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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Moore’

My second read for Cathy’s Brian Moore centenary read-a-long was Moore’s 1958 novel The Feast of Lupercal. A rather different novel on the surface from last month’s Brian Moore read, though I can see some repeating themes, it actually reminded me far more of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which I read in 2019. Where that novel concerned the celibate, disappointed life of a Catholic woman, this novel concerns a man, a teacher living a fairly narrow kind of life in 1950s Belfast.

Diarmuid Devine is a thirty-seven year old schoolmaster at the Catholic boys school, Ardath college in Belfast. Dev – as he is known to pretty much everyone – teaches English, and a look is all he requires to instil the discipline expected in his classrooms. When that isn’t enough he has no qualms in employing the cane. Outside of school he lives in digs, getting his meals from his landlady – an arrangement he has had for ten years. Having an interest in the theatre he has worked behind the scenes with a local amateur dramatic group, though his huge efforts have been taken for granted and he has had to endure the ignominy of having his name missed off the programme for several years. It’s a small, quiet life, and despite his age Dev has had no experience with woman at all, has never had a girlfriend and has led a life that adhered pretty closely to the principles of the Catholic faith.

“As for girls, well, he had never been a ladies’ man. He was not ugly, no, nor too shy, no, but he never had much luck with girls. It was the education in Ireland, dammit, he had said it many a time. He had been a boarder at this very school, shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man.”

Dev has probably never given much thought to how others may see him. So, it is with some horror that Dev overhears a couple of colleagues discussing him. A conversation in which the other two men acknowledge that Dev would have no idea what it would be like to have feelings for a girl, declaring him to be ‘an old woman.’ For Dev this insight into how other people might see him is profoundly shocking and gives him much to think about.

The revelations of the day therefore are still very much with him that evening when he decides to attend a party given by a teacher friend Tim Heron at his home. During the evening Dev gets talking to an attractive young woman called Una Clarke, a niece of Tim Heron’s who is staying with Tim and his wife until she can begin her nurses training. Una is from Dublin, a Protestant and only twenty years of age. A hint of scandal has followed her to Belfast – rumours that Dev is made aware of that first evening by those who are always quick to judge. It is said that Una was involved with a married man in Dublin, so her mother has sent her to stay with her uncle to get her out of the way until she starts her nursing course. Something about Una captivates Dev right from the start, though what could she possibly ever see in him? Dev leaves the party early. I loved Moore’s observations throughout this novel – here his description of a group of Heron’s relatives at the party.

“Here were the old ones. Tim Heron’s mother and his wife’s father, an aged uncle, a solitary aunt. Five or six unmarried females, elderly, out of things. All of them dressed in their Sunday best, wondering what to do with themselves. For they had so looked forward to this party, and now, as usual, they were not enjoying it. They sat in a stiff oval on the sofas and chairs, trying to think of small useless remarks. Unwanted, even by each other, they were the kind of relatives who must be invited to every function because, being the least noticed, they were the quickest to take offence.”

The college Dean: Father McSwiney asks Dev to help put on a play to help raise funds for charity. After running into Una again in a coffee shop and following some discussion with other members of the theatrical group it is agreed that Una – despite having no experience of performing – can audition for one of the roles in the upcoming play. Dev soon finds himself in the position of having to coach Una for the part – and so the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Una is really not going to be suitable for the role, yet the two enjoy their rehearsal time together and a friendship soon develops – with Dev wondering if this new friendship could ever be anything more. Una even confides in Dev – telling him something about what happened in Dublin, though the unworldly Dev has no idea what to do with Una’s revelation and makes certain assumptions that only helps to confuse the issue later.

Dev is conscious of how much older than Una he is – he wants her to look on him as a possible suitor/husband – and decides to change himself for the better so she might look on him with favour. He shaves off his moustache and buys a new suit of clothes. The scene in the tailor’s shop is beautifully and amusingly rendered – with poor Dev obviously clueless about fashion.

Needless to say, it isn’t long before the whispering starts. Una’s uncle Tim is desperate that no scandal should attach itself to Una while she is under his roof. Moore manages to make this community in Belfast seem as insular as a small village – rumours are passed along swiftly, when tensions between Tim Heron and Dev threaten to get out of control it would seem that everyone knows about it. In this Catholic environment of the 1950s any whiff of scandal or impropriety can completely ruin someone.

Moore perfectly captures the sadness of a wasted life – beautifully written and compelling The Feast of Lupercal assures me that I should read more Brian Moore this centenary year – and I’m sure I will.

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When I first read about Cathy’s 2021 read-a-long of Brian Moore novels for his centenary I was immediately interested. I read my first Brian Moore novel for Read Ireland month in 2019 – The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which I assume is now his best known novel. Of course, the difficulty is that much of his work is out of print – though I found a new edition of Lies of Silence on Bookshop. org which Vintage appear to have brought out in 2019. I also bought an old paperback copy of The Feast of Lupercal on ebay for just a couple of pounds and have sourced another for my kindle. The schedule for Cathy’s challenge is here – she has chosen twelve novels to read during the year from across different period’s of Moore’s writing career and as I have two more of them I am looking forward to continuing to join in. Having now finished Lies of Silence I am even more enthusiastic.

Lies of Silence is one of Brian Moore’s later novels – first published in 1990 – he died in 1999. It was shortlisted for the 1990 Booker prize. The novel focuses on The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the impact they have on the ordinary person. It is also a taut exploration of a person’s own moral choices – what do we do when faced with a decision which will have life changing consequences for others?

“And now, watching him go off for his morning walk with his dog, Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made this, his and Mr Harbinson’s birthplace, sick with a terminal illness of bigotry and injustice, lies told over the years to poor Protestant 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 Westminster who did not want to face the injustices of Ulster’s status quo.”

Michael Dillon is a hotel manager in Belfast, married to the very beautiful but bulimic and emotionally fragile Moira. Michael was once a poet but he gave that up for a pay packet and security and while Moira definitely prefers Ireland to London where they met – Michael is itching to get back to London, and to put Northern Ireland with all its issues behind him. His marriage to Moira is on the rocks, although Moira seems unaware of it – Michael has started an affair with a young Canadian woman, Andrea who works at the BBC. Michael is planning on asking for a transfer to London, he will leave Moira and go to England with Andrea – he wants to ask Moira for a divorce, still a dirty word for many Catholics. As the novel opens he and Andrea agree that Michael will talk to Moira the following day.

However, that evening they are thrust violently into the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The first indication that something might be wrong is when Michael finds the body of their pet cat in a hedge – but he assumes it was just the tragic victim of a road accident. Later that night, Michael unable to sleep hears movement outside – moments later there are IRA men in his house – demanding he and Moira get dressed and come downstairs.

“He had seen them on the evening television news and in newspaper photographs, theatrical figures, firing revolver volleys over paramilitary graves, marching in parades with banners and flags. But like most people he kept well away from the events themselves so that now, for the first time in his life, he was looking at them, here in his house, real revolvers, faceless, staring eyes, scruffy boys in woollen masks. Who are they? Are they Protestants or Catholics – UDA or IRA? Is this one of those mistakes where they come in and shoot the wrong person?

‘What do you want?’ He heard the fear in his voice.”

Michael – like so many people living in Northern Ireland is fairly apolitical – his wife passionately opposed to everything the IRA stand for. The tension Moore creates of this silent house, where Michael and Moira sit in their living room guarded by IRA men – waiting to find out what will be asked of them, is quite brilliant. Quickly, we realise the men behind the masks are very young, following orders – not so sure of themselves as a mask and a gun make them seem.

The next morning Michael receives his orders, he is to drive his car to the hotel just as he would usually, park in the same place – and walk away. A bomb has been put in his car and it will detonate a few minutes later. If he fails to follow the instructions or tries to raise the alarm Moira will be killed. Michael immediately realises the IRA are targeting the firebrand protestant reverend (a thinly veiled Ian Paisley I assumed) who will be speaking at a special breakfast at the hotel that morning. Of course, many other people will also be hurt or worse – and the men in his house haven’t promised to give a warning either. Michael’s journey to the hotel is one of unbelievable tension – worrying about Moira, concerned about what death and destruction he may be bringing to the hotel – will they phone a warning? Should he do something? Everywhere there are watchers – a car follows him; a teenage boy is watching as he parks his car – is he one of theirs? It is important to remember that this all takes place in a time before everyone has a mobile phone in their pocket.

Naturally, I won’t reveal what happens, what decisions Michael takes – but all decisions whether good or bad have consequences for others.

Although this might seem to have elements of the thriller about it – the IRA, threats, a car bomb – it is far more than that and I wouldn’t class it as a thriller at all – it’s an altogether quieter novel than that – though richly compelling. Written with great subtlety and understanding, Lies of Silence is much more about the moral choices we make, and what the effects those choices have for others. How do you carry on, talk intelligently to colleagues after you have had IRA men in your house? – what plans do you make, or should you make? Brian Moore shows us how life can appear to be very normal – everything around you just as it was the day before – yet in these circumstances, nothing is normal at all.  

The Feast of Lupercal is up next – and I am definitely planning on reading it next month – a quick flick through this much earlier Moore novel already whetting my appetite.

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I managed to squeeze The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne into the end of Read Ireland month. I knew my review would be several days late. Brian Moore is a new to me author, though I have seen a lot of positive reviews for this novel and others. My lovely nyrb classics edition an ebay buy. Well how could I not buy this beautiful edition?

People said I would love this book – and they were right – there was so much to admire in Moore’s writing. Though it was an enjoyment tinged with sadness, for the story of Judith Hearne is not a happy one. We know that much from the title.

Judith Hearne – Judy – is a literary creation we remember, long after we have closed the book, and there is an irony in that, for in life she is the kind of woman we over look, or having met, instantly forget. Yet, Brian Moore won’t let us forget her quite so easily, he recreates her world with pinpoint perfection, showing us, the inner turmoil she tries so hard to hide from the world. We hear the bitter little conversations she has with herself – the small, vain delusions she tries to convince herself of. Desperate for one last chance at what other women have.

 “She watched the glass, a plain woman, changing all to the delightful illusion of beauty. There was still time: for her ugliness was destined to bloom late, hidden first by the unformed gawkiness of youth, budding to plainness in young womanhood and now flowering to slow maturity in her early forties, it still awaited the subtle garishness which only decay could bring to fruition: a garishness which, when arrived at, would preclude all efforts at the mirror game.”

As the novel opens Judith Hearne is moving into new lodgings in Belfast. She has come down in the world from the one she was born to. Brought up by her genteel aunt, who she later spent years caring for she is an unmarried woman of certain age with no obvious attractions. Destroyed, in effect by circumstances. We watch Judy go through the small moving in rituals that we sense she has gone through before – lovingly unpacking the silver framed picture of her aunt, briefly seeing her surroundings through her aunt’s eyes. Next comes the cheap mass produced oleograph of the Sacred Heart – which will be hung on the wall. There are still her trunks to be unpacked properly – no need to rush, she can do it in time, the slow finding of places to put things all part of the ritual. There are also new people to meet, her fellow lodgers, and what kind of breakfast will her new landlady Mrs Henry Rice serve?

At breakfast – just tea and toast, and a kipper on Sundays, Judy meets her fellow boarders, Mr Leneham, Miss Friel and Mr Madden. Mr Leneham a proud, opinionated Irishman, Miss Friel a small neat woman with her abstinence brooch clearly displayed on her collar, Mr Madden the brother of Mrs Henry Rice, returned lately to Ireland after twenty nine years in America. The two final members of the household are; Bernard, Mrs Henry Rice’s adult son, a grossly proportioned, idle malevolence, and Mary the young maid. Mr Madden is the only person to give Judy anything approaching a second glance. His friendliness goes to her head instantly – he talks to her about America. Judy later goes to the library to read more about New York, quick to capitalise on this new and unexpected friendship. James Madden, Judy learns was in hotels – and Judy’s imagination is fired up. She is excited – she has so much now, to tell her friends on Sunday.

“For it was important to have things to tell which interested your friends. And Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position.”

Each Sunday Judith Hearne visits her friends the O’Neills, Professor Owen O’Neill, his wide Moira, and their four children Una, Shaun, Kevin and Kathleen. Judy is proud of her friends, their gracious home, enjoys feeling a part of the family – unaware that the younger members of the family call her the great bore. She sits drinking sherry by the fire – and catches sight of the children’s small sharp smiles from time to time – and tells herself off for repeating well worn phrases that give the youngsters something to smirk at. The terrible awkwardness of these scenes is brilliantly portrayed, full of pathos and a deep understanding of loneliness.

Eking out an existence by teaching piano – and with the number of pupils dropping off, Judy tries not to spend money on meals if she can manage not to – so we know she hasn’t much money – but James Madden is under the impression that she does. In Judy, Madden – who we quickly realise is not a nice man – sees an opportunity. While heartbreakingly; in Madden, Judy sees the ‘last one’ – her last chance of love and marriage.

“And maybe, although it was a thing you could hardly bear to think about, like death or your last judgment, maybe he would be the last one ever and he would walk away now and it would only be a question of waiting for it all to end and hoping for better things in the next world. But that was silly, it was never too late.” 

Poor Judy – we really can’t help but call her that – we know she is fragile – a woman with a big secret, and she’s just one more big disappointment away from bringing everything crashing down on top of herself.

Moore’s storytelling is honest – he has a sympathy for Judith Hearne and her ilk – and in reading this, his sympathy becomes our own. We witness Judy’s descent into further degradation – and it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a wonderfully nuanced novel and a searing exposition of loneliness.

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