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Brian Moore, A Biography

by Patricia Craig
306 pages,
ISBN: 0747560048


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The Happy Life of Brian Moore
by George Fetherling

Brian Moore used to enjoy telling a story on himself. On a nostalgic visit to his native Ireland, he did what insecure authors sometimes do. He went into a bookshop pretending to be a routine customer and enquired if they had any fiction by the Belfast writer Brian Moore. The clerk said no, but tried to sell him some novels by the Canadian writer of the same name. Moore chuckled whenever he told the anecdote. At the time, however, he probably just sighed.
In Moore's generation many young Canadian-born writers felt they had to flee dull old Canada in order to find themselves creatively. This outflow was matched by an influx of writers who chose the freshness of Canada over the restricted postwar atmosphere of their original homes. What made Moore unusual is that, having established himself in Canada, he then went to the U.S. and did the same down there, on an appropriately larger scale¨all the while being perceived here as a Canadian writer, maintaining some Canadian connections and drawing often on his Canadian experiences.
"First as an Irishman living in Canada, and later as a Canadian citizen who made his home on America's Pacific Coast, he evaded categorisation by nationality, or affinity." So writes Patricia Craig in Brian Moore, A Biography. She goes on: "But for a time, at least, in the 1950s, he was happy to be counted among a group of 'creative Montrealers': Mordecai Richler, Bill Weintraub, Hugh MacLennan, Frank Scott, Mavis Gallant and the rest of them." It is naturally this period that's of most interest to Canadians. They will read the relevant pages looking for errors, hoping thereby to determine how accurate and insightful the Irish and American parts must be.
The inevitable conclusion is that the Canadian section is a solid enough but hardly an ambitious retelling of a familiar story. Unfortunately it does contain some bloopers, as when Moore wins "a Canadian Provincial Government literary contest," is later supported by "the Canadian Arts Council," and eventually receives "the Governor General of Canada Award for Fiction." (How easy it would have been to find a pair of Canadian eyes to read over the manuscript.) As Craig too is Irish, one presumes she's on firmer ground about Moore's early life. The accuracy of the American portion is harder to assess. That part does provide, however, a lot of detail not commonly known, for Moore was never a person to make his personal life public, except in the way that fiction writers rely on their own past.
"In a family of believers and exam-passers," Craig writes, "Brian was the odd man out, the maverick storyteller, the agnostic cuckoo in the prayerful nest" of his devoutly Catholic household where most of the others were medical professionals. When the Second World War began, he considered joining the British army after realizing that Ireland would stay neutral. He ameliorated this apostasy somewhat by instead remaining a civilian doing administrative work for the British military. He went along for the ride on the invasion of Sicily and the Italian peninsula, "vouchsafed a spectator's view of historic events, as he moved from one place to another just behind the advancing front lines." In other words, the war "got him out of Belfast [Ó] delivering some of the drama he'd craved as a thriller-deprived boy." But the experience only left him all the more dejected and directionless when the conflict was over.
So in 1945 "there he was at a loose end in London¨twenty-four years old, no job, no degree, ineligible for a university grant since he couldn't claim to be an ex-serviceman, and disinclined to initiate a course of study that would lead, belatedly, to a medical qualification." Instead he became enamoured of a young Canadian woman who dumped him and in 1947 returned to Toronto. Moore followed. She soon left for Washington and Moore, after six months in a construction camp in northern Ontario, went to Montreal (he had excellent French) and got work as a proofreader on the Gazette for $30 a month. From there he shoehorned himself into a reporter's job, doing the hotel beat and covering shipping news. "Because he was fast he was prolific and the Gazette appreciated this."
Such was the environment he memorialized so famously in his 1960 comic novel The Luck of Ginger Coffey, which "recounts what might have happened had his fortunes spiralled downwards, rather than upwards, at that moment." The book's date helps show the pace at which Moore metabolized experience for use in fiction. His first two novels, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, both written in Canada, deal with the Ireland he had rejected. Only after going to the States was he able to make fictional use of Canada, as he would do in a number of widely spaced novels such The Revolution Script and Black Robe.
Many or perhaps most novelists get underway by first publishing a thinly disguised autobiographical coming-of-age tale, a Bildunsroman. Strangely, Moore's, entitled The Emperor of Ice Cream, didn't appear until 1966, when he was in his mid-forties, after he had abandoned several other attempts at an autobiographical book. Yet all the while of course he was turning to account certain strains in his own story. Moore had had an unhappy experience of school, twice failing to win his senior certificate after miserable showings in mathematics. Both The Feast of Lupercal and Lies of Silence (1990) feature public schools where, to quote the latter, "teaching was carried on by bullying and corporal punishment and learning by rote, a school run by priests whose narrow sectarian views perfectly propagated the divisive bitternessÓ."
Craig's most important source is the collection of Moore's literary and personal papers at the University of Calgary whose library began spending petrodollars freely in the late 1960s to secure such archives and make itself a key centre for Canadian literary research. But she knew Moore personally from 1988 and got to interview him at length for this project¨at length but perhaps not always well.
There's the crucial matter of his move across the border, for example. On the surface, the shift was triggered by his receipt, in 1959, of a Guggenheim fellowship, which required him to spend a year in the U.S. Once he had fulfilled the stipulation, why did he stay on? Craig says only this: "Whatever his intentions may have been around the time of the award, Brian Moore would not again inhabit his Westmount home" he had bought in 1955. Why didn't she ask what his intentions were? In any case, Moore later purchased a house near Liverpool, N.S., in a setting, he said, that reminded him of Donegal, and divided his time between there and Malibu, where he hobnobbed with the celebrated and the wealthy.
The reader isn't quite convinced that Craig understands Montreal, especially when she writes this: "There were obvious parallels between French-Canadian separatists and Northern Irish nationalists¨second-class citizens, both of them, both accustomed to fomenting rebellion in their shoddy enclaves." But she displays a feel for the particular bohemia that Moore inhabited there, thanks largely to the conversation, correspondence and published work of Moore's friend William Weintraub. Montreal, she states, "suited him, or at any rate provided the conditions in which his talents could expand and flourish. Indeed, the one-time failure at maths had become a considerable success, even if his major achievements were still in front of him. Ambition, boldness, resourcefulness, a survivor's instincts: he had proved to himself, and others, that these were qualities he possessed in abundanceÓ."
The resourcefulness extended to writing trashy thrillers with titles such as Wreath for a Redhead. Moore found that he could "do this sort of thing standing on his head; but it was a skill that embarrassed him, and which he disavowed as far as possible in later years." The earliest of these paperback quickies were under his real name. Later he adopted the pseudonym "Bernard Mara". He selected it, he said, because "it couldn't possibly be mispronounced in any language."
Craig calls Moore's an "industrious and enviable life." It was also one admirably free of ill-feeling except for events surrounding the break-up of his marriage to Jacqueline Sirois. They met when she was a reporter on the Montreal Standard. They divorced after Moore took up with Jean Russell whom he first met in 1962 at a party thrown by Jack McClelland, his Canadian publisher during his most productive years. Russell, who became wife number two, was famously remembered by Diana Antill, Moore's London editor, as being "really so nice that one forgave her for being so lovely!"
Moore's attitudes towards Ireland were naturally complex. Until relatively late in his career he determined to avoid "making sense of the country and the state it was in, analysing the failures of Catholicism and republicanismÓ." He felt compelled to leave because "writers of his own generation [believed that] to stay at home was somehow to limit oneself, to settle for being in some sense second-rate." Or as she later remarks: "Exasperation is the driving force in Brian Moore's Belfast novels, an exasperation that extends even to the appearance of the place¨its workers houses look as drab as they ever didÓ." Such feelings were not unique to the Irish but were common to numerous other nationalities as well. They were almost identical to the belief of so many of the young Canadian-born writers then going abroad. It was almost as though the ships bringing George Woodcocks and Austin Clarkes to Canada passed other vessels hurrying off in the opposite direction carrying Richler, Gallant and many others. When, eventually, everybody reconvened under the same Canadian roof, the result was a spectacular community that too many people too often take for granted now.
Moore died in 1999, a year after publication of Brian Moore, The Chameleon Novelist by Denis Sampson, who also wrote a study of John McGahern, another Irish writer with Canadian associations.
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