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.

Brian Moore was born in Belfast in 1921 into what can almost be described as a ruling-class Catholic family. His father was a surgeon, the first Catholic to be nominated to the Senate of Queen’s University Belfast and a pillar of society. His father’s sister Agnes was married to Eoin MacNeill who became leader of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, countermanded the order for the 1916 Rising and later became Professor of Irish History at University College Dublin. Moore’s mother, twenty years younger than his father, had been a nurse at the hospital where his father worked. She came from an Irish-speaking background in Donegal, from a family of 19 children. ‘My mother seemed to be more in sync with me,’ Moore later said. ‘I was very fond of my mother. I think the fact that I had six sisters and that I was one of my mother’s favourite sons, if not her favourite son, had an effect on me.’

All his life Brian Moore loathed his old school, St Malachy’s in Belfast, and attempted revenge on it in several of his novels. The tone and quality of this loathing must have been deeply enriched by the fact that his father was founder and president of the past pupils’ union. His father was also, Sampson writes, ‘custodian of the prestige and tradition of the school, and so his expectations of his sons’ behaviour and academic achievement carried this burden in addition to the common expectations of an academically successful parent’. Moore took his own academic failure and his loss of faith in Catholicism immensely seriously. He became a socialist in a deeply conservative household, in a city where more than sixty years later mild socialism is still a sour dream. ‘I began to think of myself as a failure at an early age,’ he said, ‘and I began to think of myself as someone who was concealing something.’

Moore shared the dream of many adolescents worldwide: he wanted to blow his homeplace sky-high. The difference was that his homeplace already had its explosive elements. Moore said that he ‘reacted against all that nationalistic fervour’, because he saw that his father’s and uncle’s ‘dislike of Britain extended to approval of Britain’s enemies’. In The Emperor of Ice-Cream, which he described as his most autobiographical novel, Moore dramatised the gap between Gavin’s idealism (and failure to study for exams) in the early years of the war and his family’s conservatism. Gavin’s mother thinks that General Franco is a saint and Gavin’s father is jubilant about Hitler’s prospects, just as our young hero, a member of the ARP, a local defence unit, comes more and more to understand what is happening in Europe. Moore offers perfect set pieces between father and son. (‘I won’t go into the fact that you’re the first member of this family to fail any examination, I won’t mention that when I was your age anything but honours marks would have been inconceivable to me.’ And then: ‘Wipe that grin off your face. After your performance today, I see nothing to smile about, do you?’) A Christmas Day scene between father and son during the early years of the war must have been impossible to resist, and as he smokes cigars after his Christmas dinner, Gavin’s father tells him that the war will soon be over: ‘Oh, the English are going to find out that their troubles are only beginning. Mark my words, Hitler won’t be an easy master. He won’t spare them, not after the way they turned down that perfectly reasonable offer he made last summer.’

The last fifty pages of the novel deal with the German air-raids on Belfast in 1941. Brian Moore, like Gavin, worked in the morgue. ‘I found myself being punched from adolescence into a volunteer job coffining dead bodies for weeks. And that experience naturally had a strong effect on me.’ The father in the novel flees Belfast for the safety of Dublin with all the family except Gavin, but not before he has a sudden, crude and unconvincing change of heart: ‘I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The German jackboot is a far crueller burden than the heel of old John Bull.’ In 1941 Moore’s father, aged 74, worked day and night during the air-raids and frequently slept in the hospital, worried that he would not be able to get there if there were further attacks on the city. ‘My father,’ Moore said, ‘who was pro-German, when he saw what the Germans were able to do, when he saw what modern warfare was really like, when they blew up your home, that was all, things were over.’ In the novel, the father’s change of heart is rendered as another, almost comic aspect of his pomposity; in the real world, Dr Moore’s change of heart is more likely to have occurred slowly and silently. In the novel, the cowardly and hypocritical father returns to hear news of his heroic son, who has braved the bombs to bury the bodies. The book ends: ‘His father seemed aware of this change. He leaned his untidy, grey head on Gavin’s shoulder, nodding, weeping, confirming. “Oh Gavin,” his father said. “I’ve been such a fool. Such a fool.” The new voice counselled silence. He took his father’s hand.’ In the novel, the playboy of the Antrim Road got to kill his father. In the real world, Moore’s father died in 1942 ‘thinking I was a wimp, that I was a person who wasn’t going to achieve anything in life and that was very sad. I’ve had to live with my father’s disappointment.’

Brian Moore had an interesting war. In 1942 he left the ARP and joined the National Fire Service in Belfast and from there he got a job with the Ministry for War Transport in Algiers. After Algiers, he became assistant port officer for Naples, following the Allied taking of the city. Later, he was posted to Marseille and Sète near the Spanish border. From January 1946 to November 1947 he worked in Warsaw with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He saw the camp at Auschwitz and then witnessed the Communist takeover of Poland. He did not write immediately about these events: ‘In Europe,’ he said, ‘I had been a spectator at events that were not my events.’ More than forty years would pass before he wrote his terse dramas about belief and power and treachery in Poland and France in The Colour of Blood and The Statement. Nonetheless, these experiences affected him, made him sceptical and wary, a hardened observer. ‘Working with Polish government officials I discovered that Polish Communists were almost always as anti-semitic in their views as the rest of their countrymen.’ He began to develop an eye for detail, for the exotic:

Above all, Warsaw was for me ... an exciting visual confirmation of my readings of Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoevsky. Here were drozhki, the horse-drawn street cabs we had read about in Russian novels. Here were filthy peasants in fur-trimmed coats, driving long carts through the muddy streets; here were Russian soldiers singing gypsy chants, bearded beggars (or were they priests?) begging alms outside ruined churches. Here was the heart-stopping sound of a piano playing Chopin on a quiet Sunday morning in a deserted square.

Moore spent five years in Europe. It is not hard to imagine his plight when, at the end of 1947, he was forced to return to Belfast and to his family, once more with no job, no prospects, no qualifications. In the 1930s, as Moore later recalled, Sean O’Faolain argued that the only possible dénouement of an Irish novel was that ‘the hero gets on the boat and goes to England.’ Moore, who from an early age had wanted to be a writer, had two reasons for going to Canada. One, he had fallen in love with a Canadian woman; two, in his interview for a visa, he was told that he could become a journalist. In 1948 he started his long North American exile.

He began in Toronto, trying to find newspaper work, his love affair falling apart, but moved soon to Montreal, where he was hired, like Ginger Coffey in his novel, as a proofreader. He liked the city, its provincial energy and divided culture reminded him of home. Slowly, he found better newspaper work and a group of friends. In 1951, he married a fellow journalist, Jacqueline Sirois; their son was born in 1953. That year, too, he became a Canadian citizen. He began to write thrillers for money. Published under pseudonyms, they were immensely successful. They financed the writing of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and subsequent literary novels, and together with his work as a journalist and his personality, which was modest, hard-headed and non-flashy, they helped establish his prose style which increasingly favoured the non-poetic and pacy, the clear and terse, the brisk and sharp.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne won instant critical success in England, Canada and the United States. It was banned in the Republic of Ireland, and this, at the time, was also a kind of critical success. The letter Moore received from his mother in Belfast concentrated on the more sexually explicit parts of the novel: ‘You certainly left nothing to the imagination, and my advice to you in your next book is leave out parts like this.’ That, too, was part of the rite of passage for an Irish novelist of that time. In her recent memoir, Stet, Diana Athill describes Moore in London in 1955: ‘He was fat because he had an ulcer and the recommended treatment in those days was large quantities of milk; and also because Jackie was a wonderful cook ... They were both great gossips – and when I say great I mean great, because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form: a passionate interest, lit by humour but above malice, in human behaviour.’

In 1959 the Moores moved to New York. In Canada, they had become friends with many writers, especially Mordecai Richler; now Moore became friends with Philip Roth and Neil Simon. They divided their time between Manhattan and Long Island. Moore won prizes, sold movie rights and began to achieve a sort of fame, but he lived in those years in a world he grew to distrust: ‘I lived in Greenwich Village ... and I noticed that the serious writers there were quite interested in bestsellerdom, publicity, immediate personal fame, that they were ... shameless little puffers-up of their talents and muggers-in-public for anyone who would write them up.’ This world gave him the background for his protagonist Brendan Tierney in An Answer from Limbo, but the novel is damaged by Moore’s raw disapproval, and is wooden and unconvincing.

Brian and Jacqueline Moore met Frank and Jean Russell in New York in 1963, and the two couples, all of them interested in journalism and writing, began to hang out together. In the summer of 1964, Jacqueline and their son Michael went to Long Island while Brian stayed in New York working on The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Frank Russell, who had won a Guggenheim for his nature writing, also left New York. Brian and Jean became lovers that summer, and not long afterwards Jacqueline and Frank also became lovers. Brian dedicated The Emperor of Ice-cream to Jean (as he would all his subsequent books) as Frank Russell dedicated his next book to Jacqueline and Michael. It all seemed neat and amicable, but slowly, in fact, became bitter and difficult. Moore broke with friends who supported Jacqueline, including Diana Athill and André Deutsch, to whom he wrote a letter announcing that he was going to find a new publisher. ‘But the letter did not end there. It went on for another page and a half, and what it said, in what appeared to be a fever of self-righteous spite against the woman he had dumped, was that I had sided with Jackie, and no one who had done that could remain his friend ... Mordecai [Richler] told me at the time that other friends of the Moores had been taken aback by this “He who is not with me is against me” attitude.’ Within a year Brian and Jean had begun their long sojourn in California, having been enticed there by Alfred Hitchcock, for whom Moore wrote the screenplay of Torn Curtain. (Moore, after all, knew much more about corpses than Hitchcock.)

The California the Moores inhabited was an isolated stretch of coast at Malibu. Moore worked hard on his novels. He had written five, all of which dealt in various ways with his own background. Now he needed new styles, new subjects and no interruptions. The Moores travelled a bit each summer, going to the West of Ireland, the South of France and Nova Scotia, but mainly they lived in solitude and isolation. Consciously and carefully, they both withdrew from the world. Sampson writes superbly about some of the strange elements of Moore’s transformation:

As I examined the notes Moore wrote in 1965-66, during the first year of their life together in California, I was struck by a sudden change in his handwriting. For more than fifteen years, the journalist-turned-novelist recorded his thoughts in a quick scrawl written with a fine-nibbed fountain pen or typed headlong, the text replete with misspellings and crossings out. Suddenly, notes for the novel he is working on take on the character of a monk’s script. The novelist becomes a calligrapher, practising his self-conscious and stylised lettering on the back of plot outlines. By summer 1966, the transformation is complete: he now writes personal letters in a carefully crafted hand and signs with a new signature.

It is unclear whether Moore ever believed that he had lost anything by his long exile. He certainly believed that he had gained a great deal. In the 1970s, in a review of John McGahern’s collection of stories Getting Through, he wrote:

For those 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 its writers for ever prisoner – forcing them, no matter how far they wander in search of escape, to return again and again in their work to the small island which remains their true world.

Brian Moore did not witness things changing in Ireland, except as a tourist, and he also missed the slow changes in the way men were treated in Irish writing. In the 1960s, playwrights such as Eugene McCabe in King of the Castle, Tom Murphy in A Whistle in the Dark and John B. Keane in The Field began to work on the mixture of violence and impotence in the Irish male psyche. And in the 1970s John McGahern published two novels, The Leavetaking and The Pornographer, which opened new ground. The Leavetaking tells almost exactly the same story as The Feast of Lupercal: the protagonist is a teacher and the background is a fearful, authoritarian and Catholic Ireland. In The Leavetaking McGahern found a tone which was poetic, melancholy, slow-moving and serious to describe an adult male protagonist living in an Irish city. More and more, McGahern focused on a tiny territory, using the same motifs, the same landscape down to the same trees and the same shadows, the same set of emotional circumstances. If Ireland was a harsh literary jailer, then McGahern had become its model prisoner.

In the solitary confinement of his own choosing, Moore worked hard during his years in Malibu. Between 1968 and his death in 1999, he wrote 15 novels. He had clearly discovered certain things about his own talent. The last fifty pages of The Emperor of Ice-Cream showed that he had extraordinary skills at pacing, handling time and action, creating credible excitement. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne showed how good he was at dealing with failure, isolation and loneliness.

The first novel he wrote in his new guise as recluse and cosmopolitan was I Am Mary Dunne, and it was his first since The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne to deal with a woman’s drama, his first story with North American characters, and of all his books, the most fraught and intense. The scene between Mary and her friend Janice in a Manhattan restaurant is a display of pure skill: full of careful revelation, memory and reflection, placed beside the comedy of being in the wrong restaurant at the worst table. The two women are bright and upmarket; Mary is perhaps too clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yet her own account of her adultery and sexual treachery is breathtaking in its intense detail. This story would be enough for any novel; beside it, the story of Mary’s paranoia and breakdown and loss of identity is not as convincing. In other words, her North American fate of ruthlessly seeking happiness is more dramatic and interesting than her fate as victim, as imagined by an Irish novelist – what Brian Friel, in a letter to Moore, called ‘Gaelic gloom’.

From the beginning of Moore’s career a problem existed which came increasingly to damage his novels – a willingness to work in broad strokes. Some of Mary Dunne’s perceptions as she moves around New York are crude and hackneyed. So, too, in his later novels about women, The Doctor’s Wife (1976) and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1981), the social detail, the dialogue and even the characters are brisk, with a strange lack of nuance and shadow. Sheila, the doctor’s wife, has various conversations with her husband which read like early, hastily-written drafts. Her American lover has no presence in the book, and the two observers of the scene in the South of France are pure fictional contrivances. Similarly, the rich Northern Irish Catholics in The Temptation of Eileen Hughes are created in very broad strokes indeed, and Eileen’s first sexual experience is a jaded Irish cliché.

Yet in all three novels Moore is able to manage something which makes them fascinating. He is able to render consciousness itself, the mind’s free flow, as a sort of innocence. Nothing his women do in these books seems worthy of judgment or blame. They appear to the reader as they do to themselves; we experience them at first-hand (even though The Doctor’s Wife and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes are written in the third person). All three are books about quest, about intense yearning, and there is a core of deep and sharp feeling in them which survives, after a long struggle, the quickly fixed fictional world around them.

Moore did not lack confidence. He said of The Doctor’s Wife that the character of Sheila, who abandons her husband, had to be Irish and not Californian

because there is really no past to escape in California; it wouldn’t have had that ring I wanted in the book. I wanted, as I’ve done before, to contrast the American and the Northern Irish character and the crucial thing is that you have to be very strong in your feelings for both these lifestyles. For example, I couldn’t do a middle-class English woman, because I don’t have her speech rhythms, I couldn’t hear her voice; but I know that I can still create Irish characters because it’s in my bones and I know that my ear won’t mishear them.

In a 1967 interview there is a chilling sentence about the mother in An Answer from Limbo, who comes from Ireland to New York to look after her grandchildren and save her son and his wife some money: ‘I could do the mother with my eyes closed.’ The mother is, in fact, a collection of stereotypes out of central Irish casting. Moore may very well have had his eyes closed when he imagined her. His sense of Irish character and Irish speech becomes weaker and weaker, culminating in Lies of Silence (1990), a novel set in a contemporary Belfast which has as much truth and local flavour as a CNN news report. Also, many of Moore’s North American characters have a strange hollowness and lack of urgency.

He had left the Irish prison and sat alone in his cell in nowhere. The house in Malibu became even more isolated when the State of California decided to clear that stretch of coast of its inhabitants. The Moores refused to leave, but by 1976 all their neighbours had gone and they were alone. Their nearest friends were Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. In her essay ‘Quiet Days in Malibu’, Didion described ‘the most idiosyncratic of beach communities, 27 miles of coastline with no hotel, no passable restaurant, nothing to attract the traveller’s dollar’.

Moore’s two best novels since The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne are set in isolated wildernesses, where no knowledge of a society, its mores or manners or peculiar speech-rhythms is required. The first of these is a very short novel, Catholics, published in 1972. It deals, in oblique ways, with the concerns of Moore’s earlier novels, especially the relationship between the Catholic mother and the agnostic son in An Answer from Limbo and Judith Hearne’s loss of faith. The novel is set in the future, there has been a fourth Vatican Council, but a small band of monks on a remote Irish island are adhering to the old traditions. A man is sent from Rome to deal with them, and the novel tells the story of his confrontation with the Abbot, who is created with the same complexity and richness as Judith Hearne and a subtlety absent from many of Moore’s other novels.

As he worked on the novel Moore wrote to the Irish Jesuit, Michael Paul Gallagher: ‘I find myself sympathetic to both sides of this argument (the Ecumenical and the Traditional) and so perhaps the story will work out.’ The drama is between the Abbot’s own worldly authority and the monks’ aggressive faith, between his wavering conscience and his wavering leadership. The tone is dark, the conclusion is poetic rather than forced, and the general atmosphere in its intensity and its interest in poetic moments, is very far indeed from most of Moore’s work, and closer to the work of other Irish writers such as John McGahern and John Banville.

In an interview about Catholics quoted by Sampson, Moore is almost prepared to solve the riddle of why this book and the later Black Robe work in ways his other fictions do not:

I’ve felt as a writer that man’s search for a faith ... is a major theme. For one kind of novelist it’s the big and ultimate theme. If you’re an English novelist you write novels of manners, novels of society, novels of class. If you look at Ireland and Irish literature, there are very few Irish novels because society and class don’t operate the same way in Ireland. And so I think that this Irish tendency is to pick on the meaning of life. The Gael is interested in the meaning of life and he’s usually pessimistic about it.

In the 1970s Moore made contact with other Gaels interested in the meaning of life, among them the poets Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon and the playwright Brian Friel. He had met Friel for the first time in Ireland in 1969 and the two began to correspond. They had much in common, both having attempted works in which young men deal with their fathers. Both were interested in faith and exile; both were also interested in the creation of women characters; both had reinvented themselves as distant and reclusive figures. Friel admired Moore’s courage in writing I Am Mary Dunne and wrote a screenplay for The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, in which Katharine Hepburn was to play the lead. (It was never used; many years later the role was played by Maggie Smith.) Moore wrote to Friel: ‘I know this sounds un-Ulster and extreme, but as it is much easier for me to say it in print than to your face, I am first among your many admirers.’ The correspondence contains a great deal of the banter which passes for communication between men in Ireland and elsewhere. When Moore took a job one day a week at UCLA, Friel wrote: ‘We’ll overlook the shabby detail that you’ve gone over to Them. As long as you are handsomely paid and the pool is convenient.’ When Moore bought a fancy car, Friel wrote: ‘I can’t see you in that Mercedes Sports (you’re a Raleigh and trousers-and-socks man at heart) but Jean is born for it.’ Sometimes Friel was more serious and supportive: ‘I am genuinely concerned about your reaction to other people’s reaction’ to The Great Victorian Collection, the novel Moore published in 1975. (‘I have had this experience so often. One fluctuates between despair and arrogance.’) When Moore wrote to Friel about his play Faith Healer, Friel replied: ‘I was delighted with your response ... Because, as you know, one finally holds the press/reviewers/critics in disdain; and the reaction of one’s fellow artists is the important response. And it occurred to me that there are many similarities – in attitude, in objectivity and by God in overall gloom ‘between F.H. and The Great Victorian Collection.’ When the film of Judith Hearne was postponed, Friel wrote:

You know, of course, that what has screwed up the whole thing ever since John Huston was a nipper is your lousy ending to the book. What is needed is a Beautiful Upsurge – Judith as international president of AA, or plunging back into the arms of mother church and becoming a stigmatist, or eloping with the Professor’s wife ... I’m sick of them all [film producers]. They don’t believe in anything. They know the value of nothing. They are all sustained by the energies of their own pretences.

The late 1970s was a period of astonishing creativity for Friel. Although Faith Healer did not win critical acclaim when it was first performed in New York with James Mason as Frank Hardy, a later production in Dublin with Donal McCann in the part made clear that Friel had created one of the most subtle and memorable male characters in Irish writing. But it was his play Translations, first performed in 1980, which seems to have made the greater impact on Moore as he began to work on what is probably his own best novel, Black Robe (1985). Both works deal with a central moment in the colonial drama, Friel with the changing of place names in 19th-century Ireland, Moore with the arrival of the Jesuits in 17th-century Canada. Both deal with the idea of an intact native culture colliding with a more technologically advanced colonial dream. Both bring the colonist and the native face to face, with a powerful sense of the two watching each other, with violent and tragic results. Both works represent a great stylistic departure for the two writers.

‘I’ve discovered that the narrative forms – the thriller and the journey form – are tremendously powerful,’ Moore said. ‘They’re the gut of fiction, but they’re being left to second-rate writers because first-rate writers are bringing the author into the novel and all those nouveau-roman things.’ And also:

I went into the wilderness of this book I suppose, compared to my other books, because I’d never written a book like this before. I didn’t want to write a historical novel because I don’t particularly like historical novels ... I wanted to write this as a tale. I thought of it in terms of authors I admire, like Conrad. I thought of Heart of Darkness, a tale, a journey into an unknown destination, to an unknown ending.

He also said in an interview that ‘the whole thing could be a paradigm for what is happening’ in Northern Ireland.

Originally, I’d have said that wasn’t true, but maybe subconsciously I was thinking of it. The only conscious thing I had in mind when writing it was the belief of one religion that the other religion was totally wrong. The only thing they have in common is the view that the other side must be the Devil. If you don’t believe in the Devil, you can’t hate your enemy and that may be one of the most sinister things about Belfast today.

Moore’s view of the gut of fiction and those ‘nouveau-roman things’ takes him close to the man on the golf course in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel: ‘You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story.’ Although this view was to be the making of Black Robe, it was to ruin his subsequent work. The landscape of Black Robe was very close to him: ‘I would go into my room and my mind would go back to the Montreal winter I remember and the cold and the St Lawrence River. When I thought of the river I could see it, because I had gone up and down it so many times.’ As he was writing the novel Moore also visited, according to Sampson, ‘various sites and museums of Iroquois, Algonkin and Huron cultures, in particular Midland, Ontario, where the original Jesuit mission of Sainte Marie among the Hurons has been reconstructed, complete with Huron longhouses and villages’.

Moore managed in Black Robe, in a way that Conrad did not in Heart of Darkness, to make the natives, as he says, ‘among the strongest characters in the book’. But the figure of the Jesuit Father Laforgue remains a towering and haunting presence. Moore allows him to be the central consciousness of the book. He gives him faith, but more importantly, he gives him fear. Moore was interested in clashing systems of belief, but it is the sense of the physical in the book – the river, the forest, the cold – and the astonishing sense of threat and violence that gives Black Robe its power. The violence is terrifying, almost unbearable. Against a background of implacable nature and inevitable disaster and the immediacy of Moore’s tone, Laforgue’s faith and the reader’s knowledge of who will finally prevail seem very small things indeed.

Moore was 65 when he published Black Robe. ‘I’m entirely conscious that most novelists don’t do their best work past sixty and often seem to run out of material. What keeps me going as a writer is the belief that I can write new kinds of books,’ Moore said in 1995, four years before his death. After Black Robe, he produced five more novels, set in Poland, Ireland, Haiti, France and Algeria. He adapted the style of the thriller and the tale, using clipped sentences, briskly set scenes, dramatising crises of conscience for individuals and societies. Economy was all. He did not revisit Poland to write The Colour of Blood, but used scenes from Graham Greene’s account of his visit in the 1950s. (A review of Greene’s gave him the original idea for Black Robe. He and Greene admired each other greatly.) He did not visit Haiti to write No Other Life. ‘There’s too much information in most novels,’ he said. ‘Novelists showing off.’

Brian Moore was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a novelist showing off. In the sentences he wrote and the life he lived, he almost made a display of avoiding show. He remains a fascinating case because he had nothing to go on when he began, no tradition to call on, no example except that of Joyce, who was not much use to him save as an example of sheer dedication. Moore was clearly damaged by exile because the sort of novel he wanted to write required a detailed knowledge of manners and morals; imaginatively, he lost touch with Ireland and never fully grasped North America. Yet he could not have stayed in Ireland: his independent spirit and questing conscience had no place on either side of the Irish border. Out of this sense of loss and exile and displacement, he produced three masterpieces and an emotional territory filled with loners and failures, faith and unbelief, cruelty and loss of identity and a clear-eyed vision of man’s fate.

In the early 1990s Moore and his second wife began to build a house on the coast of Nova Scotia where Jean had been brought up. The house was finished in 1995. Thus Moore spent his last summers in sight of the Atlantic Ocean: ‘It’s beautiful. It looks out on a bay that looks just like Donegal. It’s very wild there and empty. I love it for its emptiness. It’s like Ireland probably once was. Now that I’m old it seems so crazy to build another house, I know. Especially there. But I’m very happy I did all the same.’ That October, he revisited Belfast, walked through his old school for the first time in sixty years and saw the site of the family house on Clifton Street, which he had first described as the professor’s house visited by Judith Hearne forty years earlier. The house had been demolished a month before his visit:

I think as a writer it is very symbolic. Your past is erased. Now it’s as if it’s completely died. I was here a few years ago to film a documentary and I stood in front of the shell and I could remember my father’s brass plate at the door, the patients to-ing and fro-ing. Now what is it? It’s a paradigm of man’s existence on earth. The earth remains and man does not.