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Issue 36, March 1999

Brian Moore, 1921-99: Cool prose craftsman

Brian Moore, the internationally celebrated Belfast born novelist died in January, aged 77 years. NIALL MULHOLLAND looks at the work of an author once nominated by Graham Greene as his 'favourite living novelist'.

BRIAN MOORE WROTE a steady stream of well-crafted, taut novels that explored human nature and its responses to individual and political crisis. He often used the most accessible and popular modes, such as the thriller genre, to explore profound issues. So accomplished was his cool prose, Moore was referred to as 'a writer's writer'. Another great practitioner of similar artistic temperament, Graham Greene, once nominated Moore as his 'favourite living novelist'.

In February it emerged Moore had written a short memoir, in which he vividly recalled the poverty and injustice of Belfast during his youth and added this telling confession:
'Unbeknownst to my parents, I stand on Royal Avenue hawking copies of a broadsheet called Socialist Appeal, although I have refused to join the Trotskyite party which publishes it. Belfast and my childhood have made me suspicious of faiths, allegiances, certainties. It is time to leave home'.

Emigrate he did. First to North Africa in 1943 as a civilian employee for the British Ministry of War Transport and then onto Poland with a UN economic mission. In 1947 he emigrated to Canada, before moving to New York and at last California, where he spent the greater part of his life.

Later Moore recalled youth in his bitter-sweet novel The Emperor Of Ice Cream. It concerns a young man who, like Moore, rebels against his Catholic middle-class family and drops out of school to join the Air Raid Precautions Corps during the Second War. The Belfast Blitz is recreated with horrific control. Class and sectarian divisions are drawn out.

Moore was unfortunately not persuaded to actively join the Trotskyists and to struggle for democratic socialism, the only way to fundamentally remove the basis of those reactionary Nationalist and Unionist 'faiths' he deplored in Ireland. From the 1950s onwards, however, he produced stories that brilliantly depicted the poor and marginalised, and those fighting for higher ideals against the weight of bureaucracy, oppression and injustice. He always did this in the most straightforward and subtle manner.

  The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn

IN 1955 BRIAN MOORE published his first literary success, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a sensitive study of a middle-aged alcoholic woman in drab Belfast and her desperate last attempts at finding love and companionship. The book firmly established Moore's incredible ability to give convincing female portraits. Other highly acclaimed works exploring female psychology at breaking point followed, such as I Am Mary Dunne, The Doctor's Wife and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes.

Most often the central characters are confronted with the oppression of individual males, society and the Catholic church, throwing their conventions and beliefs into crisis. In his last novel, The Magician's Wife, Moore explores a woman's struggle to break from the confines of 19th century social constraints and her growing affinity with the oppressed people of the French colony of Algeria. She accompanies her husband, the successful and egotistical conjuror, on his mission to the colony on behalf of Louis Bonaparte. He utilises state-of-the-art techniques to trick the Algerians into believing French imperialist 'magic' is superior to that of their local brand. It is a ploy to try and demoralise the masses and forestall a rebellion. The wife is put in the position of deciding whether to take action to derail the imperial plans.

Moore was fascinated with questions of religious faith. The fact that he broke with his Catholic background and became an atheist produced an experienced and clear-eyed investigation of religion and the role of religious institutions. In the excellent No Other Life, Moore relates the dramatic rise of the charismatic, populist priest Jeannot in a Caribbean state. Jeannot is from the slums and rails against the vested interests of the military regime, the rich and the world powers. He is elected president of the country and urges the poor to rise against the forces determined to topple him. This short, deftly written novel manages to sum up many of the key issues that faced the peoples of Latin and Central America during the revolutions and counter-revolutions of the 1980s.

The Colour Of Blood, gives a similar treatment to Stalinist Eastern Europe. It concerns a Catholic clergyman in conflict with the church hierarchy and dangerously at odds with the repressive bureaucratic regime. As the Hitchcockian plot unfolds, we see the degree of connivance between the Cardinals and the Stalinists as they defend their privileged interests against the masses.

Another mesmerising novel featuring a priest, Black Robe, was made into a film of the same name. The setting this time is 17th century Canada, and it features the struggle between the indigenous peoples and French settlers

  Forced to re-examine life

IT MAY SEEM odd to suggest that socialist readers take up novels that have priests and religious ideas as major themes. However, like all gifted writers Moore manages to use his subject matter to universalise human experiences. As he said, 'I'm interested in the point in a person's life where whatever it is that they wanted or believed in - ambition, political or religious belief - is suddenly taken away from them, and they are forced to re-examine their lives up until then'.

Any person struggling to realise a better world will recognise in the trials of Moore's central characters the many pressures to compromise and capitulate. They will recognise those crucial stages in political life when principles and independence are at stake.

Moore's efforts did not always hit the mark. Although many commentators hailed his book about the modern 'Troubles' in Ireland, Lies Of Silence, the treatment of the republican paramilitaries is too opinionated and simplistic to be convincing. Conversely, the professional critics went too far in their complaints about The Statement, an account of an ageing French Nazi collaborator on the run for war crimes and those in the establishment and church who try to protect him.

Moore used a wide variation of locations and moods for his twenty novels. The Revolution Script is a bracing fictionalised account of the real life events surrounding the kidnapping of a British diplomat by the Front de Liberation du Quebec individual terrorist group. According to Moore 'this book uses the techniques of fiction to bring these young revolutionaries on stage'. But even his strange experimental works, like The Mangan Inheritance, The Great Victoria Collection and Cold Heaven, are eminently readable. The author never loses us in clever wordsmith posturing.

This lack of self-regard and the shifting fictional settings undoubtedly cost Moore a larger audience. His book launches were not the sort of attention-seeking and generously bankrolled exercises that we associate with many contemporary authors, most of whom are his artistic inferiors. Yet for decades, in his unassuming way Moore built up a steady, loyal following. This will continue strong as long as people seek economical, intelligent prose that is instructive and a joy to read.

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