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Category Archives: Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

Catholics

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.

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Posted by on November 12, 2008 in Catholics, Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

 

The Colour of Blood

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.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2008 in Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

 

The Great Victorian Collection

James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1975

Governor General’s Award for Fiction (English) 1975

 At last – a Brian Moore novel that was the bride, not the bridesmaid.  Though I must say I am somewhat surprised that it was The Great Victorian Collection that bagged the awards.  How so?

Take the premise:  “When Anthony Maloney woke up one day in Carmel, USA, he glanced out of his hotel window, and noted, with surprise, that his dream of the night before had come true.  A vast open-air market stetched in front of him, filled with the most exquisite and priceless collection of Victorian objects.”    What follows transforms the life of Anthony Maloney, an ordinary 29-year old young man, assistant professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, making his first trip to the West Coast.  He can’t believe his luck!  Dreams come true after all!  However as The Great Victorian Collection is subjected to the scrutiny of the press, antiquarian experts, a burgeoning tourist industry and even a police investigation, the dream rapidly transforms into nightmarish reality.

Of course, the premise is absurd.  This novel is an “impossible premise treated realistically”.  Even so, Moore had his struggles – well, what atheist wouldn’t when dealing with a) the supernatural or b) a secular miracle? According to Patricia Craig in her biography of Moore, the novel was written and revised, revised again and again as new ways forward presented themselves, and then ultimately rewritten following advice from an editor that “the fantasy element was satisfactory but it fell a bit flat when it came to characterisation”.  Now I’m only guessing here, but may I suggest that Moore added a messy marriage break-up and a messy romance into the mix following this criticism – and believe me they are messy.  However, they don’t really satisfy and have little to no relevance to the main plot.

OK – so why the awards?  Others have suggested that this is Moore’s Borgesian novel.  Never read Borges so I can’t confirm.  Kafka’s Metamorphosis I have read and Moore’s novel is of the same mould – a bit more humorous perhaps.

But I’m not the greatest fan of absurdist literature – Borgesian (I presume) or Kafkaesque doesn’t float my boat.  But allegory does and it’s on this level that The Great Victorian Collection lifted itself for me.  A few sample quotes:

he was not dreaming; he had really created these things and had made them visible for others to see and admire.

But how could he go on living with a set of statues?  A man must live with a real woman .  How could anyone spend his life wandering up and down the aisles of a museum, night after night dreaming the same dream?  After six months, after a year, he would no longer be able to look at all this.  He would grow to hate it.

There was no longer any real life for him – no life at all apart from the Collection.

Think author, think of letting your novel out into the world, think death of the author.  As an allegory, The Great Victorian Collection really, really works.  But the reader really, really has to work to see the point.  And that’s possibly why, awards notwithstanding, The Great Victorian Collection, is currently out-of-print.

 

I am Mary Dunne

Memento ergo sum – I remember, therefore I am.  A memory from a Latin class flags up the theme of Moore’s 6th novel and  Mary Lavery’s identity crisis becomes explicit when she forgets her name in the hairdresser’s.  She’s 32,  already into her third marriage.  She has not been Mary Dunne since she was 20.  But in the twelve years since, she’s been Mary Phelan, Bell and now Lavery.  No wonder the girl is confused!

And so Mary remembers her life. There’s not much pre-marriage detail. And that’s her problem.  She sees herself only in relation to the men in her life and when she’s dissatisfied, particularly between the sheets, she’s quick to find herself another.  Her beauty engenders no shortage of those willing to sacrifice themselves in the quest for her happiness.  Both sexes too! The end result, though,  is three overlapping relationships with no time taken in between to find herself.  She cannot know who she is but subconsciously she has a terrible guilt complex about her second husband.

In the present, Mary experiences a really, really bad day; one designed to highlight her inadequacies and uncover the evidence of her hard-heartedness and selfishness. Jittery and shaking from PMT, she encounters three people who are not what they claim to be: a bogus sub-tenant, a friend who is anything but and a man, who claims to be in love with her but wishes to hold her to account for leading him on (in the distant past).  It’s very unnerving and there’s a varied emotional landscape for Mary and the reader to travel. Pathos for the lonely old man, schadenfreude at the realistic sparring and bitchiness of the dialogue between the two women, and incredulity during the dinner with her second husband’s pal.  Moore making an uncharacteristic faux pas here.  No man would demean himself so.

The tones of each marriage are as different as those of the three encounters; Mary finding in her third husband,  a paragon of virtue, her “saviour”, her “rock” – her words, not mine.  The woman has no identity without a man and, thus, she is without true female friendship.  Not my kind of female at all. And while I’m sitting in judgment, let me just say that she has a lot to feel guilty about with regard to her second husband!

Antipathy aside, Moore has created a living breathing (anti-)heroine in Mary (ex-)Dunne.  Written in a strongly-paced first person narrative, her voice is consistent and authentically female.  I recognised her mad twin – the externalisation of her PMT.  I do have issues with the secondary characters though – some are assigned bit roles with only sketchy characterisation.  And the novel would have been stronger without the melodrama of the last 30 pages. 

Even so the novel is very readable and easily digested in two or three sittings.  While it’s still finer than much modern fiction, I doubt I’ll revisit it. Mary and I are not destined to be friends.

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Lies of Silence

As an expatriate of long standing Brian Moore felt that younger authors with in-situ experience would probably write about the troubles in Northern Ireland in a more meaningful way than he. Then he was caught in a bomb scare and found himself evacuated from a hotel with a coach-load of French tourists   ….. The next thing said tourists find themselves in the midst of a similar situation within his 1990 novel,  Lies of Silence.

Imagine yourself plumetted into the following nightmare scenario: your wife is held hostage while you are forced to drive a bomb in your car to your place of work.  If you raise the alarm she will be executed.  This is the unthinkable situation in which Moore places his protagonist, Dillon.  But to complicate the issue, this happens on the very day that Dillon has earmarked to leave his wife.  Another complication: Dillon is apolitical, unhappy about the situation,  but definitely anti-violence:

Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made this, his … birthplace, sick with a terminal illness of bigotry and injustice, lies told over the years to poor Catholic working people about the Catholics, lies told to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations, and, above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminister who did not want to face the injustices of Ulster’s status quo.

So, what would you do in Dillon’s situation? And which choices does he make?   I can’t possibly tell you what happens except this traumatic incident paves the way for a second half in which tension subsides but terror becomes insidious. 

Moore pulls no punches and Lies of Silence, while set specifically in his home town, adds up to an absolute condemnation of terrorism of any kind.  Written in (unputdownable) thriller form, there were those who felt that he was demeaning his subject.  I disagree. The immediacy of the writing allows the reader to feel Dillon’s fear, experience his panic, make the same mistakes?

Lies of Silence is more than a thriller – it’s a literary offering as evidenced by its Booker shortlisting (losing, in the end, to A S Byatt’s Possession).  What makes it literary? The quality of the writing, the assurity of pitch and pace, description and dialogue,  the flesh and blood of its characters.  Moira, Dillon’s wife is a complicated creation.  She is the one who raises the questions of courage, who refuses to kow-tow to the bullies. For that is how Moore pictures the terrorists – badly-educated, mean-spirited bullies.  But he reserves his scorn for the apologists – in this case a weasel of a priest who seeks to prevent justice being served.

Published in his 69th year, Lies of Silence shows absolutely no sign of Moore’s pen mellowing with age.   While that may have dismayed many at the time of publication, it ensures that the novel remains fresh, pertinent and (even if the situation in Northern Ireland is now radically different)  relevant to today’s reading audience.

 
 

The Magician’s Wife

In 1856 Napoleon III sent Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin to Algeria to frighten the natives with a display of “magical” power so astonishing that they would be discouraged from starting a holy war against the French colonial power.  One of those stranger-than-fiction facts that Moore uses to full effect in his novel The Magician’s Wife (1997).

Robert-Houdin is fictionalised as Henri Lambert, who has retired to a secluded life in Tours with his wife Emmeline.   The first section of the novel focuses on the Lamberts and their recruitment into the French secret service. Henri is invited to a week-long gathering in the company of the Emperor and his Empress, ostensibly to perform for the aristocratic audience.  Emmeline, although bored with the seclusion of her life, is terrified of the grand world she is asked to enter.  But, prevailed upon by Henri, she accepts the invitation. The preparatory shopping list includes eight day costumes, including a travelling suit, seven ball dresses and five gowns for tea – all designed by the Empress’s dressmaker. Duly kitted out, they enter the theatrical spectacle of the French court, where appearance and conformity and sychophancy is everything.  Despite her best efforts, everything conspires to remind Emmeline of her humble origins (from the quality of the her cloth to the location of her room).  Henri is no support.  He is away most of the time, dealing with the real business in hand. However,  there are other men at hand, some gallant (Colonel Deniau), some not (Napoleon III himself), who have other designs on Emmeline. Given that her marriage has been long dead, it is only a matter of time before Emmeline, bored and unloved, falls prey to one or the other.  We observe and understand Emmeline’s loneliness and sadness at a marriage that is neither loving nor the exciting adventure she expected when she married her celebrity husband.

The second section takes the Lamberts to Algeria, where Henri is pacify the natives with his “magical” prowess.  He certainly has no doubts in his powers to perform. Emmeline accompanies him but the more she observes, the more she is disabused of the integrity of Henri’s task.  Colonel Deniau is on hand though to misdirect her penetrating gaze with his continued attentions which he does with ever diminishing success.  Even so, Emmeline is dragged into the deception when her husband’s male assistant falls ill.

It was Deniau who told him to ask me.  Deniau has convinced him that I’m the one he must use.  Deniau who uses him, who uses me, with compliments and flattery.  Deniau is the magician.  We are his marionettes.

Although there are many echoes, Emmeline is no Emma Bovary.  She is an astute assessor of the situation but powerless to prevent events from taking their course.  Through her eyes we see the ingenuity (or is that dishonesty) of her husband’s illusions, the frustrations of the Arabs, the dishonour of the French and an awareness of the ever increasing personal risks to her husband.

In a neat structural device, the sexual tensions of the first section and the danger to Emmeline’s honour are reflected in the political tensions of the second and the danger to Henri’s life.   The opulence, snobbery, sycophancy and moral lassitude of the French aristocratic court contrast strongly with the sincerity and charisma of the Arabs in the Algerian desert.  And let’s not forget the allegories contained in the French hunting scenes.

The ending, while bleak, is not quite what the reader expects.

 

(Originally published on Lizzy’s Literary Life 17/10/2007.)

 

Black Robe

Graham Greene once described Brian Moore as “my favourite living writer”. Moore’s death in 1999 means I can’t do the same but I can confirm that he is rapidly ascending the ranks of my all-time favourites. He must have something special for I kept reading even though Black Robe is a tale of full of atrocity and foul language. Not my usual fare at all.

But it’s impossible to stop reading a novel that encompasses all of Moore’s compulsive themes: sex, the clash of ideologies, loneliness, betrayal and religion. That’s a heady mix. But then Black Robe is a heady novel.

Set in the mid-17th century, it describes Father Paul Laforgue’s journey into the heart of darkness of Northern Canada. He is sent to relieve a dying priest of his post in a country inhabited by hostile, violent tribes. While he is prepared for martyrdom, his young novice, Daniel, is more ambivalent and succumbs to infatuation and the temptations of the flesh offered him by Annuka, a young Algonkin squaw. And so begin the religious complexities. Not only does Laforgue attempt to save the soul of his fallen Christian brother, he must also attempt the conversion of the pagan and, it must be said, savage natives. These are not the natives, cowed, domesticated and addicted to alcohol that we meet in Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, set 200 years after the events of Black Robe. The tribes of Black Robe are savages. To illustrate: at one point Laforgue, Daniel and his lover’s family are taken captive by the hostile Iroquois.

“May we caress the captives?” asked one of the women.

“Caress them” said Kiotsaeton, “but carefully, We must make them last.”

The women, gleeful, at once thrust their burning brands against the genitals of Chomina and Laforgue, causng them to double up in pain. They then burned Annuka’s shoulder and thrust a flaming stick into Daniel’s armpit …

and this is just the start of a torture session that ends in the parboiling and cannibalism of a young Algonkin child.

Moore makes it clear that the savagery is a result of the native religious system, which, with its belief in the world of night and the power of dreams, is so far removed from Christianity that the idea of conversion is inconceivable. Daniel and Annuka’s relationship, at face value demonstrating that reconciliation is possible, becomes the catalyst for the destruction of her family. Laforgue’s problems reconciling his experiences with his own beliefs precipitates a personal crisis of faith.

What’s amazing is Moore’s evenhandedness in showing both sides of the religious divide. Raised an Irish Catholic, Moore famously renounced his faith on the boat leaving Ireland. He waited that long, he said, so as not to hurt his mother. Yet, he remained cognisant of religious faith that could inspire men to behaviour beyond what is normal. So, while Black Robe shows the extremities of Indian belief, it does not condemn. It explains. So too Moore’s treatment of Jesuit faith and the behaviour of the missionaries.

The events are shocking and the outcomes bleak. Yet Moore is depicting real history – his source the voluminous letters that the Jesuits sent back to their superiors in France. He doesn’t sanitise the facts and as a result, demonstrates the bravery, the arrogance and the shortsightedness of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Blackrobes.

Presented with Moore’s trademarks, spare unadorned prose, strong visual elements, controlled pace and a tight plotline, this was quite simply unputdownable.

 

(Originally posted on Lizzy’s Literary Life 14.11.2007)