Seamus Deane, review Brian Moore: A Biography by Patricia Craig, in The Guardian (14 Dec. 2002)

Details: Seamus Deane, ‘War and Peace’, review Brian Moore: Biography by Patricia Craig, in The Guardian (14 Dec. 2002) - available online; orig. access date unknown. [Note: the online original is mistakenly attrib. to Patricia Craig herself.]

I knew Brian Moore a little, and this biography by Patricia Craig has helped me to know him a good deal more. It is a crisp and intelligent account of a man and a writer for whom Craig’s clean and incisive approach seems perfectly appropriate.

Born into the Belfast of the anti-Catholic pogroms of the 1920s that presaged the squalid history of Northern Ireland, Moore spent much of his life rinsing the sectarian hatreds of his native place out of his system, and replacing them with a liberal and secular spirit that informs all of his fiction and made him fastidiously suspicious of any embrace that had the odour of blood within it. This inevitably led him to suspect himself, for his sojourns in Canada and in California, his becoming a Canadian citizen and his general representation as a cosmopolitan writer emancipated from narrowness into a worldly freedom, did not successfully sever him from his past. They gave him a different access to it than might have been possible otherwise. An Irish exile or émigré writer is scarcely a new phenomenon, but Moore occupied this position - and by now it’s more a position than it is a condition - with an aplomb that is satisfactory to contemplate. He took to it in the end with a sybaritic smile.

One of Moore’s characteristics as a writer was his sheer expertise. He could turn a plot as on a lathe, and was too disciplined to sacrifice a passage to a fine phrase. Still, the intricate plotting sometimes runs on autopilot, as in some of the pulp fiction Moore wrote in Montreal when working as a journalist on the Montreal Gazette.

Craig gives us something of the flavour of this just before he turned away from it in 1953 to write The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, published in London in 1955, banned in the same year in Dublin, and still one of the finest studies of the collapse of the religious substructure in Irish provincial life. There have been many since, but none has matched the studied candour and detail of this slow-motion analysis. The kind of detail so wonderfully used in the scene setting of thrillers like those of Raymond Chandler is adapted by Moore to mark the nervous monotonies of Judith Hearne’s solitude. It remains one of his finest works.

In one sense, it was the second world war that gave Moore the opportunity to leave Belfast - as a volunteer for the British Ministry of War Transport - although this was also a departure from neutral Ireland and a decisive repudiation of the south that always had a different timbre from his refusal of the north. This was to stay with him, and sometimes mutates in his fiction into an unwillingness wholly to accept secularism or wholly to repudiate religion, or in an apparent wish to change the terms of the choice which nevertheless imposed itself on him time and again.

It is certainly true that all of those novels in which religion as an historical reality dominates (Black Robe, Catholics), it appears as a missionary, converting force as much as it is sectarian or brutalising. It promises a depth, elicits a heroism that the secular or rational world cannot equal; and for Moore, unavoidably, the history of his own country, his own family and his own career, is one in which a potent religious and political inheritance is both painfully lost and energetically abandoned.

It is clear that the mythic or fantastic elements that appear in his work (The Great Victorian Collection of 1975, Cold Heaven of 1983, even his last book, The Magician’s Wife of 1997) are controlled and kept at bay by the plot. The thriller plot is Moore’s secular sovereign; it’s his way of contemplating, and even being encompassed by, miracle or spiritual dedication, or the melancholy of lost faith, without yielding to them. The secular world may not be all that there is, but it has to stay central to anything else that might be. ’

Craig tells of an intriguing moment when Moore and Jean Russell - whom he was later to marry - went to Hollywood in 1965 (“Lotusland” as Moore called it) to discuss with Alfred Hitchcock either the adaptation of Moore’s The Feast of Lupercal or the creation of a plot for a movie for which Moore would write the screenplay. (He once told me that some of his books made as much money on film options as they did on royalties.)

The experiment was not a success, but Craig claims that Hitchcock was “in something of a double-bind - desperate to be taken seriously, but unable to provide the authentic Hitchcock touch whenever he tried to be serious”. There is something in this redolent of Moore’s own situation that perhaps explains why those of his novels that were made into films were never adapted successfully, although often interestingly, as in Black Robe.

It is not that Moore fails to be serious, but that he went to some trouble to put the word “thriller” before the word “mystery”, so that the mysterious element never quite disengaged from the secularity of a solution. This became a more insistent issue in his fiction from 1972 onward with the publication of Catholics. It had been there in the angrier earlier novels, audible in the unforgiving tone of Judith Hearne’s final collapse when sympathy for her does not quite cancel out disdain for the superstitions by which she had been so long sustained and imprisoned.

After 1972, Moore looks to the idea of a faith that is worthy of respect, but is not, in the end, deserving of belief. In what can his version of reason believe but reason itself? Clearly there is an allegory at work here. Moore is returning to the Ireland he left, and with each attempted return, each beautifully designed parable, the condition of belief that Ireland comes to stand for becomes more entrancing and yet must be finally dismissed. He cannot bring himself to rejoin what he left; but he cannot stop looking for an alternative to it.

However, if the exploration of the condition of a redemptive belief is a complex feature of Moore’s fiction, there is no comparable interest or complexity when he addresses the political realm. There, in novels like The Colour of Blood (1987) and Lies of Silence (1990), religion returns in its fearsome mode as a rationale, an excuse or a front for state and terrorist violence. In such novels, the thriller element predominates with ease; there is no countering element that needs control.

Yet these novels indicate, too, the author’s continuing and often savage dismissal of his Catholic and republican background, just as the others illustrate his attempts to rediscover the sources of its seduction and the forms of truth that lay behind (or at the root of?) the distortions.

Patricia Craig tells the wonderfully emblematic story of Brian and Jean independently choosing the place where they both wished to be buried. It is in a tiny graveyard in Connemara where the Quaker and republican Belfastman Bulmer Hobson is buried. According to Craig, Moore’s uncle, Eoin MacNeill, a famous Gaelic scholar and president of the Irish Volunteers in 1916 - the man who tried to countermand the Rebellion - had learned of it from Hobson. It seems an appropriate resting place for Moore. It’s another Moore plot, the final one, achieved with grace and flair and in companionship with Jean.


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