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.


The Statement

The Statement

The Statement, published in 1996, is a complex story of a man who has been on the run for many many years. The story is told in such a way that the reader’s sympathies may suddenly shift, and there are many surprises. (This is a good thing for this reader.)

I found that many of the opening first lines of chapters were quite cumbersome. The combination of names, titles, and places could have been refined.

That’s the only criticism though – the book is full of intriguing characters and situations. It’s hard to review this one without giving anything away so I’ll close with: A recommended read.


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.



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.


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.


Lies of Silence

What is the difference between a normal every-day thriller and a literary thriller?

I don’t know, but Lies of Silence reads quickly and easily just like any thriller. However, there are points made which tend to stick with the reader.

I think we can be assured that Brian Moore did not give credence to either side of “The Troubles”.

Beyond that though, there’s a study here about doing “the right thing”; can the value of one person’s life be weighed against the value of many? And once you’ve resolved that in principle, what if that one person was someone else? Tricky!

Lies of Silence
reads like a thriller, but after nearly two weeks, I still remember it, so not my normal every-day thriller.


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.)