Gaelic Gloom

Colm Tóibín

  • Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist by Denis Sampson
    Marino, 344 pp, IR£20.00, October 1998, ISBN 1 86023 078 4

In the second chapter of Brian Moore’s first novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Miss Hearne gets to know her fellow boarders, especially the landlady’s brother, the returned Yank, Mr Madden. They discuss the difference between men and women in Ireland and America. ‘Guys beating their brains out to keep their wives in mink,’ Mr Madden complains. ‘It’s the women’s fault. No good ... Me, I wouldn’t have nothing to do with them.’ Miss Hearne, deeply alert to nuances of education and class, thinks to herself that he can’t be very well educated if he can speak like that. And then she replies: ‘O, that’s not like Ireland, Mr Madden. Why, the men are gods here, I honestly do believe.’ As Mr Madden continues, Miss Hearne becomes aware of his maleness: ‘He was so big, so male as he said it that she felt the blushes start up again. His big hand thumped the table.’

Brian Moore began to think about Judith Hearne when he was 27, in exile from Belfast, and trying to write short stories in a remote part of Ontario: ‘I thought of this old lady who used to come to our house. She was a spinster who had some Civil Service job to do with sanitation and she lived most of her life with her “dear aunt”. They’d not been “grand” but they had pretensions, and she had very genteel manners.’ The novel is full of Joycean moments. It is set in a Catholic Ireland that is half-genteel and oddly insecure; it allows Judith Hearne’s vulnerable consciousness great dramatic power; it uses different tones and cadences and voices; and it takes from ‘Clay’, the most mysterious story in Dubliners, the idea of a single, middle-aged woman visiting a family and finding both comfort and humiliation there. As Moore moved from writing a short story to writing a novel he wrote to his sister in Belfast (as Joyce wrote to his sister in Dublin looking for details of the city) asking for her memories of Miss Keogh, the visitor on whom Judith Hearne was based. However, he disregarded most of what he was told. (The original Miss Keogh had a job, for example.) He used merely the ‘speech and mannerisms’ of the original and he surrounded them with something else, elements of his own isolation as a non-achiever in a family obsessed with achievement, and as an emigrant in Canada. His own loss of faith becomes hers, and his memory that his original had ‘a little weakness for the bottle’ becomes her alcoholism.

Yet none of this explains the intensity of the novel, the relentless and clear-eyed versions of spiritual suffering and abject despair set beside tiny instants of pure social embarrassment and nuanced social observation. The novel manages to make the large moments in the book – Judith running at the tabernacle in a Catholic church in a fit of drunken despair, for example – as credible and powerful as the smaller pieces of self-delusion and social comedy. ‘It is also a book about a woman,’ Moore wrote to his publisher, ‘presenting certain problems of living peculiar to women. I wrote it with all the sympathy and understanding that I am capable of.’

Moore clearly knew that you could achieve certain effects by writing about a woman in the Ireland of his time which you could not achieve in writing about a man. A man can swagger with drink, his drunkenness, even in a genteel context, will not bring disgrace, but pity maybe, or tolerance, or a sort of liberation. A middle-aged woman, however, who gets drunk alone in her room in a genteel boarding house and does not remember that she sang all night and has to face her landlady and her fellow boarders the next day is a piece of dynamite. In a society where, as Miss Hearne says, men are gods, how do you go about dramatising them? In a society where women’s vulnerability is open and public, where women are alert to their shifting position, watchful, under the bony thumb of the Church, in charge of intimate domestic details but nothing else, women are a godsend to a novelist. Women, Moore told an interviewer,

live in a personal world, a very, very personal world. Men, I find, are always, as they say in America, ‘rolling their credits’ at each other. They come on telling you what they’ve done, and who they are, and all the rest of it. Quite often, women don’t do that, because life hasn’t worked out that way for some of them. But when a woman tells me a story about something that happens to her, [I] often get a sudden flash of frankness which is really novelistic. It is as if a woman knows when she tells a story that it must be personal, that it must be interesting.

It is no coincidence, then, that the three finest novels to appear in Ireland between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s were about middle-aged women suffering. They were Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), John McGahern’s The Barracks (1961) and Aidan Higgins’s Langrishe, Go Down (1966). It is no coincidence, either, that the best novels about men in the period after independence dealt with figures in extreme and exquisite isolation, as in the novels of Beckett and Francis Stuart, or offered elaborate comedy, as in Flann O’Brien. In Irish fiction after Joyce, the women suffered and the men were anti-social, and the tone is one of unnerving bleakness.

The problem for Moore, McGahern, Higgins and many others was how to create a male character who was neither comic nor lying on his back in the dark. In a society that was merely half-formed and had no sense of itself, a society in which the only real choice was to leave or live in a cowed internal exile, the failure to create a fully-formed male character in fiction was emblematic of a more general failure.

The four novels which Brian Moore wrote after Judith Hearne struggle with this, and all of them bear the mark of the problem more clearly than any sign of its resolution. These novels are The Feast of Lupercal (1957), The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), An Answer from Limbo (1962) and The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965). The last of these is a coming-of-age novel set in wartime Belfast; the second and third have as protagonists Irishmen in exile in North America; and the first tells the story of Diarmuid Devine, a teacher, who stayed behind in Belfast.

‘The climate of Northern Ireland ... is such as to encourage weakness of character,’ Moore wrote.

The interesting thing about Devine was, compared to Judith, who had all the bases loaded against her, he has some choice and therefore is a less admirable character, because you feel he is in some way master of his fate, which she really wasn’t ... I wanted Devine to be a character who had choice, and who had failed in the choice.

Devine has something in common with Mr Madden and Bernard Rice the landlady’s son, the two male figures in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. He is underimagined; there is a crudity and lack of subtlety in his creation. When he overhears two colleagues undermining his masculinity, we are told that ‘he had never been so mortified in his life’ and, a few sentences later, ‘He was very upset.’ Devine’s response to every single moment is predetermined by the author’s vision of him: thus his response is always dull and afraid; his consciousness, through which we see the world, is limited in a way that Judith Hearne’s is open-ended. Like Judith and Mr Madden, he, too, has views on the man/woman question: ‘Character assassins, every blessed one of them,’ his mind tells us. ‘That was a thing he couldn’t help noticing about women, they always had a bad word for one another. Men had far more sense, at least they shut up when they didn’t like a person.’

This last passage seems to offer us a key to the problem with these four novels. The men’s attitudes are not only stereotyped and tiresome but dated in a way that Leopold Bloom’s responses to women, or Stephen Dedalus’s don’t seem dated. There is no element of richness or surprise, and there is a terrible ironic distance and jauntiness (more noticeable in The Luck of Ginger Coffey and The Emperor of Ice-Cream). Clearly, the passage quoted above could not be easily written now, but Devine would be a more interesting figure had these words not been put into his consciousness in the first place.

Is it a golden rule of fiction that an author cannot create a character whose way of noticing is significantly and emphatically less rich than the author’s own? The problem always is: what colours and nuances to leave out, what tricks and twists of voice or consciousness to throw aside? This question arises when reading the four novels Moore published between 1957 and 1965 and reading Denis Sampson’s carefully judged and definitive biography. Moore became increasingly fascinated by failure, by the idea of the painful case, the more successful he became. All four of these novels deal in failure, and he himself, from early on, was alert to what dull failure in a novel looked like compared to melodrama, say, or in the case of Judith Hearne, a sort of tragedy. In 1957 in a letter to Diana Athill, his editor at André Deutsch, he wrote:

I always want to give my character more diversity, more intellectual strength – something of that wonderful Dostoevskian quality of the unexpected, which, on examination, turns out to be the logical, the underlying truth in their behaviour. But, so far, each time I simply lack the ability to bring this off and, lacking it, settle for what my pessimism and my experience tell me is possible. So the characters become smaller, duller in a way and without the stature of tragedy.

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