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Issue 6 |
Fall 1974

The Novels of Brian Moore: a retrospective

Largely because of shifting academic and popular fashions, because of his own mix of Anglo-Irish, Russian, French and American traditions, and because of his sophisticated reticence - not to mention more mysterious factors determining literary celebrity - Brian Moore seems to me, as perhaps Nathanael West was up until ten years ago, a case of remarkable and original talent in severe neglect. Of his eight novels (see bibliography below), which have been appearing regularly every few years since the late 50's, only his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) and his latest Catholics (1973) are readily available. Of the others, perhaps three are minor classics (An Answer From Limbo, 1962; The Luck of Ginger Coffey, 1960; I Am Mary Dunne, 1968), all are gracefully crafted and imaginatively daring, and the canon as a whole - and Moore is one of the few living writers who deserves to be read and judged for a canon - comprehensive, vigorous, impressive on a major scale. Comparable writers, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Bowen, Wright Morris - even Daniel Fuchs - are known, discussed, collected and available, and my contention is that it's high time also for Moore, and in a larger sense for Moore's kind of fiction in a marketplace/forum dominated by figures like Mailer, Styron, Malamud, Roth, Updike, Vonnegut (not to mention the self-styled experimentalists), all of whom are Moore's "contemporaries." Moore's orbit is importantly different, in tone and subject suggesting company like the dramatists Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Paddy Chayefsky, the line of American moral realism stretching from Anderson to Porter to Wallant, the Russian background of Chekov and Gorki, the English of Dickens, the Irish of early Joyce, whose presence is felt most deeply, perhaps more deeply and with mellower richness - and originality - than in most other "Joycean" writers.

The largest attention Moore received was at the start of his career. Judith Hearne was published in England in 1955, then after some eleven rejections picked up here by Atlantic-Little, Brown in 1956, who also published Feast of Lupercal in 1957, Ginger Coffey in 1960, and An Answer From Limbo in 1962. During this period there was talk of Judith Hearne being done as a Broadway play, then as a movie by John Huston (neither project was realized); Moore received a Guggenheim in 1959 (as did Roth and Updike); other prizes followed; he wrote the screenplay and finally saw Ginger Coffey produced as a successful movie. Footloose, he followed what must be a classic pattern of geographical stations towards literary success: Ireland - by way of Europe, Montreal, New York - to Los Angeles, where he has pretty much remained. But by the time he reached California, critical acclamation had crested; verdict was in on him as a first novelist, and though subsequent books have received respectful reviews and publishers' blurbs proclaim each his masterpiece (better than Judith Hearne), he has been known largely as a novelist's novelist, shifted from publisher (Viking) to publisher (Holt), and been relatively forgotten by both major and minor magazines - with the signal exception of Catholics appearing, with sensitive editorial commentary, in New American Review #15.

I admire him most for his nerve, and stamina, and risk of form against subject matter that for the rest of us, novelists or readers, would seem, as James would say, to lack the necessary "lurking forces of expansion." But it is the very underestimation of material, our gratuitous dismissal of it as commonplace or our sentimental or satirical acceptance of it as stereotype, our oddly static notions of the "interesting" that Moore's novels grapple with and often disconcertingly and movingly put to shame. Nor is this mere virtuosity - a skillful exercise with literary problems - though the novels are often read as tours de force, but a kind of self-effacing (or self-surrendering) inquiry into the circumstances, the possibilities, the human complexity, of commonplace, yet spiritually isolated lives, which may challenge fictions of our self-content. But then it is exactly these fictions that Moore feels compelled to revise, fully anticipating the resistance voiced by the Artist-as-a-Young-Man's sister in Emperor of Ice Cream (1965):

"Oh, go on. You always make out that things are special even when they're perfectly ordinary. You're a reverse snob. Gav. Just because these people are peculiar, doesn't make them romantic. . ."
     "But . . . This fellow Hargreaves is very interesting. And there's Captain Lambert, the boozer."
     "What's so great about boozers? I see them every day, hanging about the labor exchange opposite our office. . ."

(Bantam, p.25)

Or that other suggestion of what's "interesting," expressed as an indictment of the Artist-as-an-Older-Man in Fergus (1970):

"The problem here. . . is that this man is not living in history. His work, such as it is, ignores the great issues of the age."

(Holt, p.90)

Both of these careless (and I think defensive) responses - echoed I might add by freshmen to whom I tried to teach Judith Hearne - describe the complex and perhaps inevitably prevailing attitude that Moore, I think brilliantly and indispensably, stands above. Moore's novels are designed to discover and exercise a widened sense of community in defiance of contemporary tendencies towards alienation, deracination, self-absorption, indifference to others, whether these are based on culturally conditioned values for glamour, or success, or sophistication, intellect, class, ethnic background, sex, or religion. The mode of that discovery is imaginative, ironic, and humanistic, and strenuously avoids, as say "proletarian" novels, or religious soap operas, or good hearted polemics do not, the easier and often rousing didactics that may address "great issues of the age," but which still essentially insulate and even congratulate the reader. If the typical problem for a Moore protagonist is one of self-justification, confused by a conflict between social or religious definition and essential need, for the reader it is one of at once sharply contemplating differences and recognizing with pity, hilarity, and wonder (and occasionally with exasperation) our common nature and our common fate. Abstract issues are involved, inviting our agreement or dissent - yes, Irish Catholicism is inhibiting and mean; yes, glossy Amerika is dehumanizing; also, yes, we must come to terms with not deny our pasts - but the deeper provocation is for us to imagine and to feel, to pity, sympathize with, and to judge other lives that unexpectedly mythologize implications of our own. Nor are the books "cautionary" (as Auden sees West's) or "hard" or "savage" (as their early sixties blurbs proclaim); but for this reader at least liberating in their balanced and inclusive generosity.

As a self-contained performance, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is undoubtedly the best-written, most intense, wildly imaginative, exuberant and powerful of the books, and along with Connell's Mrs. Bridge, Wallant's The Pawnbroker, and Yate's Revolutionary Road, remains one of the authentic if uncelebrated classics of the last twenty years. One can only suggest aspects of its richness: the wildness and boldness of conception - bringing a commonplace spinster who lacks even family ties - one thinks of Joyce's Eveline, or Flaubert's Simple Heart, Anderson's Alice Hindman, or Mansfield's Miss Brill - to the ultimate awareness of Dostoyevski's Grand Inquisitor. Let alone the goblin instincts of a Smerdyakov, what becomes of an "ordinary," decent character, endowed with neither wealth, nor looks, nor wit, when in her need she discovers no response, no help, no love from either the society or religion whose strictures promised some eventual reward?

Supposing, just supposing, her heart cried, supposing nobody has listened to me all these years of prayers. Nobody at all up above me, watching over me. Then nothing is sinful. There is no sin. And I have been cheated. . . It would be nature, not sin. . . No hell, no purgatory, no responsibility to God. If all the priests were wrong and you died and slept into the nothingness, what point, then, in all of that?

(Atlantic-Little, Brown, p.126)

Or as Bernard, the novel's Machiavel-Mephistophilis, puts it:

Religion is it? And what has religion ever done for you, may I ask? Do you think God gives a damn about the likes of you and me? I don't know what got you into this mess. I can guess - you're no beauty and this is a hard country to find a man in - but I know what's keeping you this way. Your silly religious scruples. You're waiting for a miracle. . .You've got to make your own miracles in this world. . .(159)

There may be here, as C. S. Lewis remarks of Chaucer's Troilus's "waiting," a kind of aesthetic treason. Like Chaucer, Moore

spares us no detail of the prolonged and sickening process to despair: every fluctuation of gnawing hope, every pitiful subterfuge of the flattering imagination, is held up to our eyes without mercy. The thing is so painful that perhaps no one without reluctance reads it twice. In our cowardice we are tempted to call it sentimental.

( Allegory of Love, p. 195)

Faith and daydreams - of human love or divine - are all that Judith Hearne has, the only hope or motive of her life, besides her "sinful" indulgence in drink that leaves her "more lonely, more despised," and that promises no future but growing "old in a room, year by year, until they take [her] to a poor-house" (209). As these are undermined, her doubt precipitates her "passion" (suffering/emotion), the buried life - rejecting where it's been rejected - erupts, need exceeds fear or shame, and she challenges the heart of her illusions, performing a "sacrilege," which in proving nothing but her need, leaves her in what Moore later calls in Catholics "that null, that void," all passion spent, knowingly relying on the personification of a world of familiar objects - imagination's "miracles" - as her only comfort in an otherwise barren future. The "answer" she enacts would seem to be Wallace Stevens's: "The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else" ( Adagia). "Little shoe-eyes, always there . . . When they're with me, watching over me, a new place becomes home" (225). There is desolating pathos here, and grotesqueness, but more than that a kind of heroic resilience, like the "not only enduring, but prevailing" of Faulkner's Dilsey or Steinbeck's Rose of Sharon, all the more impressive since Judith Hearne lacks their maternal purpose, has no one to share life with, no one to undergo it for - except herself, and the friendly projections she knows are as unreal as they are necessary. Partly the heroic note of this conclusion, along with the depth of passion that Judith Hearne has managed to express, allays any charge of "treason" - of forcing us to contemplate something irreconcilably depressing - but more so there is the loving fullness and immediacy with which the story is dramatized, its clarity of structure, its sharpness and diversity of characterization (presenting an extreme range of alternative values, energies and fates), the interrelation of multiple "plots,"and the stylistic range and vitality of spirit that makes the whole thing possible. There is perpetual delight and shock of recognition as, modulating sympathetic commentary with narrative paraphrase and internal monologue, Moore gives us fluid access to the disparate points of view of a whole community of characters, their silent and spoken voices, their misconceptions of each other and themselves, and develops the ironies of their mutual isolation and their need for a quality of "charity" (almost in the medieval religious sense) from each other, which they themselves are either unable or unwilling to give. In that sense, the book itself is a triumphant exercise (and experience) in the sympathetic respect and celebration of human being, lack of which is perhaps the broadest cause of the waste, blunder, and disappointment suffered by the characters within it.

The Feast of Lupercal moves beyond this in interesting ways, focusing on the erotic paralysis of a thirty-seven year old bachelor school teacher (a kind of Forster character manque or a more congenial James Duffy), who is otherwise intelligent, economically secure, an accepted member in the school and immediate Catholic Belfast community, who has friends and social opportunities and who in considerable contrast to Judith Hearne (and this would seem to be an important challenge to Moore) is enfranchised and endowed in basic ways which she was not, yet who is like her sexually repressed and inhibited and as fearful as destitute of the "connection" and mutual intimacy, concern and trust that participates in vital and affirmative purpose. If the extreme case of Judith Hearne relied heavily on misfortune, in this book Moore is portraying a loneliness more clearly (and strangely) essential, for Diarmuid Devine (Dev) does get his chance, only to discover and to expiate and finally to accept his inability to take it. Una Clark, young, pretty, Protestant, niece of a Catholic colleague and friend, and by Belfast standards "wild" (by ours, "healthy," "normal"), presents the problem. On the rebound from an unhappy "affair" with a married man in Dublin, she likes Dev, and risking censure and scandal, he can't help pursuing her. Like Judith Hearne pursuing James Madden, abandoning pride and "forgiving" him his "commonness," Dev both forgives and is fascinated by the worst he can imagine about Una: her Protestant "looseness," her fallen state. Each imagines the other "experienced," and when Eros leads them shyly to Dev's bedroom, shame for his own virginity, fear of inadequacy and of the subsequent humiliation render him impotent, and Una, of course, who is also - contrary to his belief - a virgin, experiences this as an equally humiliating rejection. Unable not only to make love, but also to "think of anybody but himself," he sits stunned, while she shuts herself in the next room and weeps herself to sleep; he finds her there hours later, and "the desire he could not summon came quick and troubling," but again he suppresses it: "Was that not his sinful imagination once more, the imagination which atrophied reality?" Perhaps the ultimate cause of his impotence, or "barrenness," as it is also a key factor in the isolation of characters in Judith Hearne, lies in this conflict between imagination and reality, each threatening to "atrophy" rather than involve each other. As his guilt deepens, not only for physical failure, but for a larger moral and human responsibility to Una, who is caught and compromised on returning home in the morning, and who in turn refuses to compromise him by telling where she's been, Dev at once fears losing the "reality" that has been his carefully ordered life, and questions whether that "reality" itself has been a "dream" - whether the suppressed imperative both of instinct and conscience isn't somehow larger and more final:

Every dreamer must one day wake. Until a few days ago, he had thought well of himself. Of course, there had been moments, moments that must come to everyone, when a life hereafter does not seem believable, when heaven and hell are only words without meaning, matched against the fact of breathing stopped, the heart stilled. He had avoided those moments, he had put dreams to work when they came to frighten him. One of those dreams was that he had not yet been tried, but that, if tried, he would not be found wanting in the deeds of this world. Love and loyalty.

(Atlantic-Little, Brown, 218)

Partly it's the Irish Catholic mentality (as Moore presents it) that "explains" Dev, as it does Judith Hearne, and provincial rectitude that we blame for condemning their "passion" to private fantasy and secret "sin." As the proud and overzealous school Dean intones: "All men are human. . .But that's no reason to show we tolerate it" (236), and this would seem to be the ruling spirit that conditions fear of exposure as well as which-hunting zeal, the power of slander, and the substitution of social judgment for understanding. The secret of their night together spreads, however, and Dev finds himself in the dilemma of exonerating himself now as well as Una from one order of "sin" only by confessing to another order somehow deeper and more embarrassing: "Here's why you can believe me . . . Because I'm a virgin myself . . . Because when I did want to do it, I couldn't . . . I am not normal" (222). Hearing this, Una's uncle is moved with indignation more primitive than churchly rectitude, and like the flogging priests of the Roman festival from which the book takes its name, and also like a teacher (Dev himself has been caning boys for "errors" throughout) canes Dev, as if - the reader interprets - this would remove "the reproach of barrenness" from him. But the barrenness has not only been Dev's, and in his humiliation and in the public revelation it accomplishes the general spirit of meanmindedness is chastised and corrected. The self-serving and intolerant Dean is overruled by the more humane (or is it "practical"?) school President, and scandal is turned against itself in defense of "innocence": Dev will not be dismissed, since that would only confirm rumors that would reflect on the school. For his part, Dev recognizes his humiliation as "expiation," and as he confronts the opportunity of Una (and probably of any woman) for one last time, he does so with a newly "realistic" awareness of their incompatibility. He is not "normal" - still fearing involvement, still depending on "the status quo" - but he is more than barren now by virtue of his confession and self-acceptance and the painful resignation with which he lets her go.

For all its strengths, its Dickensian detail, its variety and picturesqueness of supporting characters, its contrasts, its creation of "worlds," its creation of Dev's own lonely voice (his casuistry, evasion, mental chattering), its magnificent scenes, occasionally wild comedy, its complexity of plot and theme; and perhaps because of its self-imposed handicaps (Moore "experiments" here in denying himself the dramatic technique, the stylistic characterization through multiple points of view, and the ultimate, higher-key crises of Judith Hearne): The Feast of Lupercal, itself no mean achievement, is nevertheless one of Moore's least arresting novels. The impact is diffused; too much appears to be going on for its own sake, and the ironic perspective is spread too thin. The same cannot be said of The Luck of Ginger Coffey, where similar strengths and totally new material (again) are given integrated vividness, dramatic impact, and powerful narrative drive. Continuing to complicate and investigate his earlier themes, Moore posits a protagonist more "normal" than Devine, and with still greater "luck" - Coffey has a desirable, intelligent and humanly attractive wife, as well as a teenage daughter; has achieved family relationship where Moore's earlier characters cannot. But also dreams continue to render Coffey "sterile," and in searching for different opportunity, believing in a different order of merit, he neither recognizes nor appreciates his real luck until he almost loses it. He must be better than "normal," especially as normalcy is defined (again) by the provincial past, which is now also a geographical place - Ireland:

There's always one boy . . . who doesn't want to settle down like the rest of us. He's different, he thinks. He wants to go out into the great wide world and find adventures . . . So, what does he do? He burns his boats and off he runs. And what happens? Well, I'll tell you. Nine times out of ten that fellow winds up as a pick-and-shovel laborer or at best a two penny pen-pusher in some hell on earth . . . that no sensible man would be seen dead in. And why? Because that class of boy is unable to accept his God-given limitations and his talk of finding adventures is only wanting an excuse to get away and commit mortal sins. . .

(Atlantic-Little, Brown, p. 17)

The unwitting authority of this sermon (heard in boyhood) is tested ironically throughout the book; we identify with Coffey's reaction from it - unlike Judith Hearne or Devine, he rebels against "sterile" conditioning ("sensible man" by the Irish priest's definition would be one of Joyce's Dubliners); and yet that rebellion, substituting for the "dream" of heaven, hell and normalcy, the dream of "making something of himself," of being "rich in spirit," achieving worldly "success," equally denies his nature and produces wrong not only to himself, but to those who love and depend upon him. Happily married, "she got pregnant the month he married her," preventing Coffey from joining the British Side in World War II: "He wanted to see some action but she said his duty was with his family. Family! He wanted adventure, not diapers . . ." Since then the principle persists, to the detriment of their marriage: "They would not have another child . . . Not until he was good and ready" (29). Similarly, his role as a provider falters. He refuses work at home in "humble circs"; they emigrate to Canada, "the land of opportunity," on a crackpot scheme that flounders, and bad goes to worse: he can't find "worthwhile" work, and must lie to Vera (his wife), who is meanwhile being tempted to desert him by a "successful" Irish-Canadian friend, and who more to save their marriage than for economic reasons insists that if Ginger can't find work they return to Ireland at once. With superb comedy, pathos and dramatic depth (and with deceptively graceful control of an extremely busy plot), Moore develops a series of subsequent reverses that leave Ginger, lies exposed, bereft of his wife (who goes to live and, Ginger thinks, to sleep with the friend), ineptly responsible for his teenage daughter (who becomes unruly), and finally slaving in "humble circs" as a proofreader by night (with promise of promotion to the "adventurous" job of reporter) and a Tiny Ones diaper serviceman by day in an attempt to win back Vera's love and pity and respect. His ordeal also takes him through this "hell on earth" to reveal presentations of the grotesque fates his "sins" portend: Warren K.Wilson, for instance, "a single man, a free man . . . who could still dream youth's dreams," and whose YMCA room is "jammed with evidence of boyish schemes . . . Yet Wilson was no longer a boy. The thin neck was clawed with age" (111), or "old doddering Billy," the proofreader Ginger learns is an Irish "immigrant same as you," and who raises the question whether Ginger might also "end his days in some room, old and used" (207). But it's not until the "worst" - Ginger has promised Vera a divorce if he doesn't get the reporter's job, and in one of the book's most painful twists has also turned down a managerial job with Tiny Ones on the prospect, and then the reporter's job is refused - that the dreams give out, that for final humiliation he's arrested on a comically mistaken charge, gives a false name to protect Vera, and staring at his reflection (as he has been throughout) realizes: "A man's life was nobody's fault but his own. Not God's, not Vera's, not even Canada's. His own fault. Mea culpa" (222). If this solemn admission reminds us of Devine, Coffey's "real" opportunity remains larger; he and Vera are reconciled, but to the extent his love for her also has been a "dream," Coffey discovers:

Love isn't an act, it's a whole life. It's staying with her now because she needs you; it's knowing you and she will still care about each other when sex and daydreams, fights and futures - when all that's on the shelf and done with.

As for "success," "Life was the victory, wasn't it? Going on was the victory. For better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. . . till . . ." (243). Isolation, wasted potential, and death are the sobering facts against which no dreams are defense - and however conventional the wisdom, Moore makes us feel this as a hard won, personal discovery. "Life" is its own meaning, its worth discovered and enforced in living, in the awakening to other lives, in marriage, in fatherhood, in loving and being loved - and as such it is Coffey's responsibility and privilege (and our own). As for the substantiating experience across which Coffey's discovery is dramatized, Moore is in top form here. Through Ginger's point of view and through the language and character of his sensibility, not only do the wife, daughter, rival, and Moore's usual range of lesser characters come independently alive (their dialogue and actions contrasting to Ginger's "understanding" of them), but so does Montreal and in a larger sense Canada (or the New-World). Without failing to develop the story, through Ginger Moore gives us the diaper service, the newpaper offices and pressroom, the bars, streets, YMCA, apartments, jail - all of it vivid and in its dramatic purpose oddly exotic. He also gives us-scenes, which in their "ordinary" likelihood become exotic because somehow "unimaginably" comprehensive and complex: instance the quarrels between Ginger and Vera, but especially those with their daughter present. It's all there - the childish yet justified personal complaints of Ginger and Vera in conflict with their responsibility as parents and their underlying need for each other, their combat for Paulie's endorsement, Paulie's own confusion of love and respect, her conflicting need for both adult independence and a child's security (cf. pp. 155-161, esp.). Somehow the fullness, the tensions and outbursts (Coffey's attempted rape of Vera, her cool reproach), the dimensions of the situation are more than we expect, outreaching and surprising our own pale conjecture, even as similar scenes in soapopera insult us. We may experience such scenes in "life," but for their very familiarity can't "imagine" them, and the fascination of Moore's "realism" is that it helps us to, and to contemplate as well as to experience them (and from all sides) through the sympathetic, yet humorous and critical perspective of his dramatic narrative. As a consequence, one reader remarked, they become a part of one's thinking.

The central question of An Answer From Limbo follows directly from The Luck of Ginger Coffey, yet asks more. What if the "dreams" that deny normalcy, that conflict with the imperatives of relationship are like those of hero, saint or artist, comparably valid? This is the case, and the conflict, in Moore's portrait of an artist, as it is in Joyce's, and more somberly Ingmar Bergman's (whose Through A Glass Darkly preceded Moore's novel by two years, but then there are many thematic parallels between Bergman and Moore). Moore brings all his strengths to this novel, consolidating the successes of the earlier books and at the same time reaching beyond them, organizing perhaps the most extreme range of experience anywhere in the canon. Brendan Tierney, the young writer working on his first novel, has left his Irish past (where his ambitions, like Coffey's, have been scorned and stifled), married American, and settled down with his wife and two young children in New York. For him to write full time, his wife must work, and for her to work, someone must look after the children; they can't afford a maid: ergo, one answer from limbo, his widowed mother, whom he invites from Ireland to live in their spare room. Reversing Jamesian pattern, she becomes the representative of provincial morality in sophisticated, amoral, and emancipated America, and is not only isolated and bewildered in its midst, but helplessly at odds with the life style and values of her son and daughter-in-law (Jane), and alarmed for the spiritual welfare of their children. Meanwhile Jane, denied "normal" reinforcements as wife and mother - an attentive, concerned and responsibly providing husband - is on the one hand provoked to satisfy fantasies of extra-marital adventure, and on the other guilt stricken for doing so and for neglecting the children, and infuriated to have her rightful domestic roles usurped by Mrs. Tierney. The situation evolves a kind of moral "handy-dandy" (in the sense of Lear's Fool): everyone's right and everyone's wrong and we do care which because what happens hurts. Guilty of "interference" and of a complicated "selfishness" (persisting in a hostile situation, trying to "make up" with her grandchildren for failures with her own and for a proud rectitude that ignores her own fallibility in condemning Jane's), Mrs. Tierney is kicked out; Jane and Brendan on the other hand are guilty of "coldness and abandonment" not only in kicking her out, and later in leaving her alone to die of a heart attack, when their promised call or visit might have saved her, but in their neglect of their children and each other. And yet again, as Mrs. Tierney, Jane, even Vito Italiano (the nononsense cocksman) are in their ways humanly attractive and justifiable, it is Brendan himself who must bear the greatest blame, for he has initiated the conflicts, had it in his power to vitiate them, and human cost in the book is balanced against the value of his dream and the moral nature of his commitment to it. As dreamers, Mrs. Tierney (whose dream is that she has led a good life, been a good Catholic) and Jane (whose dream is that her modernity, in its rejection of past values is "natural," "valid," "liberating") have their awakenings, Mrs. Tierney, secure in her faith, yet newly conscious of unworthiness and shame and the mixed motives and contradictions of her humanity (cf.pp.189-91,255-59,Dell), and Jane with faith in nothing, realizing the sterility of a selfishness she can't escape:

At twenty-eight, wasn't it an admission of failure to have no person, no thing which you loved more than you loved yourself? I do not love myself . . . but I do not love others either, then I am no better than Brendan . . . For a time she sat staring at the city's red glow, remembering . . . the catch phrases of her time: affluent society, beat generation, existential decision, nuclear holocaust. But somehow she could not feel that the plight of her generation could really be called tragic . . . it was pathetic. And in college she had been told that pathos was an inferior emotion. Perhaps that is our tragedy . . . We have lost our dreams and are therefore pathetic. No, that doesn't make sense. Pathetic is not tragic . . . The city was no longer on fire. It seemed dead (p.276)

It is problematic, however, whether Brendan ever "wakes." If the ultimate dream is "greatness" (7), cosmic "praise" (220), or literary "sainthood" (284), the immediate one is finishing and publishing the book that will prove the world's been wrong (29) and that his "life's search has not been a delusion." (171). Increasingly, however, he questions whether his book will prove that:

The literary life in New York was a vast charade in which people pretended to be other than they were. Their ambitions remained private fantasies; they had neither real beliefs nor the courage to implement them. Was I one of them? . . . Was I really prepared to be a Flaubert? (75)

And whether in any case he can support the human responsibility for risking it, whether his talent merits compromise or sacrifice: "You'll sacrifice other people," advises one critic, "But will you sacrifice yourself?" Despite these guilts and doubts, however, and costing the sacrifice of others ("getting rid of your mother, eh boy?"), the dream gains conviction, the book gets contracted and finished, and Brendan finds himself "changing from the person I used to be," for confronted with maximum human guilt, responsibility can only redeemed by dream: "Writing . . . is the belief that replaces belief," and his own faith is parallel to his mother's, no sounder, but just as necessary, valid as faith in its very independence of fact. Recognizing that: that his justification is an open problem, to be proven "in this testing ground" according to the possibilities of art, he becomes a stranger to himself, no longer mother's son, wife's husband, father of his children, but a "curiously vulgar watcher," like the Bergmanesque novelist he had earlier despised ("Poor bastard . . . He's not human: he's a writer" - 66), and stands at his mother's grave "Taking mental notes so that he can write about it later." In this detachment: "I have altered beyond all self-recognition. I have lost and sacrificed myself" (288). The reader, however, has difficulty believing or fully respecting Brendan's belief, and belief itself, shy of proof, fails to balance the fact of its cost to the other characters we've cared for in the story. For unlike Joyce's Portrait, where the developing sensibility in the prose is proof itself of talent and calling worth the human cost, as Moore separates Brendan's point of view from that of the other characters, and contrasts its first person narration (Brendan's "writing") to the third person "inside" narration in which the rest of the book is told, he contrasts Brendan's sensibility to his own, and the resulting irony lends credence to Brendan's worst self-doubts, for as narrator Brendan is fatuous and self-indulgent, his style self-consciously literary, and though it does sober up and toughen towards the conclusion, still it retains this basic note of affectation. As Brendan himself has said, "Who is more contemptible than the false artist, posturing through life . . . How many awful mediocrities . . . lack the courage to give up their dreams?" It's hard to tell where Moore stands here, and the ambiguity rather than rich is confusing: if a put down, our outrage is frustrated with a fool who believes he's answered it (and we only have his word for that); if an endorsement, the character isn't persuasive enough to justify it. But these are cavils before an extraordinary novel, in every way (despite its length) Moore's biggest, and next to or along with Judith Hearne, his greatest. All that's best in Moore is pushed to the limit here: dramatic access to manifold points of view, masterfully differentiated by style and sensibility, and in the tragic (and comic) distances between them somehow comprehensive in reference. Instance not only Mrs. Tierney (whose voice is Judith Hearne's), Brendan (whose overly articulate, literary introspection is new), and Jane (Vera Coffey's voice given further sophistication and range), but Vito Italiano (whose voice approximates Hubert Selby's, and who, given the natural center of Moore's sensibility, is surely his most extreme supporting character). Add also clarity and complexity of plot, strong narrative drive, the "world" of New York, and the overall sense of vital issues at stake: but most of all Moore's genius for constantly pushing decorums over the edge into "unimaginable" extremity - oh, no, not that - as when Mrs. Tierney catches Jane returning from a bout with Vito and slaps her (204), or when Vito takes Jane home to "jazz" her with his mother asleep next door (217. Moore's sense of probability has never seemed more deeply, bravely, widely knowing than our own, nor as clear-eyed, nor as fair.

Despite their imaginative entities, the next three books seem sequel to Limbo: The Emperor of Ice Cream probing back for the full story of the artist's boyhood; I Am Mary Dunne suggesting the probable fate, confusion and remorse of Jane Tierney (with the figure of Hat vaguely suggesting an abandoned Brendan), and Fergus the parallel guilt and disorientation of the post-marital writer later in his career. But more important than latent autobiographical continuities, Ice Cream poses an interesting variation on Moore's stories of sterile dreamers educated by imperatives of the real, while Mary Dunne and Fergus seem conspicuous companionpieces in their departure from this kind of story, and dramatize instead the search in helpless trials of memory (precipitated by menstrual anxieties or an impending heart attack) for justification and atonement for lives already lived. Again this assessment in memory would seem to have begun in Limbo, with Brendan and Mrs. Tierney, just as the first person narration of Mary Dunne first appeared in Brendan's sections, and Fergus's ghostlike visitations of an evaluated and evaluating past in Mrs. Tierney's.

The Emperor of Ice Cream resembles the earlier books in form and theme, but again it's Moore's first novel in specific historical time, using the "reality" of World War II and the Nazi threat to Ireland - and ultimately the death Nazi bombs will bring to Ulster - to underscore ironically the life-denying prejudices, rectitudes, and delusions we've seen in the other books (and if anyone takes the syndrome here to be "just Irish," please note Evan Connell's Mid-Westerners or Flaubert's citizens - Moore's Ireland is a "country of the mind"). As a straightforward Bildungsroman it is also perhaps the most optimistic of Moore's books. Where Judith Hearne, Devine, Ginger Coffey are adults, the pathos of prolonged immaturity and the consequent waste of life is only partially mitigated by awakenings that come too late; here adolescent conflict is given an adolescent protagonist, and 17 year old Gavin Burke (like Anderson's George Willard or Connell's Douglas) is free to witness, learn and escape, with life before him, but even here Moore adds a moving and affirmative twist, for Gavin's initiation involves not only release from, but acceptance of responsibility for his father - who more or less embodies Irish ignorance, and who is incapacitated by the "real" catastrophe that he himself invited (cheering on the Nazis as God's scourge on the British) - and rather than deserting him, Gavin returns to lead him off into a realer world. On the other hand, as the book's register and focus, Gavin brings mixed blessings. With modern poetry as his "religion," tormented nonetheless in Catholic conscience by sexual desire, feeling individual importance he can't objectify and at the same time fighting the social conventions that deny it (he can't pass the exam that would admit him to college and a socially estimable career), he drops out and joins the First Aid Party, which however humble is a branch of the service and provides him with part in a war that promises "freedom from futures" and his father's authority. There are nice ironic turns here: Gavin's dreams of war and his own romantic role in it are as blind as his father's of the status quo; also, innocent of emergency, the F.A.P. is dreary and ludicrous, a refuge for social outcasts with no grander motive than an easy dole, and through exposure to this stratum, Gavin discovers social and human realities his own class prudishly denies. In any case, the F.A.P. segments come pungently alive, with Gavin as witness more than participant, and in their proletarian dialogue, their crowded variety, their humanity and vitality and sharpness of focus, they read like Gorki's Autobiography. On the other hand, it is Gavin's character itself that burdens much of the book, for Moore's attention to his adolescence lacks objective intensity and wit, and too often seems perfunctory, precious and dull; as a witness, like George Willard, Gavin's a wonderful eye on a twisted world, but his adolescent conflicts - effective staples of comedy and pathos in Moore's other characters - are all too normal here, too easy, and seem no more than "adolescent," where the conflicts of say Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield or Portia Quayne do not (and for similar reasons who would want more of George Willard?). His character does come alive, however, when the bombs finally fall, and both his dreams and Ireland's are sobered (as is the reader) by the most moving and powerful momento mori anywhere in Moore; but unlike the other characters, tested by the grimmest of realities, Gavin discovers the capacity to live, to function and to care in full relation to it. As F.A.P. man he volunteers to help coffin and sort the dead:

body on body, flung arm, twisted feet, open mouth, staring eyes, old men on top of young women, a child lying on a policeman's back, a soldier's hand resting on a woman's thigh, a carter, still wearing his coal slacks, on top of a pile of arms and legs, his own arm outstretched, finger pointing, as though he warned of some unseen horror . . .

His first corpse is "a mill girl in her twenties":

In death, her bowels had loosened, and so, cutthroat razor in hand, he cut away her skirt, sweater, and underclothes, revealing the first naked body of an adult woman he had ever really looked at in his life. Of course, he had seen female nakedness before, but fleetingly, as in a glimpse of his sister, or women on beaches inexpertly changing out of their clothes. But now, unurgent, cold in death, this woman's nipples sat on her skin like blind, brown eyes, and, sick, he gazed in fascination at the dark clump of public hair beneath her belly. He looked at Freddy, but Freddy merely picked up her skirt and threw it into a beginning heap in the corner.

(Bantam, pp. 185-86)

The difference between this and say Hemingway's "realism" is worth remarking, for it is not only a stoical, devanitizing factuality that characterizes Gavin's vision here, but more so generous pity and respect: incongruously in death we aren't "just garbage," but human too, and Gavin's recognition of this has its tragic clarity, and largeness and humility, a sense of death's leveling the pretensions that divide us, and of our common helplessness and worth, and mutual responsibility, and with the strength of this vision (again unlike say Hemingway's Krebs), he returns to help his father, who is weeping for his folly, broken by losses the full extent of which only Gavin knows (their house condemned, everything changed) and only Gavin can sustain: "His father was the child now," and adult, silent, Gavin takes his hand.

Though enfranchised to the point of embodying the wildest dreams of Judith Hearne or Ginger Coffey, the protagonists of I Am Mary Dunne and Fergus - apparent "successes"; glamorous, sophisticated, well-married in Mary Dunne's case; an accomplished novelist with Hollywood contracts, a seaside home and a sexy young mistress in Fergus's - each have problematic presents, involving failures to confront their pasts and to heed mental, spiritual and physical limits that define their fates:

Until now, he had thought that, like everyone else, he exorcised his past by living it. But he was not like everyone else. His past had risen up this morning, vivid, uncontrollable, shouldering into his present.

( Fergus, Holt, p. 37)

The predominant emotions are guilt and fear of death mixed with concern for an "afterlife," whether in the memories and lives of others, in children, or in "literary reputation." Both characters in rejecting the inhibiting order of their pasts, nonetheless retain the spiritual needs that order "answered" and are lost in flux - as much the victims of a barren modernity and worldliness (their very "independence") as Moore's earlier characters were of "unreal" socio-religious strictures. "I am a changeling who has changed too often, and there are moments when I cannot find my way back," says Mary Dunne (109, Viking), and similarly for Fergus, who has lived in Ireland, England, France, America, "so many places" (201), "Drifter!" (159), California is "designed to deny one's existence" (134), "anyone I know now is capable of becoming an entirely different person when next they walk into my life" (127). Both fear for the stability of "new lives" (Fergus's with Dani, Mary's with Terence) and their own ability to live them, as both feel guilty for past doubts and failures, marital desertions, betrayals of "love and loyalty," selfishness, "promiscuity," neglect, "prideful ambition," "play-acting" but most of all for something as nameless and vague as their final purpose and validity:

I was guilty of something, I knew not what, but guilty, yes, guilty, Selfcondemned . . . . I am at fault, yet I do not know my fault . . . I don't know what it is I have done, and so, not knowing, I cannot forgive myself. I know only I have done wrong, that I am being punished, that I will never be happy again.

( Mary Dunne, pp. 155,215)

I was beginning to get the impression I've done something wrong. That I was on trial . . . . I often feel that I've done something wrong, made an enemy of someone, or made a fool of myself, but I can't be sure what it was I said or did . . .

( Fergus, pp. 186,201)

The need for final judgement - to identify and answer this guilt, and to provide something "to be sure of," "a meaning" ( Fergus, 55, 227) - is intensified by physical stresses each sense as the imminence of death (an actual heart attack in Fergus's case, premenstrual nerves in Mary's: "what if it's not nerves . . . what if it's a rheumatic heart?" - 197); and dreams lost, in doubt, or useless, each is compelled to search, reexamine and be tried by memory where the "dead and absent living" ( Fergus, 143) are changelessly, unfathomably "real" and "form the grammar of our emotions" ( Fergus, 127, 120), while also distorted and distorting, our "inventions" as we are theirs (cf. Mary Dunne, 4, 185; Fergus, 54, 178, passim). In the process of remembering both fear for their sanity (one thinks of Joyce's Gabriel Conroy and his "identity . . . fading out into the grey impalpable world: the solid world itself . . . dissolving," though other analogues are rife), yet at memory's limits discover its imperative, the wages of forgetting: "You know the maxim: those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it? Do you really want to repeat your life?" ( Mary Dunne, 189): "If I had total recall, then I wouldn't go on making the same mistakes . . . I want to remember" ( Fergus, 204). But judgements can't be final, purposes proved, history known, and fullness of human recall (or conjecture) still leaves responsibility open for the living. Both Mary and Fergus realize this, and in "releasing" their dead, inherit themselves as their memories have defined them - Mary in rejecting suicide as an over-played role, the play "unreal," made out of "fairly ordinary problems" (217); Fergus in waving farewell to ghosts he now accepts as part of "some other, inconceivable world . . . which . . . would have no reality for the likes of him" (227) and in accepting the necessity of purpose, of conception, of belief that only life itself, the living, going on demands and answers.

But the two novels together, similarly different from the earlier books, are also different from each other. Mary Dunne, her problems resolved, is lying in bed proving her sanity by remembering her day, which is structured with associational links to the past and encounters with "real" visitors from it who both release more memory and supply withheld information and memories of their own. Her problems are dramatic, her life as told (and masterfully organized) presented with dimension and coherence, her character persuasively imagined in voice, psychology, intelligence, emotion and feminine circumstance (she is perhaps Moore's fullest woman, as woman); we identify with her through dramatic episodes and scenes, through her characterization of and contrast to others in carefully created contexts (New York; Toronto) and sharply feel the weight of panic and confusion she suffers, the import of her life. Fergus, of course, is more comic in mood, but drama seems secondary here to cleverness, wit, autobiographical parody and thematic debate. The imaginative center of the book (more than in any of his previous work) is the author himself, not his protagonist, and its intensities remain largely inaccessible and personal. In contrast to the figure of Brendan, we can't imagine Fergus; we get the facts of his situation, but don't feel them. His anxiety is primarily asserted, his spiritual dilemma insubstantially abstract. The form is wittily "experimental," but seems to inhibit deeper response in favor of easier, more immediate and shortlived effects. Time: 24 hours; setting: "modern" seaside bungalow, yard and beach outside; characters: Fergus's "ghosts" who appear on stage as "real" (and whose objective reality is the key to Fergus's dilemma - yes, we should think of Hamlet) along with "real" denizens of the present, Dani, her mother, and Boweri (the film producer). The form in this sense is theatrical, but in its special effects and restraint of literary effects seems to depend on cinematic imagination in the reader, which is to say much of the "life" we miss here might well be supplied by absent resources of actor, director and camera. When it comes to words on the page, however, Moore's descriptive "realism" is reduced to amusing vrai-semblance (taken for granted as monotonously as the "authenticity" of film), and so little, perhaps because so much is demanded by the non-literary aspects of the form, seems inspired. Characterization of the ghosts lacks substance as they lack coherent context, and Moore's brilliant abilities with dialogue degenerate into low voltage routines (a problem Fergus realizes, as he does many of the book's weaknesses); narrative backgrounds too - as in how Fergus met Dani - are embarrassingly stale, the writing slack. The result is that we care less for story, character, a world, a life, and more for abstract dialectic, charmingly veiled, imaginatively presented, but fiction its occasion rather than its motive. No doubt I overstate the case, for Fergus improves on the rereading, and does in addition to genuine comedy accumulate a sense of mental crisis of considerable poignance and pathos, less concerned with "evil" than Mary Dunne, more with the isolation and responsibility of personality in time. But the turn from fiction, from the non-discursive feel and questioning of life in dramatic terms, to the more intellectual interests of allegory and debate, with its subsequent demotion of "realism", seems to me Moore's present undertaking, and intrinsically a less primary one, even when the result is as accomplished as Catholics 2

It's ironic that during the time of this writing, Moore should have scored with Catholics perhaps one of the larger "successes" of his career in terms of notoriety, controversy, copies sold and a t.v. special produced, while ignorant as ever of his qualities as a writer, critics have been divided between admiration of the book's topical "message" (Alice Mayhew: "Moore sets before us the stubborn question whether the church is legislated faith or a community of prayer") and contempt for both its message, concept and writing (Marvin Murdrick: "this slick script . . . money in the bank"). Our best approach to it is through reference to its immediate origins in Emperor of Ice Cream:

Nothing would change. The care of this room would continue, as would the diurnal dirge of the Masses all over the land . . . the frozen ritual of Irish Catholicism perpetuating itself in Secula Seculorum . . . Even Hitler's victory would not alter this room . . . all would remain still in this land of his forefathers. Ireland free was Ireland dead. (p. 109)

(Compare also Fergus, pp. 18-19). In this brief book Moore posits that change, and with carefully poised solemnity and humor gives us the dilemma of the Irish Abbot and his backwater monks, seemingly aloof from time, who are ordered by the reformed Church (circa 2000, now a kind of religious U.N.) to abandon the Mass. Pieties conflict: old dogma or new; Papal order or Holy Sacrament; obedience or faith? Unlike his own monks, who are "counter-revolutionaries" (and what is revolutionary, what reactionary here is ironically moot), the Abbot has permitted revival of the old Mass because "we were losing our congregation," and what is the order's purpose but "trying to keep the people's faith in Almighty God? . . . I thought it was my duty, not to disturb the faith they have" (47, New Am. Rev. #15). As duty, however, "frozen ritual" has not been so much an expression of his own faith as defense against its lack, and arrival of the "modern" Papal Emissary, Kinsella, raises questions that like so many of Moore's characters, the Abbot has feared facing:

It's a simple life, here. Little jokes, little triumphs, little disasters. We're like a bunch of children, we pass the days as if we had an endless supply of them. It's only when someone like yourself comes along that we ask ourselves, What are we here for? What good do we do? (p. 60)

The question is whether any ritual, as established by human authority to answer human need, is more than "a symbolic act," whether it embodies objective "miracle." Having faced this question earlier in his life discovered his inability to prya, and experienced "the hell of those deprived of God . . . the hell of no feeling, that null, that void," the Abbot has retreated from it: "One said the words, but did not prya. If one did not risk invoking God, one did not risk one's peace of mind" (59). But "Yesterday's orthodoxy is today's heresy" (46), and in choosing to comply with change and to preserve definition of the Church as outward authority, the only authority that in its turn defines the purpose and order of this religious society, the Abbot does so as a "secular man," hoping to protect his monks from his own "godlessness". yet, again like Dostoyevski's Grand Inquisitor ("we-alone, who guard the mystery, we alone shall be unhappy"), in reasserting "the rule of obedience," he can only answer their fears by facing his own and leading them in prayer, irrevokably entering the "null," surrenduring to the reality of religious need without verifiable object, which need in itself, collectively expressed as prayer, is "miracle." The problem with Catholics, however, as Marvin Murdrick indicates, concerns the reader's access to all of this. Taken as a wittily posited and carefully written dialogue on Contemporary Problems with Faith - and here one does think of Dostoyevski's chapter and the classical dialogue form - the "thinking" lacks complexity and brilliance, for if Sartre and Camus are philosopher-novelists, Moore - like Hemingway, like West - is not; his themes, his conflicts and dilemmas matter to us deeply only as they are felt, imagined and dramatically embodied in story, experienced as life. Here there's the sense Moore knows too much what he knows, and it's no news to us. Narrative backgrounds fade off into symbol and type, the persuasive resources of Moore's "realism" are again subordinate to intellectual occasion and design, and unless one brings special religious interest to this book, it fails to engage as it fails to create it. On the other hand, taking the Abbot neither as an individual (as we do Judith Hearne, whose crisis is in some ways similar, though different in motive), nor as a religious type (widely represented in "reality," or "Irish reality"), but as a psychic type, along with Kinsella and the "devout" monks, the book does forcefully allegorize a single modern religious mind in conflict with itself, and the final drama, whose access for me is in all the varied, concrete and fully imagined experience of the preceding novels, is that of the author himself, virtually there. As Conrad wrote: "May there not emerge at last a vision of a personality . . . ? Every novel contains autobiography - and this can hardly be denied, since the creator can only explain himself in his creations." If Catholics moves me in any sort of major way, it is because Moore's overall accomplishment is context for the personality and mind this book describes; the conflict of that mind's arguments, needs, and values as genuine and substantial as my "vision" of the author.

Where Moore goes from here is anybody's guess (he writes: "My new book, which I am just finishing, may well be my most far out and unsuccessful experiment . . . But it was something I had to do before starting on my next book, a larger more Limbo-like novel . . ."), but most of the impressive work he has done remains out of print, unknown, and least of what is needed is a Brian Moore Reader; most, a uniform edition. Individually accomplished, the books need to be read and discussed in consort. We need the canon. "There are no standards," Fergus despairs, but in book after book, Moore has demonstrated first rank standards while risking territory gained for territory ahead, and therein lies the vitality and originality of his talent: that persistent questioning through variation, contrast, parallel of experience of increasing complexity and range. In book after book he has opened our sense of community, as he has altered and developed our sense of the imaginable, locating "interest" in moral issues that are universally and permanently human and therefore unavoidable, and whose only "answer" is neither dogma nor dream but our humanity itself, our common need, and in facing that need, the reality of choices that ennoble us.

We ignore these books, the splendid testimony of their imaging, their moral courage, generosity and strength, their humor, their clarity, their proof of vision across range of character, place, time, circumstance, their depth and value of experience made ours, their sympathy with our defensive and self-persecuting dreams, their conviction in our natural capacities and worth: all at the very cost Moore has so fully dramatized and the sum of his work (along with that of similarly fine writers, similarly ignored) exists to speak to, reconcile, if not resolve.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Novels

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (originally pub. in England as Judith Hearne), Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1955, currently available in hardcover and p.b. Also available in England in a Panther p.b., and in Canada from New Canadian Library.

The Feast of Lupercal, Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1957, o.p. in U.S. Available as A Moment of Love in the U.K. from Panther Books.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey, Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1960, o.p. in U.S. Available in U.K. from Quarter Books, and in Canada from Paperjacks and New Canadian Library.

An Answer From Limbo, Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1962, o.p. in U.S. Available in U.K. from Quarter Books and in Canada from Paperjacks.

The Emperor of Ice Cream, Viking, 1965, o.p. in U.S. (though a few Bantam p.b.s may be around).

I Am Mary Dunne, Viking, 1968, o.p. in U.S. (again copies from the Bantam printing may be around). Available in U.K. from Penguin Books.

Fergus, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970, o.p. in U.S. - no U.S. p.b. Forthcoming in U.K. from Penguin Books.

Catholics, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972, currently available in hardcover, in p.b. and in New American Review # 15.

 

 

 

Non-fiction

 

 

 

The Revolution Script, Holt, Rinehart and Winst