The Marvellous Mr Moore
Brian Moore is my kind of writer, unplaceable, thoughtful, readable, moving. The Irish-Canadian novelist and scriptwriter wrote a number of haunting short novels (some 20 in all) often concerning life in Northern Ireland, exploring the Troubles and the Blitz. Born into a family of nine children in Belfast, 1921, he rejected Catholicism and explained his personal beliefs through the characters of torn priests and strong women.
Not that you’d know this from his early works; ‘Wreath For A Redhead’, ‘This Gun For Gloria’ and ‘A Bullet For My Lady’ aren’t exactly masterpieces. Moore wrote thrillers under two pseudonyms while perfecting his craft, and yet there were signs of what was to follow.
Then came ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’, the story of an alcoholic piano teacher subsisting in rented rooms which gains its heartbreaking power from the simplicity of clear prose. It was later filmed with Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins, but the movie is hard to see now. Five of Moore’s novels became films, and he scripted for both Alfred Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol, although he described the writing of ‘Torn Curtain’ as ‘awful, like washing floors’.
Financed by a grant from the Guggenheim, Moore moved to New York. He often returned to the subject of isolated outsiders facing the consequences of their actions, from the rabble-rousing missionary in ‘No Other Life’ and the Fascist officer awaiting discovery in ‘The Statement’ to the conflicted priest living among Canada’s Algonquin Indians in the harrowing ‘Black Robe’.
He was Graham Greene’s favourite living novelist, mainly, one suspects, because he was able to explore the paradoxical dilemmas of faith, morality, redemption and loss within the structure of popular thriller writing. In ‘The Magician’s Wife’, a Parisian prestidigitator is dispatched to Algeria by Emperor Napoleon III to trick the natives into believing that a Christian Frenchman can perform miracles, but his wife is not so easily hoodwinked. It’s a typical tour-de-force from a truly international novelist who was thrice nominated for the Booker Prize (and should have won). To date he is the subject of three biographies.
Perhaps his least appreciated novel is ‘The Great Victorian Collection’, an exuberant fantasy in which a young assistant history professor dreams of an open-air market filled with a dazzling collection of priceless Victoriana, only to awake and find it standing outside his window. Now he must take care of it, and as we know, grand possessions come with a price.
Are Moore’s novels popular fictions or literature? Does it matter how they’re perceived? He stands on the dividing line. His books are effortless to read, pithy, unfashionably short, but thematically expansive. How would present-day critics regard him? I imagine that today his work would unquestionably be considered literary fiction, so that’s where I’ll put him, on the litfic shelf. Moore died in 1999.