Post Your Opinion
The Literary Passions Of Brian Moore
by Joel Yanofsky

THERE IS A SCENE in Brian Moore's 1962 novel, An Answer from Limbo, which has stayed with me. It's at the end of the story and the narrator, Brendan Tierney, is at the cemetery, a bystander at his mother's funeral. Instead of mourning his mother's death, though, another, stronger instinct takes over. Without intending to, he begins to take mental note of the proceedings, filing away everything he sees for later use: The priest stepped tip to the edge of the grave and a gravedigger handed him a shovel. On it were a few dry clods of earth and, as the priest shook the shovel over the pit, the clods made a rumbling sound as they struck the coffin lid. Remember, min, that thou art dust. And remember this. Some day you will write it. I was no longer a mourner... It is still, for me, one of the most accurate and chilling evocations of what it means to be a writer that I have ever read. It is also one of those rare moments in fiction when what is invented seems truer, more illuminating than anything that might have actually happened, when as a reader You are brought tip short and reminded of something you already knew but had somehow forgotten. It is, coincidentally, what fiction does best, what James Joyce, Moore's first literary idol, called "recreating life out of life." It is also, not so coincidentally, what Moore has been doing routinely for the last 35 years, from the time his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, appeared to the publication this year of his 17th novel, Lies of Silence. When I tell Moore about my response to An Answer from Limbo he is characteristically modest, even a little embarrassed at the unexpected compliment. But then when I mention reading Philip Roth on the same Subject ?? in The Counterlife, Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, says, "This profession even fucks up grief..." ?? Moores interest is piqued. It is the interest and pride of a professional who feels his territory challenged, a writer's writer whose primary concern is his craft. "I'm glad," Moore says, "that I did it first." For Brian Moore, like Brendan Tierney, the best thing about being a writer is also the worst thing: everything that happens to you, everything you do or see can and Will he used. Everything has the potential to he material. Sitting in his hotel room in Montreals Ritz Carlton Hotel, Moore is dressed, as usual, like a banker, in a natty dark blazer and tan slacks (later, for a reading from Lies of Silence, he will change into an even more bankerlike blue suit). For the inter view, he is businesslike, but friendly and forthcoming. He is the first to admit that being a writer does have a way of fucking things LIP: "It is horrible, it's the worst thing that can happen to you. You live an artificial life, you're sitting in a room writing stories, divorced from real life, real people, professions and jobs ... And because You're living such an artificial life every little thing that happens to you you store away." Moore is 69 now. His thinning hair is neat. His face is lined and narrow. His expression is grim, as if he were thinking about a lifetime of storing things away. "Everything counts because you have so little," he adds. It is not a sensible lifestyle. But it's the lifestyle Moore has chosen and, of course, he wouldn't have it any other way. SPEAKING ABOUT EVERYTHING counting, a few years ago I became fixated on Brian Moore's bald spot. I was in a Montreal theatre watching a documentary called The Lonely Passion of Brian Moore and, at the same time, watching the subject of the documentary in the seat in front of me. My plan was a postmodern one: to write a magazine article about Moore watching himself on the screen. The documentary followed Moore on a visit to his birthplace in Northern Ireland, to a reading in Montreal, the first Canadian city he lived in, and to his current beach house in Malibu, California. The film's message was that Moore was a man "in exile everywhere except in front of his typewriter." He was portrayed as a lonely, rootless figure, preoccupied with his lapsed Catholicism and with turning the fragments of his solitary experience into fiction. As the credits rolled, I watched Moore stretch and fidget uncomfortably in his plush auditorium seat. He was a novelist awakening from his worst nightmare. Praised for creating vivid, memorable characters like Judith Hearne and Ginger Coffey, Moore was having the tables turned on him ?? he was finding out how it felt to be someone else's character. For my part, I was in agreement with what I saw presented on the screen. Throughout the documentary my attention was divided between the film and the monklike bare spot on the top of Moores skull. It seemed to me the perfect metaphor for my article, the perfect way to describe a man whose religion was, after all, literature, who was, in his own way, as driven and ascetic as any monk. But the funny thing about bald spots on the back of your head is that other people see them ??I know, I have one of my own ?? while you seldom do. After the film I asked Moore for his reaction to the cinematic portrayal of him. He was tactful, but not too tactful. Everyone expects fiction to lie, he said, but documentaries lie too. "As I was watching myself I was thinking I could invent a bet ter character than this one," he went on. "He's very one note ... And the fact is, I am a lot happier than that." He looked, at least to me, unhappy and beleaguered about having to defend himself I should confess that if I had finished my article it would have tied too. I would probably have overlooked the fact that beneath Moore's polite, almost stoical manner, he is a very happy man. For the purpose of making my point, I might also have overlooked the fact that his story, in the end, is not about sacri fice and loneliness at all; it is a success story, complete with the kind of unambiguous happy ending, the kind of individual tri umph, you would never find in a Moore novel. MOORE IS PROBABLY more of a cynic than he has a right to be. Being a writer remains for him a supremely ambiguous activity ?? part profession, part calling. On the one hand, lie retains an old?fashioned skepticism about how much any writer can accomplish. "It's true that things have changed in Eastern Europe and writers have played a big part in it," Moore acknowledges, "but I wonder if things wouldn't have changed anyway. The whole business of a novelist giving an opinion on the world of events is like asking bus drivers for their opinions." On the other hand, Moore understands how easy it is for writers to become obsessed with what they are doing. "Why do people write? Some write because they think they are going to change the world, some write to be famous, and others, like me, write because of the illusion that you will write something that will outlast you. But all of these things are illusions, really, excuses to keep working." Until recently, Moore has never been on any bestseller list (his next?to?last novel, The Color of Blood, made it onto the British bestseller list) anywhere. Still, he is one of just a handful of serious contemporary writers who have been able to make a living writing novels and doing virtually nothing else. (Moore has dabbled in screen writing. His first job was working on Torn Curtain for Alfred Hitchcock; Hitchcock hired Moore because he wanted "a real writer:' someone who could create complex, realistic characters, but once shooting began Hitchcock completely rewrote Moore's script.) Samuel Johnson said "no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," and it was advice Moore put into practice early. In high school he became a professional by writing compositions for his classmates. "I still remember dumb but rich Hugh Burns. My skill was to write essays the way he Would so our Master wouldn't know." After this precocious start, though, it took Moore a long time to become what he'd always wanted to be, what Hitchcock called a "real writer." In fact, his first novel wasn't published until he was 34. Moore left Northern Ireland during the Second World War and did not go hack after it ended. Instead, he settled in Montreal and became a Canadian citizen. (Even though he has lived outside the country for the better part of the last 30 years, he has won two Governor General's Awards, for The Luck of Ginger Coffey and The Great Victorian Collection, and remains a Canadian citizen.) Moore found work as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette and kept his literary ambitions to himself The Montreal novelist and playwright William Weintraub, one of Moore's colleagues at the Gazette in the late 1940s and early 1950s, doesn't remember Moore ever talking about wanting to be a novelist. Maybe he wasn't talking about it, but he was thinking about it. "I was nearly 30 and I remember thinking that when I am 40 I'm not going to enjoy going out in the winter to Montreal North to cover a local Kiwanis meeting. All my life I'd been hoping to he a writer and I knew I had to do something about it." Inspiration came in the form of jealousy. "I was kept from writing a novel for many years because of writers like Joyce, whom I admired very much. I knew I could never write as well as him ... Ironically, what got me started working ?? my influence, I guess ?? was a fellow I knew in Montreal who published a book that was so bad that I couldn't believe it had been published. I remember turning to another friend and saying, 'I can do better than that.' I suspect more books are inspired by bad or mediocre hooks than by good ones." The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne was and remains a remarkable debut. "I was absolutely bowled over by Judith Hearne:' Weintraub recalls, "but then, who wouldn't be? I mean, here's one of the boys, one of your beer?drinking buddies, and he comes out with this incredibly sensitive study of a middle?aged woman's psyche. My own reaction was a solute astonishment." Ever since Judith Hearne, Moore's talent for creating convincing characters ?? in particular female characters ?? has become one of the trademarks of his fiction. In Lies of Silence, Moira Dillon, the wife of the protagonist, is he most interesting character in the novel, the one who goes through the most changes and who is, despite her flaws, the most admirable and sympathetic character in the novel. Another Moore trademark has been his ability to reconcile his own literary ambitions within the confines of genre fiction. He has manipulated and played with every traditional narrative form ?? "I seem to write about two books in each genre..." ?? from ghost stories (Cold Heaven) to Gothic romances (The Mangan Inheritance) to political thrillers (The Color of Blood)* Moore has even written in genres in order to rescue them from themselves. In the case of Black Role, for example, his intention was to show how the historical novel ?? a genre he confesses he has never liked ?? doesn't have to be long and tedious. This reliance on the genre is all part of what has become, for Moore, a conscious and consistent strategy to reaffirm the importance of storytelling. In an interview a few years ago, Moore explained his motivation: "As I've become older I've become more interested in different forms of writing. I've discovered that the narrative forms ?? like the thriller ?? are tremendously powerful. They're the guts of fiction, but they're being left to secondrate writers because first?rate writers are busy doing curlicues..." On the surface, Lies of Silence is basically a fast?paced, conventional thriller about an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation. The novel begins with Michael Dillon, a failed poet and frustrated Belfast hotel manager, making a decision to leave his clinging wife. His personal crisis, though, is quickly overshadowed when he becomes an innocent but pivotal part of an IRA plot to plant a bomb at the hotel where he works. Lies of Silence fulfils all the demands of a straightforward thriller, but behind the Suspense, the Plot twists, and Moore's lean prose style, there are also questions being raised about everything from the way terrorism has become a part of contemporary life to the way a generation of young men in their 30s has never had its courage tested by war or violence. The irony is that, in the case of Lies of Silence, Moore's skill as a storyteller has worked against him with the critics. While his latest novel is not Moore at his best ?? it is, as one reviewer said, too lean and too distilled ?? the most persistent criticism of the novel has also been the most curious. "One of the things that gets me with the reviews is that reviewers call it readable and that is meant as a put?down," Moore confesses, more puzzled than angered by this kind of attack. "Should only bad books be pageturners? I never worried about going against the critical grain. I never thought of it. My novels just don't deconstruct, the author doesn't enter the story as a character, and I don't provide the reader with alternative endings." The simple fact is Moore is an accessible writer and nowadays you'd just better smite when you call a writer that. It is not a popular word in literary criticism and it hasn't been for as long as I can remember. In 1986, in one of the first reviews I wrote for this magazine, I made what was at the time an innocent mistake; I criticized a collection of short stories for being inaccessible. The response to my naive choice of words was swift and uncompromising. In the following issue Of Books in Canada a letter to the editor called me, among things, an illiterate. You learn a lot fast from being called a moron in public and what I learned is that when it comes to literature nothing is inaccessible as long as there is someone who thinks it isn't. Gun?shy, I haven't, until now, used the word accessible in print again. I was convinced it no longer had meaning. Of course, what I was really doing was keeping out of trouble and diminishing that enduring contribution of writers, like Moore, who have managed to sustain a career in the mainstream without abandoning their ambition or their dedication to craft. Joyce Carol Oates has called Moore "a supremely entertaining 'serious' writer" and that, finally, is his most significant and enduring accomplishment. The quote, however, that has followed Moore through the second half of his career is Graham Greene's remark that Moore is his favourite living writer. Although Moore is grateful for Greene's endorsement, he had hoped that by now that particular quote would have been retired. "I'm sick of it, frankly, as much for his sake as mine. It has been left off the dust? jackets of my most recent novels, but for Lies of Silence I have a new British publisher and he brought it out again." The irony is that Greene made that statement in reference to The Great Victorian Collection, which is probably Moore's most experimental novel to date. "He said it about a book that was very much unlike Greene's own work, but now people think that it refers to the fact that I'm writing books that are very much like Greene's ... As it turns out, he was praising me for doing things differently each time out, for taking a difficult story and making it work." Nevertheless, there are similarities between Greene's fiction and Moore's. Both represent a breed of novelists who are becoming more and more rare: writers who sprang out of journalistic rather than academic backgrounds and whose first instinct has always been to keep the reader reading. In an interview with Anthony Burgess, Greene summed up the problems that face writers, like Moore, who are perceived as being too readable: "The more I think of it, the more I worry about this division of literature into the great because hard to read, the not so great ?? or certainly the ignorable by scholars ?? because of the desire to divert, be readable, keep it plain." Moore has worked hard at keeping it plain. "I have written some experimental fiction and I have liked doing it," Moore adds, "but I still think that ultimately it's a mistake to go away from the tale. Thomas Mann said that every tale must tell itself. I know exactly what he means by that."

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us