In a review of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems, the novelist Brian Moore remarked: ‘For the great majority of writers born and brought up within its shores, Ireland is a harsh literary jailer. It is a terrain whose power to capture and dominate the imagination makes them its prisoner, forcing them, no matter how far away they wander, to return again and again in their writing to the place which in some atavistic way they believe to be the source of their literary powers.’ That might seem a surprising thing for Moore to have said, since he appears to have discovered the keys to his prison quite early in life. He was born a Catholic in Belfast in 1921, emigrated to Canada in 1948 and ended his days (though he doesn’t write like a natural beach boy) in Malibu. The settings of the twenty-plus novels he wrote before his death in 1999 might suggest that his literal escape from Ireland was matched by a literary one. They include fictionalised versions of Poland (The Colour of Blood) and Haiti (No Other Life), Algeria and France during the reign of Napoleon III (The Magician’s Wife), 20th-century France (The Statement) and the Jesuit missions in 17th-century Quebec (Black Robe). Each of these places is evoked in prose possessed of that cutting edge of vividness which enabled Moore to write thrillers as well as mainstream fiction. In Black Robe his surgical directness can be squirm-inducing, as though you’re there watching an Iroquois torture a captive priest: ‘Kiotsaeton took from his belt a razor-sharp clam shell. Taking Laforgue’s left hand he pulled on the index finger; then, using the clam shell like a saw, cut to the bone. He sawed through the bone and pulled the skin and gristle free. He held up the finger joint. The crowd roared and cheered.’
But the tensions of Moore’s native Belfast run through all his novels, even those set in exotic locations. Religious and colonial authorities repeatedly clash and collude in his more overtly political fictions of the late 1980s and 1990s, in which both church and state are torn apart by internal battles between reactionary and radical factions. These battles often also play out in the minds of his heroes, several of whom are priests who try to do the right thing even when they no longer know what that is. Father Laforgue, bewildered in precolonial Canada, doesn’t know whether it can be right to baptise the ‘savages’ whom he comes to realise have their own view of the world. In the Ganae (Haiti) of No Other Life, an inspired religious leader tries to calibrate the amount of violence that can be justified if it improves the lot of the poor.
The Booker-shortlisted Lies of Silence (1990), which is often set as a classroom text in Ireland and abroad, is explicitly about the Belfast of the Troubles. Its hero, Michael, is a failed poet turned Belfast hotel manager. One day he decides he will finally tell his wife that he is leaving her. But that evening the IRA take them both captive and compel him to drive a bomb into his hotel car park to assassinate an Ian Paisley figure. If he betrays his captors they will shoot his wife. If he doesn’t, he will kill his colleagues. Compromised by infidelity, Michael phones in a warning about the bomb. His wife survives this betrayal, but the relationship doesn’t, and nor does he. Moore often suggests that personal autonomy, if it can be attained at all, is gained by betrayal, either of a faith or of an individual who trusts you, and that it is relative to the institutions which surround and imprison you.
His men in particular are often people who can’t trust anyone, not even themselves. And when he writes about men in a quasi-autobiographical way (as he does more often in the earlier fiction) he can seem to betray himself, not in the sense of giving his true self away, but the reverse. He tends to present experiences close to his own life through an irony so thick that it could serve in the place of the traditional disclaimer that ‘Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.’ The Emperor of Ice Cream (from 1965, and one of his best, though sadly out of print) drew on his experiences as a teenage volunteer air-raid warden in Belfast. Its descriptions of the bombing of the city in April 1941 are gut-wrenching (‘these dead were heaped, 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’); but its treatment of the protagonist, Gavin Burke (timid, teased, small, wracked by pubescent desire to be in love), is as clear an instance as one could find of autofiction as an act of self-deprecation.
The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960) plays a similar trick. It grew out of Moore’s experiences as an immigrant in Canada, where he eventually got a job on a newspaper. Ginger, his alter ego, ends up stuck, cuckolded, drunk and self-deceiving in a dead-end job as a proof-reader on a Montreal newspaper, permanently telling himself he’s about to be promoted. The stereotype of the feckless Irish exile who hopes something will turn up, and blurs the edges of his unfortunate reality with another glass of whatever whiskey is to hand, is one of the filters which Moore seems to have needed between his own experiences and his fictional representations of men.
His novels about women are less uneasy, and will probably turn out to be his most enduring books. The first successful novel published under his own name, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), tapped into familiar Irish topoi: alcoholism, self-deception, loss of faith and the spare sad life of a spinster who seems like a debilitated hangover from Joyce’s Dubliners. But Moore obviously didn’t feel compelled to present his women with quite such destructive irony as his men. Judith Hearne’s self-deceptions and her author’s deceptions of the reader are so carefully interwoven that it’s only slowly, and in the mode of tragedy rather than irony, that you come to see she is just as desperate, drunk and self-deluding as Ginger Coffey.
The later novels which are focalised through women tend to be more charitable with complexity. I Am Mary Dunne (1968), which has a good claim to be Moore’s best book, is about identity. Mary Dunne (who has acted but appears no longer to be an actress) presents her life as a shaken-up and shaky cocktail of memory, marriage, drink, separation and, this being Moore, betrayal. Although the novel builds programmatically from an opening schoolroom scene in which the young Mary reformulates Descartes’s cogito as ‘memento ergo sum’ (I remember therefore I am) and has a climactic revelation which seems a little too like a Broadway drama, it’s a technically superb instance of a novel that exploits the fitful ways in which readers can be made to get hold of and then lose a person’s identity through their chance revelations and occlusions. Through that readerly process I Am Mary Dunne captures the way in which people can perform little acts of oblivion for themselves in order to avoid seeing what’s staring them grimly in the face. The Doctor’s Wife of 1976 (also Booker-shortlisted: like William Trevor, Moore belonged to the group of Irish novelists persistently regarded as bridesmaids not brides) is less overtly about the way identity is constructed, but it gets inside the experiences of a woman who leaves her husband for a much younger man and then leaves him in turn, this time for her own sake.
‘Wife’ in Moore’s titles tends to mean ‘someone who is only just still a wife, and whom betrayal may free’. It has that sense in his last novel, The Magician’s Wife (1997), in which the heroine (whose voice often seems to belong to the 1970s rather than the 1850s in which the book is set) eventually betrays her magician husband. He is supposed to stage a performance of conjuring tricks so vivid that they persuade an audience of Algerian leaders that he, and by extension Napoleon III, has God on his side, and that resistance to colonial rule is futile. His wife secretly warns them that he is a trickster; again betrayal and honesty and personal and colonial independence are woven together.
The Dear Departed is a new selection of Moore’s short stories from the first decade of his career. The earliest piece dates from 1953, and the latest from 1961. At a tenner for just over a hundred pages it offers the kind of pence per page ratio you might expect from poems rather than narrative prose, but the words are good ones and they do show the emerging outline of Moore’s artistic skeleton. The stories are arranged (presumably not by Moore) to make The Dear Departed initially look as much like Dubliners as possible. It starts off with a religiously refashioned version of the first sentence of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ‘In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was “No”. All things came from that beginning. “No, don’t do that, Joe,” Mama said. “No, not now Joe,” Daddy said.’ That story, ‘A Vocation’, ends with Joe and a friend deciding that the safest way to avoid doing time in purgatory is to become priests. The next story, ‘Grieve for the Dear Departed’, anticipates Moore’s fascination with women who have betrayed or been betrayed. It’s a meditation by a widow who has called her exiled son home by sending him a telegram in the name of his estranged and (at that point) dying father. Beginning the collection with this pair of stories makes it seem as though Moore was trying to produce (as it were) Belfasters, and become the Ulster answer to Joyce – and he certainly did want to recreate Joyce’s spare evocations of Catholic flights from Catholicism, and from the kind of Irishness that imprisons you wherever you are, even if he didn’t aspire to Joyce’s formal boldness or linguistic brilliance.
The longest of the stories in The Dear Departed, ‘Uncle T’, is directly about the reimprisonment of an exile within that which he has tried to escape. The hero, Vincent, is a young Irishman who has emigrated to Toronto but who wants to give his new wife the excitement of New York. They stay in a hotel in Times Square and visit Vincent’s uncle Turlough, who has invited him to join his printing firm on ‘the editorial side of the business’. Uncle T turns out to be a genial fake. His firm doesn’t publish glamorous stuff like novels, but ‘brochures and booklets and pamphlets – that sort of work’. He has dyed hair and his voice is ‘soft, brogue, nasal, like the voice of an American imitating an Irish accent’. The drink flows, and Vincent begins to see in his uncle not just a surrogate for his own father (who refused to say goodbye to him when he left Ireland) but a double of himself: ‘He picked up the bottle. Perhaps in twenty years his face would bloat and blotch as his uncle’s had. Drink, that was an Irish weakness. Self-deceit, that was an Irish weakness. He drank the brandy.’ At the end of the story Vincent lets his new bride go back to the hotel alone and stays on for another drink with ‘his spitting image’. That story is a dry run (though well lubricated) for The Luck of Ginger Coffey, but with a younger and more naive hero. It establishes the simultaneously fearful and defensive way Moore can use the stereotypes of the male Irish immigrant, both to articulate his own anxiety that he might become one of them and to defend himself by creating characters who are such clichés that their author couldn’t possibly turn into one, could he?
If the selection of stories included in The Dear Departed had been arranged in chronological order a wilder and odder side of Moore would have come to the fore. And that side is much closer to Moore’s real voice. The earliest tale – and it is very much a tale ‘told me by an old Sicilian whose face was brown and seamed like the bark of an oak’ – is ‘Fly Away Finger, Fly Away Thumb’, which appeared in the London Mystery Magazine in 1953. In it a conjurer is imprisoned by a group of Sicilian brigands. He cuts off his finger and thumb, which walk out of the cell, strangle his warder and unlock the door. Although it’s tempting to allegorise (Ireland is a prison from which the exit strategy is self-mutilation – and pens as well as keys are held between finger and thumb), the story is working a simpler kind of magic than that.
Moore’s roots lie as much in genre fiction, in thriller and fantasy, as they do in Joyce. Early on he wrote thrillers under the name Bernard Mara, and there are times in the later work when he can sound like Graham Greene on speed, exploring, as Greene did, the subgenre of the thrillemma or dilemmer, thrillers grounded on a moral dilemma: The Statement, The Colour of Blood, The Lies of Silence all operate in this mode. Given that this category includes two of his three Booker-shortlisted novels it seems likely that this aspect of his work both attracted the judges and made them feel he didn’t quite do whatever elevated kind of thing they believed literary fiction should do. But literary fiction is and ought always to be partly spell-making, and the kind of rapt reading Moore offers – not speed-reading, but reading where the sing and whistle of the plot keeps you reading and reading – is the main reason why people who read, read. He had a fascination with the performance of magic: the third story in The Dear Departed is about a dwarf who performs superhuman acts of strength onstage before an audience of disabled children and then, offstage, is taken for a child himself. The spellbinding performance of apparently miraculous skill comes back transformed decades later in The Magician’s Wife, where it becomes an implement of colonial subjugation. And this preoccupation with magic as a form of deception that depends on keeping up appearances (the magician in The Magician’s Wife remains upright, pretending he is invulnerable, even after he has been shot) ties in with Moore’s sense of masculinity as a performance that ultimately deceives only the performer, and which licenses betrayals and self-deceptions as the only viable means of escape.
The final story in The Dear Departed further indicates how willing Moore was to play with illusions, as well as his interest in fiction as a form of self-misrepresentation. It’s an experimental jeu d’esprit called ‘Preliminary Pages for a Work of Revenge’, which spoofs the prelims of a novel with ‘The author does not wish to express his gratitude to anyone.’ It also insists that readers need to think about reality when reading Moore: ‘The characters in this work are meant to be real. References to persons living and dead are intended.’ Watch out, Uncle T, you’re real – as presumably is the father who repeatedly in Moore’s fiction dismisses his son’s rebellions against faith and nation; as are Moore’s alter egos Ginger Coffey and the young hero of The Emperor of Ice Cream. Moore’s ‘Preliminary Pages’ insist that fiction is all about disinterring things that have been forgotten or disguised: ‘I am that person you insulted. I am that person you forgot’; ‘The name I have used on the first page of this work is mine, yet not mine’; ‘I am one of you or was one of you until I lost my grip on the tiny fringe of the curtain we mutually clutched to hide our falsities from the light of truth.’ Although the ‘Preliminary Pages’ seem worlds away from the breathless chases in The Colour of Blood or The Statement, they remind us that Moore’s fiction, like fiction more generally, could function both as an act of concealment – hiding personal experience by turning it into a performance – and revenge. By rewriting your life you can transform it, and by refashioning those around you into fiction you can get even with them. That was one of the ways in which Moore’s preternaturally active finger and thumb enabled him to escape from his Irish prison.