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Old 13th Aug 2006, 17:47   #1
John Self
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Default Brian Moore

Asked to name the novelists from Northern Ireland who can hold their heads up among the greats of the 20th century, and not many fingers will be needed. C.S. Lewis, OK. Bernard MacLaverty, perhaps. Um... Er... Robert McLiam Wilson? Hardly (listed as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 2003, but hasn't published anything since 1996).

And so let's hear it for Brian Moore. (Pronounced "Breean".) He's practically unknown, yet wrote twenty novels in one of the most protean of literary careers (The Times called him "one of the best novelists writing, never travelling the same ground twice"), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize no fewer than three times, and counted Graham Greene among his admirers. And although he moved to Canada at the age of 27 in 1948, and to California in 1958 where he spent the rest of his life, he does still seem a Northern Ireland novelist, for his frequent fictional returns to his birthplace (not least in his debut, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, and the Booker-shortlisted thriller, Lies of Silence).

One remarkable thing about Moore is how, late in his career, he reinvented his style. Never a showy stylist in the first place, his novels in the 1980s and 1990s (from the also-Booker-shortlisted Colour of Blood onwards) displayed a spare, utilitarian prose where absolutely nothing got in the way of the story. Moore said:

Quote:
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 the second-rate writers because first-rate writers are bringing the author into the novel and all those nouveau roman things.
And so he reclaimed the thriller for the first-rate writers. And sure enough, the author is rarely present in his books, which immerse the reader utterly in the world of his protagonists. This was best displayed in the two successive Booker nominees mentioned above, The Colour of Blood (1987) and Lies of Silence (1990), which were in the form of thrillers, relentlessly pageturning but profoundly intelligent and satisfying too.



This kept the page count down, too: about 220 pages was typical Moore length, with his longest, The Mangan Inheritance weighing in at 350, and his shortest, Catholics, just 100.

And yet there's so much more in them than the slender page count suggests, as I've discovered with Black Robe (1985), which has been reissued by Penguin Modern Classics Canada:



It's just 180 pages long, but contains more than many novels twice the length. It's set in Canada in the 1600s, "an untamed country claimed by the French, controlled by the Jesuits, but belonging to the natives" and it is the conflict between the French Jesuit priests and "the Savages" who inhabit the country which drives the narrative.

Moore plunges you in without making concessions to the reader, and I found it tricky at first to follow all the names (particularly as half are French and the other half are in tribal language). But it - or I - soon settled down and the story progresses, a journey narrative just as Moore promised, with a bit of thrillerism thrown in (the scenes where Father Laforgue and his men are captured by the cannibalistic Iroquois is as tense and gruesome as anything the bestseller lists can throw up). The underlying theme seems to be the conflict between systems of belief - how the Jesuits are sure the 'Savage' tribes are wrong and headed for hell, just as the tribes are sure the Jesuits are wrong. Bring in rival tribes and the mixture is rich and satisfying. There are plausibility issues over the speech of the tribes (really just unrefined English with a lot of fucking), who don't really sound alien enough, but Moore's skill made me stop noticing it after a short time.

What Black Robe has done more than anything is urge me to seek out more Moore, in particular his third Booker shortlistee, The Doctor's Wife. Next up for me though will be the one of his I've got but never read, The Statement (1995), his penultimate novel and which our member CassieZoe was moved to include in her list of best scenes in books.

The other books of his I've read are as follows.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955): a bleakly satisfying tale of a spinster's life in Belfast

I Am Mary Dunne (1968 ): female protagonists held no fear for Moore (The Temptation of Eileen Hughes is another, along with of course The Doctor's Wife). I can remember nothing about this one, though the back cover says things about memory, desire and sexuality.

Catholics (1972): fascinating depiction of the protests in remote parts of Ireland against the Catholic Church's decision to have the mass in English instead of Latin

The Colour of Blood (1987): Eastern Europe thriller, with of course much Catholic Church business

Lies of Silence (1990): Northern Ireland Troubles thriller

The Magician's Wife (1998 ): Moore's last novel, and another female lead, proved his versatility once again by setting it in France and Algeria in the 1850s. More politics and patriotism, and showed Moore had lost none of his magic at 77.
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Old 13th Aug 2006, 20:35   #2
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Default Re: Brian Moore

Hello again - Just to say I agree totally with your critique of Brian Moore - he is one of my favourite writers mostly because of his freighted and yet precise prose style - plus he never writes the same book. I am a new convert to his work, however, and have only read a couple of his books so far, The Doctor's Wife, Cold Heaven and The Magician's Wife and the one I would recommend you read if you can get hold of it - The Statement - which is one of the most chilling and fascinating books I've ever read. Black Robe, Lies of Silence, Judith Hearne and Mary Dunne are all on my list to read, plus any others I come across along the way.
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Old 14th Aug 2006, 9:20   #3
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Default Re: Brian Moore

Sounds as though you've read about as much Moore as I have, Cassie. As indicated above, Lies of Silence and The Colour of Blood are also great, as is Catholics. Cold Heaven is one I don't know anything about - any guidance? Some of his earlier stuff isn't easily available - An Answer from Limbo, anyone? I've just begun The Statement, and my fiancée bought me The Doctor's Wife yesterday. Hurrah.
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Old 14th Aug 2006, 15:41   #4
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Default Re: Brian Moore

Fine obituary of Moore here, and anotherie here.

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It comes as no surprise that Graham Greene once named Brian Moore, who has died aged 77, as his favourite living novelist. The two have much in common in their ceaseless curiosity about human nature and its strange responses to individual crises, in their delight in the vivid depiction of varied settings for their stories and in their commitment to the Horatian principle of combining instruction with delight. For Brian Moore was that most traditionally Irish of creatures, a great story teller, and became the most internationally celebrated of contemporary Irish novelists.
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Old 14th Aug 2006, 15:52   #5
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Default Re: Brian Moore

Thanks for this, JS. Brian Moore has been on the periphery of my awareness for what seems like ages now. As I've said countless times, I'm forever trying to find intelligent, satisfying, stepping-out-of-the-genre thrillers and Moore looks like he's the real deal.

I like the cover for The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (great title, by the way), which has more than a hint of the Richard Yateses about it:



Time to search him out, I'd say.
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Old 14th Aug 2006, 16:14   #6
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Default Re: Brian Moore

Yes, it has a Yatesian bleakness from what I remember. "Interestingly," it was originally published as just Judith Hearne, and The Lonely Passion of was only added later: possibly when the film was given that title on its release in 1989.

And allow me to put in my statutory plug for Bloomsbury Classics, which publish both Judith Hearne and Lies of Silence, and which can be got for a few quid on Amazon if sexy little hardbacks are your thing.

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Old 14th Aug 2006, 19:27   #7
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Default Re: Brian Moore

Thanks for reminding me of Brian Moore, John

I've read quite a few of his books, including I am Irene Dunne, The Robe, the Luck of Ginger Coffee, The Mangan Inheritance and Cold Heaven.

I also remember seeing a movie version of Catholics (I think it was a remake of his book) with Martin Sheen. Can't remember much other than I enjoyed it.
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Old 14th Aug 2006, 19:36   #8
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Default Re: Brian Moore

Quote:
Originally Posted by Oryx
I also remember seeing a movie version of Catholics (I think it was a remake of his book)
That's right; he adapted it himself. His most well-known work in cinema was scripting Torn Curtain for Hitchcock, a process which Moore later described as "awful, like washing floors."

Glad to see Moore had a higher profile in Canada, one of his adopted homes, than in his birthplace.
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Old 16th Aug 2006, 14:22   #9
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Default Re: Brian Moore

I’ve read three Brian Moore’s books. The first was Black Robe, I read it in my teens at least twice, I liked it for the unsentimental portrayal of the natives and missionaries. I remember this book very well still. The second one however I forgot almost completely, but some few months ago I set about identifying it and after a bit of googling I succeeded – An Answer from the Limbo, heheh. Some things came back to me as I read the reviews, but not enough to comment in length. Basically it’s a story of an aspiring thirty (or about) year old writer, in America, married and with two children. When he realizes he neeeds more time to write his novel, he summons his mother from Ireland, to help him with the children. The mother is downcast seeing the completely unreligious atmosphere at her son’s home – the children aren’t even baptised. The writer becomes completely driven by ambition. Well that’s what I remember.

This year I read Colour of Blood, and it was a very interesting and quick read, but somehow felt a bit unsatisfactory to me. It is said the action takes place in an East European country – well, I’ve no doubts Poland was a model. I was quite impressed by the way Moore manages to achieve that – that it is and isn’t Poland. Certain place names, the similarity of the protagonists to the historical persons – and at the same time, clear indication that one shouldn’t look for factual accuracy here, that it’s a “what if” version, but very close to the reality. Very generally, the book tells about the interactions between the Communist Government and the Catholic Church. The main character of the book, Cardinal Bem, learns that there is another group in the power struggle – an extreme right wing Catholic group, who try to provoke national uprising. As I said, I found it very interesting, skilfully told, but somehow too neat... And I wouldn’t think extreme right wing groups were ever the real danger, I’d guess here Moore’s home experiences were playing. On the other hand – what do I know. Right now, a lot of things from the past are being exposed, as a part of political game of course. Many unlikely people (also from the clergy) are being accused of being agents of the Communist Government, and a “dossier” has become a hot word on the political scene...

[Hope this reply comes through, I have a dodgy ‘net connection today.]
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Old 16th Aug 2006, 14:58   #10
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Default Re: Brian Moore

Received loud and clear, m., and I'm delighted that Mr M is moore widely known that I had anticipated.

What you say about The Colour of Blood (I can't remember much about it myself) reminds me a little of The Statement, which I read for the first time this week. This was his penultimate novel from 1995, and his clipped, thrillerish style was firmly in place, right down to chapters going by faster and faster (the first chapter is 24 pages long, the last dozen chapters about 3 or 4 pages each). It follows the attempts by various parties to locate and 'deal with' (in one way or another) Pierre Brossard, a seventy-year-old Frenchman who was a Nazi collaborator during the second world war and ordered the deaths of 14 Jews. Now their descendants, it seems, are out for revenge, and the French authorities are out for justice...

Moore switches between characters swiftly and keeps the pace up, as well as the insights into the motives (then and now) of the various parties, hunters and hunted. We are led to believe that the Catholic church has been harbouring Brossard and some other mysterious entity has been supplying him with funds. Along the way we are asked to consider the value of repentance and forgiveness as practised by the Church, and Moore's anti-religious stance is fairly clear. There is also much drama, though to describe the scenes would spoil the story. I was left with one unanswered question, which is this: if I read the closing chapters correctly, we are led to believe that the organisation which is funding Brossard and therefore keeping him safe, is also the organisation which is seeking to find and kill him. Er... why??

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