver convey the impression not of a voyage into the heart of darkness but of a glide down a Hollywood backlot. Nonetheless, nothing that Moore has written is without a centre of rich reward. And Black Robe rises to such levels of writing in its sustained positing of radical oppositions. The overarching opposition is that of civilization vs. nature, which opposition the novel expresses particularly in terms of European Christian vs. New World Savage. The European Christians are the original French Catholic explorers/exploiters of the area that became Quebec and Ontario. The New World Savages are Algonquins, Iroquois, and Hurons. Viewed thus, Moore can indeed be seen to have written a Canadian version not of The Heart of Darkness but of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter: the ancestral past and the tension of the spirit and the flesh are Black Robe's true subject. (Moore's use of forest scenes especially brings Hawthorne to mind; I am not suggesting an indebtedness, though, but a remarkable, and I hope illuminating, similarity—in form, style, and intent.)
As deconstruction has reminded us, most binary oppositions are illusions that mask ideological prejudice. We are also that which we exclude from our self-definitions and thereby oppose ourselves to. Black Robe shows the ways in which European Christians such as Daniel, tempted by lust and love, easily become the opposite to that with which they had identified themselves. Black Robe's oft-mentioned scene of cannibalism, where a young boy is parboiled and eaten in front of his father and sister, nicely illustrates this concept of the elusiveness of radical distinctions. Although the Savages are shown to eat their victims ritualistically for a complexity of reasons, one of those reasons is to possess the threatening qualities of a valiant foe. At the risk of trivializing fundamental distinctions—the actual as opposed to the symbolic, for instance—and a myriad of all-important details, it is yet worth noting that one of Father Laforgue's sacred trusts is the Eucharist—the body and blood of Christ that is ritualistically eaten at the anti-climax of the central Catholic mystery. Thus do Cannibalism and Communion help to erase what had appeared to be one of Black Robe's blackest lines of demarcation between Savage and Christian.
The Indians in Black Robe curse a blue streak (or "like nuns," as we used to say) in good Anglo-Saxon. Since other reviewers have made much both for and against the linguistic suitability of the device, I will add only that I think it works well. In any case, few readers who were raised Catholic will regret the purile thrill when the Savage asks the weeping Priest who had been lost in the forest, "What is wrong with you, you silly prick?"
SOURCE: "Sorceries," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 34, Spring, 1987, pp. 111-18.
[In the following essay on Black Robe, McSweeney asserts that Moore could have represented Father Laforgue's crisis of faith more effectively by using "a self-conscious, intrusive narrator," but praises the novelist for depicting both the Native Americans and the missionaries "in ways that sharpen the reader's attention and intensify his response to the text."]
"Few passages of history are more striking than those which record the efforts of the earlier French Jesuits to convert the Indians. Full as they are of dramatic and philosophic interest … it is wonderful that they have been left so long in obscurity." So wrote the American historian Francis Parkman in the preface to his The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867), one of the most dramatically interesting volumes in his monumental France and England in North America. As Parkman explains, part of his puzzlement was owing to the copiousness of the available sources of information. Each year, long and detailed reports were sent back to Paris by the Jesuit missionaries and annually published in a series known as the Relations, which contains enormous amounts of information concerning the condition and character of the primitive inhabitants of North America. From the Relations and other written sources, Parkman fashioned an absorbing narrative of tremendous sweep. One of the geographical termini of the narrative was the rude Residence of Notre-Dame des Anges at Quebec, where a handful of exceptional men planned the conversion of the continent. Attempts were made to convert the nomadic Algonquins, whose existence during half the year was, says Parkman, "but a desperate pursuit of the mere necessaries of life under the worst conditions of hardship, suffering, and debasement." It was realized that little could be done to convert a nomadic tribe, and thus the attention of the Jesuits turned to the other geographical terminus; the land of the Hurons, who were a stationary people dwelling in small communities near the lake that bears their name. But this land was hundreds of miles from Quebec and could only be reached by an arduous canoe journey up the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, along the Mattawa River, across Lake Nipissing, and down the French River into Georgian Bay. And, during the journey, travellers were vulnerable to attack by the ferocious Iroquois, whose war parties roamed northward from their base in what is now central New York State.
In an author's note to Black Robe, his fifteenth novel, Brian Moore explains that it was through reading an essay on Parkman's history by Graham Greene that he was led first to The Jesuits in North America and then to the Relations. It is particularly on the former that Black Robe depends—for its story line, for information about Indian customs, attitudes, and beliefs, and for innumerable small details. The novel's central character is a Jesuit priest, Paul Laforgue, "a slight, pale man, thin-bearded, intellectual, but with a strange determination in the eyes and narrow mouth," whose chance to serve on the front lines for the greater honour and glory of God comes when his superior at Quebec instructs him to journey to a Huron mission to assist its beleaguered incumbent, who, at last word, was at risk of being martyred.
For the first part of the journey, it is arranged that a party of Algonquins, on the way to their winter hunting grounds, will guide Laforgue, who is also accompanied by a young French layman, Daniel Davost, whose secret reason for wanting to make the journey is his oft-gratified lust for one of the Algonquins, a girl named Annuka. More than half the novel is devoted to this part of Laforgue's journey, which gives Moore ample opportunity to introduce a hunchback sorcerer named Mestigoit, describe a moose hunt in the snow, and detail features of the savage life-style, all of which are deeply repugnant to Laforgue: the nauseating stench inside the bark-covered shelters; the dogs that crawl over the bodies of the sleepers, looking for a place to lie and for something to eat; the promiscuous sex and foul language; the gluttonous feasts on half-cooked meat with pieces of fur still attached. This long first section of Black Robe ends when Laforgue, Daniel, Annuka, and her father Chomina are captured by the Iroquois, whose appalling tortures are explicitly described. After their escape, Laforgue eventually reaches Huronia, where the short second and concluding section of the novel takes place.
It is obvious that one of Moore's principal concerns in Black Robe is to describe the manners and mores of the Indians. It is just as clear that the novel's principal thematic intention is to contrast two different cultures, religions, and ways of being in the world—the savage and the civilized Christian. This is, of course, hardly an original undertaking. To speak only of white English-Canadian writers, there is a long tradition of imaginative response to Indian culture, as Leslie Monkman showed in his A Native Heritage: Images of the Indian in English-Canadian Literature. Until the contemporary period, most writers used the meeting of white man and red man to endorse, in one way or another, the values of the former. In recent decades, however, the response has grown more complex, and there has been a tendency to identify with the Indian world. In Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, for example, the white protagonist is reborn through discovering Indian gods residing in the landscape. Black Robe is a fresh example of this more complex contemporary attitude, though with a distinctive emphasis owing to the fact that, while he is a Canadian citizen, Brian Moore was educated in Ireland by the Jesuits and, unlike Parkman or E. J. Pratt, knows Roman Catholicism from the inside.
The "philosophic interest" of Black Robe is adumbrated by Moore when, at the end of his author's note, he speaks of "the strange and gripping tragedy that occurred when the Indian belief in a world of night and in the power of dreams clashed with the Jesuits' preachments of Christianity and a paradise after death. This novel is an attempt to show that each of these beliefs inspired in the other fear, hostility, and despair." The principal spokesman in the novel for the Indian point of view is the Algonquin Chomina. When Laforgue tells him that paradise will be open to him after death if he allows himself to be baptized, Chomina replies: "What paradise? A paradise for Normans?… Why would I want to go to a paradise where there are none of my people? No, I will die and go to another country where our dead have gone. There I will meet my wife and my son. Your god shits on me and mine." He also tells the priest:
Look around you. The sun, the forest, the animals. This is all we have. It is because you Normans are deaf and blind that you think this world is a world of darkness and the world of the dead is a world of light. We who can hear the forest and the river's warnings, who speak with the animals and the fish and respect their bones, we know that is not the truth. If you have come here to change us, you are stupid. We know the truth. This world is a cruel place but it is the sunlight. And I grieve now, for I am leaving it.
And later, at the Huron mission, when Laforgue tells the Indians that to be baptized "You must give up those practices which offend Him. You must not cast off your wives, but keep them for life. You must not eat human flesh. You must not attend curing rituals or feasts of gluttony in which you become sick with eating. Above all, you must give up your belief in dreams," the eldest and wisest among them replies: "If we do these things and if we give up our belief in the dream, then the Huron life, the way we have always known, will end for us."
This clash of beliefs in Black Robe is not merely stated; it is enacted in the consciousness of Laforgue, who undergoes a significant change during the course of his journey. To understand fully what happens to him, however, it is first necessary to consider an influence on Black Robe even more important than Parkman's The Jesuits in North America: the earlier novels of Brian Moore. As Moore has himself explained, the focal concern of his novels has always been "the moment in a person's life, the crucial few weeks or months, when one suddenly confronts the reality or unreality of one's illusions, because that, to me, is what the drama of a novel is" [quoted by Donald Cameron in "Brian Moore: The Tragic Vein of the Ordinary," in Conversations with Canadian Novelists, 1973]. A more particular concern has been with the loss of religious belief and with what it is like to learn to live without God. Loss of faith was the central precipitate of the crisis of Judith Hearne, the title character of Moore's first novel, and was also movingly presented in the character of Tomás in Catholics, who, like Judith Hearne, came to the recognition that the tabernacle on the altar contained not the body of Christ, but only round wafers of unleavened bread. In the story of a few crucial months in the life of Paul Laforgue, Moore depicts this destabilizing rite of passage for the third time.
Ever since his order had granted his petition to be sent to New France, Laforgue has dreamed of the glory of martyrdom and, at the beginning of his journey, is certain that the hand of God is guiding his destiny. In a moment of spiritual exaltation, he feels that the dangers of the journey have been "transformed miraculously into a great adventure, a chance to advance God's glory here in a distant land." At one point he considers the coureurs de bois who have gone into the woods with the Algonquins and come back wild, corrupted, and promiscuous, and he wonders how they can so easily forget their civilization and their faith. But he does not begin seriously to doubt the mercy and providence of his God until after his harrowing experience as a captive of the Iroquois, during which, in addition to his own torments, he sees Chomina's young son have his throat slit, be hacked to pieces, have his bloodied limbs thrown into a cooking kettle, and, when parboiled, be passed among the warriors who had captured him. Laforgue now begins to feel "shut out from God's sight, as though he, like Chomina, was condemned to live forever in the darkness of this land." Like Tomás, he ceases to pray, while his mind stumbles into "thoughts of despair." Like Judith and Tomás, he comes to feel that "The hosts in the tabernacle were bread, dubbed the body of Christ in a ritual strange as any performed by these Savages." On the novel's last page, he baptizes a group of Hurons who have asked for the "water sorcery." It is not because he any longer believes in the efficacy of the sacrament, but for the same reason that at the end of Catholics Tomás leads his dispirited monks in prayer: because he loves them and wishes them well.
While its informing theme is closely similar to Judith Hearne and Catholics, Black Robe differs from them in being both an historical novel and an adventure story. Recently, the sixty-four-year-old novelist explained the reasons behind his growing interest in such comparatively popular fictional forms:
"As I've become older I've become more interested in different forms of writing. 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 doing curlicues and bringing the author into the novel and all these nouveau roman things."
Black Robe is an effort to bring "that drive, that power, that commitment to holding the reader's attention which you find in Tolstoy and the other great Russians" back into the serious novel. Moore calls it a "heart of darkness story" about a journey into the wilderness which "moves forward but still contains ideas." [Robert Stewart, "The Literary Odyssey of Brian Moore," Montreal Gazette, 6 April 1985]
In the past, Moore has been an acute commentator on his own work; but in gauging the quality and distinction of Black Robe, I find the above remarks misleading. In the first place, the novel might well have been speculatively richer if Moore had brought into it, if not the author, at least the narrator, and had allowed him reflective and/or retrospective comments. This would have made unnecessary the unconvincing discussions between Laforgue and Chomina, during which the latter at times sounds more like Khalil Gibran than a foul-mouthed Algonquin. One is not asking for something as comparatively "curlicue" as Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, the first-person narrator of which is an anthropologist specializing in North-American Indians and obsessed with the figure of Catherine Tekakwitha, the Iroquois virgin. But it is hard not to remember how successful John Fowles was in enriching the "philosophic" content of his historical novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman, through employing a self-conscious, intrusive narrator—a narratorial strategy that can hardly be called avant garde, since it was employed by several major nineteenth-century novelists.
One also wonders whether Moore is correct in implying that the power of Black Robe comes simply from its narrative drive, from its commitment to holding the reader's attention through story. At times one does turn the pages of the novel as eagerly as those of a thriller. But I should say the artistic strength of Black Robe lies less in its narrative drive than in its ability to defamiliarize its subject-matter in ways that sharpen the reader's attention and intensify his response to the text. This process can only occur at the expense of narrative drive, for the fresher and more unfamiliar the subjects are made, the more attention they draw to themselves, thus slowing the narrative pace. The most striking example of this process in Black Robe involves the language Moore has given the Indians to speak. In chapter 4 of The Jesuits in North America, Parkman reports that the expletives of the Algonquins "were foul words, of which they had a superabundance, and which men, women, and children alike used with a frequency and hardihood that amazed and scandalized" the Jesuits. Moore's artistic response to this narrative opportunity has been to make the Indians of Black Robe talk like the most linguistically debased contemporary anglophones, with particular prominence given to "shit" and to what, in their genteel moments, my seven-year-old son and his friends call "the f-word." The effect is startling and disconcerting, but does make the reader attentive to Moore's savages. To say that the constant stream of obscenity is gratuitous, ultimately de trop, and involves a degree of stylization out of phase with the realistic postulates of the rest of the narrative, is to miss the point. As Victor Shklovsky, the Russian formalist who coined the term "defamiliarization" (ostraneniye), has explained, the artistic process of making strange involves an obvious display of the devices by which the effect is produced.
An equally impressive instance of defamiliarization in Black Robe is found in the presentation of Catholicism. In Tolstoy, Brian Moore finds narrative power; but there are other things to be found there also, one of which is well explained by Shklovsky: "Tolstoy described the dogmas and rituals he attacked as if they were unfamiliar, substituting everyday meanings for the customarily religious meanings of the words common in church ritual. Many persons were painfully wounded; they considered it blasphemy to present as strange and monstrous what they accepted as sacred." Something similar, if balder, happens in Black Robe when Catholic rituals and doctrines are observed from the savage point of view. At the beginning of chapter 2, for example, two Normans kneel before a third who "raised his right hand, the hand open like a knife. He made a downward movement, then a sideways movement. The two who knelt bowed their heads." What are they doing?" asks one Indian. "It is some fucking sorcery," another replies. And, late in the novel, it is to the tabernacle and its sacred contents that a Huron is referring when he says: "I went into that place, shut off, where they keep pieces of a corpse in a little box, a corpse they brought from France."
While I am dubious about some of Moore's comments on Black Robe, I am in full agreement with his implicit conviction that it does have energy and drive and is a serious novel. It was not easy to think the same about three of Moore's last four novels. The Doctor's Wife (1976), The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1981), and Cold Heaven (1983) were all slick romantic melodramas centring on adulterous passion, containing a spurious religious overlay, and littered with the tourist-eye detail of hotels, restaurants, and airports. As historical narrative, Black Robe cannot match the real thing—Parkman's The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century. As a "heart of darkness story" it lacks the intensity and resonant aura of Conrad's tale. But it is a strong and fresh addition to the canon of a distinguished contemporary novelist and evidence of its author's continued creative vigour.
SOURCE: "Under the Red Robe," in The Times Literary Supplement, October 2-8, 1987, p. 1073.
[In the following positive review of The Color of Blood, Conway contends that, though character development suffers somewhat due to the demands of Moore's thriller format, the tautly paced novel nonetheless investigates "serious political and theological issues."]
Black Robe, Brian Moore's last novel, and his first attempt at a historical theme, was a masterly exploration of the cultural abyss between the North American Indians and the Jesuit missionaries come in the name of God to "civilize" them. In The Colour of Blood the Jesuits again feature prominently and God is frequently invoked, but the time is the 1980s, the setting somewhere in the Eastern bloc (not Poland, although there are obvious similarities) and the style that of the political thriller.
Days before the bicentenary of the September Martyrs, an attempt is made on the life of the Catholic Primate, and the ensuing tension threatens to destroy the hard-won concordat between Church and State. The "raincoats"—as the much-hated Security Police are known—want to keep him in "protective custody", but he knows that his presence at the celebrations is essential to prevent a massive uprising. Shedding the red robes of his office for "the disguise of failure", Cardinal Bem goes on the run in a nightmarish world where even his own bishops are not to be trusted. Who are the instigators of this plot? Are they simple patriots, or right-wing fanatics backed by the CIA, or agents of a government fearful of that "larger neighbour" on its border and needing an excuse to stem the ever-growing power of the Church over the minds and hearts of the people? Only in the final chapters is the truth made clear.
The Revolution Script, Moore's imaginative reconstruction of the kidnapping, in 1970, of a British diplomat in Montreal, took us into the mind of the revolutionary left; in The Colour of Blood he invites us to consider the philosophical rather than the personal implications of political action. The thriller format becomes a vehicle to explore serious political and theological issues: the relationship between Church and State, the validity of "liberation theology", the meaning of "freedom" and "responsibility" under a totalitarian régime. In particular Moore questions the authenticity of a religious fervour too closely linked with political aspirations (the unstated parallels with the author's native Ireland spring first to mind, but the phenomenon is worldwide). Cardinal Bem personifies St Bernard's ideal of a man ruled by reason, balancing the demands of God and Caesar without ever losing sight of his priorities; in contrast, the Prime Minister, like Bem a graduate of the Jesuits, represents reason gone wrong, a leader prepared to countenance torture, detention, even murder, in the name of "the national good".
Always the consummate craftsman, Moore never allows the tension to slacken, reminding us that he is a writer who once worked with Alfred Hitchcock. From its opening sequence—a limousine speeding through the glistening streets of the capital towards the assassin's gun—to the spectacular finale in a cathedral glowing with candles and stained glass, this is a novel that cries out for cinematic treatment. Moore's prose is faultless, economical and elegant; and if the characterization is thinner than we have come to expect from the creator of Judith Hearne and Mary Dunne, it is only because it has been subordinated to more intellectual concerns.
SOURCE: "Lost in Greeneland," in The New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 18, November 2, 1987, pp. 47-8.
[Kanfer is an American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, and journalist. In the following review, he asserts that characterization in The Color of Blood is superficial and that Moore rushes through issues which would have benefited from more extensive development.]
Graham Greene should have no trouble entering the kingdom of heaven. It is on earth that he has much to answer for. Every paperback page-turner whose cover proclaims the coming of a new Existential Thriller ("He carried the war home with him like an infection!"), every fictive burnout in the CIA or the KGB ("Only he could tell the difference as the lines between the superpowers began to blur!"), every backdrop of mist, intrigue, and betrayal on the far side of civilization ("The 'infidels' knew truths that eluded the West!") owes its existence to the place that some wag dubbed Greeneland a half century ago.
Most of these works are ignored by the Master, but occasionally he displays pleasure when a disciple apes the famous trademarks: tongue-and-groove construction, political cynicism, and religious turmoil. John Le Carré has made a career of it, starting with The Spy Who Came In from the Cold ("The Best Spy Novel I Have Ever Read"—Graham Greene) and continuing through the let's-not-be-beastly-to-the-Palestinians theme of The Little Drummer Girl. The steadiest in a long, winding line of acolytes is Brian Moore, whose most appealing books are explorations of feminine psychology and a crisis of faith (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne), re-examinations of the past (The Black Robe, The Great Victorian Collection: "My favorite living novelist … treats the novel as a tamer treats a wild beast"—Graham Greene), and the sociology of theology (Catholics: "Funny, sad, and very moving"—Graham Greene). Moore's lesser works, "entertainments" in Greene's term, are thrillers written under the name of Michael Bryan. In his spare time the author has written screenplays, among them the moribund Torn Curtain for Alfred Hitchcock.
The Color of Blood fuses the high Moore and the low. It contains the dependable themes of prelate and thugs, foreign landscape and confusion of realms. This time out the cleric has escalated to cardinal, and the novelist has heightened the tempo. An assassination attempt occurs in the opening scene. Cardinal Bem, of a place very much like Poland, escapes with his life, but his loyal chauffeur is killed. Who would want to gun down the blameless Bem? His is the voice of compromise, attempting to reconcile the workers' movement with the demands of Marxist overlords. As it turns out, the marriage of Solidarity and the state is held at arm's length not only by the rulers but by the intransigent Archbishop Krasnoy. He plans to deliver a speech inciting the population to "an expression of national will," that is, counterrevolution. Red hat orders white hat to expunge all political content from his speech—or else. But Bem loses his authority when three officials appear at his residence and abduct him to a mysterious country house. Are they State Security men? Or are they forces within the Church itself? Bem makes many disheartening discoveries as he escapes into the hinterlands and finds himself at the whim and mercy of commoners with whom he had lost touch years ago.
This is Moore's 15th novel—perhaps one should say screenplay. It shows the practiced hand of a man who knows how to tighten suspense, provide chases and confrontations on cue, scatter ambiguities like bread crumbs along the way, and head toward what paperback publishers like to call a shattering climax.
But is it? Technically the author brings off his scenario. There is a sharply defined protagonist, plus narrow escapes and the classic soupçons of violence. But there are also instances of prepackaged cynicism: "Maybe it's true, as that knife grinder said, that the regime stuffs our mouth with sausage to keep us quiet. But what of the other world, the world that Henry Krasnoy calls free? Are the poor any better off there?" And there are unconvincing close-ups of the believer in crisis: "'I don't know what the pope wants anymore,' the old man said. 'Where is the pope this week? Brazil? Japan? Who knows?'" And perfunctory glimpses of the Church undergoing alteration: "I admit that in the past, our priests have been as anti-Semitic as the rest of our people. But we are trying to change that." How "we" are trying remains offscreen. Perhaps Kurt Waldheim can enlighten us in a sequel.
All this might not have mattered if Moore had developed his plot and people. But The Color of Blood is 179 pages—the proper length for what film-makers call a treatment, but far too brief for the subjects introduced and then abruptly dismissed, as if the author was in a hurry to get on to his next project. A pity; Moore used to explore the mental and moral life of his characters en route. And when he played with symbols in the old days, he was never so obvious. In The Color of Blood he makes Bem the son of a stableman, and throughout his final days the cardinal cannot find a good place to lay his head. Although it would be unsporting to reveal the finale, no reader should be surprised to find grand tragedy at the fade-out. After all, this is a truly Christian leader who speaks the truth to uncomprehending souls.
As such he makes an appealing figure. One would have liked to see Cardinal Bem in a setting worthy of him, his anguish, and his author. Here Moore, who began so well some 30 years ago with the moving sorrows of a lonely spinster, seems to suffer from a form of literary anorexia. It may be the impatience of age—the author is 66—or the demands of a crowded schedule. Or it may be one more instance of too-close imitation. In that case, Moore has fallen long. The Tenth Man, Greene's latest, took just 156 pages to tell its tale.
SOURCE: "Polish Nightmares," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIV, No. 20, December 17, 1987, pp. 44, 46, 48.
[Ascherson is a Scottish-born English critic and journalist. In the following review, he praises Moore's astute, humane, and suspenseful depiction of Polish religious and political crises in The Color of Blood.]
The Color of Blood, Brian Moore's latest novel, was on the short list for the Booker Prize, the main British fiction award. Though widely admired, it did not take the prize; the murmur in London was that it was "slight." A strange reservation. The book is certainly brief, and has the pace and economical structure of a thriller. But it is the work of a masterly writer now at the height of his powers: some of Graham Greene's "entertainments" were called slight when they first appeared, and those judgments seem today absurd. Nabokov's Pale Fire and Lolita, if one judges by length, are more rich and substantial than his briefer works, but Laughter in the Dark, which one can read on a short train journey, is among the most nearly perfect of Nabokov's fictions.
The scenery, physical and political, in Brian Moore's novel, reflects Poland's history. The Cardinal's name is Stephen Bem (Cardinal Wyszyński's first name was Stefan, while Bem was a patriot general of the last century), while the prime minister is named Urban (like the Polish government spokesman), and the book contains many other such allusions. But Moore also shows an uncanny sensibility in penetrating to the heart of Polish moral dilemmas and nightmares. He achieves this penetration largely through creating a fabulous, not-quite specific location, thereby freeing Polish debates from the supposedly hermetic quality which encourages others to regard these debates as idiosyncratic. He has released them into the consciousness of all who have to seek the just path in places where repression, nationalism, violence, and a religion of peace belong to present experience.
Years before the novel opens, in this Catholic nation ruled by a Communist government and police, the cardinal has signed a Church-State concordat with the prime minister, one Francis Urban, who was once a fellow pupil of Bem's at the same Jesuit school. But for some traditionalists in the Church and in the Catholic laity, that compact with foreign Marxism and its agents has amounted to national betrayal. Now, as the tension between the people and the regime is swelling toward a crisis, a plot has been laid between Catholic nationalists and some of Bem's own bishops to proclaim a popular insurrection. The proclamation is timed for the great Catholic pilgrimage and rally at Rywald (Moore's Czestochowa). But to give it a chance of success, the workers and their underground trade unions must be persuaded to call a general strike. And to persuade the union leaders and the population as a whole to move, the full authority of the Church must be put behind the appeal.
The obstacle is the personality of the cardinal-primate himself, Stephen Bem. Unlike many of the plotters, he is not a son of the aristocracy or the old officer caste. His father was a stableboy in a nobleman's palace, and this sets him at a distance from the tradition of insurrections led by the nobility. No less patriotic or anticommunist than they, he sees more clearly than they do the futility of a rebellion that could only end in bloodshed and invasion by Soviet armies. His task under God, as he sees it, is to ensure the survival of the nation and its true values, and his faith is that the nation will outlive its oppressors. His agreement with Urban, compromise as it was, has given the Church the right to run its own schools, publish religious literature, and in general to carry on its duty of maintaining the integrity of the nation. "Remember," he says, "that, no matter which government rules us, we remain a free people, free in our minds, free in an unfree state. That is the greater heroism." Cardinal Wyszyński, too, put his name to such an agreement, and he, too, told the Poles in 1956, on the brink of rebellion, that it was sometimes harder to live for one's country than to die for it.
Cardinal Bem will never approve the call for a rising. Yet it cannot hope for success if he condemns it. The novel opens as his car is ambushed by a group of Catholic fanatics, who can see no way to cut this knot beyond eliminating him. But Bem survives, although his driver and one of the plotters are killed. Back at his palace, he is seized and abducted by men apparently from the security police, who take him "for his own protection" to a guarded hideout in the countryside. (The location, Bem's relationship with his custodians, and his own reflections owe much to Wyszyński's own prison notebooks, published in English under the title A Freedom Within, and it has been said that Brian Moore's reading of that book was the novel's original inspiration.)
Bem contrives to escape, tries to find his way back to the capital, and is caught once more. He realizes suddenly that his captors are not the regime's men at all, but members of a Catholic underground conspiracy; his kidnapping has been staged in order to provide the final provocation which will justify the rising ("The Communists have arrested the Primate") while gagging him at the crucial moment. Again, Bem manages to break away and flee. He is at last brought to a clandestine meeting with Jop, the aging workers' hero who once led a free trade union struggle, and persuades him to throw his influence against the coming strike. Jop is not sure if he will be obeyed. "We don't count any more, the unions…. We can't afford to speak out against the Church. If the people want this demo and the Church is behind it, then we have to go along." Here, expertly mirrored, is the real choice the Polish Church faced in August 1980: "If the people want this strike and the working class is behind it, then we have to go along."
Now Bem must somehow reach Rywald, before the bishop there delivers the fatal sermon. But the real police, who have been frantically searching for him, catch him on the way. He is flown to the capital, as rumors of insurrection begin to course through the nation, and is brought to confront Francis Urban himself.
At school, Urban was the rich boy, son of a landowner: "It was natural for an Urban to become a general, even a prime minister. What was not natural was his route to this power." Before him is Stephen Bem, again the poor boy now that he is no longer in robes but wears an ill-fitting civilian disguise. They attack each other's credentials as a patriot: one is abused as an agent of Moscow and the KGB, the other as the servant of Rome and the CIA. When calm, though, both are forced to admit that they have a common interest even though neither can confess to being "on the same side." They say in Poland: "Nobody knows what compromises a man can make for his country." Urban and Bem have both risked their careers for a shabby concordat which was meant to save their country from itself and from its neighbor. Bem knows that the West will betray his people if they rise, as it has betrayed them before. To save them, he must do the betraying himself, abort a great national and religious upsurge, and save the neck of this detestable government in the process. What compromises can a man make for his God? That Greenean question lies at the heart of this novel.
In the end, Cardinal Bem goes to Rywald. What happens there would be heartless for a critic to disclose. It's enough to say that this short novel maintains its physical and intellectual suspense to the last page, and the last line.
A great many ideas are carried by the characters of The Color of Blood. Not for a moment, however, do they cease to be unpredictable, genuine human beings. Cardinal Bem, lonely and steadfast, is afraid only of that moral darkness in which right and wrong begin stealthily to exchange places. I will remember him not only when thinking about Poland or Hungary, but also when I read about the travails of bishops in Latin America and South Africa, or—very particularly—about Bishop Edward Daly of Derry and Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich of Armagh.
It may be that Moore would not wish to be called a "Catholic novelist." But he shares with some other novelists who are Catholics (and some of the great Russians) the capacity to make characters who remain entirely convincing whatever burden of "significance" they carry. Muriel Spark, a convert, once took fright at her own sin of creating human beings without the power of saving themselves. If I have grasped this notion correctly, it means that when God understands, he does not so much forgive as extend mercy. A few novelists extend mercy of that kind to those they have imagined. Brian Moore is one of them.
SOURCE: "Religion as Favourite Metaphor: Moore's Recent Fiction," in Irish University Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 50-8.
[In the following essay, Gallagher asserts that faith, both secular and religious, enables many of Moore's characters to survive crises.]
Searching for a language more honest than lying is the struggle of all spiritual life.
Although I'm not a religious writer, religion—the Catholic religion—has played a major role in many of my novels … I use religion as a metaphor.
At a fairly early stage in The Colour of Blood, Cardinal Bem is allowed by his captors to speak by phone to the "Ministry of Religious Affairs". Although Bem is not aware of it at the time, the voice on the other end is another member of the nationalist faction of Catholics who have kidnapped him in this communist country. Nevertheless he senses the unreality of the situation:
This conversation was like a dream; in dreams the most improbable threats are heavy with fearful plausibility.
That text and context could stand as a summary of the classic Brian Moore plot. In each of his books the central figure is forced out of his or her normal world into a state of being imprisoned in unreality, or at least in a reality that shakes all previous foundations. All of the protagonists encounter a radical fear for their own identity and are threatened by what seems like a dream. Thus, in An Answer from Limbo the obsessive writer, Brendan Tierney, came to ask "Am I, too, a prisoner of my dream?" and Maloney in The Great Victorian Collection likewise became "the prisoner of the new dream … prisoner of what he had wrought". "Dream" is again a key-word in Black Robe, which involves what Lawrence would call the "interdestruction" of the dreams of Indians and Jesuits alike. Hence one can discern a now familiar pattern in Moore's novels: a collapse of the previous securities of an individual through a journey into nightmare.
Although this ordeal is mainly psychological—and narrated with a traditional focus on the central consciousness—the novels tend to hint at epistemological and metaphysical concerns as well. It would be misleading, as he himself insists, to describe Brian Moore's work as religious fiction, and even more inaccurate to think of him in the old category of "Catholic novelist". Nevertheless a driving concern in his fiction has been with issues of faith, and faith in many senses. The main conflict for some of his central characters had to do with loss of a previously firm belief in a God of traditional Catholicism; one thinks of Judith Hearne of the first novel and of the Abbot of Catholics. Even when Moore moved away from explicitly religious settings for his crises of self-meaning, he still kept his sights on human faith-making. Thus in novels such as Fergus or I am Mary Dunne he was unsparing in exposing the vulnerability of secularist substitutes for faith, for what he called in An Answer from Limbo "the belief that replaces belief".
In this respect one might suggest a rough but workable distinction between "faith" and "Faith". The latter can point to explicit religious Faith, as explored in several of Moore's protagonists from Judith Hearne to Paul Laforgue and even Cardinal Bem. The term 'faith'—without the capital—can be applied to a wider range of signifying constructs which his characters use to find some stable anchorage for their lives. Indeed such a distinction, which Moore discovers in his own non-conceptual way, is commonplace in comtemporary theology. One of the best statements of a claim for a priority of 'faith' over 'Faith' comes from the literary scholar and theologian, William Lynch, who seeks to deconstruct the dominance of the cognitive in thinking about faith, and hence advocates "reversing our images" in order to recognize faith as "a colleague imagination":
Let us hypothesize that faith is a first and primitive force in life; it is there, in a completely central and powerful way, from the beginning; it is not a sophisticated addition to knowledge, but a giant, universally operative force. [William F. Lynch, Images of Faith: An Exploration of the Ironic Imagination, 1973]
In a classic study of several years later [Stages of Faith, 1981], James Fowler rejected any automatic identification of 'faith' with religious categories and argued that faith is "a universal feature of human living"; for him faith is "a kind of imagination", a way of seeing life in relation to "a comprehensive image in the light of which we shape our responses". More recently, Roger Haight [in An Alternative Vision, 1985] has developed the same line of thinking in his account of "the psychological manifestations of faith" as a "centering act or attitude of the human personality", or as an integrating "stance toward life"; although such "faith" may be "expressed in some symbolic conceptual form", it is "not the same as belief". These comments from three theological authors flesh out the distinction between "faith" and "Faith", and they also help to distinguish what is central to Moore's fictional concerns from what is secondary. In his novels "faith" is more fundamental than "Faith" but he has opted for "Faith" as a natural location for dramas of "faith". His central concern is neither with a crisis of creeds nor of explicit religious commitments but that more universal anchoring of personal existence in some ultimate "faith". In The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne the world of "Faith" proved the best context for the more radical conflict of "faith", and the same was true of Catholics. Interestingly, in his three most recent novels, Moore has returned to the church contexts associated with explicit religious "Faith" as the best metaphor for his dramatizing the fragility of "faith" in its wider or humanistic sense. The "Faith" or church context stems from Moore's Irishness but from what he calls his "nomadic" experience outside Ireland he developed an acute sense for a collapse of any secure meanings as the crisis of today. In this sense Moore takes a metaphor from an Irish setting to confront a fundamental conflict of "faith" for individuals in Western society. One remembers that J. Hillis Miller once linked "the absence of God" with the dramatization of "subjectivism" as a major concern of modern literature [Miller, The Disappearance of God, 1965]; if so Brian Moore represents an Irish variant on this basic theme.
If the fifteen novels to date share this focus on a crisis of "faith", they also reveal recurring patterns over the years as well as some significant changes in horizon. The central figure is generally forced to move from presence to absence to difference. Presence in this sense means a set of self-securities sometimes associated with paternal authority (as in Fergus or The Emperor of Ice-Cream), and sometimes with a belief in the "real presence" in the tabernacle (a recurring image in Moore from The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne to Catholics and Black Robe). Absence would point to the de-centering experiences that afflict each main character: what seemed clear meanings or definite norms are now seen to be fragile metaphors. But in spite of that discovery of the fictiveness of "faith" and sometimes of "Faith", nearly every central figure has to live on, either crushed by or carrying the difference he or she has encountered. In a previous article I argued that Moore approaches "identity in terms of faith and faith in terms of identity" ["Brian Moore's Fiction of Faith," Gaeliana, 7 (1985)]. In this sense some earlier novels ended with a sense of blank failure (Judith Hearne), or dominated by guilt over the price paid for one's freedom (An Answer from Limbo), or with some surrender that spelt fundamental dishonesty (Catholics), but the capacity to cope with "difference" is presented in a notably serene manner in the last three novels. In these identity and faith come through the upheavals and seem able to survive. It is also in these three books that Moore has returned to overtly religious settings as vehicles or metaphors for his constant crisis of "faith".
Cold Heaven is a fascinating reversal of the classic plot of loss of religious belief: it is about the temptation of an atheist or agnostic to abandon her "faith" of "unFaith". Moreover, that temptation is double: Marie Davenport is disturbed not only by the preternatural happenings she experiences (visions of Our Lady on the coast of California, a husband who comes back to life having been pronounced dead) but more deeply by her contacts with an authentic mystic, Mother St Jude, in whom she sees "reverence mixed with overwhelming love". Out of the first temptation comes the epistemological and psychological drama of the book. Is Marie, rether like Mary Dunne, prone to paranoid interpretations? This is a real question not only for the reader of this spiritual thriller but for Marie herself, who vacillates between belief and unbelief of her own experiences. On the one hand "these unreal events were happening in this real, reassuringly ordinary world" and Moore's narratives are always magnificent in their creation of a credible context; on the other hand, "if I am imagining all this, I am inventing my own hell".
If there is a flaw in the inner logic of Cold Heaven, it is that it is so much easier for Marie to retain her atheism against the assaults of strange outer 'miracles' than to confront and reject the other miracle represented by Mother St Jude. She manages to resist "the defeat of my will" by the preternatural, with the result that at the end "she had refused and she had won". As a study in superstitious consciousness and in the cultural impossibility of religious faith, this novel is one of Moore's finest achievements. Like many of his central characters Marie Davenport moves through torment but is eventually "returned to ordinary life, to its burdens, its consequences". As a theological novel of sorts the core of the book is that "a miracle is only a sign; it does not complet belief". Here the atheist under trial manages to retain her faith of unfaith, however battered, just as priest protagonists in Moore's next two novels will come through with their faith battered but somehow managing to survive. Like them Marie enters a zone of ambiguity at the end: she is a mixture of honesty (something has been seen and heard) and necessary dishonesty (she cannot admit this to anyone except herself). She can be secure in her rejection of what seems like superstitious religiousness, because she alone knows that the future shrine of the Virgin will be built literally on false grounds. But she herself suppresses the more destabilizing memory of Mother St Jude, whose "look she had never known from any other human being" and in whose presence she experienced "a larger feeling, a feeling of peace". Thus the fictional rhetoric of Cold Heaven seems faulty when the subversiveness of the mystic is evaded at the close.
With Black Robe and The Colour of Blood, it is as if Brian Moore has opted to revisit this spiritual dimension, which was left dangling in Cold Heaven. In that novel as part of her longest conversation with Marie, Mother St Jude tells the atheist young woman of her "anguish" of knowing that "because of my failure, God was absent", and how "the moment I saw you, God came back into my soul. It was true happiness". A strangely similar emergence from desolation into consolation occurs at the very end of the two subsequent novels about priest-believers. Although the historical contexts are totally different, ranging from a seventeenth-century Indian tribe in North America to a contemporary Eastern bloc country, each ending sees a priest giving a sacrament to the people and finding in this final moment both what seems to him as God's will and a new unburdened freedom within himself. For Father Laforgue in Black Robe "a prayer came to him, a true prayer at last" and for Cardinal Bem in The Colour of Blood "joy filled him. At last, he knew peace". This is more than a verbal coincidence; it is a clue to the different sense of an ending that Moore has given to all his novels of the 'eighties. What is here embodied in terms of a religious metaphor had its secular equivalent in the final situations of both Eileen Hughes and Marie Davenport, both of whom struggle through to a final sense of release from the turmoils they had encountered. At the close of The Temptation of Eileen Hughes we are told that she "hurried towards her freedom". All of Moore's protagonists undergo some temptation of their "faith" but few of the earlier ones arrived at the same degree of positive freedom, however tinged with ambiguity, that characterizes these four recent novels. In previous decades of Moore's career, liberating moments were strongest for Ginger Coffey and Gavin Burke but many of the other main characters ended in desolation of one kind or another.
It can be argued that the common pattern of these recent novels is from an initial self-security of "faith" through a series of threatening and nightmarish experiences to a moment of humbled return to a more fragile "faith" than before. And this return is marked by a surprising "joy" or "peace" or "love". This seems accurate so far as it goes, but it fails to mention another common element in Moore's recent fiction, his concern with "silence" and its ambiguities. On the more secular level, it seems to Marie in Cold Heaven that "they need my silence"; thinking of her whole brush with the incomprehensible "she would remember it in silence for the rest of her life". In the other two novels a concern with God's silence assumes a more central role. Thus even in the first page of The Colour of Blood Cardinal Bem's prayer is described as "withdrawing into that silence where God waited and judged". Then at the end Bem is faced with his assassin at the communion rail:
he saw the revolver that she had taken from her handbag and in that moment knew: This is God's will … The silence of God: would it change at the moment of his death?
The only indirect answer to that question is in the final sentence, when he "heard that terrible noise". The close of Black Robe had been less ambiguous and more affirmative. After an ordeal of much more horrifying proportions than that undergone by Cardinal Bem, Father Laforgue arrives at his final crisis. Like other Moore protagonists he confronts symbols of faith that for him have become emptied of their significance.
He looked at the empty eyes of the statuette as though, in them, some hint might be given of that mystery which is the silence of God. But the statuette was wooden, carved by men. The hosts in the tabernacle were bread, dubbed the body of Christ in a ritual strange as any performed by these Savages … Here in this humble foolish chapel, rude as a child's drawing, a wooden box and a painted statuette could not restore his faith.
And yet his faith is in some way finally restored. How? Laforgue finds himself in disagreement with his fellow missioner, Father Jerome, who is happy to "use" an eclipse of the sun as an emotional lever on the Indians, pushing them towards communal baptism. But Laforgue is uneasy about this strategy and about the "accident of nature" over which he has "no sense of miracle". Father Jerome, by contrast, is quite blunt about his approach: for him "most Christians do not perform their duties because they love God, but because they fear Him". In the light of the seemingly positive ending of the book, this sentence assumes a certain importance: it would appear that Laforgue eventually decides to go ahead with the baptisms not out of fear but out of love.
Moore is too subtle a novelist, however, to allow this upbeat ending to be the whole story; indeed his final pages are fraught with ironies and ambiguities. The turning point for Laforgue comes through a conversation with the Indian chief, in which Taretande ultimately asks him whether he is their enemy or whether he loves them. When Laforgue replies "yes" to the question about love, Taretande in turn says "Then baptize us". But we as readers know more than Laforgue about the tangle of motives underlying this request: they are a mixture of fear (that the plague is controlled by these blackrobes) and guile (seeming to obey but preserving their "dream"); only shortly before he had been in favour of killing the Jesuits. Nevertheless, when Laforgue in his struggle of decision turns again to encounter the silence of the tabernacle, he does so newly aware of the question about love.
Had [his own] statement of belief in God any more meaning than Taretande's promise to do God's will? What was God's will? He looked at the tabernacle. He felt the silence.
Do you love us?
Rather as Marie Davenport at the end of Cold Heaven turns from her brush with silence and strangeness to the "ordinary, muddled life of falling in love" and accepts an "imperfect existence", so a similar acceptance of flawed love seems evoked at the end of Black Robe. Although his option for love is shot through with ambiguities, it is nevertheless in this way that Laforgue emerges from his morass of doubt and in the closing moment of the novel attains to "true prayer at last". The final words of the book are another repetition of Do you love us? Yes. Moore has always been suspicious of anti-roman sophistications and his latest novel, The Colour of Blood, keeps stubbornly to his pruned style of recent years and to a common-sense realism with its focus on the central character. With such an understated rhetoric, it might be possible to miss the ways in which this thriller echoes some of the Moore obsessions. A major change is that there is nothing of the overt crisis of faith in Cardinal Bem as was present in Father Laforgue; instead he is a credibly good man of solid if voluntarist faith. Although his God is a silent judge (as was already mentioned), Bem is not made to endure the same inner torment of faith as other recent protagonists. His outer ordeal involves a crisis of trust in his church colleagues but never to the point that it endangers his fundamental trust in God. Thus his questions are never the metaphysical doubts of Laforgue and others concerning the truth of the sacraments; rather he wonders about the abuse of religion in a political sense and ironically he becomes a martyr at the hands of right-wing Catholics who want—with echoes of Father Jerome—to "use" religion to incite a nationalist uprising against the communist regime. Here the drama seems more external than in other novels and one that is more concerned than before with the ambiguous relationship between religion and power.
Moore's handling of his religious metaphor in The Colour of Blood has shifted, one might say, from the paranormal of Cold Heaven to the paramilitary. Because of this many commentators may leap to the conclusion that he is writing some version of allegory about the North of Ireland, but this would seem naive in the light of the novel. Rather than offering a narrow parable of the North, it can be a study of the political underside of religion everywhere and in particular of the ambiguities of power struggles carried on in the name of religion. Indeed at one stage in this novel one has a confrontation between what we have been calling "faith" and "Faith", when the Cardinal meets with his old school companion, Francis Urban, now the communist prime minister. Hearing the phrase "the national good" on the latter's lips, Bem is drawn to reflect:
The national good. For Urban, there was no difference between the nation and the State. It was not the national good, but the preservation of the State, he served.
Where other novels took a crisis of psychological self-preservation as their focus, The Colour of Blood is inclined to explore the more political struggle for power within the religious structure of the Church (and to a lesser extent within the State). Throughout the novel Bem is presented as a conscientious leader, honest in his doubts about a situation where "religious beliefs have become inextricably entwined with political hatreds", as he says in his final address to the people. On his way to this pilgrimage site, he had a conversation with his priest secretary that seems strongly to echo the exchanges between Father Laforgue and Father Jerome in Black Robe, Voicing his anxieties about the driving force behind such popular "religious" events, the Cardinal says:
'I think our people are using religion now as a sort of politics … Are we filling the churches because we love God more than before? Or do we do it out of nostalgia for the past, or, worse, to defy the government? Because if we do, Kris, then God is mocked.'
One remembers that just before the final liberating moment in Black Robe Laforgue had asked himself, "Was this true baptism or a mockery?" This minor theme has now come to the centre of the stage in The Colour of Blood, a novel told from the perspective of a man trying not to abuse power but who finds himself thrust into a position where he is an important pawn in others' power games.
Although this latest novel shifts its attention from introspective crisis, nevertheless it communicates a liberalist suspicion of anything beyond the personal horizon: Bem may be authentic in his solitary conscience but all around him the bridges to public life are subject to traps and manipulations of power. If this is so, it would be in tune with Brian Moore's constant focus on the individual in crisis—even to the point of a distrust for social issues. If novels are the would-be epics of middle class culture, then Moore has accepted as his chosen limitation a specialization in subjectivity and isolated consciousness.
Our argument here has been that within his traditional territory, Brian Moore has increasingly focussed on something of a secular theology which might be summarized like this: God remains silent; the substitute dreams of humanity become destructive; religious signs can be manipulated; the mystic as inviting symbol can degenerate into churchy games of power and fear; and ordinary existence itself is a frail and fictive structure marred by egoisms. But the option that is called love, itself ambiguous and unsteady, seems the only foundation for "faith" (and even for "Faith"), or at any rate for the confessedly fragile self-meaning that is capable of emerging beyond crisis and becoming livable again.
SOURCE: "Brian Moore and the Meaning of Exile," in Medieval and Modern Ireland, edited by Richard Wall, Colin Smythe, 1988, pp. 91-107.
[Dahlie is a Canadian critic and educator who has written extensively on Moore's works. In the following essay, originally presented at the International Conference of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies in February 1985 and subsequently revised, he discusses Moore's portrayal of exile in several of his novels, short stories, and essays.]
Almost two thousand years ago, one of the earliest writers sent into exile complained that he was compelled 'to dwell at the edge of the world, a land far removed from [his] own', a place where he had 'no interchange of speech … with the wild people [and was] understood by nobody' [Ovid, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, translated by Arthur Leslie Wheeler, 1924]. Just over a decade and a half ago, another writer forced into exile, upon coming to his new habitation, was ecstatic about the kind of existence he found: 'the feeling of security, of an utter absence of that central European nightmare called the Doorbell-Ringing-At-Four-am' [Josef Skvorecky, 'A Country After My Own Heart', Macleans, March, 1974]. That Ovid uttered his words in Tomis, on the shores of the Black Sea, and Josef Skvorecky his in Toronto, on the shores of Lake Ontario, provides an interesting, but not all a significant, geographical juxtaposition, for there have been many exiles to Canada—notably Anna Jameson and Wyndham Lewis—who have seen Toronto as quite the equivalent of Ovid's place of punishment. Ovid's Epistulae ex Ponto and his Tristia communicated the belief, that was to last for centuries, that exile always meant punishment, a belief that was not to be significantly modified until the New World, in both fact and imagination, began to assume the dimensions of a possible Eden.
Between the two attitudes towards exile held by Ovid and Skvorecky—as a form of punishment and as a form of liberation—lies a whole range of meanings and perspectives, all of which, however, are implied by the two standard dictionary definitions—'enforced removal from one's native land according to an edict or sentence' and 'expatriation, prolonged absence from one's native land, endured by compulsion of circumstances or voluntarily undergone for any purposes'. The difficulty of arriving at any universally accepted definition of this term, or of such synonyms as expatriate and émigré, is reflected in the titles alone of the many books and articles which have examined this issue. Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return, Ernest Earnest's Expatriates and Patriots, Terry Eagleton's Exiles and Emigrés, Thomas Farley's Exiles and Pioneers, Mary McCarthy's 'A Guide to Exiles, Expatriates and Internal Emigrés' all suggest the ambiguities and overlappings of these terms, and there are of course the more emotionally loaded synonyms of these words, like refugee, evacuee, displaced person, outcast, and remittance man. There are levels of respectability, too, attached to such terms: Mary McCarthy reminds us, for example, that if we are charitably raising funds for homeless Greeks, we are helping a group of refugees, but if a group of Greek writers abroad signs a manifesto, they are elevated to the status of writers-in-exile. And sometimes the whole question of rank lies within the exile's own mind and attitude: Vladimir Nabokov recalled in his Speak Memory how he and his fellow Russians in Western Europe viewed their new countrymen as 'perfectly unimportant strangers … in whose more or less illusory cities we, émigrés, happen to dwell', and in a statement that takes us right back to Ovid's attitude towards what he called 'the uncivilized Getae', he contritely confesses that 'we ignored them the way an arrogant or very stupid invader ignores a formless and faceless mass of natives'.
I think it is useful to see 'exile' as the most inclusive of all these terms, for in specific instances it can be applied to all of them, but within the context of this paper, it can quite accurately be distinguished from émigré and expatriate, the synonyms most frequently used when we are speaking of writers and artists. Nabokov and Skvorecky were originally émigrés—they were compelled to leave, on political and ideological grounds, a regime that, had they remained, would have proven hostile if not fatal, to their art. Theoretically, émigrés would return to their homelands once the political conditions make it artistically and morally justifiable to do so. If they remain in their new country, they undergo a kind of transformation or metamorphosis into the larger category of exile, and if they accommodate themselves completely to the social and cultural realities of their new nation, they would in effect become indistinguishable from that nation's indigenous writers.
Expatriates, for quite different reasons, are not totally or permanently committed to the idea of exile: they are little more than extended tourists who leave their homeland temporarily because they believe that certain possibilities for living or for art are more favourable elsewhere. 'They do things better in Europe: let's go there', was the cry of many of Malcolm Cowley's lost generation group, whose exploits he described so well in his book that should have been called Expatriate's Return rather than Exile's Return. For unlike the exile, they did go home again, and their initial hostility against what they saw as the hypocrisy and narrowness of North American life, was only a superficial revolt, derived in part from books like George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft or George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man. 'Having come [to Europe] in search of values', Cowley remarks, 'they found valuta instead', and once that monetary advantage disappeared, they ceased being expatriates.
True exile derives from a much more profound and lasting impulse, and is essentially a more lonely and vulnerable position to assume than expatriation which, like the situation of the political émigré, is frequently attended by some kind of public attention. Exile is a process which both in its genesis and in its unfolding is irreversible, and there is a kind of inescapable definition that controls this term: because this displaced individual continues to be at odds with both the world he has rejected and the one he has moved into, he remains physically, spiritually, and intellectually an exile forever. In a talk that … was published in [The Canadian Association For Irish Studies's] journal a decade or so ago, the subject of this paper, Brian Moore, said that the exile cannot ever go home again, offering a useful distinction between the writer in exile, and the writer as exile ["The Writer as Exile," Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, December, 1976]. The former is, in effect, what I have defined here as the émigré or the expatriate, individuals who can and do return to their native land, whereas the writer as exile, in Moore's perspective, is permanently an outsider. It is this kind of exile that this paper is concerned with….
In the literal sense, however, Moore has the perfect qualifications for what I have been defining as the exile: a native of one country, he is a citizen of a second, and a resident of yet a third, and since neither of these nations has unequivocally or exclusively claimed him, he is in more than a symbolic sense a man without a country. But of course the question of home is, explicitly or implicitly, a central concern of many exiles, and Moore's confession in that 1976 talk that he 'did not want to go home to Ireland' because in that land there was only a 'past, but no future', is transformed in much of his fiction into one of the major tensions experienced by his protagonists. The question that they in effect ask themselves is similar to the one that Malcolm Lowry's Kennish Drumgold Cosnahan asked himself in Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place: 'But there was still this much of the European left in him, that he could ask the old question: how can a European feel himself American without first making his peace with Europe, without becoming, however deviously, reconciled with his home? Visiting Belfast in 1976, Moore saw the house of his birth as 'a monument, to a time, and a life, which is gone forever and will never be again', but this experience produced in him the kind of ambivalent vision that is central to any exile:
I know only that once again, as has happened so often in my years of self exile, in countries far from the land of my birth—I stood balanced on that seesaw of emotion and memory which has been the fulcrum of my novels—the confrontation between now and then, between there and here, which was and is the fruit of my decision to choose exile. ["The Writer as Exile"]
When he did begin to write his serious fiction in the early 1950s, it was that Irish home and that Irish past that constituted his subject matter, rather than the superficially more dramatic events he had experienced by going into exile. And his first two serious fictional protagonists, Judith Hearne and Diarmuid Devine, locked forever in the restrictive and uncharitable world of deterministic Belfast, not only remain as two of Moore's most powerfully evoked and sensitively portrayed characters, but in their status as more or less normal representatives of that world, offer convincing justification for his going into exile in the first place. As far as making a personal commitment, therefore, about where and how to live, it was probably not difficult for Moore to sever his ties with Belfast, but in his artistic creations of his various fictional worlds, the protagonists who experience the strongest sense of dislocation and who have the most disturbing moral doubts are those exiled figures who in their pilgrimages to the New World have also abandoned the forces and values that shaped their early lives. This dilemma is central to a number of his North American novels, particularly The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), An Answer from Limbo (1962) and Fergus (1970), and in such finely-wrought short stories as 'Grieve for the Dear Departed' and 'Uncle T' published in 1959 and 1960 respectively. But it also constitutes a powerful strain in those Belfast novels whose protagonists have made, intellectually and emotionally, a break with that deterministic world, as reflected by Gavin Burke in The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965) and by Sheila Redden in The Doctor's Wife (1976).
'Grieve for the Dear Departed' is set in Dublin, where a family is grieving for the dead father Daniel Kelleher, but its most important character is the absent son Michael who had gone off to America some sixteen years earlier, because of irreconcilable differences with his father. For this, his father had never forgiven him, but the grieving wife and mother knows that 'Dan's hate was mixed with pride', and on this belief she faked a telegram from Dan that would ensure Michael's return. The mother's grief is a double one: for her dead husband, but also for the absent son, the other 'dear departed' of this title, and added to her grief is her guilt over the betrayal she subsequently feels she has committed:
I wrote out that cable never thinking, thinking only of me, of Michael, a child I wanted to see again, cold to my husband, cold to his paralyzed face, writing down what he could no longer stop me writing, taking from him the only thing he had left, his pride, his right to hate.
This is not an exile story in the sense that it juxtaposes one world against another in any specific scenes or situations, but rather in the sense that exile has divided a family against itself. Michael had attempted over the years to reconcile himself with his father, but one foresees in this story only the kind of delayed forgiveness that Fergus convinces himself he receives during the visitation of his dead parents. Throughout Moore's fiction, generational conflicts constitute a recurring theme, and frequently in novels like The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Fergus, and The Doctor's Wife, the accumulating levels of such conflicts suggest that not only households, but entire societies turn this kind of hatred in on themselves.
Moore's strongest short story, 'Uncle T', grows out of a situation similar to that which informed 'Grieve for the Dear Departed'. Here both Turlough Carnahan and his nephew, Vincent Bishop, are in exile in the United States and Canada respectively, and in both cases their anticlericalism and generally rebellious nature had caused their fathers to repudiate them. Strangers to each other until they meet now in New York, they nevertheless had formed mutually positive impressions of each other, and a belief in their likeness, through a three year exchange of letters. 'I have long thought that you—a rebel, a wanderer and a lover of literature—must be very much like me when I was your age', Uncle T had written, and it is this bond, along with the possibility of working in his publishing firm, that Vincent had exploited to convince his new Canadian bride to accompany him to New York.
Barbara immediately detects and articulates truths about Uncle T's phoney character that Vincent is not willing to acknowledge, and as the evening drags on, both Irish husbands increasingly find themselves on the defensive against the realities about their situations relentlessly being revealed by their North American wives. 'I know you', Bernadette scolds Turlough as he makes one last desperate attempt to salvage the evening, 'it's your own fault, it's an old story, making yourself out to be something you never were'. Barbara and Bernadette are obviously more in touch with reality than their husbands are, but though they have logic and experience on their side, their attitudes nevertheless seem selfish and uncharitable. Vincent makes a response to his uncle at the end that his own father was unwilling to make to him, and perhaps because Turlough is such a loser, Moore convinces us that he deserves this acknowledgement. Vincent is clearly more like his uncle than he was prepared to admit at the outset, and for that reason his sudden glimpse of him from the taxi is a deeply troubling one:
There, half-drunk on the pavement, stood a fat old man with dyed hair. Where was the boy who once wrote poems, the young iconoclast who once spoke out against the priests? What had done this to him? Was it drink, or exile, or this marriage to a woman twenty years his junior? Or had that boy never been?
The power of this scene derives from our realization that the questions Vincent meditates on might well one day be asked about himself, as foreshadowed by his dismissing Barbara and his joining his uncle in 'one for the road'. The story does not unequivocally lead to this conclusion, for Vincent and Barbara seem better equipped for life in the New World than Turlough and Bernadette: that a final resolution is left in abeyance is one measure of the skill and honesty with which Moore handles the realities of exile, a talent that becomes increasingly visible in his three main novels of exile set in the New World.
Turlough Carnahan's importance in Moore's vision of the New World at this time is suggested by the fact that the title figure of The Luck of Ginger Coffey is at the outset of that novel very much like him: James Francis Coffey, too, is a loser and an inveterate bluffer about the reality of his own personal situation. But Moore catches Ginger early enough (though in his crucial fortieth year) that he can make moves to offset the fact that his luck has just about run out, provided he is willing 'to abandon the facts of his life for the facts of the world'. His exile in the New World, deliberately chosen as an alternative to the dead ends of his existence in Dublin and Cork, provides him with the opportunity to do this, though it is not an easy process for him, and his basic mediocrity makes any spectacular improvement in his fortunes unlikely. For Carnahan, it is pathetically too late, and like James Madden of Judith Hearne, he appears doomed to fade into insignificance through alcoholism and bitterness; exile for him simply provided the opportunity to perpetuate his delusions in a world where he is virtually anonymous and where, without the talent and drive of a Brendan Tierney, he will very quickly go under.
In his carefully preserved image of a Dublin squire, Ginger walks blindly into this kind of situation on that first working day of a new year when he sets out, down to his last fifteen dollars and three cents, to make his mark on Montreal. That 'there wasn't a soul in Montreal who would say "There goes a man who's out of work"', on the one hand reflects the kind of anonymity that protected Carnahan in New York, but on the other hand, it suggests that this city is prepared to honour this illusion while Ginger takes the opportunity to transform it into reality. For most of this first day, he tries to do just that, clinging to his belief in the 'rags to riches' cliché about the New World as opposed to the Old World, where, he muses, it 'was Chinese boxes, one inside the other, and whatever you started off as, you would probably end up as'. That he fails in all his attempts on that first day is due partly to his inflated opinion of himself, but also to the ingrained hostility of the officials he meets, who together constitute the entrenchment of class and privilege in Montreal. As a New Canadian, therefore, Ginger had not only to manipulate 'the facts of his life', but also to suffer the establishment's suspicions and prejudices barely disguised beneath the veneer of time-worn labels and clichés about the Irish.
It isn't until he is faced with the prospect of losing his wife and daughter that he is prepared to surrender his illusion about immediate success in the New World or his inflated image of himself. This process involves his inexorable descent from the Executive and Professional department of the Unemployment Office and from the Editorial floor of the Tribune to the subterranean proofreading room, and, as he loses Veronica and Paulie, to a basement room of the YMCA. By the time he has exchanged his Dublin squire's clothing for the 'anonymous and humiliating' delivery driver's uniform which, significantly, 'fitted him perfectly', he has attained the exile's ultimate position of isolation and anonymity, very much as Grove's Philip Branden did when he took on the lowly waiter's job in A Search for America. This point marks the beginning of Ginger's true self-awareness, and for the moment, since 'no one in the world knew where Ginger Coffey was', he is tempted to assume the ultimate state of exile: 'to retire from the struggle, live like a hermit, unknown and unloved in this faraway land', but he is too much a man of the flesh to pursue this notion seriously.
Ginger cannot remain anonymous for long, for his new identity is threatened when he is recognized by some former Dublin residents; but significantly, this recognition scene, where past reputation and present reality converge, produces an epiphany-like awareness in Ginger about his commitment to his exile: 'What did it matter? What did they matter, so long as he was not going home? And in that moment he knew that, sink or swim, Canada was home now, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, until death'. His formalizing of his commitment in the language of the marriage ceremony emphasizes the relationship between his two abiding concerns, the perserving of his family and the justifying of his exile to Canada in the first place; it also suggests that his exile represented an existential protest against the closed order of the Old World, and a belief that one can only find his true nature through an individual and pragmatic testing of experience rather than through following prescribed rules and routines.
To dramatize Ginger's commitment to his exile and at the same time his lingering doubts and uncertainties about his action, Moore exploits a number of obligatory situations where we witness Ginger moving from private rationalizing through a grotesque initiation cermony to a final legal vindication of his new status. On that first day when he was still optimistic about his chances, he enters a church, ostensibly to keep warm, but in reality to justify his anticlericalism: 'one of his secret reasons for wanting to get away to the New World was that, in Ireland, church attendance was not a matter of choice. Bloody well go, or else, tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, you were made to suffer in a worldly sense. Here, he was free …'. And yet, he recalls the thunderous sermons of Father Cogley that seemed directed specifically at him, wherein he prophesied that unbelievers and adventurers would end up 'in some hell on earth, some place of sun and rot or snow and ice that no sensible man would be seen dead in'. His rejection of the church, therefore, is not entirely a comfortable decision, and certainly not an intellectual one, but rather, in keeping with his blustering optimism of that day, an impulsive and boastful manifestation of his pride.
But the next day he hits bottom as he joins a group of misfits who constitute his proofreading companions, and it is here, in a local tavern, where he undergoes a grotesque initiation ceremony into his Canadian experience, as the drunken Fox, in a bitter parody of the exile's dream, gives his vision of Canada as seen from the bottom:
'I have to explain the facts of life to our immigrant brother. Do you want to be remembered, Paddy?… Then you must bear in mind that in this great country of ours the surest way to immortality is to have a hospital wing called after you. Or better still, a bridge. We're just a clutch of little Ozymandiases in this great land. Nobody here but us builders … Remember that in this fair city of Montreal the owner of a department store is a more important citizen than any judge of the Superior Court. Never forget that, Paddy boy. Money is the root of all good here. One nation, indivisible, under Mammon that's our heritage.'
That the judge at Ginger's trial is humane and charitable in the sentence he hands down suggests that Fox is not entirely correct in his analysis of the Canadian dream, but Ginger, already having met such petty, self-serving individuals as Beauchemin, Kahn, and MacGregor, undoubtedly has some of his worst fears confirmed by this tirade. And as his fellow proofreaders hint that Ginger's promised promotion might never materialize, he begins to have serious doubts about his exile: 'Was it for this he had traveled across half a frozen continent and the whole Atlantic Ocean? To finish up as a galley slave among the lame, the odd, the halt, the old?'
Appropriately, the court room scene where he is finally recognized and vindicated follows immediately upon his self-confession in his cell, where he firmly acknowledges that whatever has happened to him is exclusively his fault, 'not God's, not Vera's, not even Canada's'. This mea culpa stance reflects the fundamental integrity that has always resided within Ginger (as we see, for example, in the Melody Ward episode), but that was frequently compromised because, in his concern for his family, he was always too eager to see himself as someone greater than he really was. It is this same concern that the judge takes into account as he sentences Ginger: 'I am dealing with you leniently, Coffey, because I am sorry for your family. To be alone in a new country, with their breadwinner in jail, seems to me a fate which your wife and child do not deserve'. The reconciliation with Veronica that follows constitutes a logical consequence both of his moral rebirth and of his legal recognition by Canada as a person deserving a further chance, a situation that stands in sharp contrast, for example, to the deterministic resolving of Judith's and Devine's personal dilemmas in their Belfast worlds.
The 'luck' that Ginger Coffey experiences in this process of transformation and reconciliation lies, ironically, in the fact that he is able to overcome that very stereotype of the Irish that various individuals parrot of him during that first long day of job-seeking. It is the Old World that has shaped him into the Dublin squire persona we meet initially, but it is the pragmatic New World that allows him to discard that image; therefore his 'luck' resides in the fact that Executive and Professional and the Tribune's Editorial did turn him down, for from this moment on he can no longer rely on being 'at present a praiser of his own past', to borrow Stephen Dedalus's phrase about his father. From a sociological point of view, Ginger emerges as a valid representative of the post-war Irish immigrants, whom Moore described in an early interview as 'people who weren't doing very well at home … and got a terrible shock because they met a society that really wanted … work for money. And you had to know how to do something' ['Robert Fulford Interviews Brian Moore', The Tamarack Review 23, Spring, 1962]. Ginger unconsciously acknowledges that he is one of these people as he waits in a movie theatre to go through with the prearranged assignation with the call-girl—people who took on menial jobs for the sake of their families, just as he has done for Veronica and Paulie. 'Wasn't he one of them? Wasn't he a stranger here, never at home in this land where he had not grown up. Yes: he too'.
Moore quite properly emphasizes Ginger's isolation throughout this novel, for like all exiles, he is an outsider as far as both his worlds are concerned. Father Cogley's tirade against those who desert Ireland has its New World counterpart in the prejudices and hostility of those petty officials who see any immigrants as threats to their own secure world, so in both cases, Ginger has only himself to fall back on. Though he is by no means as articulate or as intellectually perceptive as Wyndham Lewis's Rene Harding, for example, he intuitively recognizes Harding's principle that 'there can be no consultation with others in a matter of conscience', and therefore he makes all his honest decisions about his fate in total isolation. He confronts in his imagination a terrifying void in these situations, for haunting him until the very end is his fear that Veronica will remain with Grosvenor, abandoning him to a lonely existence in his new land; this spectre receives tangible shape when he goes to visit the sick proofreader, old Billy Davis who, he learns, also left Ireland to seek his fortunes in the larger world:
Irish. An immigrant, same as you. A young wanderer, once travelling through this land of ice and snow, looking for the bluebird ERIN GO BRAGH. But was it really ERIN FOREVER? What trace of Erin was left on William O'Brien Davis save that harp and shamrock, that motto, faded as the old reminder that BILL LOVES MIN? Would Ginger Coffey also end his days in some room, old and used, his voice nasal and reedy, all accent gone?
Much as Vincent Bishop was disturbed by his vision of his Uncle T metamorphosed into a pathetic loser, so Ginger here is haunted by the spectacle of youthful hope betrayed, a situation obviously more frightening for the exile than for one secure in his own native land.
The progression from Ginger Coffey through Limbo to Fergus involves not only an increasing complexity in character, but also a corresponding complexity in the total settings in which the protagonists work out their dilemmas. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that because the cities in question reflect the nature and compulsions of the individuals within them, the realistically perceived Montreal gives way to the increasingly surrealistic cityscapes of New York and Los Angeles. Brendan and Fergus are not only exiles, but writers-in-exile, and their dilemmas take on layers of complexity that did not obtain for Ginger, who essentially wanted only to be able to perserve his family intact, even if that meant surviving 'in humble circs.' For him, therefore, Montreal, in contrast to Dublin, is seen as a benign world, where a flexible pragmatism will sustain him from crisis to crisis, and where in a pinch he could always follow Wilson to Blind River. No such easy solutions or alternatives appear to be available for either Brendan or Fergus, whose artistic compulsions keep them in a kind of bondage to forces that recognized and encouraged them in the first place, and the abandoning of which in effect would amount to the abandoning of their careers as novelists. 'How easy it was to rationalize that first taste of corruption', Fergus recalls, as he rues his involvement with Boweri and Redshields, and it is a similar moral dilemma that keeps on troubling Brendan as well, beside which Ginger's survival problems seem quite minor and relatively easy to solve.
In An Answer from Limbo, the Old World and the New World meet most dramatically in the scene surrounding Brendan's meeting his mother at the airport, a scene that both literally and symbolically fulfills one of Moore's concerns while writing this novel: 'to put Irish Catholicism against the rootless wasteland of North America'. That these two worlds are fundamentally incompatible we have already surmised from our initial glimpses of Brendan and Mrs. Tierney in their separate worlds, and it is reinforced by the reservations of Ted Ormsby who, among other roles, acts out the remnants of Brendan's conscience back in Belfast: 'He was conscious … of the dangers to this woman in rejoining a son whose world and whose ways were so opposed to her own.' That they barely recognize each other at the airport after seven years apart clearly anticipates the gulf between them that grows wider as time goes on, for Brendan has, in spite of some lingering reservations, totally committed himself to his exile in the New World:
Did I come to America because of my need to write, my need of Jane, or simply my old need to run? I do not know. But this morning, as I got off the bus at the airport … I knew that it is this world I care about, this world of moving staircases, electric eyes, efficient loudspeakers. Exile now means exile from this. My island is no longer home.
And, ironically, his earlier boast that he had escaped 'the provincial mediocrity' of his native land means he has abandoned, too, the values represented by his mother, whose 'lostness' as she enters the airport terminal is only the outward manifestation of how out of place she is in the New World.
But Brendan cannot entirely exorcise the forces of the Old World, any more than Ginger or Fergus can, for the paradox they all face is that it is these forces that have both shaped them and driven them into exile in the first place, and they all find themselves, to reverse the familiar epigram, between two worlds, one very much alive and the other powerless to die. 'Limbo is the modern condition: a place, neither heaven nor hell, a place of oblivion', Moore said in his working notes for this novel. But Brendan's isolation is not only cosmic, for his ambition and selfishness have made it a very human situation as well, as reflected in his inability to understand either Jane or his mother. By the end of Limbo, Brendan has fulfilled his primary reason for going into exile in the first place, for he has become a reasonably successful novelist, but in his personal relationships it has been a costly victory. Earlier we saw him asking himself about his real reason for exile, whether it was to pursue his ambitions to be a writer, or to pursue Jane, or simply to run away (reflecting Moore's own contention that it is frequently for mundane, rather than artistic, reasons that a writer goes into exile), but the course he consistently followed in the New World leaves no doubt about the priority of that first reason.
Where Ginger Coffey failed in his anticipated career, but succeeded in saving his family, the reverse holds true for Brendan and this, suggests Moore, is one of the penalties that some exiles are compelled to pay. An Answer from Limbo makes the point, too, that such a resolution does not elevate the exiled protagonist in any moral sense, but simply and unmistakably reminds him that the initial decision to go into exile produces all kinds of personal consequences that must at times seem to outweigh any artistic or professional advantages gained. Quite early in this novel, but after he has made his irreversible decision about the centrality of his novel, Brendan sincerely tries to resolve the human cost of what he is to do, in his poignant apostrophe to his dead father: 'I know only that if I were granted the wish to bring back to this world for one hour any human being I have known or read of, I would put in the call tonight for my father…. I wanted to prove to him that he was wrong, that I, of all his children, will do him honour. O, Father, forgive me as I forgive you. Father, I am your son'.
This lament between father and son, as we have seen, constitutes a recurring note in Moore's exile fiction, but it is particularly important in Fergus, where it is Fergus's father who makes the first and the last of the visitations from the dead to break in upon his lonely existence on the Pacific. It isn't only geographically that Fergus is isolated, for he also feels vulnerable in a number of crucial personal relationships: with his youthful mistress, whom he is afraid of losing, with his Hollywood producers, threatening to cut him off if he won't change his novel to their liking, with his former wife, bleeding him for alimony and child support. In short, he is at that impasse where nothing in his present life is working out, and thus he wills into his consciousness all those forces of his past life that at one time had significance for him. When that long ordeal is over, he has achieved some victories, painful though some of them are, and he is able to dismiss the ghosts of the past as dawn breaks over the New World. Just before he had seen his father for the first time, he had stood looking over the Pacific, hearing the breakers pounding on the shore, and as his father leaves at the end, he becomes conscious of this recurring beat again. Thus, his earlier recollection of the refrain from Xenophon, 'Thalassa, Thalassa, the loud resounding sea, our great mother, Thalassa', takes on a new significance, giving Fergus a kind of cosmic comfort, for like the Greek exiles who long ago sang the lament, he too, acquires both sadness and sustenance from beholding the sea in a world so far from his homeland.
Fergus on one level depicts Moore's ongoing fascination with communications of various sorts—fake telegrams ('Grieve for the Dear Departed'), unmade telephone calls (Limbo) delayed letters (The Doctor's Wife)—but in its unusual and unique way of showing how Fergus Fadden receives his messages from home, this novel dramatically personifies what the real cost of exile is. As a committed novelist, Fergus has to find out whether he, like Brendan Tierney, can get his revenge on the past 'by transforming it into a world of words', but his succession of visitors, from beyond the grave as well as from his immediate world, makes it impossible for him to find an easy or certain answer. He is misunderstood as an individual, harangued for his morals, berated for his selfishness, attitudes of the Old World that have been levelled not only against such deliberate exiles as Ginger and Brendan, but against such accidental ones as Sheila Redden in The Doctor's Wife or such imminent ones as Gavin Burke in The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Reinforcing the doubts that all these familiar charges resurrect are the threats emanating from his present California world, ranging from the impulsive petulance of his mistress, Dani, to the deliberate and obscene ultimatums coming from the Hollywood producers, Redshields and Boweri. In his past world Fergus did have a presence and a reality, even though he has tried to transform them, but in his present world, he is everyday aware of his insignificance. 'I could live here for a year and leave no mark on anything', he realizes. 'My presence would count for nothing'.
Fergus tries on one occasion to explain to his angry visitors why he has changed, but his explanation also underscores the kind of penalties one incurs in choosing a life of exile:
Let me try to explain? Most people live their lives in one place, and they meet, essentially, the same people, year after year. But I've lived in Ireland, worked as a newspaperman in England and France, came to Amerca and worked on Long Island, then in New York, and now I'm here on the Pacific, I'm trying to say I've lived in so many places, it's impossible to remember….
Here Fergus and Elaine, respectively an exile to the New World and a girl born in the New World, stand alone against the fury of the mob, simply for the reason that Fergus in his selfishness had forgotten her name and forgotten an earlier role he had played in her life. The Old World's unforgivingness and lack of charity, personified in Father Allen's hostile diatribes, unmistakably constitute a justification for Fergus's exile in the first place, but one can also understand, by the mob's accumulated fury, why it is that Fergus was not easily free of that legacy.
But Moore is not simplistic about the relative virtues or moralities of the Old and New Worlds in this novel. That California produces such monstrous figures as Boweri and Redshields, and such pathetic manipulators as Dani's mother, Dusty, helps make us uneasy about Fergus's future. For the moment, however, he has achieved a limited personal and moral victory: Dani has returned to him, he has refused to compromise his artistic convictions, and he has in effect cut off all further communication with all those, whether dead or living, who have tried to transform his life and his art. That it is a new dawn, too, rather than continuing darkness, that greets him as 'he walked toward the house' suggests his victory, though our final view of Fergus also spells out the kind of cosmic isolation that his exile has produced.
In neither of these three North American novels does Moore impose a facile solution upon the dilemmas of his protagonists, and Brendan's agonizing questions at his mother's funeral—'Am I still my mother's son, my wife's husband, the father of my children? Or am I a stranger, strange even to myself?'—apply with very little modification to Ginger and Fergus as well. Brendan's epiphany is not unlike the observation made by Moore about the lost generation expatriates, that when they returned to America, they experienced 'a terrifying realisation that the country of their boyhood is lost forever', [Brian Moore, 'The Crazy Boatloads', Spectator, 29 September 1961]. Doubts, fears, uncertainties—these are the emotions experienced by Moore's exiles in the New World, but at the same time they achieve an existential or experiential resolution of their dilemma that was not possible for such Old World protagonists as Judith or Devine. For Moore's New World exiles, the process of self-discovery and self-realization is a serious and somewhat frightening experience, with only Ginger reflecting occasionally the kind of rhapsodic acceptance of this world that attended such earlier exiles as Grove's Philip Branden or Lowry's Sigbjørn Wilderness. Unlike those writers, Moore is largely an urban novelist, and thus there is little evidence in his works of the notion of the New World as paradise, an idea that is tied largely to Canada's wilderness and rural aspects. For him such cities as Montreal, New York, and Los Angeles may provide opportunities that are unrealizable in Belfast or Dublin, but they are by no means free of corruption, favouritism, and hypocrisy, even though the determinism that exists in these New World cities is less pervasive and less inflexible than it is in the Old World.
With The Doctor's Wife Moore approaches the situation of exile in a different way, but presents a moral resolution that is quite as disturbing as Brendan's in An Answer from Limbo. Unlike him and the other New World protagonists, Sheila is only an accidental exile: her journey to France, on what was to be a second honeymoon, is merely part of a process of renewing and consolidating her normal existence as Mrs. Redden—that is, as the doctor's wife. Her transformation from permanent Belfast resident to homeless exile is sudden and frightening and, given the artistic shaping of this novel, totally inevitable. Sheila does what Judith and Devine should have done, and what Gavin Burke seems on the point of doing, but those two early protagonists had no external forces to compel them into action, as Sheila and Gavin did. But it isn't only the German bombings or the Irish troubles that operate in these latter cases—'you can't blame the Troubles for everything', Sheila argues—but clearly the forces of history coincide here with psychological crises to provide the atmosphere necessary for escape.
Sheila's decision to abandon home and family is precipitated both by the past—her recollections of her life as a student and of those lost opportunities, and by the present—the freedom that Paris offers, and her brief but intense sexual experience with Tom. But Tom's offer of a new life in America is no more a solution for her than is the medical and marital advice offered by her brother and her husband, and it is significant that she gives up all three men who are trying to regulate her life. In a very literal sense she has chosen the 'exile, silence, and cunning' stratagem of Stephen Dedalus, but she has applied it to a situation that is intensely personal and perhaps even selfish, compared to the larger spiritual, intellectual, and cultural problem that Joyce's protagonist was trying to solve. Exile is a selfish action, Moore seems to be suggesting, but it is also a painful one, and Sheila emerges as one of his strongest dramatizations of that fact. Socially she may find herself no father ahead at the end than was Judith or Devine, but psychologically she is far beyond them, and if nothing else, her act of falling in love with Tom compelled her to realize that she had to try to change what had become for her a futile and empty life. 'How did I get so bogged down in ordinariness that even this once I couldn't do the spontaneous thing, the thing I really wanted to do', she asks herself, as she leaves Tom to fly to Villefranche, and then anticipates the existential resolution she inevitably has to accept: 'The future is forbidden to no one. Unless we forbid it to ourselves'.
Her subsequent affair with Tom Lowry is the immediate, precipitating force that compels her to cut herself off from her Belfast home and family, but had her sexual satisfaction with him been the major factor, she would have found it an easy matter to accompany him to Vermont. Her exile has a much more profound and complex derivation, and in effect has been on hold ever since she was a youthful student in Paris. Her defining of herself to Tom by telling him of the past—'the excitement of coming from Belfast and Dublin to her first great foreign city'—is juxtaposed against what she has become since that time—'all that laundry list of events that had been her life since she married Kevin'. It is therefore appropriate that the break from that life be dramatized in precisely the same location—Room 450 of the Hotel Welcome at Villefranche—where her first honeymoon had initiated that life, and in this situation, her frenzied and joyous sexual aggressiveness with Tom is in part a response to the ordinariness that has characterized her sixteen years of marriage to Dr. Redden. Not that she understands completely what she is doing—her brother Owen is quite right when he concludes that 'that restless side of her was something that perhaps she didn't understand too well herself'—but as she explains to Peg, she is aware of a change in herself that all the old explanations will not satisfy:
'We put up with our lives, we don't try to change them. I didn't realize it, until I fell in love. What I'm doing now is supposed to be selfish. It's what people used to call sinful. But I'm happy, in a way I never was before. Is that a sin?'
Like Brendan Tierney, Sheila has learned, at painful cost to herself and those around her, something about the ultimate meaning of exile: virtual severance from the human community. Rejecting her husband, her lover, and her brother, all of woman have offered different solutions, she accepts her isolation at the end, 'and walked off down the street like an ordinary woman on her way to the corner to buy cigarettes', thus preparing to survive on her own terms in the anonymity of London. For Sheila, as for Moore's New World protagonists, exile clearly involves a combination of what we saw at the beginning with Ovid and Skvorecky: it is both punishment and liberation. All of Moore's exiles, as opposed to his protagonists who remain prisoners of Belfast's deterministic forces, seem to be able to say with Ginger Coffey that 'a man's life was nobody's fault but his own', and act decisively on that conviction, a realization that undoubtedly Moore himself came to long ago as he set out on his own life of exile. From his viewpoint of the writer as exile, he sees whatever society he is for the moment concerned with as an integral world with its own legitimate and demanding reality, which must be re-created through the exiled writer's particular artistic and philosophical vision.
SOURCE: "Black Robe: Brian Moore's Appropriation of History," in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XXV, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 40-55.
[Flood is an educator and critic. In the following essay on Black Robe, she criticizes Moore for misrepresenting Canadian Indians and the French Jesuit priests who attempted to "save" them. Flood also contends that Moore's strict reliance on the Jesuits' historical first-hand accounts both prevented him from fully utilizing his skills as a novelist and betrays his "oedipal" intentions to mock the Catholic Church.]
Brian Moore's fifteenth novel, Black Robe, begins with a prefatory note. In it Moore gives as the genesis of his novel his reading of Graham Greene's essay on the American historian, Francis Parkman. Greene led Moore to Parkman's The Jesuits in North America, and Parkman led him to the Jesuit Relations, on which Parkman based his history. This was not the end of Moore's preparation for writing Black Robe, for he read "the works of anthropologists and historians who have established many facts about Indian behavior not known to the early Jesuits" and he consulted with various authorities whose names and academic affiliations he lists. Further, he visited Indian archives in Canada and also Huron Village, a reconstruction of a seventeenth century Huron settlement and Jesuit mission in Midland, Ontario. Moore is clearly anxious to establish a factual basis for his novel. This is a sound instinct, for Black Robe evokes protest. Two of its attributes are particularly disturbing: its lavish use of obscene language and the crude brutality of many of its scenes. Moore's preface, it seems to me, intends to justify these elements in the book. However, if we accept Moore's invitation to consider his book against its sources, we do not find justification for what he has done in the novel, but some very serious questions.
Moore begins his preface by quoting a passage from Parkman which appears in Greene's essay. It concerns Noel Chabanel, a Jesuit who hated his life among the Indians in Canada, but responded to a temptation to return to France by vowing to remain in Canada until he died. "A solemn vow," Moore intones in italics. "A voice speaks to us directly from the seventeenth century, the voice of a conscience that I fear, we no longer possess." Moore's comment suggests his belief that moral certainty based on Christian faith is a historical relic, if an admirable one. This idea is reinforced by Moore's treatment of another historical relic, the belief of the Indians. He points out that Native Americans, too, had a religion and a moral code based upon it: "They were warlike; they practiced ritual cannibalism and, for reasons of religion, subjected their enemies to prolonged and unbearable tortures." His novel, he says, is an attempt to show how their conflicting beliefs and codes elicited from Jesuit and Indian alike "fear, hostility, and despair, which later would result in the destruction and abandonment of the Jesuit missions, and the conquest of the Huron people by the Iroquois, their deadly enemy."…
[This] preface not only attempt[s] to validate the realism of Moore's work, but to sugest as well that it is informed by a religious consciousness. Surely ascribing to Greene a kind of sponsorship of Black Robe suggests that Moore wants his readers to see his book as a religious novel—indeed, as a Catholic novel. But Moore is not writing in the tradition of Greene. As presented by Moore in Black Robe, Catholicism has nothing to do with religious belief or with human action informed by religious belief, which has often been Greene's subject. Catholicism in Moore is a system of instinctual repression, most perfectly expressed in the celibacy of the priesthood. The animistic belief of Moore's Indians has no more to do with a religion capable of informing human actions than does the Roman Catholicism of his Jesuit. In the novel, Indian religion is the exact antithesis of Catholicism. It is a system of instinctual gratification most fully expressed in the gross feeding of the Indian band. In Black Robe, contrary to the claim in his preface, Moore is writing neither about Jesuits nor about Native Americans. His concern is with power and submission, desire and fear, the ancient impasse between father and son. The most interesting aspect of the book is its insistence on the historical authenticity of the story it tells and its furious attack on the main source of knowledge and information on which that claim is based. The real energy in Moore's book is devoted to the degradation of the Jesuit Relations.
The protagonists or Black Robe are Paul Laforgue, a Jesuit priest, and his lay companion Daniel Davost. Most of the book, all but forty-one of its two-hundred-forty-six pages, is an account of the westward journey of the two from Quebec to a Jesuit mission at Ihonitaria in the territory of the Huron Indians. The two Frenchmen travel with a party of twenty-six Algonquin Indians who have been paid to guide them to their destination. Among the Algonquins is the passionate maiden Annuka, the object of Davost's enthusiastic lust and Laforgue's guilty desire. It is not overstating the case to say that Moore's account of the journey derives entirely from the Jesuit Relations. The only element in the action of Black Robe for which no source appears in the Relations is the lurid love triangle.
Not only do Moore's Jesuit sources supply most of the detail and incident of Black Robe, they also provide the authority for the most notable quality of the novel's language—its tedious scurrility. A footnote in Moore's preface attempts to justify this quality of the language:
As for the obscene language used by natives at that time it was a form of rough banter and was not intended to give offense. I am aware that I have taken a novelist's license in the question of Algonkian understanding of Iroquoian speech.
The note, like the preface as a whole, is clearly intended to establish the factual basis of Moore's novel. Moore admits to a license that permits the depiction of mutual linguistic understanding between Indian tribes whose difference is defined by language. Leaving aside the possibility that such a course is less an indication of the novelist's creative freedom than of a failure of invention, we should note that Moore makes no apology for the way in which he represents Indian language; rather, he justifies the method he has devised for doing so: the unrelenting repetition of the four-letter words that comprise the working obscene vocabulary of modern English-speakers.
As we have noted, Moore uses the footnote on language in the preface to justify this particular strategy. If we accept his invitation to check his novel against its sources, however, we do not come away with an impression of Moore's historical accuracy, but rather with a sense of his inability to create a style worthy of the languages described by those who heard and studied them in the seventeenth century. In fact, Parkman does note the use of obscene language by the Indians. Parkman's authority is Father Paul Le Jeune's account in the Jesuit Relation of 1634 of the habits and customs of the Montagnais tribe with whom he had passed the winter of 1633–34. Le Jeune does comment on certain qualities of Indian speech. "I do not believe that there is a nation under heaven more given to sneering and bantering than that of the Montagnais," he notes. The savages "are slanderous beyond all belief," speaking ill even of their close relatives. Le Jeune accounts for this behavior:
The reason of this is, it seems to me, that their slanders and derision do not come from malicious hearts or from infected mouths, but from a mind which says what it thinks in order to give itself free scope, and which seeks gratification from everything, even from slander and mockery.
Though Le Jeune first remarks on the Indian use of insult, he goes on to write about obscenity in Indian speech.
In place of saying, as we do very often, through wonder, "Jesus! what is that? My God! Who has done that?" these vile and infamous people pronounce the names of the private parts of man and woman. Their lips are constantly foul with these obscenities; and it is the same with the little children. So I said to them, at one time, that if hogs and dogs knew how to talk, they would adopt their language.
This passage constitutes the ultimate justification for the use of obscene language in Moore's novel. We may take it as certain, on the authority of Le Jeune, that native Americans in the seventeenth century did not express themselves with the restraint acceptable to a French Jesuit. But we can also take it as certain on the same authority that the impoverished argot assigned to the Indian characters in Black Robe is not a reasonable representation of Indian speech. The Jesuits were fascinated by Indian languages; their accounts of their efforts to learn them offer many possible strategies for the creation of a style that might suggest Indian speech.
Descriptions of Indian language abound in the Jesuit Relations. Le Jeune in the Relation of 1633 notes that the Montagnais language "is very poor and very rich," poor in having no names "for thousands of things which are in Europe," rich "because in the things of which they have a knowledge, it is fertile and plentiful." In the Relation of 1634, he greatly expands this insight. Here Le Jeune takes an interest not so much in the deficiencies of the language as in the richness with which, he says, it is "fairly gorged." He notes "an infinite number of proper nouns" that can be explained only by circumlocutions in French. He finds a dazzling complexity and precision in verb forms and a similar amplitude in adjectival usage. Le Jeune is bewildered and frustrated by this richness:
… I am almost led to believe that I shall remain poor all my life in their language. When you know all the parts of Speech of the languages of our Europe, and know how to combine them, you know the languages; but it is not so concerning the tongue of our Savages. Stock your memory with all the words that stand for each particular thing, learn the knot or Syntax that joins them together, and you are still only an ignoramus….
Jean de Brebeuf in the Relation for 1635 remarks on the abundance in the language of the Hurons, writing that he will have to study for a long time with the savages "so prolific is their language." In 1636 he writes that "the key to the secret" of Huron language is its great variety and specificity of nouns, which he calls "compound words," and which in French would be expressed not as a noun, but as an adjective and a noun. Brebeuf notes further that Hurons cannot use a noun expressing a personal relationship without qualifying that relationship. For example, Hurons could not say "father," but had to say "my father, your father, his father."
The Jesuit Relations present Indian languages as rich, various, and precise. Their descriptions of the languages offer obvious strategies for representing seventeenth century Native American speech. Moore chooses to ignore all of these possibilities in Black Robe. Only the obscenity of Indian speech interests him. In the Relation for 1633, Le Jeune remarked that the authority of a Montagnais chief is based upon his skill as an orator:
There is no place in the world where Rhetoric is more powerful than in Canada, and nevertheless, it has no other grab than what nature has given it; it is entirely simple and without disguise; and yet it controls all these tribes, as the Captain is elected for his eloquence alone, and is obeyed in proportion to his use of it, for they have no other law than his word.
This is the way in which Moore presents an Algonquin chief deliberating with his people on the proper course of action in a difficult situation. In pursuit of Annuka, Daniel Davost has left Laforgue, whom the Indians call "Nicanis," to join the Indians. The Indians must decide what to do with Davost.
"That is shit," Neehatin said, and laughed to show he was not angry. "Look, you assholes, let's not have any bad words now. We have reached the hunting place. We're safe. We have meat to eat tonight. I'm going to send that boy back to Nicanis. I'll tell him that unless he leaves tomorrow, he'll get a present from me: a hatchet in his skull."
Le Jeune and Brebeuf painfully learned complex and elaborately nuanced Indian languages. We have Le Jeune's testimony that the speakers of Algonquin were given to obscene raillery and insult, but we also have his testimony on the eloquence of their language. Moore takes from the Jesuit Relations permission to write obscenity, but not permission to invent a style that could represent a language such as Le Jeune and Brebeuf described.
As I have noted, the Jesuit Relations contribute a great deal more to Black Robe than certification for the scatalogical excess to which its Indian characters are addicted. Moore depends heavily on Le Jeune's narrative of 1634 as a source for the experiences of Laforgue and Davost during their journey to Ihonitaria. Le Jeune wrote at great length about the social customs, religious beliefs, domestic habits, and daily routine of the Montagnais with whom he lived as they moved through the forest all winter in pursuit of game. Moore makes extensive use of this information. He describes the repellent eating habits of Laforgue's Algonquins: "The Savages ate gluttonously from the kettles, stopping from time to time to wipe their greasy fingers on their hair or on the coats of their dogs, which ran barking around the fires in search of discarded scraps." Le Jeune is the source: "As to them, they wipe their hands upon their hair, which they allow to grow very long, or else, upon their dogs." Moore presents a meal in the Algonquin camp after a successful hunt:
Then, as the first pieces of half-cooked meat were taken from a pot, Neehatin rose, cut a slice from a haunch of deer, and came to Laforgue holding it on his knife. "Here, Nicanis," he said. "Eat this. Now you will truly eat."
This was the Savage phrase of hospitality. Laforgue took the greasy meat in his hands. Hair and skin still adhered to it. "Now I will truly eat," he said and, conquering his nausea, bit into the half-cooked flesh.
Le Jeune supplies justification for every detail of this description. He writes that after a meal, the bark plates of the Indians are "covered with grease, the fur of the Moose, and hair." Le Jeune says of the serving of the food at an Indian meal that "one of them takes down the kettle from the fire and distributes to each one his share; sometimes presenting the meat at the end of a stick." He writes that the phrase for expressing one's pleasure in food is "tapoué nimitison, 'I am really eating.'" In the Relation for 1633 he notes that meat is taken out of the cooking kettles when it is only half- cooked.
Laforgue has many of the experiences and makes many of the observations that Le Jeune did, and Le Jeune's thoughts also turn up as those of Moore's Father Bourque, Laforgue's immediate religious superior and an authority on native Americans, having spent a winter living with them. Laforgue interprets Indian behavior on the authority of Father Bourque:
Laforgue looked at the tall girl, who was picking fleas from her mother's hair and eating them. The Savages ate these insects not from appetite but as a revenge against the fleas for having been bitten by them. That was what Father Bourque had told him. He said it was part of their feelings toward their enemies. An enemy must be shown no mercy. He must be crushed.
Here is Le Jeune:
I have shown in my former letters how vindictive the Savages are toward their enemies, with what fury and cruelty they treat them, eating them after they have made them suffer all that an incarnate fiend could invent…. I have said that they eat the lice they find upon themselves, not that they like the taste of them, but because they want to bite those that bite them.
These instances typify the closeness of the correspondence between Black Robe and the Jesuit Relations. The degree of that closeness can hardly be exaggerated. On the basis of Le Jeune's experience, the Algonquin Neehatin offers Laforgue warm and dry mittens, and advises him that Indian hunters will not take care of those who cannot withstand the rigors of the winter. On the basis of Jean de Brebeuf's report that the Hurons of Ihonitaria were fascinated by a chiming clock which they thought to be animated by a spirit, Moore's savages gather to admire the clock in the Jesuit house in Quebec. Le Jeune's Montagnais built a winter camp, a process which he described. When Moore's Laforgue travels with the Algonquins, they build a winter camp, and in doing so they exactly follow the sequence of actions presented by Le Jeune. Le Jeune writes that the Indians of Quebec thought that the first European ships which they saw were floating islands, and that the wine and biscuits which the Europeans offered them were blood and wood. Thinking of Indian duplicity, Moore's Davost reflects that the first Indians to see a European ship at Quebec thought it was a floating island, and that Europeans "drank blood and ate dry bones." In Black Robe, Moore presents a speech in which Champlain commends Laforgue to the Algonquins. Its language and its concepts echo the speech Le Jeune reports, in the Jesuit Relations, that Champlain made to the Hurons in 1633 when the Jesuits Jean de Brebeuf, Antoine Daniel, and Ambroise Davost were vainly attempting to go with them to the Huron country.
The scenes of brutality and sadism in Black Robe also derive from the Jesuit Relations, usually with the addition of the obscene language that so fascinates Moore. A case in point is the account of the torture of Laforgue and Davost by Iroquois children. The two Frenchmen, Annuka, and her family have been captured. After various vile deeds are perpetrated against the prisoners, the Iroquois turn the survivors over to the children, who command them to dance and sing while naked.
"Sing," cried one child.
They began the Ave Maria.
"Be quiet," cried a second child.
They stopped singing. The first child, the one who had ordered them to sing, at once went to the fire and, picking up a burning brand, held it close to Daniel's penis. "I told you to sing," the child yelled.
Daniel began to sing.
"Stop!" cried the second child, approaching, also waving a burning brand.
The source of this scene is Joseph Bressani's account of his torture by the Iroquois. Traveling with a party of Hurons and a young Frenchman to the Huron country, the Italian Jesuit was captured in 1644. When the torture began, Bressani and his fellow prisoners were stripped, beaten, and burned. They were also placed at the mercy of everyone in the tribe.
It was necessary to obey the very children, and that in things little reasonable, and often contrary. "Get up and sing" said one. "Be quiet," said the other; and if I obeyed one, the other illused me. "Here, give thy hand, which I will burn for thee;" and the other burned me because I did not extend it to him.
Bressani's statement about the actions of the children is embedded in his report of what he suffered from the young Iroquois warriors, who tore out his beard and tortured him with fire. In Bressani, the target of the assault by fire is the hands. In Moore, as we have seen, Iroquois children assault the penis. However, even this is not quite a pure invention, for we can find a sort of authority in Bressani, who wrote that some of his tortures, though not by children, involved sexual abuse: "Six or seven nights they tormented me in such fashion, and in such places, that I could not describe these things, nor could they be read, without blushing." Moore closes his scene with a little girl, whose command over obscenity is every bit as good as that of her elders, pulling hard on the unfortunate Laforgue's beard.
Every detail in the scene of torture by children comes out of the Jesuit Relations; only in the arrangement of the details does Moore make use of his "novelist's license." To a reader who might find the language and action of this scene lurid to the point of incredibility, the Jesuit Relations supply a defense. Such actions as this actually happened and were reported by those who suffered them. Moore imports the authority for what he has written from his sources; the novel does not generate its own authority. For this reason, there is a persistent hollowness in Black Robe, an emotional flatness, a lack of conviction. These qualities make the scene we have just considered, but they are everywhere in the novel. Here is a description of Laforgue's consciousness after the Iroquois have cut off the joint of one of his fingers and thrown it in the cooking pot which contains the body of Annuka's brother:
In excruciating pain, Laforgue fell to his knees and then, in a scene so terrible that it surpassed horror or pity or forgiveness or rage, he saw three older women take from the cooking kettle the limbs of the dead child and pass them, parboiled, to the warriors who had captured Chomina's party.
This is rhetorical excess in the absence of any genuine imagining. The single crude detail "parboiled" syntactically misplaced, does not convey credible realism, but the straining toward some emotion that the passage, indeed, the novel as a whole cannot support.
The preface of Black Robe exists to dissociate the novel's crude excess from the author and to assign ultimate responsibility for it to history as the seventeenth-century Jesuits reported it. This claim is the reason for the novel's existence, as well as the reason for its failure. Black Robe is not, as the preface suggests, a nostalgic homage to Jesuits dead three hundred years and to moral commitment based on religious conviction. Nor does it fulfill its second claim: to present an understanding of the Indian ethos that was beyond the Jesuits and, thus, to convey a truer version of the story they told. The real energy of Black Robe is directed, as I have tried to demonstrate, toward the subversion of the Jesuit Relations. However, the masking of this destructive energy in a realism that claims to represent historical actuality, rather than discrediting the Jesuit Relations, issues in the strange inauthenticity of Black Robe itself.
The obscene language of Black Robe illustrates this dynamic. The historical fact that Le Jeune expressed shock at Montagnais obscenity becomes Moore's obligation and opportunity to write obscenity. But he does not stand behind these words. Rather, they are presented as a necessity imposed upon him by the desire to create a style faithful to history as certified by the Jesuits. Where the novelist should be is Le Jeune's Relation. The obscenity of Black Robe—first a shock, then an irritation, finally an embarrassment—fails to create the illusion of realism. If the dis-believing reader accepts the invitation implicitly extended in the preface to check the novel against its sources on the issue of language, he finds both historical authority for the strategy Moore adopted and a sense of how seriously that strategy misrepresents what the sources have to say. In the end, the obscenity of Black Robe seems perverse naughtiness—neither a valid representation of historical reality nor an expression of the novelist's creative freedom.
Subversive, too, is the appropriation of what the writings of Le Jeune and Bressani report for the experiences and reflections of Paul Laforgue. Their narratives show Le Jeune and Bressani to have been physically courageous men, strong in body and spirit. They were resourceful, capable of great endurance, deeply centered in their religious belief. Although in the novel Laforgue bears the Indian name "Nicanis" associated with Le Jeune in the Relations, he lacks any qualities that suggest basic adult competence, let alone the cheerful common sense and fortitude that distinguish Le Jeune in his appearances in the Relations. Indeed, Laforgue lacks physical and emotional power to a remarkable degree: pitifully weak and inept in body, he displays the emotions of a cowardly child. His spiritual life, so long as he is a believer, consists of compulsive worry about the technicalities of penitential and baptismal ritual, while his intellectual life seems vacuous. Typical of Laforgue's inadequacy is an incident in which he gets lost in the forest. When he is rescued, he embraces one of the Indians and begins to cry. The quality of his reflections on this event, as well as his tears, typify his astonishing childishness: "I might have died here, alone in this wilderness. I did not welcome death as a holy person should. I was afraid." So much for the renowned spiritual discipline of the Jesuits.
As we have noted, very few scenes in Black Robe cannot be traced to the Jesuit Relations. The most important of these invented scenes present Laforgue in blind panic as he witnesses sexual encounters between Davost and Annuka, which he does on several occasions since he is given to voyeurism. In the first incident, wildly excited as he thinks of Annuka giving to him "the same delight she had just given to the boy," Laforgue masturbates. Horrified at himself, he runs into the woods: "He stood sobbing in that wild place, bereft of all hope, beyond all forgiveness." Then he scourges himself until "his flayed back was purpled as the sky above." The next night, although the priest has recalled this scene and cried even as he again became sexually excited, he goes into the woods to spy on the lovers, but leaves deciding that he is "no longer fit to be a priest." In the third repetition of the voyeur-lovers scene, Laforgue, again in tears interrupts the passionate pair in medias res and then kneels down and begins to pray aloud. The ensuing display of contempt and anger by the young lovers is one of the more convincing moments of the novel.
In the lengthy journey section of Black Robe, Laforgue is a pathetic coward, a voyeur, and a hysteric. In the second part of the novel, he is without religious belief. This condition comes upon him quite suddenly. It has nothing to do with his sexual guilt, which never comes into his consciousness again after the final voyeuristic crisis. It has nothing to do with his torture by the Iroquois, which disappears from his consciousness and from any significance in the book as soon as the torture scene ends. Nevertheless, when Laforgue at last reaches Ihonitaria, he reflects that "he has ceased to pray." This seems very strange, since he is presented as punctilious, not to say relentless, about carrying out such priestly duties as come his way in the first part of the novel, and he is never once shown to entertain the slightest doubt. However, after being saved by a timely eclipse from being tortured to death by the population of Ihonitaria, Laforgue is in full blown spiritual crisis. In fact, his position is exactly that articulated by Moore in his preface: "What error has come upon me so that, today, that eclipse of the sun seemed to me a phenomenon which, were I to believe in it as the hand of God, would leave me in the same murk of superstition as the Savages themselves?" Apparently Laforgue is as baffled as the reader by this unexpected development in his spiritual life. Nevertheless, in the final scene of Black Robe, the unbelieving Laforgue prepares to baptize the unbelieving Indians: "What are the baptisms but a mockery of all the days of my belief, of all the teachings of the Church, of all the saintly stories we have read of saving barbarians for Christ?"
A character created through the appropriation of the Jesuit Relations, Laforgue casts doubt on the Jesuit Relations. Here again appears the bad faith that permeates Black Robe. The mockery of saintly stories is not in the character's contemplated sacramental action, but in the novelist's creation of the character. To impose on the narratives the Jesuits wrote of their own lives Laforgue's contemptible timidity, sexual panic, and lack of faith is not to take a novelist's freedom to create a different kind of story with its own laws and its own authenticity. Rather, Black Robe attempts to devalue and mock the Jesuit stories, by almost slavishly imitating their account of the externals of circumstance and action while also denigrating the qualities of mind and spirit of those long dead priests to whom, after all, the experiences narrated in the Relations belong. The ambiguous pieties of the preface establish this denial as the keynote of the text. The claim there that Black Robe presents a realistic illusion that is uniquely faithful to historical actuality is the means by which Moore conceals the aggressive desire that generates the story and by which he detaches the fiction from the novelist by assigning responsibility for the narrative to other agencies. The preface attempts to suggest that Moore is not creating a story but, rather, reporting from a position of weary objectivity on a complex even which those who enacted it and wrote its history did not understand and, therefore, misrepresented.
Black Robe, which appropriates the stories of dead fathers to mock them, is an assault on the oedipal father. I have argued elsewhere that Moore has always seen the creation of fiction as such an attack and, therefore, as an action both guilty and dangerous [in Brian Moore, 1974 and "The Doctor's Wife: Brian Moore and the Failure of Realism," Eire-Ireland XVIII, No. 2, 1983]. Black Robe differs from his more successful novels, such as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, or The Feast of Lupercal, or An Answer from Limbo, in that Moore has not been able to create through the characters an expression of that defiance. In deed, the oedipal dynamic as enacted within Black Robe is notably confused and muddled. Thus, Laforgue and Davost play the roles of both father and son to each other. The insistence on Davost's boyishness suggests his filial status as does the fact that he calls Laforgue "father." On the other hand, Laforgue's hysteria at witnessing Davost and Annuka in intercourse belongs not to the father but to the son as witness of the primal scene. Further, in Black Robe virtually the only mark of Laforgue's priestly fatherhood is his power to hear confessions; however, even as he urges Davost to submit to that power by confessing his sexual sins to him, he confesses to Davost, saying that both "boy" and priestly father are guilty of the same sin with the same woman.
The confused conflict over sex and confession between Laforgue and Davost ends when the two are captured and tortured by the Iroquois. It is the Indians, those obscene talkers, historically known as priest-killers, who enact the aggressive rage of the son against the father within the novel. The purported understanding of the seventeenth-century Indian mind acquired by Moore from the anthropologists does not, in fact, issue in a credible set of Indian characters. Moore's Indians do not express the ethos and sensibility of a culture with its own central myth, logic, and coherence. Rather, they bear the mark that has distinguished those characters in Moore's novels who express the rebellion of the son-artist; they believe in dreams rather than in a reality sponsored by figures of paternal authority. However, the foul-mouthed, dirty, murderously vicious "Savages" are certified to be so by Jesuit testimony, not created to be so by the necessity of the novel in which they appear.
No matter their setting, no matter the fictive citizenship of their characters, all of Brian Moore's novels involve a transaction between an Ireland of the mind and a Canada of the mind. The defining characteristic of Moore's mental Ireland is a powerful patriarchal authority rooted in traditional Roman Catholic belief and providing a sturdy structure of meaning and value on which all human experience can be located. For Moore, the negative aspect of this inner Ireland is its merciless repression of sexual energy and, by extension, of the creative energy of the artist. Moore's Canada, on the other hand, is the New World, where desire may be enacted without devastating punishment and, consequently, a spiritual wasteland where gratification and, indeed, life itself lacks meaning. A seventeenth-century French Jesuit bearing the name of a nineteenth-century French poet, Laforgue is a psychic Irishman in terms of Moore's mental geography: childlike in relation to spiritual authority, terrified of the body, consumed by guilt. When he comes to Canada, all that Laforgue is and all that he believes becomes nullified by the native Canadians whose lives are guided by dream and ferocious desire. The Catholicism of Moore's Davost shows that he, too, belongs to that same psychic Ireland, but when he encounters the Canadian Indians, he quickly abandons his past. Like the Indians, Davost sees what he wants and takes it. In Canada, his experience is strictly of the moment, connecting neither to the past nor the future, referring to nothing outside itself. There is no obstacle to his desire. Unlike Laforgue, he becomes a success in Canada—indeed, at the end of Black Robe, he is indistinguishable from the Indians.
Brian Moore has defined himself as an Irish novelist in Canada. This fact is played out, I suggest, in the dynamic of his novels, in the endless struggle between the Old World and the New, between the father's traditional provenance and the spiritually diminished but physically and materially gratifying territory claimed by the son. In two of his least successful novels Moore seems compelled to examine the interaction between these worlds by quite literally appropriating incidents from Canadian history for his own purposes. Black Robe is one of these works, and the other is The Revolution Script (1971). The Revolution Script presents the 1970 kidnapping of two government officials, James Cross and Pierre Laporte, and the subsequent murder of Laporte by a group of young French Canadian terrorists. In The Revolution Script, as in Black Robe, Moore recounts a story of men in authoritative positions within a powerful patriarchal institution who are brutalized and defeated by native Canadians. Both novels begin with a preface pointing out the historical basis of Moore's narrative and suggesting that the novels that follow are less inventions than factual reports.
Both Black Robe and its documentary predecessor suggest that Moore's mental Canada is the necessary counterpart of his mental Ireland. Without the New World of murderous desire and energy, the Old constricted but morally and spiritually substantial Old World of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal would not exist. However, there is a price in guilt that Moore has never ceased to pay for becoming a novelist, which for him meant leaving Ireland and becoming Canadian in both the public, literal and the private, metaphorical meaning of the term. Coming almost twenty years after The Revolution Script, Black Robe is also a Canadian story of the assault upon the symbolic father that comes to us claiming to be not an invention but a report, thus in some sense negating and denying Moore's power and identity as a novelist. Coexisting with the appropriation and distortion of the Jesuits' Canadian stories, such a denial affirms the spiritually rooted, patriarchal world of his own interior Ireland. However, when, as novelist, Moore so relentlessly distances himself from the rebellious oedipal desire that creates Black Robe, he also distances himself from his own power as a novelist. It is this distance that weakens Black Robe as a credible work of fiction.
SOURCE: "In the Firing Line," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4542, April 20-26, 1990, p. 430.
[Deane is an Irish poet, essayist, critic, and educator. In the following negative review of Lies of Silence, he contends that, although there "are few better living novelists than Brian Moore," his representation of the crisis in Northern Ireland is stereotypical and inaccurate.]
There are few better living novelists than Brian Moore, but one would find little support for that statement in this book. Since the publication of Catholics in 1972, he has consistently found ways of bringing the secular world into collision with metaphysical or religious phenomena and of allowing the subsequent reverberations to shake the foundations of both. There has always been an investigative, sleuth-like aspect to his writing. We can detect that something is wrong because the symptoms of unease are so marked. The source of the wrong is often found to be rooted in the very assumptions on which the investigation itself was based. The diverse worlds of his fiction—Belfast, Toronto, New York, California, Eastern Europe, seventeenth-century Canada, a future world off the south-west Irish coast—are painstakingly fumigated of all illusion but the disinfectant clarity that results may itself be the most powerful illusion of all. The withering economy of Moore's prose, the sardonic observation of social and political systems, are indications of a highly cultivated detachment that ostensibly accepts no reality that cannot be directly experienced in and through the body.
Of course, since he is a novelist, this "belief" undergoes its own subversion; worlds work in slippery ways, stories are acts of interpretation as well as acts of reportage. By emphasizing the reportage, he can appear to subdue the interpretive element. But when sheer reportage threatens to enforce interpretations that would question the narrowly solid world we know by our senses, then a heat tremor seizes everything and renders it insecure. Earlier novels such as The Great Victorian Collection (1975), The Mangan Inheritance (1979) and Cold Heaven (1983) absorb this insecurity into their rhetoric and narrative; the more recent Black Robe (1985) and The Colour of Blood (1987) privatize it. It is not, in them, a question of a consciousness that doubts its capacity to know the world; rather, it is a question of a consciousness that cannot know itself. The only recourse in these instances is to silence. It may be a dark fate but it's also a chaste one. On the other hand, those who are full of certainties are ready to make whatever noise is necessary to assert their claims. The loudest noises are made by weapons. A gunshot ends Moore's last novel, The Colour of Blood, and his new one, Lies of Silence.
There the resemblance ends. The lies of silence are told by just about everyone—the British Government, the Christian Churches, the general populace. For here we are in Northern Ireland, specifically in Belfast, and the story concerns a crisis of conscience in a man, Michael Dillon, who has to make two crucial decisions. One is to identify a member of the IRA to the police; the other is to tell his wife he is leaving her for another woman. The first decision has two phases; first he contacts the police to tell them that there is a bomb at the hotel he manages, even though he is thereby risking his wife's safety, since the IRA unit involved is holding her as hostage. Second, he has to decide to identify a young IRA man who had unwittingly let Dillon see his face during the takeover of the Dillon household. Despite the urgings of a slimy Catholic priest, Dillon decides to go ahead with the identification. But, even though he has by now got out of Belfast to London, the IRA have (through the priest) tracked him down, and kill him as he telephones the police in Northern Ireland. Phase two of his decision made, he is silenced.
The meaning of the connection between the two choices involved here escapes me. Moreover, since Moore takes the opportunity to launch a series of punctual tirades against all who have conspired to produce the Northern Irish crisis, it seems improbable that any deep morality is involved in bearing witness against the IRA or against a corrupt system. The IRA men are the usual stereotypes—rough, tough, never nervous, plagued by acne and a poor education. Indeed everyone involved is stereotypical, except that the IRA is in Moore's firing line, and all his blank ammunition reverberates around them. The strain of his tendentious account of the political crisis shows in uncharacteristics slips—a university degree ceremony at 8.00 in the morning, an IRA unit going to the trouble of making a hit in London, given a legal system that has long dispensed with the need for evidence; a Catholic priest complicit with the IRA in a manner that is improbable in itself and inaccurate as a representation of the relationship between the two organizations. This is the first time I have read a Moore novel that was willing to risk improbability for the sake of making a propagandistic point. The lies of silence are in what this novel does not say about the North. Otherwise it is a satisfactory summary of all the clichés. It may be a relief to Moore to have got it all off his chest, but he might have done better to write a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph—like that he would have been in the land of fiction without pretending that he was also in the land of art. Perhaps the next novel will be one of his miracles; then this one can be left in its own, sad silence.
SOURCE: "The Reluctant Terrorist," in The New York Times Book Review, September 2, 1990, pp. 1, 23.
[Prose is an American novelist, short story writer, and educator. In the following excerpt, she commends the suspenseful plotting, austere prose, and "thematic weight" of Lies of Silence.]
Nothing cheers a writer so little as well-intentioned commiseration for not having attained the vast readership admirers think one deserves. And yet there are certain authors whose gifts so exceed their renown that their situation inevitably inspires this sort of unhelpful puzzlement and indignation.
One such writer is Brian Moore, whose 16th novel, Lies of Silence, is characteristically first rate. The recipient of major awards in Canada and Britain, Mr. Moore has so far failed to achieve what the pollsters succinctly call "name recognition" in the United States, perhaps because his work ranges so widely, from intense novels of sensibility (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) to suspenseful, ingeniously plotted thrillers with moral and metaphysical themes (Cold Heaven, The Color of Blood). Perhaps the problem is that Mr. Moore's nationality involves multiple hyphenation—born in Belfast, he has spent much of his life in Canada and now resides in Southern California. Or the problem may even lie with the estimable qualities that are found in his diverse books. This is not, after all, an era of fevered acclaim for the quietly controlled, the intelligent, the spiritually minded and unassuming.
Paradise for the reader, purgatory for the critic, the plot of Lies of Silence is one that only a spoiler would reveal—and risk ruining the surprises that detonate throughout the novel like cleverly hidden and elegantly designed incendiary devices. (The notion of "unbearable suspense" is, of course, a cliché, but I found that I kept briefly putting down the novel to postpone the moment when I had to face what might happen next.)
Set in contemporary Northern Ireland, Lies of Silence centers on Michael Dillon, the manager of a grand old Belfast hotel, an establishment to which families traditionally come for graduation luncheons and where, on a morning just after the novel begins, a well-known Protestant rabble-rouser is scheduled to address a convention of the Canadian Orange Order. In Dillon's Belfast version of a normal life, the "Troubles" and the presence of British soldiers are a daily fact; body checks and bomb threats have come to seem routine: "A queue of cars was waiting to be admitted to the hotel grounds. Security was tight, for the hotel had been bombed last year. The occupants of each car must get out and go into the adjoining hut for a body search, while the car itself was checked over by the outside guards."
Dillon is one of those Irishmen one recognizes fondly from the work of Sean O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor and William Trevor; we know, even upon first meeting them, that these men are not destined for great happiness, that even the small pleasures life offers them will sadly come to nothing. As the novel opens, Dillon is tormenting himself over the (one might think) straightforward choice between his shrill, unstable wife and his loving mistress, a young BBC reporter whose imminent transfer to London triggers the first of the personal crises that set the plot in motion.
Although to Dillon these difficulties seem singularly oppressive, they strike us as neither exceptional nor uncommon until, in the course of one frightening night, he unwillingly becomes involved in a violent I.R.A. terrorist plot. Suddenly his domestic difficulties are both heightened and dwarfed by an almost impossible moral dilemma that transforms his private life into the sensational stuff of the evening news. The effect on Dillon is seismic, and soon there are aftershocks—a succession of ethical temptations and decisions that sends him fleeing to London and changes forever his notions of heroism, of the possibility of escape.
Graham Greene has called Brian Moore his "favorite living novelist." Although the two writers are significantly different, Mr. Greene's remark does suggest the affection we often feel for those whose interests and virtues remind us warmly of our own…. Both write brilliantly about how various sorts of spiritual and historical struggles (crises of faith; political, moral, romantic crises) can overlap and complicate one another—and in the end turn out to be separate manifestations of a single human condition. Finally, both Graham Greene and Brian Moore write spare, swiftly plotted fiction that is capable of supporting considerable thematic weight.
So, too, Lies of Silence has immense tensile strength. One is struck by how austere its sentences are—and yet by how much the novel embraces, how much disturbance it generates without ever stooping to theatrics, how daringly it approaches and eludes the clutches of melodrama. It is possible to read this book purely for the pleasantly unsettling angst its dramatic plot induces. But it is more rewarding to pause and admire its flashes of depth and the nervy way in which Mr. Moore takes textbook-case ethical quandaries (the good of one versus the good of many, the right to a private life versus social responsibility) and uses the techniques of fiction to give them an agonizing, provocative spin. Certain scenes—Dillon's wife's conversation with a jumpy, teen-age I.R.A. volunteer and, later, his own confrontation with a manipulative Catholic priest—can be read as paradigms of how to create tension and surprise while remaining convincing and without contrivance.
Over his long career, Brian Moore has mastered the literary magic trick of making the weighty seem graceful, making the dense and complex seem effortless and unadorned. One hopes that Lies of Silence will inspire more readers to discover Mr. Moore's earlier work, to experience the range and agility of this fine writer's sleight of hand.
SOURCE: "Challenging the Acquiescence of Ulster," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 9, 1990, pp. 3, 10.
[Eder is an American critic and journalist. In the following review, he praises Moore's suspenseful plotting in Lies of Silence but contends that some of his characters are underdeveloped and serve merely as political mouthpieces.]
It is all there, perhaps too plainly there, in the title. Brian Moore has written an angry political novel that is also a novel of suspense. The suspense is intricately tangled in an impossible moral choice, faced by a Northern Irishman who struggles to resign from his country's conflict, and cannot.
Impossibility is the curse of the politics that has made Ulster's history a strangled gyre that grinds away, decade after decade, sinking but never sinking through. And it is the focus of Moore's anger.
Moore is a prolific novelist who has written on a variety of themes since he got out of his native Belfast, young, in 1948. Belfast—Catholic Belfast, specifically—is not out of him, though. Lies of Silence is his phrase for the mental and moral excusing and evading that allow the Irish Republican Army to operate out of the Catholic community, even though Catholics will deplore its violence, or at least, the seeming hopelessness of its violence.
Acquiescence in the fact of evil is the charge Moore brings against the minority population of the North. He barely mentions the Protestant majority, and the British appear only in the form of a cool and barely glimpsed security official. The author's quarrel is with the sentimentality that allows his Catholics to wink at present atrocities in the name of past heroics. His target is Mother Machree. She'll kill you, the message goes; and in Lies of Silence, she does.
Michael Dillon is civilized and apolitical, the successful manager of a Belfast hotel that is owned by an American chain. He hopes for promotion to one of the chain's London hotels; he cannot wait to get out of the city he was born and reared in.
London means a decent life and escape. Escape, also, because he will leave Moira, his gloomy and sub-hysteric Belfast wife, and go live with uncomplicated Andrea, a researcher for the BBC. Escape, finally, out Europe's last medieval war, and into Europe of the Common Market and no-fault history.
Just as Michael is about to take off, his house is seized by an IRA gang. With Moira as their hostage, and under threat of death, Michael must drive a bomb-rigged car into his hotel parking lot—as manager, he will not be searched—where a time-device is to detonate and kill a lot of people, including an Ian Paisley-like Protestant extremist who is attending a lunch.
Lies of Silence is tightly, sometimes breathtakingly, constructed around the dilemmas that ensue. If Michael warns the police, he threatens Moira's life. If he does not, he risks the lives of dozens of others. (One of the ingenious half-turns on this dilemma is that he cannot be sure if there is a dilemma. The IRA itself may or may not have given a warning; his captors will not say.)
The painful but undoubtedly correct choice is to sacrifice one life—perhaps—instead of many—perhaps. Except that Moira's death would also be highly convenient. And Michael twists in the arid scruples of choice and conscience of a sort that Graham Greene wrote about more finely in The Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory.
It is Moore's skill to give a living answer to this moral puzzle. No normal human being, much less a scrupulous one, could abide doing nothing, however finely balanced the choices. The hotel is bombed; its guests are evacuated in time.
A moral dilemma, however, now turns political as well. Moira, too gruesomely whiny up to now to matter much, suddenly becomes real. She and Michael, Catholics but uninvolved, must make new choices. He will go to London, the longed-for escape now justified by police warnings that he is in danger.
Moira, on the other hand, refuses "to let them push me out." She will stay and denounce the IRA on television. In the book's most effective confrontation, she lets Michael know that if he was willing to see her die to stand up against the terror, she is willing to lose him to another woman to do the same thing.
Even in London, though, Michael is not free. He had recognized one of the gunmen; the police ask him to make the identification. A priest with IRA connections comes over, ostensibly to plead mercy for the son of a parishioner. "A lovely woman," he calls her. As for the youth: "You know what these lads are like, they're just kids." As if mercy were all that was at stake, and the duty of any Catholic, even a sophisticate, was to exercise it exclusively with other Catholics.
But the priest brings an unspoken message as well. The IRA will kill Michael if he talks. And he must decide finally whether he can escape the war and its choices.
In a number of ways, Lies of Silence succeeds remarkably. On the level of sheer suspense, for example. It is marvelously canny. And if there is contrivance in using this suspense, and the dilemmas that nourish it, to open up a larger political and moral dimension, it seems well justified.
Moore will be criticized for making his exclusive targets the IRA and the failure of most Catholics to confront the kind of choice that Moira and Michael are brought to. But he is not writing an overview of Northern Ireland; he has chosen, as is his right, to focus upon one aspect of its tragedy. If the chicken of majority oppression has laid the egg of minority violence—which, in turn, hatches a violent Protestant chicken, and so on—why, Moore has decided to tell an egg story. He tells it well.
On the other hand, he can be plodding in his prose. When Michael and Andrea arrive in London and enjoy a few days of happiness, Moore writes: "They were here. Everything had changed. Everything."
He can also be crude in his characters, manipulating actions and discourse to make political points. The priest is oily and repulsive. Moore has cast a role instead of writing a character.
It is all too convenient when Michael, driving the bomb-rigged car after the night of terror in his hijacked home, passes the Catholic school where he was taught to hate Protestants. It was "run by priests whose narrow sectarian views perfectly propagated the divisive bitterness which led to the events of last night."
As the protagonist, Michael has moments of real substance when he truly embodies the dilemmas he is in. But he is given too much to do, to feel, to think; the agony that is the heart of the book is a busy agony, and the busy-ness weakens it.
SOURCE: "In Violent Times," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVII, No. 19, December 6, 1990, pp. 22-5.
[Banville is an acclaimed Irish novelist, short story writer, and critic whose works include Long Lankin (1970), Mefisto (1986), and Ghosts (1993). In the following review, Banville offers a negative appraisal of Lies of Silence, asserting that the novel's thinly developed characters "are made to mouth extended disquisitions on the Northern Ireland troubles."]
Lies of Silence is, by my reckoning, Brian Moore's seventeenth novel. In the past he has produced some marvelous books—my own favorites are his first, the heartbreaking The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, and the very frightening Cold Heaven (1983)—and for this reason if for no other one would wish to find warm words for his latest. However, Lies of Silence (… on the short list for this year's Booker Prize) is thin stuff, an anecdote spun out to novel-length and peopled, if that is the word, not with characters but character sketches. I picked it up with some excitement and put it down with a heavy heart. The publisher describes it as "a culmination of an extraordinary literary career"; one trusts there will be higher points than this in Mr. Moore's writing life.
Brian Moore was born in Belfast, and in this novel he has returned to his native city. He still knows the place, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he has learned to know it anew, for the Belfast of today is very different from the one in which he grew up, despite the persistence of the entrenched attitudes of the fanatics on both sides of the religious and political divides. The gunmen of the 1940s and 1950s were ruthless amateurs; their present-day descendants are ruthless and professional. Moore is an enemy of the IRA, seeing them for what they are: at best misguided, at worst sectarian murderers bent on destroying the two Irish states and setting up in their place a new, "pure," fascist Ireland. Yet for all the forthrightness of its denunciation of violence, Lies of Silence does not succeed in catching … the precise shade of murderousness that has broken out at intervals again and again in Ireland since the 1920s.
Michael Dillon is the manager of a large and successful hotel in Belfast. He is middle-aged, trapped in an unhappy marriage, and engaged in an affair with Andrea, a young Canadian woman who works for the BBC in Belfast. On the day on which the novel opens Andrea brings the news that she has been offered a transfer to London, and Dillon decides finally to break with his wife Moira, and move to "the mainland" and start a new life there with Andrea. He has lived in London before, and been happy there, and came back to Belfast only to please Moira. He cares nothing—or thinks he cares nothing—for the North and its immemorial hatreds.
Dillon is oddly anomalous. We are told that in his youth he had aspired to be a poet; since Brian Moore has pared his narrative to the bone, cutting out all but the most necessary information, one assumes this poetic streak is meant to be significant, but if so, the significance has failed to register with this reader, at least. Is it that the author feels that a girl as young and pretty as Andrea could not love a mere hotel manager unless there was a touch of the poet in him? Or that only a "cultured" person would be sensitive enough to perceive the subtleties of the moral dilemma into which the plot pitches Michael Dillon?
This dilemma is meant to be the crux of the book, but even here there is a curious slackness. Dillon returns home determined to break the news to Moira that he is going to leave her. He puts off the fearful moment, and in the middle of the night the house is invaded by a gang of IRA men intent on assassinating a bigoted Protestant clergymen. The IRA plan to place a bomb in Dillon's car, which in the morning he will drive to the hotel where the clergyman is due to speak. To ensure his cooperation, Moira will be held hostage at the house, and will be killed if Dillon alerts the police.
Dillon drives the car to the hotel, but then, unable to countenance the likely loss of many innocent lives, he telephones the police, and the building is cleared before the bomb goes off. Despite his fears, Moira has not been harmed—the gang, somewhat implausibly, left the house before the bomb was due to go off—but she is deeply wounded by Dillon's decision to save the lives of strangers and leave her to the mercy of the gunmen.
By now Brian Moore must be sick of hearing repeated his statement that his unconscious method in his novels is "to find the moment of crisis." Certainly the choice which Dillon has to face (or choices, one should say: there is a lot of plot packed into this short book) is a critical one. Somehow, though, we do not feel for him, or with him, as we should. There is an unfocused quality in the portrayal of this man; here and there, at the "moments of crisis," he fades before our eager gaze, grows attenuated to the point of transparency. This is the danger of using the thriller form, as Moore does; in order for the plot to progress at a satisfactorily cracking pace, character must give way before the demands of action. Lies of Silence is wonderfully exciting to read; the trouble is, for the most part it seems little more than that.
There are surprising lapses. The accents of working-class characters and of the terrorists are indicated by the dropping of final gs in feminine endings ("Mornin', Mr. Dillon"; "Get inside, you, or I'll fuckin' kill you," etc.). Certain events from early on in the book have no apparent consequences; for instance, on page 38 Dillon is punched in the stomach and kicked on the shin by one of the terrorists, but if these assaults leave a mark, none is mentioned, and Dillon is able to go through his day seemingly without feeling even a twinge from his innards or his bruised shinbone.
There is something amateurish too in the way that the characters are made to mouth extended disquisitions on the Northern Ireland troubles:
"You're not fighting for anybody's freedom [Dillon's wife tells one of the terrorists]. Not mine, not the people of Northern Ireland's, not anybody's. The only thing you're doing is making people hate each other worse than ever. Maybe that's what you want, isn't it? [sic] Because if the Catholics here stopped hating the Prods, where would the IRA be?"
Perhaps, writing from Dublin, I am unfair to criticize Moore for providing these explanatory passages for the benefit of his international readership, but they jar. Worse, however, is the thinness of characterization. While the solidity of the portrait of Dillon waxes and wanes, figures such as Andrea are granted no more than a flickering existence, and seem mere ciphers put there to progress the plot. The exception is Moira; she is the best portrait in the book, a tough, vivid, sexy woman with a mind and a will of her own; it is a pity the novel was not built around her instead of her less convincing husband.
Brian Moore once worked with Hitchcock. Lies of Silence has that air of drab menace which the director brought to even the least of his films. The priest who comes to Dillon supposedly to plead for reasonableness in the matter of identifying one of the gunmen, but who in reality is carrying a death threat from the IRA, is spendidly horrible in a Hitchcockian way (and reminiscent, too, of the sinister priest who "helps" the heroine of Cold Heaven).
I wish I could like this novel. It is a courageous (no one should underestimate the vengefulness or the long reach of the IRA) attempt to give non-Irish readers a true picture of how things are now in Northern Ireland. However, right-mindedness has never been a guarantee of good or convincing fiction. Lies of Silence reads less like a novel than a film treatment.
SOURCE: "A Land of Password," in Commonweal, Vol. CXVIII, No. 1, January 11, 1991, pp. 24-5.
[In the following review, Gromer criticizes Moore's use of "stick figures, stock figures" in Lies of Silence, which she considers a "tautly told" yet insubstantial thriller.]
"Whatever you say say nothing," the title of a poem in Seamus Heaney's 1975 volume North, could serve as apt epigraph for Brian Moore's new novel, Lies of Silence, which takes him—perhaps as reluctantly as his main character—back to Belfast, his birthplace.
For the lies that Moore sees raging in Ulster, "lies told over the years to poor Protestant working people about the Catholics, lies to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations"—are not only sins of commission, but at their worst, they are lies of silence, the lies that come of saying nothing, and sins of omission as well. Most guilty are those in Westminister who turn a blind eye to Ulster and its injustices.
The Northern habit of survival rests in silence. "Smokesignals are loud-mouthed compared with us," Heaney says, and fifteen years later, the characters in Moore's Belfast agree; when they dissent, their act of speech is rained upon by violence or by the threat of it. Perhaps only the Middle East, for many of the same causes—some even having the same agents, Lloyd George, Alfred Balfour, their double-sided negotiating in the first decades of this century, and timeless imperial greed among them—seems as hopeless of resolution as Northern Ireland. "Another martyr for the cause?" a mother, exasperated, questions her daughter in Moore's novel. Weary, she continues, "A united Ireland? Have some sense. The South of Ireland doesn't want us and couldn't take care of us if we were handed to them on a plate tomorrow. It's all madness, this, madness, and don't you be going and getting mixed up in it."
Whatever you say, say nothing: the mother's theme. Brian Moore's theme, however, is not only about the costs of saying nothing in that slippery grey Ulster Heaney calls a "land of password, handgrip, wink and nod," but also about the costs of getting mixed up in it all the same and finding oneself unable to say nothing. That is what happens to Michael Dillon. On the night he has come home ready to tell his wife that he is leaving her for another woman (just as he is leaving Belfast for London), on the night he has gathered together his courage and his passport, he encounters not visions of his new life, but four frighteningly young terrorists of the IRA. Hooded in woolen balaclavas, armed, they force Michael and Moira Dillon to get up from bed and wait for dawn in their living room, watched over by first one guard, then another. Their plan is to place a bomb in Michael's car, and then have him drive it to the hotel he manages, where an Ian Paisley figure named Dr. Pottinger is to address a breakfast audience. As the hotel manager, Dillon will pass through the security guard and park his car in his accustomed spot, just under the windows where Pottinger is to speak. So the assassination is to go, without warning. Moira remains behind in the living room, hostage to the plan's success.
On his drive through the streets of Belfast that morning, Michael Dillon observes details with the hypersensitivity of the newly condemned: three boys rushing and shouting on their way to school, the equestrian statue showing King William in victory at the Boyne, the Victorian houses around Queen's University, alight that day with the festivities of graduation. All these things are almost unbearably alive to him on a drive that seems interminable, packed as it is with the observations of a lifetime, packed as it is with a bomb. The hotel is an eternity and a second away. He parks his car. Overhead, he hears a tour group discussing the benefits of eating up a good breakfast, already paid for, since lunch is both unknown and uncovered. You'll be dead by lunchtime, Michael Dillon thinks in the isolation of his secret knowledge. Don't worry about the Ulster fry.
Dillon, however, decides to tip off the police; the dining room of the Clarence Hotel is damaged, but no one is injured. Neither is Moira, for the teenage terrorists had fled from her living room even before the bomb was due to go off. The daughter of a Catholic butcher on the Falls road, Moira understands lies of silence. She knows in an instant that her husband bartered her life for other lives, just as she knows, without his having said anything, that he will leave her for another woman.
"So, it's better you say nothing," Detective Inspector Harry Randall counsels the estranged couple. But Moira goes on a campaign. Within hours she's on television.
Why does she do this? Why does she break the taboo of the tribe? Is it for those reasons she announces histrionically at dinner when her mother admonishes her to have sense? "It's people like us who're the only ones who can stop them," Moira says, agreeing with her father's outburst against the IRA. "I should tell the whole world what happened to us last night. I should tell the way they treated us…. My husband had to choose between saving his wife's life or saving the life of the likes of Pottinger. We should stand our ground. And then, if we're shot, the whole world will know why we're being shot."
Or is it that Moira gets caught up in her own rightness, and that the injury she's suffered is more personal than political? Her speech comes, at least in part, in bitter retaliation to her husband's silence after the bombing, his betrayal of her during it. Or is it simply that she enjoys the fuss of being the celebrity of the moment, rushed into makeup and onto the air? "Did you see me on the news?" she asks Michael. "Am I all right? My face, I mean?" she asks the producer of the newscast. Moira is not one to forego the careful application of eyeliner, even if it is under the nervous eye of a young IRA gunman.
It's not Brian Moore's intention to show why Moira—or Michael or any of the other characters in Lies of Silence—do what they do. For though Moore has written wonderful novels that portray people of complexity and pathos, the characters in this novel are very little fleshed out, as though stick figures, stock figures, will do for the purpose he has at hand. That purpose is to make us turn pages, quickly, apprehensively; plot is the driving force of our fear. Lies of Silence is a thriller; it is a good thriller, tautly told, chilling. But it makes for disappointing reading nonetheless. It is too spare, too much itself a victim of Northern reticence. It feels shallow, as though with four films of previous novels behind him, Moore was writing it more with an eye to a film than to a reading audience. There is nothing here you couldn't learn in a two-hour movie. The genre of violence does violence to a complex, if contentious, history.
"Is there life before death?" Seamus Heaney quotes a graffitti slogan at the conclusion of his poem. There is not enough life in Brian Moore's new novel for us to care about the deaths which close it.
SOURCE: "Held Hostage," in Canadian Literature, No. 132, Spring, 1992, pp. 184-86.
[In the following review, Dahlie praises the suspenseful plotting in Lies of Silence and commends Moore's insistence that individual moral choices produce social consequences.]
[Lies of Silence is] a masterful novel of suspense, in which individuals' moral crises are convincingly tied in with the social, political, and religious conflicts that have beset Ulster, seemingly forever. Moore has exploited these issues in many of his earlier works, but in Lies of Silence the protagonists do not merely suffer or endure these bigotries: they are forcibly conscripted into the terrorist activities that these behavioural patterns make inevitable. By playing on the connotations of the title words, Moore shows how an ordinary individual gets caught up in this dilemma: "Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made … [Belfast] sick with a terminal illness of bigotry and injustice,… lies from parliaments and pulpits,… and above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminster…." When he has these thoughts, he has been transformed from a private, non-political person with a soluble moral crisis (to tell his wife that he is leaving her) into a public, political figure, held hostage by the IRA, with a moral crisis that in effect is insoluble (saving the lives of dozens of innocent individuals, or saving his wife).
In this ten-chapter novel, Dillon's immediate moral situation occupies only the first chapter, but there is sufficient foreshadowing here to give hints of the other nine-tenths of that world, like some gigantic invisible iceberg moving into place: "a police armoured car came towards him, lopsided, like a damaged cardboard carton"; "the left side of Teddy's head was matted with blood, the jaw crushed as though it had been hit by a car." And at the end of this chapter, the "traitor's kiss" that he gives Moira both spells out his own failure to act decisively when he had the chance, and foreshadows that his moral situation will become increasingly difficult to resolve.
That Dillon cannot tell Moira about leaving her for Andrea Baxter is only one of the "lies of silence" that he commits over the succeeding few days of this crisis. With or without Andrea, with or without the IRA, it is likely that his marriage to the bulimic Moira would not have lasted, for he knows that he had married her chiefly for her physical beauty. But the IRA crisis reveals how incompatible they are: she grows in strength and determination, and becomes very much her own person, a role that was denied her as Michael's wife. She speaks out on radio and television—no "lies of silence" from her—while Michael veers back and forth between silence and speaking. That she survives this ordeal may be Moore's way of suggesting that there might be a solution to the Irish problem. "It's people like us who're the only ones who can stop them." she argues to her parents and Michael. "And we're not going to stop them by letting them run our lives."
But that is as far as Moore goes. What he gives us in Lies of Silence is a disturbing depiction of how individuals and societies behave when held hostage by forces both uncontrollable and unpredictable. As in his earlier novels, the "moment of crisis" from which he works may seem uncomplicated, but the strength of Moore's fiction, including this superb novel, resides in the ways he reveals that this is inevitably a delusion, and that individual actions always have ever-widening moral implications.
SOURCE: "Lapsing," in The London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 7, April 8, 1993, p. 15.
[Eagleton is a prominent English critic, essayist, novelist, and playwright. Written from a Marxist perspective, his critical works include Exiles and Emigrés: Studies in Modern Literature (1970), Walter Benjamin; or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981), and Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). In the following review, he contends that No Other Life presents a formulaic view of third-world political dynamics.]
There are no ex-Catholics, only lapsed ones. A lapse, as the light little monosyllable suggests, is a mere temporary aberration, an ephemeral error which can always be retrieved; and even the more ominous sounding 'excommunication' can always be undone by a quick bout of repentance. Leaving the Catholic church is as difficult as resigning from the Mafia; for the Church in its wisdom has artfully anticipated such renegacy and created within its ranks the special category of 'lapsed', wedged somewhere between saints and clergy. Like every authoritarian institution, the church incorporates its own outside into itself, so that to lapse is to enjoy a privileged relationship with it, to be counted among an honourable company of ruined Jesuits, inverted metaphysicians, loose-living Dubliners and Latino leftists. Indeed if religious devotion survives anywhere in these secular times, it is in the negative theology of these Oedipal offspring of Mother Church, who hammer their fists on her bosom with all the passionate intensity of the true believer.
In any case, being a Catholic is as much a cultural as a religious affair: to abandon the church altogether would be like changing your accent or taste for curried eggs. The Catholic faith is not something to be brooded over in some access of Kierkegaardian angst; it is just something you are born into, like the Isle of Man or the aristocracy. A former Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, who happened to our mutual embarrassment to be a relative of mine, once announced on television that he had never had a moment's doubt about his faith; but while some found this odiously complacent, we cognoscenti understood that his faith was just not the kind of thing you could have doubts about—that his style of believing no more accommodated the notion of doubt than his style of walking.
Leaving Ireland is as difficult as deserting the church. For two groups of the Irish population—artists and the poor—the central question about Ireland was always how to get out of it. Exile and emigration are as much Irish pursuits as hurling and poteen-brewing, and living abroad as much a modality of Irishness as living on Aran. In the 19th century, more Irish lived outside the country than in it; leaving Ireland became part of what it meant to live there. If it hadn't been for the contributions of the New York police force or the Chicago building industry, whole villages in Kerry and Donegal would have sunk without trace. The Irish population was haemorrhaging like an open wound, forced out by the threat of starvation and the dreariness of colonial life; so that if the Irish are an international race, they have the British to thank for it. As for the writers, it was more spiritual than material poverty which drove them to Trieste or Toronto, in flight from clerical oppression, sectarian wrangling and dearth of usable cultural traditions. There is a wry irony in the recruitment of the Wildes, Joyces and Becketts to the English literary canon: having helped to reduce their country to a stagnant colonial enclave, the English then coolly appropriated those Irish artists who took to their heels to escape this dire condition.
Brian Moore took off from Northern Ireland to North America many years ago, but this, as with Joyce, was just a way of putting some daylight between himself and the place in order the more effectively to engage with it. All writing distances what it draws closer, displaces the object it re-creates. Writing is a way of possessing the world at long distance, but thus of fleshing it to more vivid presence; so it is a suitable sort of trade for the exile, who is able from this long perspective to grasp his or her homeland as a distinctive entity in a way more difficult for the natives. From his vantage-point in Canada or California, Moore has re-invented Ireland over and over again, and it is hard not to see his fiction as among other things a set of elaborate strategies for rationalising his reluctance to live there. The Mangan Inheritance takes the old cliché of the Irish-American sentimentally in search of his roots and submits it to savage parody: its hero returns to the land of his fathers only to discover a kind of Cork version of Cold Comfort Farm, a gruesome landscape of incest, failed poets and dipsomaniac dwarfs, a place where you are more likely to have your cock cut off than be gathered to the bosom of your long-lost cousins. The Catholicism of Black Robe is a creed thrust upon vital native Americans by fanatical Jesuit missionaries; this allows Moore to fantasise an Edenic time when religion never was, and to view the whole business as an alien imposition from above. But this can never be true in Belfast, where theology is at the root of what you are, and where the old joke that when religion starts interfering with your daily life it's time to give it up is likely to fall peculiarly flat. Lies of Silence is Moore's novel of the Northern Irish Troubles, and the remote perspective of the exile shows up in its artistic thinness, and its failure to dislodge a single stereotype. The IRA have acne and shout a lot, and the only way out of this tribal warfare is a one-way air ticket.
There is more to Moore, however, than the bemused middle-class liberal. He springs, after all, from a notoriously ill-used community, if from a fairly well-heeled bit of it, and his Greene-like affinity with the dispossessed has a Catholic, communitarian feel to it. (As far as his personal standing with the Almighty goes, he escapes the honorific category of 'lapsed' since he claims never to have believed in the first place, an astonishing spiritual achievement for the child of a Belfast Catholic family and something of a theological phenomenon all in itself). Moore has the sympathy of a small, inconsiderable nation for small, inconsiderable people, for the poignant Judith Hearnes and cruelly exploited Eileen Hughes's of this world; and in No Other Life the downtrodden, superstitious, politically wracked country of his childhood is magnified a hundredfold and imaginatively recreated as the desolate Caribbean island of Ganae. The narrator, the missionary priest Paul Michel, tells the tale of Jean-Paul Cantave, an outcast black urchin who enters holy orders, gains a PhD in Paris and returns to lead his destitute people against American capital, the spectacularly corrupt local elite and the alarmed reactionaries of the Vatican. Cantave is a charismatic if peculiarly inept revolutionary; his uncompromising political rhetoric (somewhat portentously rendered in blank verse) drives his followers to their deaths; but by the end of the novel he has disappeared Zapata-like into heroic legend, and displays rather more political promise as a corpse than he ever did alive.
Just as Lies of Silence failed to transform the outsider's stereotyped perceptions of Northern Ireland, so this novel is as depressingly schematic as the Third World political logic (dictator—liberator—liberator-turned-dictator) it seeks to chart. It is a remorselessly two-dimensional work, grippingly dramatic in its action but strikingly impoverished in its inner life. The blurb presents Cantave as some tantalising enigma, but that is the last thing he is: he is just a stock type of the priest turned guerrilla fighter, who adds little imaginative enrichment to that now familiar figure. The narrator is one of a long line of agonised Moore liberals, as attracted to Cantave as he is alarmed by him; and though some psychologically complex subtext is struggling to break out of this ambivalent cleric, it comes to as little as the casual loss of faith which has taken place at some elusive point in the narrative. Greene would have handled him incomparably better, just as Naipaul has in his time churned out a more impressive species of Cantave.
There is an excellent Moore novel in the tension between Michel and Cantave; but No Other Life is regrettably not it. For Michel represents the Californian liberal pragmatist in his author, just as Cantave stands for the Catholic absolutist; and if Moore writes as finely as he does, it is partly because this tension is one he is productively unable to resolve. Like Michel, he is wary of political violence; but because he shares something of Cantave's solidarity with the poor, he knows that oppression runs deeper than the reformist can handle. Moore detests the IRA; but as a Northern Irish Catholic he has a feel for the history of injustice which gave birth to it, as many English liberals do not. It is just that, in this latest novel, this tragic impasse shrinks to the stalemate signalled by its fatalistic title. The title means both 'no life after death' and 'no possibility of change on earth'; but even Moore must agree that the latter proposition is a good deal more implausible than the former, and that it belongs to the religious false consciousness he opposes to believe that the second statement follows logically from the first.
SOURCE: "The Sword and the Saviour," in The New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, pp. 1, 34.
[Gates is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on African-American and third-world black literature. In the following highly positive review of No Other Life, he compares Moore's fictional Father Jeannot of Ganae to Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti and asserts that, by using a white narrator to provide a retrospective account of Jeannot's career, Moore allows his novel to be read "as an allegory of the relationship of the first world to the third."]
Political exile gives birth to its own mythology—tales of injustice and desire that the survivors tell one another to assuage their guilt, to keep faith with the past, to cast light into the shadows that define the state of exile itself. For the Haitian taxi drivers who queue each day at Harvard Square, one sentence repeats like the Kyrie, regardless of the time of day: "Papa is returning…. Papa is returning." Despite its ironic echoes of the elder Duvalier, "Papa" in Haitian Creole connotes the Father, the Messiah, Jesus. And Papa is how his followers refer to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected President, a Roman Catholic priest who for the past two years has embodied a government in exile.
Father Aristide's dramatic ascension to the presidency in 1991, his uncompromising quest to end two centuries of misrule, corruption, neocolonialism and color-as-class prejudice within Haiti, and his expulsion by his own religious order, the Salesians, for exalting class struggle have caught the attention of those eager to see democracy sweep through the whole of the Caribbean and black Africa. Indeed, the mythologizing of the man's life and works has taken a multitude of forms: a flattering account of his life and thoughts in a book by Amy Wilentz (The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier), a collection of his sermons and writings (In the Parish of the Poor) and a compelling autobiography (Aristide: An Autobiography) have added to the haunting, telegenic image of a frail black priest, seemingly accountable solely to God.
Now, in No Other Life, Brian Moore has drawn on Father Aristide's curious drama to give us—just seven weeks before his scheduled return to power—the first fictionalized account of this messianic 40-year-old Catholic priest's rise and fall from power.
Mr. Moore knows exile from the inside. Born in Belfast in 1921, he emigrated to Canada in 1948 and now lives in Los Angeles. Despite having produced 18 novels praised by the critics and his peers (Graham Greene called him his favorite living novelist) he has remained a somewhat shadowy figure on the literary landscape. Although his last book, Lies of Silence, was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 1990, Mr. Moore has never enjoyed the readership his work deserves.
Like Greene, Mr. Moore excels, I believe, in describing internal exile—the conflict between religious faith and the exigencies of lived experience—and the crisis of belief that can result from that exile. In No Other Life, he combines his capacity to depict diverse cultures in convincing detail (displayed in the Native Americans in Black Robe, his novel about Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Canada) with the interior turmoil of a Catholic priest (as he did in Catholics). The result is a brilliant meditation on spiritual indeterminacy, on the struggle between religious and temporal faith—on the question of how (or even whether) religious belief should be expressed in the political realm. For Mr. Moore, the political and the spiritual enfold each other like the sides of a Möbius strip.
The dangers of writing a novel about a Caribbean country that is and is not Haiti, and a beatific visionary who is and is not Father Aristide, are legion. What saves this book from the perils of hagiography is the presence of the black protagonist's white double, Father Paul Michel, a French Canadian missionary. Father Paul, the novel's narrator, is 65 years old when he looks back in time to tell us the story of his protégé, Jeannot, a 13-year-old orphan whom he lifted out of a life of rural poverty to be a scholarship student at his elite secondary school in the island's capital city.
The relationship between Jeannot and Father Paul suggests a further danger Mr. Moore has deftly avoided, that of writing yet another neocolonial travelogue in which a European rediscovers himself in the mirror of the other. In fact, it is the subtle interdependency between colonial and postcolonial, teacher and pupil, white and black—and especially between the wavering agnosticism of the increasingly wary Father Paul and the single-minded belief of the man whose political career he has fostered—that makes No Other Life so much more than that oxymoron, the "contemporary historical novel." Mr. Moore's book can be read as an allegory of the relationship of the first world to the third and, ultimately, a study of the interpenetration of the spiritual and the political.
Recent history has made the plot all too familiar: Father Paul Michel, the last white principal of an elite prep school, the Collège St. Jean, on the destitute Caribbean island of Ganae, presents us with a memoir of his relationship to a revolutionary Catholic priest, Jean-Paul Cantave, whom the islanders come to know as their political savior, Jeannot. As a boy, Jeannot, a dark-skinned noir like the nation's president, is brilliant, quick and charismatic; when he grows to adulthood, he will inspire as much mistrust among the church hierarchy and the mulâtre ruling class as worship among the black peasantry. Jeannot is sent to France to complete his education, then returns to lead his life as a simple parish priest in the slum called La Rotonde. But his parish soon swells to include the entire nation as Ganae's dictator stages a massacre in Jeannot's ramshackle church.
Jeannot's rise from pamphleteer among his classmates to spontaneous leader of the island's dispossessed is seamlessly portrayed, and it is to Mr. Moore's credit as a storyteller that the rebel priest's reach for power—and his almost inevitable downafall—are drawn with great suspense. Jeannot battles with the military, with his enemies in the mulatto ruling class, with his superiors at the Vatican. But as Father Paul watches these struggles, he is unable to shake his fear that Jeannot's actions amount to hubristic despotism, that Jeannot's intransigence might lead to the murder of his innocent followers. This tension increases as the political crisis worsens, culminating in a magnificently rendered chase that ends with the two men alone together, fleeing through the countryside on a motorbike as Jeannot's recorded words are broadcast to the nation.
It is the transformation of Father Paul's religious faith into the temporal creed of his apt pupil that forms the parallel plot to that of Jeannot's political fortunes. Although Father Paul has helped in Jeannot's mission to the poor, he has stayed away from politics—until Jeannot runs for the presidency and Father Paul's association with him becomes, in the eyes of the church and the entrenched establishment of Ganae, a liability. Secretly summoned to consult at the Vatican after a hasty flight to Canada to pray for his dying mother, Father Paul returns to Ganae, and a meeting of Jeannot's followers, deeply unsure of his own true mission:
"What was my duty? Was it, as the Cardinal said, to save these people's immortal souls, or was it to help Jeannot relieve their mortal misery? And as I stood there … seeing the happiness in the faces of those who crowded around the tables to eat the simple food prepared for them, into my mind came that quiet but deadly sentence: There is no other life."
Even in the secular world, however, Father Paul discovers that there is no surety: "The poor of Ganae believed in Jeannot as their Messiah, a Jesus come amongst them. The Kingdom of God is founded on faith. Faith is reason's opposite. Jeannot believed that God had chosen him. Now he would use that belief to change the lives of others. At that moment I was besieged by doubts. But I had faith in him. And so, I hoped to change things."
Like Father Aristide, who stood firm against the ruling class that remained in Haiti after the death of Papa Doc Duvalier and the departure of his son, Jeannot is forced into exile. But, unlike Father Aristide's, his exile is not to a foreign country. He simply vanishes, a move that makes him a deity to the followers he has left behind—but also deals a final blow to Father Paul's certainty of belief, in God and in man.
And what of the reader's belief? Mr. Moore's cunning tale makes palpable the profound ambivalence that lies at the root of our own modernity. And it suggests that our once-firm convictions about the consequences of religious doctrine and the efficacy of good deeds may be more captivating in death than in life: when Jeannot is no longer on the scene, the complexities and contradictions of the living man and his cause can be shrouded in pieties, held at a safe distance. This irony is suggested by Father Paul's description of the curious funeral of one of Jeannot's martyred followers, which he and Jeannot, fleeing from an Army-backed coup, stumble across in the countryside:
The dead man was seated at a table dressed, as was the custom, in his best clothes, a clean white shirt, denim trousers, sandals. His old felt fedora was perched jauntily on his head. On the table was a funerary wreath fashioned from white frangipani and red immortelles. A dish of plantains, beans and rice had been set before him and an unlit cigarette drooped from his lips. He was a peasant in his 30's, scarecrow thin, as were most of the others in the room. And then I saw the bullet hole in his temple. The blood had been cleaned away.
In a manner reminiscent of Valentin Mudimbe's Between Tides, the story of an African priest who exchanges the dogma of the church for that of Marxism, No Other Life is a powerful rendering of our loss of faith in the gods we choose to live by, and a vivid evocation of the spiritual and physical struggle that takes place as a result of that loss. It is a tribute to Brian Moore's craft that he has explored this subtle theme within a stormy drama based on real-life political travails. The greatest achievement of his novel is to have located the metaphysical in the political without diminishing our horror at the brutality both of the evils we seek to combat and those that can be unleashed in response our best-intentioned actions.
SOURCE: "One Step Away From Fanaticism," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 19, 1993, pp. 3, 11.
[Weaver is an American critic, translator, and travel writer who has written extensively on music and the theater. In the following review, he praises the economical style and engaging pace of No Other Life.]
"Only one step separates fanaticism from barbarism." In his new and disturbing novel Brian Moore quotes this line of Diderot and later, to underline its importance, he repeats the quotation. In fact, the pensée does illuminate a large part of the story, but—as the story further reminds—there is also only one step between saintly devotion and destructive fanaticism; and No Other Life is concerned also with the ambiguities of the whole process. How does a bright boy on a backward island, rescued from the endemic grinding poverty, succeed in becoming first a brilliant priest, then a potent political leader, then a quasi-dictator and—finally—a legend? Through a first-person narrator—at times the varied narrative strands observer, at other times participant—Moore interweaves into a glowing fabric of changing colors. Public life alternates with the profoundly private, secular with religious past with present and black with white.
Moore gives his Caribbean island the name Ganae. Readers of Graham Greene's novel The Comedians or Ian Thomson's remarkable autobiographical travel book Bonjour Blanc will probably identify Moore's setting with Haiti, though the corrupt political life, the Papa-Doc figure, the Tonton Macoute, the disease and unemployment and hunger could belong to other Third World areas. As in Haiti, race is the fundament of Ganae's society: the narrator is white, an elderly French-Canadian priest; the young protagonist is black; the antagonists are largely mix-ancestry, light-skinned aristocrats, members of the powerful caste who run the country, control the army and the church (and in some cases, also traffic in drugs, accumulating immense fortunes.)
The real political struggle in Ganae—as in Haiti—has traditionally been between the Creole-speaking blacks, exploited, deliberately kept uneducated, underpaid, underfed, and the French-speaking mulattoes, who shop in Paris, send their sons in the College St. Jean, the one local institution where boys can learn something, and, from there, go on to the Sorbonne or Oxford or Princeton. At the opening of the book, Father Paul Michel is retiring as headmaster and leaving the island where he has spent most of his adult life. Before going away, he decides to write down the account of the central experience of his years in Ganae.
Not long after Father Michel's arrival there, in a characteristic political upset, a young black country dentist was elected president, encouraged by the army, who assumed he would become their puppet. Instead, he becomes their terror. In his public speeches, he promises advantages for the black populace but they are soon his victims as much as their mixed-race enemies. As a token gesture, however, the prestigious College St. Jean decides to admit a few more blacks, to indicate goodwill to the dictator, who has been fulminating against elitist education. The newcomer, Father Michel is soon sent out to round up a few promising black students. "The following day I rode on mule back over a road never traveled by motor vehicles, up to a mud-walled mountain shack on land denuded by 300 years of ignorant and relentless agriculture." There he meets a woman, as worn and wasted as the land around her; a widow, she is raising four of her own children as well as two orphaned nephews. It is one of these, Jean-Paul Cantave, "Jeannot," who takes over the book and Father Michel's life. His aunt "gave him into my care as casually as she would give away a puppy from a litter."
Father Michel's account is for the most part, unemotional, even laconic. Naturally, this tone only heightens the drama, as the Canadian priest attempts through all the conflicts and violence, to maintain his detachment and, at the same time, his loyalties.
The boy Jeannot quickly elects Father Michel his role-model and determines to become a priest. Michel's mild do-good attitude, however, quickly becomes an overpowering social commitment in the boy. And when after an absence abroad, Pere Cantave returns to Ganae and is assigned to a poor parish where he quickly and compellingly voices his indignation, the disinherited rally behind him not just because he is outspoken in their defense, but also because they believe he is a saint or, indeed, God. Jeannot ce Messiah—Jeannot is the Messiah—becomes a popular cry.
If this Messianic role disturbs Jeannot's old mentor, it creates genuine alarm in religious circles (the higher prelates of Ganae are all the dictator's appointees). The young priest is not defrocked, but he is removed from his parish—after thugs have burned the church—and forbidden to say Mass. For a dedicated priest, this is a terrible punishment, and the author sensitively conveys Jeannot's suffering. At the same time the youth continues his active fight against injustice and—on the death of the dictator—Jeannot is elected president, supported by the opposition parties. The wicked generals flee to Paris; the humble priest—and some of the less transparent advisers he has now attracted—are installed in the incongruous kitsch presidential mansion.
On short notice, Michel has to fly to Canada, to his mother's deathbed. For a moment, the reader might think this is digression, but in a surprising and delicate, deftly-drawn scene with the dying woman, questions are raised which color the rest of the story from Canada, and Michel is summoned to the Vatican, where the political implications of Jeannot's case are subtly debated. Here Moore shows a grasp of ecclesiastical policies as firm as his control of Caribbean plots and country-plots.
No Other Life is not a political novel, nor is it an abstract debate without power, corruption and sanctity. For much of its course it reads like a superior thriller. There are massive crowd scenes worthy of Greene himself, and there is a hair-raising chase sequence that allows Moore in a page, or even in a paragraph, to introduce and define minor characters, whose responses to Jeannot's request for help contribute to the moral debate while maintaining the taut suspense.
Moore is a fertile writer of wide-ranging interests; but no matter how varied in subject and setting, his books all reflect an enduring concern with questions of morality, responsibility, and, always, he knows how to create characters—priests and lay—in convincing situations of trial and achievement.
SOURCE: "Lives of the Saints," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, No. 17, October 21, 1993, pp. 3, 6.
[Trevor is an acclaimed Irish short story writer, novelist, dramatist, and memoirist. In the following review, he commends the subtly detailed evocation of time and place and the insightful characterizations in No Other Life.]
The lives of the saints make fascinating reading. Saint Patrick, a slave on a lonely Irish mountainside, escaped from his bondage only to find himself overwhelmed by a sacred destiny that was as confining as any serfdom. Converting the people of the island where he had tended sheep, he gave his life to their spiritual well-being, made the locally ubiquitous shamrock the emblem of the Trinity, and rid the land of snakes.
Saint Ursula, child of tenth-century royalty in England, spurned the advances of a pagan king, wishing to remain a virgin, unwed and holy. Granted a generous period of grace, she took to the open sea with ten ladies-in-waiting who in turn were accompanied by a multitude of female servants and companions. For three years they sailed the seas in eleven vessels, until winds blew them up the Rhine to Cologne and on to Basel, where they disembarked, immediately making for Rome to pray at the tombs of the apostles. On the way back, unwilling to deny their Christian faith to godless captors, they were massacred.
Saint Joan left the plough to lead the armies of France. Scavenging dogs turned away from the corpse of Saint Bibiana, fearful of its sanctity. The Blessed Lucy endured a loss of blood through her stigmata every Wednesday and Friday for three years. The twin saints, Cosmas and Damian—moneyless doctors who took no fees for their services—defied death by water, fire, and crucifixion before they were beheaded.
So at least, in all these cases, it is said. There may be some other reason for the absence of snakes in Ireland, and for the fact that shamrock grows wild there while withering on the neighboring island. The voices that told Joan of Arc to save France may have been no more than the voices that today communicate with young schizophrenics. The martyrdom of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins is treated with reserve in the Roman liturgy. The dogs, when they nosed out poor Saint Bibiana, may have already scavenged their fill that day. Stigmata are not uncommon, nor is the defiance of death.
Yet these saints are venerated. They are real because people have made them so, their long vanished feature alive in the imaginations they nourish, their strength the faith of the faithful, the marvels of their lives an inspiration. And somewhere in the entanglements of exaggeration and myth there is a whispering insistence that human goodness is what matters most of all: however faint, it's a sound to honor with the benefit of the doubt.
Such goodness, though, is notoriously tricky territory for the fiction writer; trickier still to keep disbelief at bay when saintliness is possibly involved and the miraculous has a part to play. Yet novelists have to take chances and Brian Moore has always prospered by doing so. With the truth as its target, the obsession of the storyteller has repeatedly led him to difficult terrain: hot spots attract him. In his last novel, Lies of Silence, the hell-hole he explored was contemporary Northern Ireland, which could certainly do with another visit from Saint Patrick. The grimmest patch in Western Europe, with its gray, thudding helicopters and army check-points, its bloody Sundays and careless murderers, it is a place of lies: "lies told over the years to poor Protestant working people about the Catholics, lies told to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations, and, above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminster who did not want to face the injustices of Ulster's status quo."
In Moore's first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, the hell-hole is his heroine's daily existence. It is riddled with the consoling lies that soften reality for the credulous, and the happy little lies that blossom so warmly after one drink too many. Lost among them, Miss Hearne is as trapped by the ordinary circumstances of her life as the people of Belfast are by the misfortunes of history. And no saint comes to the rescue here, either.
The hot spot of No Other Life is a Caribbean island, corrupt, poverty-stricken, its beach fronts fouled, its priests and its people exploited, the weak and humble easy prey for roving gangs of uniformed bullies. Moore's Ganae strongly resembles contemporary Haiti, and there are recognizable parallels between Haiti's recent history and some, at least, of the events that occur in this novel. The warm, bright sunshine of Ganae illuminates nothing; darkness rules, and "the night is never silent. In the slums … there are no cars or trucks and so the noises of night are medieval. Voices quarrel, shout, sing drunken songs. Dogs bark. Roosters, wakened untimely, crow in darkness. Footsteps sound loud in the narrow, filthy streets."
The population of Ganae is made up of noirs, mulattos, and a few whites, the mulattos being the elite class. Creole and French are spoken, and the local dictator is Doumergue, appearing to the outside world as a meek, well-intentioned black man who has promised to fight illiteracy and provide decent schools. At official audiences in the presidential place his grubby suit doesn't fit properly, his battered black Homburg is handed apologetically to a bemedaled military aide before he mounts the throne that is the presidential chair. He states himself to be "the living incarnation of the people's wish to better their lives." In fact, he is a thug who has no wish to see anyone's life bettered except his own. Armed with old-fashioned Lee-Enfield rifles, his bleus—similar thugs, who take their title from their blue seersucker overalls—rob and intimidate. The army does what it's told.
The eyes through which the many images of Ganae under this dictatorship are observed belong to Father Paul Michel, a white Canadian priest who tells the story from the vacuum of retirement, looking back over twenty years to what Brian Moore has elsewhere called "the moment of crisis," although in Ganae it is one of many moments, crises being endemic there. One of the last white priests on the island, the last principal of the Collège St. Jean, Father Michel will end his days in a retreat house in Cuba.
He is given, before he goes, instead of a gold watch, a videotape of his long Caribbean sojourn. One of his former students, now the minister for foreign affairs, "praised me in his address for my efforts to bring the benefits of higher education to scholarship students from city slums and rural backwaters." And it's natural, Father Michel reflects, mulling over his flickering video at some later time, that one student in particular doesn't feature in it: Jeannot is best forgotten, best obliterated by simply not being there.
He found him in Doumergue's time, in a mud shack at the end of a mule track, a thirteen-year-old orphan, small and delicate, in a dirty denim shirt, patched trousers, and wooden-soled clogs. His teacher said he was brilliant; the aunt who looked after him—"a woman with the flayed face and wasted body of those who live on the rim of starvation"—was glad to be rid of that extra mouth to feed. Given into the priest's care with relief, Jeannot becomes a boarder at the Collège St. Jean.
In time he, too, enters the priesthood, inspired in his vocation by the misery of life in the slums of the town, its "black, swollen heart." Here, there is more than the poverty he knew among the mule tracks: a stench of sewage, no running water, no electric light, twelve-year-old girls selling themselves on the sidewalks, cripples, deformed children, starving babies, women covered in sores, the blind, the dumb, beggars who have never been anything else and never will be. This is the parish Jeannot chooses. Here he begins his imitation of Christ.
In Father Michel he engenders a father's pride. "I have failed in most of the things that I set out to do," the elderly priest confesses, but when the memory returns to him of his protégé offering the Mass in his crowded church, some of that failure dissipates. An old, well-used image of the Church of the Incarnation—as ugly as a garage, with its grim dun-colored walls and rough stucco—lightens his melancholy. It isn't at all a place where "one would expect to be caught in the magic and mystery of the Mass. And yet as we knelt, looking up at Jeannot, frail and childlike in a surplice that seemed to have been made for someone twice his size, it was as though he led us into a world from which all other worlds were shut out. As he raised the communion chalice, and in that solemn moment changed bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, we, who watched, were filled with the certainty that he, by the grace of God, performed a miracle at the altar. I, who have said Mass for forty years,… felt that, truly, God had come down among us."
And there's the memory, too, that when Jeannot preached it was with a voice so compelling that the congregation was transfixed:
Brothers and sisters. Today I want to raise you up. The Church is not far away in Rome. The Church is not archbishops and popes. The Church is us—you and I— And we who are the Church have a duty to speak out … But I warn you If you speak out you will receive blows. St. Paul received blows because he told the truth. But he endured them. As you will endure them, As I will endure them …
The prediction is a sound one. In no time at all the blows are falling as relentlessly as the rain that seasonally mocks the plywood shelters and tin- roofed hovels. Shots disturb the Mass in the Church of the Incarnation; blood and death are there, where a moment ago there was peace, and hope. Then two of Doumergue's gangsters turn their attention to the figure at the altar.
Suddenly, it was as though all of us were figures in a painting, frozen in a frame. Jeannot did not flinch. He stood facing the killers, his arms outstretched as if to embrace them. His face showed love, not fear…. Again the two assassins raised their rifles and fired. They were not more than thirty feet from their target, but the bullets went wide. The upraised arm of a statue to the right of Jeannot shattered and fell on the altar steps.
The finished priest, alone in old age with his memories and his videotape, might be memories and his videotape, might be forgiven if his recall mercifully becomes faulty here. A miracle has occurred. "Mesiah!" the crowd cries out. "Mesiah, Mesiah!" A saint is sanctified while everyone watches, while everyone is a witness. That surely should be the end: let the legends accumulate. In fact, it is only the beginning.
"I had long believed," Father Michel records, "that Jeannot was a saintly person, possibly a saint. If that were true, it was conceivable that God had saved him…. I had seen the assassins miss, firing at close range."
Whatever he is, however he is protected from on high, Jeannot is a nuisance now. All over the island it is already believed that he is a prophet, that God has sent him to save Ganae. His church is burnt to the ground by Doumergue's minions, he is censured by his archbishop for continuing to preach his provocative sermons, the papal nuncio orders him to abandon his parish. In his name, the people defy the dictatorship; he himself defies his Church. He believes, with the political priests of South America, that the true Church is the people's church. "God will avenge us!" is his dangerous rallying cry.
Two processes occur in the making of a novel, either simultaneously or consecutively, depending upon the novelist's idiosyncrasy and method. There is the creation of raw material—events and people gathered together in as higgledy-piggledy a muddle as they are in life—and the ordering of this accumulation, the trimming and shaping so that it takes the form of a story. In No Other Life, before the destruction of Jeannot's church, Moore concentrates on establishing an authenticity, a feeling of documentary or newspaper reportage. His backdrop is cunningly detailed so that it becomes believably snagged in the reader's imagination, and it is firmly in place before he permits his storyteller's curiosity to poke about in the world that is the backdrop's extension, before the search for truth begins in the make-up of fiction.
The action of this novel seems almost to write itself, but this impression is a deceptive one. Smoothly, quietly, everything is managed, and the puppet-master's strings aren't visible for an instant. Jeannot's sermons become speeches:
One hot meal a week. Yes, that is what the people eat in Cap Nord and Cap Sud … Work all day in the fields and come home to eat plantains at night. But here in Port Riche. What do the rich eat? The rich who hold power thanks to the generals. What do they eat? Fine French food. Imported meats. What do they drink? Fine French wine. Champagne.
But you have power too, Jeannot reminds the people who are increasingly his. Act, he urges them; but before they can do so Ganae's dictator dies. Immediately there is an opportunity for the revolution to be a bloodless one. For the first time in the island's history there can be democratic elections; and even though the Pope has forbidden priests to run for political office, Jeannot is persuaded to offer himself as the next president. Overwhelmingly he is voted in.
It is then that the bit-part player, Father Michel, begins to shed his peripheral role. The fiery young president inaugurates his program of reform, but the teacher-priest who led him by the hand from his mountain desert, who awoke in him an awareness of the ugly status quo, has to answer now for the turmoil that freedom and justice trail in their wake. It is he who is summoned to Rome, to explain, if he can, the disobedience of his protégé.
Father Michel travels, as well, to Canada, where his mother is dying. She is an old woman who has prayed diligently all her life, who has unwaveringly believed in God and the Church, and in her own immortal soul. Now, sensing the odor of death, as the dying are said to, she believes that no heaven awaits her, that nothing does. "You … have wasted your life," she sorrowfully chides her son, "telling people something which isn't true."
Is this some cruel senility speaking, or has the odor of death brought the truth with it? Is the firebrand who now rules Ganae right to insist that politics make more sense than priests? Is he right, while personally helping to clean the streets of years of filth, to insist that the priestly life without politics, without action, is nothing? Trapped between the denials of two generations in two different places and in different circumstances, Father Michel feels lost. Are his mother's children and grandchildren the only continuation of her life? Is the man he loves as a son inspired by vengeance for the past as much as by hope for the future? Everywhere there are questions without answers.
Yet as he listens to Jeannot's radio speeches as once he listened to his sermons, he still wonders if this is how the voice of a hated agitator was once heard in a remote province of the Roman Empire. A rabble-rousing, fanatical president Jeannot may be, but no one could call him evil, as his predecessor was. He is foolish. He is politically naive. His boys are the new bleus. Suspicious of a parliament to which, as yet, they owe no gratitude, the president's followers demonstrate against it and would prefer the dictatorship of the leader they trust. "Justice time" is the expression used, and there is killing again in Ganae. Yet somehow, Father Michel believes, it may all come right.
Peering back from the shadows to that particular time, he sees that it never did. Things fell apart, again, in Ganae. The saint whose destiny he was certain about was an ersatz saint, flawed because he did not possess the gift of wisdom. When, in turn, Jeannot was deposed he was led back to obscurity by his childhood rescuer and the two passed through a village in which a wake was in progress. More vivid than anything on Father Michel's videotape, there is the remembered image of the dead man—another victim of politics—seated at a table in his best clothes, an unlit cigarette drooping from his lips, an old fedora jauntily on his head. There were drums and a mandoline that day, a wreath of frangipani and red immortelles. Grouped around the upright corpse, the mourners ceased their chanting dirge when they recognized the fleeing Jeannot. They touched his clothes, and wept, and smiled, and bowed in holy veneration.
The cry of joy—"C'e Mesiah! C'e Mesiah!"—heard then for the last time in Ganae, and absent of course from Father Michel's videotape—mocks him from his more truthful memory. As does the girl he once desired on a street somewhere, and the face of another girl, and the mulatto beauty he desired in middle age, and his mother dying. Such uneasy images and echoes are what kept him company, but at least they're better than the official lies of silence.
For the elderly priest pondering his life, there is no pattern, no gleam of illumination in his weariness, only confusion and bewilderment, and his own wild thought that, yes, perhaps his mother was right. In the midst of so much distortion, so much misreading of diving promise and intention, it seems more likely now that eternal life can only be begged for, and is not guaranteed. He can be sure only of the story he tells, of the saint that never was and the drama of an innocence that ignominiously failed, leaving behind even less meaning than there appeared to be originally.
No Other Life is a beguiling, marvelously readable account of a good priest's vocation. As all successful novels do, it reverberates and haunts, its intensity lingering long after the book has come to an end. Brian Moore has written nothing as subtle, or as perfectly sustained.
SOURCE: "The Epiphanies of Love and Loss," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 13, 1994, pp. A, G.
[In the following essay, written to commemorate Moore's reception of the Robert Kirsch Award, Miles praises the psychological acuity and moral profundity of Moore's fiction, commending, in particular, his portrayal of women, priests, and artists.]
The anonymous judge for the Robert Kirsch Award noted that among the many distinguished authors living in or writing about the American West, there is "only one inescapable candidate" for The Times' highest literary honor—Brian Moore.
Moore, a resident of Malibu since shortly after World War II, is certainly the most distinguished novelist living on the West Coast of the United States, although his reputation is international. In fact, the judge noted, Moore is "like the prophet without honor in his own country," celebrated with many literary prizes in England, Canada and his native Ireland, but never here.
From his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, which developed the cult status among British students that Catcher in the Rye did in the United States, the judge observed that he has had a loyal and discerning following that reaches beyond the reputation of being "a novelist's novelist" by which he is also known.
Though none of his 18 novels is quite like any of the others, he writes for the most part in a traditional novelistic manner; the judge offered a comparison to author Graham Greene, whose work Moore admires and who in turn designated Moore as the contemporary novelist he most admired.
"Like Greene," the Kirsch judge commented, "Moore has written novels of the kind Greene called his 'entertainments'—serious thrillers which in Moore's case even more than in Greene's have a marked psychological and moral interest—though the bulk of his fiction, like Greene's, is concerned with the most profound and reverberating moral questions, such as the dilemmas of Catholic faith, of the uniquely isolated individual in a hostile society, of passionate but unrequited love.
"When I think of the problem of the serious writer in our time, who works in the shadow of mass catastrophes that threaten to overwhelm the imagination, I think of Moore and his ability to find a context and a scale for the individual life through which he can engage the great questions of politics, faith, and conscience, and I am grateful that he lives among us."
Moore's Judith Hearne is a literary triumph of a very rare sort, for she is the sort of woman in whom virtually no man—and no male writer—would take an interest. (Her failure with men is, in fact, one of the themes of the book.) The challenge of drawing a believable character of the opposite sex is one of the largest any novelist faces. Male novelists usually overcome it by creating a larger-than-life spectacle of a woman or, if the woman must be ordinary, moving her through a set of extraordinary events. In this novel, Moore makes Judith compelling without resorting to either of those ploys.
In several of Moore's novels, including I Am Mary Dunne, The Doctor's Wife and The Temptation of Ellen Hughes, his fascination with the kind of woman who holds up half of heaven but rarely merits literary attention returns to the fore. Married or not, the Moore heroine is the little woman, small because she has never been allowed to grow; but he notices her with a kind of love, as an attentive teacher might notice a child sitting a bit too quietly in the corner. She interests him in the very plainness of her character. He draws her out and makes us interested in her without ever tricking her out in quirky characterological adornment. There is something, finally, quite dazzling about this feat.
Brian Moore is a Northern Irish ex-Catholic who has spoken gratefully of the upper-class Protestant family who opened to him the larger world of English literature and secular British culture. He eventually left the British Isles for, initially, Canada (he remains a Canadian citizen) and then the United States.
But rather than a migration from one country to the next, this movement has been a concentric enlargement with Belfast ever at its center. Quite literally, Moore divides his time among the several countries to which he owes some emotional allegiance, among which France—as for so many Irish intellectuals—must also be numbered. If he is not in flight, he may be said to be in a particular kind of exile, taking his place in the history of distinguished European writers who for personal or political reasons chose to live at this far western edge of the western world. Among the recognizable varieties of California writer, the European in exile is unquestionably one.
The late Graham Greene, an Englishman who was in spiritual and often enough physical exile from England for much of his life, had something in common with Moore, Greene fled from England toward (if not quite to) the Church, Moore from the Church toward (if not quite to) England. Each stalled a bit short of his destination, and in the no-man's-land between belief and unbelief and between the British Isles and Everywhere Else they have been fellow travelers. "Greeneland," as critics eventually called it, was the generic Third World outpost where the inadequacies—above all the spiritual inadequacies—of the First World could be seen stripped of the bright costume that concealed them back home. "Mooritania," as we might call it, overlaps with Greeneland, notably in Moore's most recent novel, No Other Life, which is set in a place very like Haiti. But Moore's Ireland, post-colonial and as seedy and corrupt as any tropical venue, offers in its way all that Haiti offers.
A priest in any of these settings is an interesting character, a failed or spoiled priest often the most interesting character of all. As something of a failed or spoiled priest myself, I am not above being a bit touchy about fictional versions of the type. But what troubles all us believers or near-believers or former believers or nostalgic unbelief-refusers about "blasphemous" fiction is never the blasphemy proper. There is, if anything, something off-putting about the writer who fancies he has shocked you when he hasn't come close. It is rather the pretension one trips over all too often that art or story—telling or, God help us, film-making is somehow ultimate and therefore sacred.
Neither Greene nor Moore ever wraps himself in those flowing robes, but of the two it is Moore who has always seemed to me to have the greater self-conscious control of the issue. Moore's The Mangan Inheritance is, for me, the ultimate ruination of the sacred untruth that the writer is not as other men.
Finally, a brief word on style. Partly because of his penchant for failed characters (success, he once told an interviewer, dilutes character, failure distills it) and for characters without rich resources of culture or education, Moore's style is sometimes quite plain. He writes, so to speak, close to his characters' impoverished bone. But once in a great while, he steps outside his always meticulously constructed narrative and allows himself a passage of rich, lyrical description. These passages are always few, they always leave the reader crying for more. Like Shakespeare's songs, they become an element in the suspense: never guaranteed but always possible and always a delight when provided. One looks back on them with pleasure and forward to them with hope.
Let that appreciative and expectant mood stand in lieu of any more searching characterization of the body of work for which, at 73, Brian Moore receives this award. The Kirsch Award judge called himself "grateful" that Moore lives among us. A good enough word, but the position that most of Moore's readers assume when they think about him is not, I suspect, the abashed and dutiful posture of the indebted but the cockier, slightly self-congratulatory pose of the lucky. For those fortunate enough to have found their way to him, Brian Moore is a wonderful piece of luck.