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.