John Self (Asylum) on Catholics
Guy Savage (His Futile Preoccupations) on The Doctor’s Wife
A recommendation rather than a review:
The Doctor’s Wife, first published in 1976, is the story of Sheila Redden, aged 37, who meets a younger man on a holiday in France. Sheila is somewhat reminiscent of Mary Dunne, but stronger and more controlled. Where Mary Dunne felt defined by the men she married, Sheila Redden does not.
Throughout the story, we learn about Sheila, but also, and possibly more so, about her husband (opinions vary). Sheila has one child, a teenage boy. The story is smoothly told from three points of view: Sheila’s, her husband’s, and her brother’s. We do not directly hear from the lover or the son, but we can certainly feel for them.
The fourth book in what I will inevitably come to refer to as my Moore-athon is also his fourth: An Answer from Limbo (1962). It’s not clear why his first novel Judith Hearne and third novel Ginger Coffey should be in print, while his second, The Feast of Lupercal, and this, should not. Or perhaps it is clear: the better known books have a more immediate appeal, and a more singular protagonist, but all four share qualities that make them linger longer in the memory after reading than most other novels I’ve read this year.
Like The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo deals with ambition (a subject I find fascinating) in an Irish emigrant in north America, but the approach and the outcome are very different. This time it’s Brendan Tierney, a man who left Ireland to live with his wife in New York, and who at the age of fourteen hoped “that I would become a great poet, that I would devote my life to the composition of a masterpiece and that, at the age of thirty, coughing blood in a last consumptive frenzy, I hoped to die, my gift still clear and unmuddied.” Now he has almost reached 30, and his masterpiece – a novel rather than a poem – is not yet complete. He is consumed with drive, mainly via his feelings for his friend Max, whose book has been accepted for publication:
How many works of the imagination have been goaded into life by envy of an untalented contemporary’s success? More, I would wager, than by any sight of talent rewarded.
The main problem is the ‘pram in the hallway’ – Tierney has a wife and children to support, and has to hold down a job to keep them in their apartment in Riverside Drive, “once an elegant address but now running down.” So, when he receives word from back home that the money he is sending his mother is not enough, he hits on the bright idea of bringing his mother over to New York to look after their children, so that his wife Jane can go out to work and he can be freed to work on the magnum opus.
The story that follows is told from the points of view of all the people whose lives unravel around Tierney as a result of his selfishness. His mother (”the stranger who is my parent”) does not conform to her son and daughter-in-law’s godless ways. His wife Jane dreams of “dark-haired ravishers.” He puts his own needs before his children (”But they have their whole lives ahead of them. This is my one chance”). The new family unit does not thrive:
Brendan said something harmless. The talk staggered up on its feet and went on in weary pilgrimage, talk about the flight, talk about the children, talk about New York, talk that was like the meeting of three strangers in a dentist’s waiting room, talk to pass the time until they could decently get free of each other.
And that’s to say nothing of the downturn in Tierney’s sexual relationship with his wife (”What’s the matter?” I said. “Nothing.” “Well, come on, then, take your dress off”). Tierney begins to see everyone in life as either with him – and his novel – or against him (”What enemy could I strike dumb with this tale?”).
Moore’s ability to keep all the plates spinning is impressive, and the story moves on with his usual smoothness. Nonetheless I felt that the dozen or more characters whose minds he inhabits were a handful too many, and the book would have had more force and directness if it came from the points of view of just the central characters. There is drama throughout, and like Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, it builds to highly charged scenes toward the end.
We also see the substitution of religion which was to become a theme in Moore’s fiction (as in The Doctor’s Wife). “My book for me,” says Tierney, “is the belief that replaces belief.” He denounces his mother’s traditional faith – “a performance of deeds in the expectation of praise” – while seeing that this describes his own writing perfectly. For me, my belief in Moore is unshaken, even if this is not his finest book. I have faith in this man.
Brian Moore lost his Catholic faith as a young man and proceeded to carve a literary career out of it. In the 1950’s he wrote The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), in the 1980’s Black Robe (1985). In between there was Catholics (1972).
With only 102 pages, Catholics is very much a novella, easily read in one sitting. In 1972, however, it was judged a novel and was duly awarded the W H Smith Novel of the Year. It is certainly as intense as a novel. There is so much distilled into its 102 pages – many a modern author would have stretched it to 250+.
Catholics is a parable centring around issues of dogma, doctrine, and religious practice. Using the backdrop of Vatican II (1965), Moore projects a program of reform continuing into the near future. His Catholics are coming to terms with the outcomes of Vatican IV – a council which has capitulated to the power of secularism. The Church is negotiating a merger with Buddhism. Mass is no longer a mystery, it has been relegated to mere symbolic ritual.
The monks at Muck Abbey, however, refuse to part with the traditional faith. They continue to practice the rosary, private confession and even hold the Latin mass. Thousands flock weekly to a mass held in the open. Such is its popularity that it is now televised and a media circus has ensued. This, in turn, has brought the abbey to the notice of the higher Church authorities, who send their envoy, James Kinsella, to turn them away from their heresy and into the contemporary Church.
Surprisingly, it is the abbot of Muck, Thomas, who takes the role of the faithless one. He has spent years running the abbey purely as an enterprise, going through the motions of piety and devotion without the benefit of a sincere faith. It is his lack of conviction that has led, ironically, to the abbey becoming the stalwart defender of the traditional.
I am not a holy man, but, maybe because I am not, I felt I had no right to interfere. I thought it was my duty, not to disturb the faith they have.
Kinsella’s arrival upsets the abbot’s internal compromise and Thomas, the man without any real conviction, must choose between Kinsella’s passionate secularism or the monks’ passionate traditionalism.
Thomas’s difficulty is explored with skill. His decision is of great significance, not only for himself, but for his small community of devoted monks. An abbey that is depicted, even by Moore’s lapsed-Catholic pen, with skill, respect and sympathy. Its centuries of history resonating through its walls. The simplicity of the lifestyle and sincerity of the devotion (Thomas very much the exception at the Abbey) rendering Kinsella, shallow, crass and opportunistic by comparision.
Dramatic tension aplenty in the ensuing theological vssecular head-to-heads between Thomas and Kinsella that necessarily fill the majority of the pages. Layer upon layer of irony as the man with no faith defends traditional dogma against the secular man from Rome. A complicated little book, this Catholics. Do not be fooled by its meagre page count.
The 1980’s was the decade in which Brian Moore’s reputation became firmly established. The Colour of Blood, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Sunday Express Prize, the Canadian Authors’ Association Prize and the Hughes prize. One of Moore’s thrillers, I came to it with high expectations, having loved both book and film of The Statement.
I can’t say this one thrilled me though. The ending was too obvious. Maybe I’ve read too much Moore but I knew that the loose thread in chapter one would be used to sew things up neatly. The ride to that ending is a 4-day roller-coaster which sees Cardinal Steven Bem, stripped of his regalia, finery and privileges, forced into the life of a fugitive before staging a triumphant return to silence his politically-motivated peers …
Did I mention the word politics? What’s that got to do with religion? Do the two mix? Should they indeed? Those questions form the underlying theme of Moore’s novel. Even if the setting is now consigned to history (the novel is set in a Soviet satellite state), the theme is as relevant today as it was in the 1980’s. The Catholic clergy of this unnamed country – nonetheless clearly Poland – is divided. Bem is the voice of moderation. He will accommodate the State provided it does not impose itself on the doctrine of the Church. Others, however, see things differently and wish to incite the citizens to action. 4 days before an importance religious festival, an assassination attempt is made on Cardinal Bem, after which he is taken, unwillingly, into protective custody.
The question is who are his would be assassins and who are his captors? The Communist state or an extreme branch of the Catholic church which will not reconcile itself to Bem’s point-of-view.
We still live under tyranny: the tyranny of an age when religious beliefs have become inextricably entwined with political hatreds.
As in Lies of Silence Moore depicts religious extremism as a destructive force. However, for once, and I have to say that for me this was the particular and refreshing strength of The Colour of Blood, we see Moore convincingly depict the mindset of a sincerely religious man, a man of conscience. Cardinal Bem may have developed an arrogance to accompany his high office but his private, prayerful moments are humble and devout.
I am Your servant, created by You. All that I have I have through You and from You. Nothing is my own. I must do everything for You and only for You. Tonight at the meeting I was obsessed by politics. I thought of the danger to our nation. I did not think of the sufferings we cause You by our actions. My fault, my most grievous fault.
Impressive words from the pen of a devout atheist.
Lies of Silence by Brian Moore
I have recently read two books back-to-back dealing with the fictional exploration of The Troubles in Northern Ireland: The Truth Commissioner by David Park, and then Lies of Silence by Brian Moore. Both are brave, are different in what they fictionalise, but this is not to compare the two; that would be unfair because the latter was written by a vastly superior writer to the former, and that makes the true difference, certainly as far as fiction is concerned. This is especially so in the way each writer addresses the moral landscape, which became – for me – the fundamental deficiency in Park’s book, as I have commented upon in that thread.
Moore is rightly famed for his fictive range and the three that I have read consist of enjoyably separate universes. In view of this range I have wondered if there exists a thematic unity to Moore’s novels, or whether I could discover it even if I read them all, as Lizzy has set out to do. I was surprised to learn from Lizzy’s blog that the setting, or certainly part of the idea of Lies of Silence, came from a real life experience of Moore’s.
Caution: what follows below is spoiler packed and could almost be blacked out in its entirety.
In Lies of Silence, Moore does not launch immediately into the action of the kidnap and bomb run, which a lesser writer may well have done. His book is an exploration of national, tribal and personal betrayal and needs to provide the moral intersections at which these betrayals will occur. Moore uses the first chapter to give us a strong sense of the wavering morality of the character of Michael Dillon. Alongside Dillon he begins his presentation to us of Andrea Baxter, Dillon’s young lover, and Moira, his wife. But it is Dillon we know by the end of the first forty pages, from that first desperate “Please ?” to Andrea to meet him for a late walk, to the craven refusal to answer his wife’s bedtime question as to what was wrong, because he knew ‘they would be up all night’. Moore barges into the chapter’s last paragraph to kick a character when he’s down: ‘He kissed her, a traitor’s kiss.’
But they are up all night, when the IRA break into their house. The chaotic terror, the menace of the masked men, the fear of – and from – the young volunteers, the shift between psychological and physical power among the captured and their captors, the behavioural explosion of Moira, and the seeming acquiescence of Dillon as he approaches the hour of his will-he/won’t-he dilemma are dramatically and brilliantly done.
No Bomb / No Moira: can one imagine such a drive ? Moore takes us along in Dillon’s head, right to the very brink. Dillon’s moral priority is for the greater number, the hotel guests (who include the equally distasteful Rev. Alun Pottinger, the sectarian target of the bomb) rather than his wife. It is only after the hotel has been cleared that Dillon asks about her. Do we believe in Dillon’s actions to this point ? Do we believe in Moore ? Yes. The dilemma is extreme, asking an unimaginable empathy. Perhaps is enough.
Moira is then faced with her reaction to her husband’s choice: hero for saving many lives, or villain for his willingness to sacrifice her’s ? And from this narrative point forwards she is spinning away from Dillon. However, her character needs something more to justify the apparent ‘flakiness’ of her actions. Moore gives her an eating disorder, an obsession with her looks, and the belief that she is only alive at a cosmetic level.
Moore’s cleverness in his succinct plotting of Moira’s betrayals is not only to have the confession of her husband’s infidelity arrive after the bomb run, but to have Dillon’s transfer to London, and her own moral stance on that, cause the split, conveniently for Dillon, it appears.
“‘No, you listen. You stood up to them this morning. You were willing to lose me to do it. Well, I’m going to stay here now and stand up to them, even if it means losing you.” She turned away. “What am I talking about ? I can’t lose you. I never had you.’”
Then comes the confession, but not before, and perhaps in the aftermath of his heroism, Dillon overreaches himself, commits what adulterers would term a “schoolboy error”, by holding hands with Andrea in the high-risk public arena of his hotel’s restaurant. In comes Moira “… tall, walking quickly”. Of course she has seen them. The brief conversation that follows displays Moore’s consistency in Dillon
“‘No. I rang Peg Walton this morning. I’m starting right away in her shop. How long have you known that girl ?’
‘What girl ?’
She jerked her head in the direction of the dining-room. ‘That girl !’
‘A few months. Why ?’
Suddenly she laughed, angry, close to hysteria. ‘Why’ she said. ‘Why ?’
Later in the TV make-up room, Moira and Dillon close in on the truth. But Dillon, having informed Moira that they need to talk “about us” cannot bring himself to the necessary words, and cedes the psychological space to his wife. It is only then, when Dillon is silent in the face of his wife’s question as to whether he is going to miss her – his young lover – by going to London, that she realises that they are going together, and the betrayal is deeper than she thought. In their next meeting in the tea room, Moore turns it up further when Moira asks Dillon if he would have taken the same decision had it been his lover, Andrea. Dillon then confirms that she is going to England with him, confesses that it is serious and that he wants a divorce …. but only in response to his wife’s questions.
For me there is an illuminating example of Moore’s skill when Dillon is exiting the TV studio in the lift.
“They stood in silence, watching the indicator ascend. ‘So it was Pottinger they were after ?’ the commissionaire asked.
‘It seems so.’”
Pure character. Quintessential Dillon. And magnificent writing. It has already been established beyond doubt that Pottinger was the target of the IRA bomb. Moore could have had Dillon say, simply, “Yes”. The finesse of Moore’s characterisation has Dillon equivocate, and qualify the truth with an uncertainty that does not exist. In the moral war zone of sectarian Belfast, Dillon has no indicator at that point of the commissionaire’s sympathies, and on a larger scale Moore shows the extreme distrust and caution of random human intercourse in such a setting. Such subtlety.
By contrast with Moira, Moore shows his bravado in characterisation. From quiet beginnings Moira’s behaviour is unleashed stage by stage as each betrayal takes place: by Belfast, by her fading looks, by her friend Peg, and by her husband. Within the confines of tight plotting in a tight book Moore is accomplished across a wide range of character evolution.
Like the action of the beginning, the introduction of a new character at p.201 of a p.251 book would perhaps in the work of a lesser writer signal a plot convenience. But the arrival of Father Matt Connolly is the harbinger of Dillon’s fatal moral convolution resulting in the final betrayal. In Dillon’s second meeting with the priest, which takes place in Hyde Park in London, he experiences yet another moral spasm as regards testifying against the IRA who kidnapped him and his wife. Shortly after marching away from the priest in blind anger, he has to face Andrea’s question as to whether being a “coward” is more important than their lives together. The spasms become contractions. She reminds Dillon that he promised that he would not testify. With further prodding into his ever-shifting backbone, Andrea gets Dillon to agree not to testify and to ring the police, and if possible the priest, to tell them this. He never makes the call … and so finally betrays Andrea, breaking his earlier promise to her. Those whom he does not betray are, ironically, the IRA as they ensure that he does not. I found that the novel’s depressing irony. Dillon’s fate is a function of Dillon’s nature, as if Moore had nothing to do with it.
Perhaps the ultimate betrayal of this novel is Dillon’s betrayal of himself, a young published poet masquerading as a hotel manager, after which the rest is fictionally possible. It’s as if Moore, like a chess grandmaster, makes a move early in the opening which ultimately defeats his unknowing opponent many moves later.
At the beginning of the novel Dillon recollects the first time he meets Andrea who mistakes him for one of the Irish Poets who are being filmed at the hotel of which he is a manager.
“‘You’re one of the Irish Poets, aren’t you?’ she asked, and in that moment all the wrong turnings he had taken in his life came back to sentence him.”
Craft of the highest order.
This book is a gem in more ways than one. Embarking on the Mooreathon with Lizzy, I wanted to read all of the books on offer. This one is the most expensive to buy used. And used is the only way you can get it. So, not wanting to spend £10 or more on a copy from 1987, I ended up with an old musty copy from 1970. The price in the U.K. is listed as 5/-. I have lived in the UK a long time, but I don’t know what that means. Helpfully, there’s also (25p) listed. It was 80c in Australia, 75c in New Zealand, and 60c in South Africa. But I digress.
The title of this book refers to a poem of the same name by Wallace Stevens. There are a few lines of that poem quoted within the book, but if, like me, it doesn’t make much sense to you, don’t worry. Moore may have wanted to make some sort of statement with that reference, but if he did it’s lost on me, and there’s plenty more that I do understand.
The Emperor of Ice-cream is mostly a story about a young man named Gavin. He’s bored with school. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life and is at the point where he needs to make decisions about it. He thinks his parents don’t understand him, and he’s not sure he likes them much. Pretty much every 17 year old in the land, but there is never a dull moment for the reader. Gavin is flawlessly presented, along with his dual alter-ego black angel / white angel. But it’s not only Gavin who is portrayed so well. We get insight into the personalities of many other characters. How does Moore do it, in only 190 pages?
In short, this book is near perfect. The end ties together a bit too neatly if you take it too literally, so I decided not to.
I highly recommend this book. It’s up there with Judith Hearne. In fact, I think it’s surpassed it; high praise indeed.