Author Archives: John Self

An Answer from Limbo

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.


Posted by on December 22, 2008 in An Answer from Limbo, Reviewed by John Self


The Luck of Ginger Coffey

Brian Moore, who died in 1999, was one of the few twentieth century novelists from Northern Ireland of real stature. He is sometimes referred to, inaccurately, as under-rated (in fact he’s highly rated, but woefully under-read); and as a writer’s writer, which is only true if the writer in question is Graham Greene, who considered Moore “my favourite living novelist.” In fact Moore is a reader’s writer through and through, marrying a real skill at storytelling with social insight and a giddy diversity of subject matter. All he needs is the readers.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960) is saddled with a bulky title but turns out to be one of the very finest among the dozen or so books of his that I’ve read. To begin with, it is far lighter in tone than much of his work, from his earlier personality-driven pieces like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne or I am Mary Dunne to the later taut Booker-shortlisted thrillers The Colour of Blood and Lies of Silence.

The humour comes from the central figure of James Francis ‘Ginger’ Coffey, a fool and dreamer who has emigrated from Ireland to Canada (as Moore himself did in 1948). He tries to scam his way into jobs, he daydreams of a better life, he tries the patience of his long-suffering wife Veronica and daughter Paulie. When he loses a job:

[h]e economized by giving up their flat and moving to this cheap dump of a duplex. But he did not tell Veronica. For two weeks he sat in his rented office, searching the want ads in the newspapers, dodging out from time-to-time for half-hearted enquiries about jobs. But the trouble was, what his trouble always was. He had not finished his BA, the army years were wasted years, the jobs at Kylemore and Coomb-Na-Baun had not qualified him for any others. In six months he would be forty.

It’s difficult to explain what makes this novel so appealing. There is no fancy prose, no outlandish occurrences, no sense of boundaries stretched. And yet this is what makes it a success: it is an intimate story, perfectly done. It is full and satisfying by the end, and the only flaws I could detect were a couple of unsurprising plot developments. It is entertaining and page-turning but also rich in character: not only the central figures (and if there was any justice, the term ‘Walter Mitty character’ would by now have its own subset, the ‘Ginger Coffey character’) but the teeming hordes of minor figures who remain memorable despite their brief appearances. And Moore is adept at turning the mood to intense poignancy, such as when Coffey learns how much his fourteen year old daughter has grown up, when she threatens to leave home to live with her boyfriend:

He felt dizzy. He backed away from the door and sat down in the first chair his hand touched. In his mind, a child’s voice spoke: Do you like big elephants best of all, or do you like horses best of all? He remembered her asking that. Or: why do my dolly’s eyes stay open when she sleeps? Conversations which ended with him telling her something she did not know. Now, she had told him something he did not know.

I should add that it’s possible I got a further layer of pleasure from the feel of the Irish vernacular – not just the words, but the way they are delivered – which others might not share. Nonetheless, with The Luck of Ginger Coffey, Brian Moore has proved again his protean brilliance, and shown that a practically unknown book by a virtually unheard-of novelist can hit harder than the best loved and most well known. Only around a third of his twenty novels are in print in the UK, which in a better world would be close to a national scandal. Get them while they’re here.