Belfast’s best-kept secret

John Self welcomes the reissue of three works by Brian Moore, one of Northern Ireland’s few novelists who can stand toe-to-toe with the contemporary greats


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

A sense of chauvinism — in its original meaning — led me in early adulthood to regret and even resent that Northern Ireland had few world-class novelists. The problem seemed particularly acute when I looked south and saw how well-supplied Ireland was. Perhaps C.S. Lewis would do, not for Narnia but for the Cosmic Trilogy? Or Bernard MacLaverty, though his output of novels is sparse? Then I discovered Brian Moore (pronounced Bree-an), whose status as the best Northern Irish novelist — who can stand toe-to-toe with the twentieth century greats — seems spiritually buttressed by the fact he was born three months after Northern Ireland itself, in August 1921.

Yet Moore retains the tart flavour of a well-kept secret. He is not under-rated exactly, nor does he merit the backhanded compliment “writer’s writer” (unless the writer in question is Graham Greene, who called Moore his favourite living novelist). He is, rather, under-read and certainly under-kept-in-print: only about a third of his 20 novels are easy to find at any time. Luckily, enterprising publisher Turnpike Books is marking his centenary this month by reissuing three of his longest-unavailable novels, including one of his best.

What Moore is, is a reader’s writer: his writing fluid and acute, his books always driven by character and story, even when he experimented gently with form. His characters are real, helped by what his editor Diana Athill — praising him as a first-class gossip — called “a passionate interest, lit by humour but above malice, in human behaviour”. And I can’t deny that my own affection for his work was enhanced by appreciating the rare appearance of my home city of Belfast in real works of literature (so much better than seeing a bus aflame on the national news), even if his portrayal was ambivalent: a city full of “small, red-brick houses, their bay windows thrust out to repel the stranger”, where school bells go “echoing across wet playing fields to die in the faraway mists over Belfast Lough”.

Perhaps the reason Moore has never become a perennial bestseller is his refusal to fit, his insistence on protean variety. “The thing I am interested in doing is not writing the same book twice,” he said. “The moment I hear a writer is going to do a trilogy, I always think ‘Forget it’.” (Take that, Mantel!) His first biographer, Denis Sampson, dubbed him “the chameleon novelist”, and Christopher Ricks wrote, “the only wise prediction to make about a new Brian Moore novel is that it will be unpredictable and wise.”

Moore may have left the Church but the Church never left him

Nonetheless, many of his books fit into three broad categories. First, a series of portraits of individuals in crisis; then a string of loosely metaphysical novels exploring the border between character and reality; and finally a run of substantial political thrillers. The first is exemplified in Moore’s debut novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), which remains the best known of his books. Its only failing is the title, which signposts too clearly the development of a solitary middle-aged Belfast woman, her hard existence softened by alcohol, chasing the end of her tether until it disappears from view. (It is also a fine example of that neglected genre, the boarding-house novel, where society’s deepest eccentrics play out containment comedies.)

Writing about a coldly religious Belfast in the 1950s was Moore’s way of psychologically escaping it, though he had already done that in life by moving to Europe in 1943, then to Canada where he lived for 12 years. (His rejection of the Catholic Church in which he’d been raised led him, despite their mutual admiration, to describe himself as “a sort of Graham Greene running the other way”.)

He exorcised the demons of his schooldays in Belfast’s St Malachy’s College with his second novel The Feast of Lupercal (1957) — one of the novels just reissued — which reversed the Judith Hearne template by making an alcoholic spinster into a virginal bachelor. Diarmuid Devine is a teacher at the school where he boarded as a boy, “shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man”. But it’s the republication of Moore’s fifth and most autobiographical novel, The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1966), that is the greatest cause for celebration. This least regarded of his very best books is a funny, original story about Gavin Burke, a teenager living through the Second World War who is ill-suited to the “dull, dead town” of Belfast. He regards the war with excitement — “there was nothing in the world so imposing that a big bomb couldn’t blow it up” — just as his Catholic neighbours are putting their money on Hitler succeeding where the IRA had failed.

But it was for writing as female characters that Moore was most highly acclaimed: Judith Hearne, then the title character in I am Mary Dunne (1968) — which investigated the impact of changing her name on a woman’s identity — and Sheila Redden in The Doctor’s Wife (1976). This intense account of a married woman’s affair with a younger man in Paris was the first of his three Booker Prize shortlistings. But its sexually explicit content — perhaps the only Booker novel to feature the word “cockstand” — meant it was vetoed from winning by one of the judges: poet and prime minister’s wife Mary Wilson. (She also rejected Julian Rathbone’s King Fisher Lives: “I couldn’t be party to giving the prize to a book about cannibalism.”)

Moore may have left the Church but the Church never left him, not really. In all these “crisis” novels, the protagonist is seeking something to fill the void left by the absence of God: alcohol for Judith Hearne, love for Diarmuid Devine, sex for Sheila Redden. In Moore’s 1963 novel An Answer from Limbo, struggling novelist Brendan Tierney says that “my book for me is the belief that replaces belief.” (Limbo, incidentally, is the least successful of his ‘crisis’ novels because it spreads its narrative among too many characters, losing the focus of his best work.)

From the quotidian magic of religion, Moore moved to the mid-period metaphysical novels, where his interest in “an impossible premise treated realistically” produced borderline fantasies featuring ghosts (Fergus, 1971), imaginary objets d’art (The Great Victorian Collection, 1975) and literal life after death (Cold Heaven, 1983). You could even argue that his 1971 novella Catholics (one of his great masterpieces, according to Colm Tóibín) fits this mould, with what is technically a science fiction setting: an alternative future where Vatican III has taken place, shaking the foundations of the Church.

Making new from old was the hallmark of Moore’s third act, the late thrillers The Colour of Blood (1987), Lies of Silence (1990) and The Statement (1995). Judith Hearne was not Moore’s first novel: in the early 1950s he wrote a series of pulp thrillers (Wreath for a Redhead, A Bullet for My Lady — you get the idea) under pseudonyms. These were a training ground for his narrative skills but later he found himself drawn again to the form. “I’ve discovered,” he said, “that the thriller and the journey form are tremendously powerful. They’re the gut of fiction, but they’re being left to second-rate writers because first-rate writers are bringing the author into the novel and all those nouveau roman things.”

Is there anything missing in Moore’s work?

He had, by now, moved on from Canada and lived in a beachfront property in Malibu, California (he once observed that he moved but his characters didn’t). There he scripted Alfred Hitchcock’s film Torn Curtain, an experience he described as “awful, like washing floors”. (He turned the job down initially, until Hitchcock doubled the money.) He became friends with writers such as Philip Roth and Richard Yates. He had also written, in 1971, The Revolution Script, a novelised account of the kidnapping of a Canadian government minister by Québecois separatists. He later dismissed it, with some justification, as “journalism” and it is the least worthwhile of the three reissued novels.

But by blending his thriller experiences and political elements, the mature Moore hit the mark beautifully: two of the three late thrillers were Booker shortlisted. And with Lies of Silence, he returned to the Belfast he had dismissed in the early novels — the city that never changed in his books because he didn’t stay to see it change — only to place it in the middle of the Troubles. (His work, inevitably, has never been drawn on by the tourist board.)

Is there anything missing in Moore’s work? Comedy didn’t feature highly, though he proved he could do it with his third novel The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), a very funny account of a slacker Irishman’s attempts to make it in Canada (“the trouble was, what his trouble always was”). And toward the end of his life, we saw indications of a lean toward historical fiction, with his final novel The Magician’s Wife (1997), set in 19th century Algeria, and a novel about Arthur Rimbaud he was working on at his death.

Where to begin reading him? Of the new reissues, The Emperor of Ice-Cream is the jewel. Judith Hearne deserves its status, Catholics excels as both satire and tragedy and The Colour of Blood is the best of the thrillers. But it hardly matters, because through all of Moore’s work, of whatever genre, run reliable qualities: a clear-eyed view of human nature; the relentless pursuit of the story; and the successful execution of the principle he held most dear, that “to me reading should be, even at its highest level, a pleasure.”

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