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MOORE than this
Avuncular Belfast-born writer brian moore may continually encounter difficulties in getting people to pronounce his name correctly, but one thing he s never had trouble with is the quality of his literary output. His latest effort, The Magician s Wife, is yet another effortlessly elegant concoction of seamless prose. Interview: liam fay. Pix: Cathal Dawson
Liam Fay, 29 Oct 1997
Brian Moore says that he spent the first 50 years of his life helping Americans to correctly pronounce his name and is already well into spending the second 50 helping people on this side of the Atlantic to do so. For the record, it s Brian as in Bree-an and Moore as in, well, Moore.
I don t make a big issue of it, he observes, taking jocular umbrage. But Bree-an is what I grew up as. Even most Irish people now refer to the name as Brian in the normal way. The funny thing is that some of them are vaguely aware that my name is pronounced slightly differently, but they re not sure which part. I ve met quite a few who call me things like Brian More, Brian Mae-ore or Brian Moor-aye. The confusion is kinda nice, really.
While there may be some bafflement about what to call the man, there is little about what to call the writer. Brian Moore is a giant of 20th century fiction. A novelist of rare longevity he turned 76 last August and published his first book when he was 26 he is both prolific and brilliant, the author of many exceptional tales whose popularity has girdled the globe. He has also scooped virtually the full gamut of worldwide literary sashes and gongs.
Five of Moore s novels have been made into movies, and almost all 20 of them are bywords for insightful, page-turning sophistication. His list of achievements includes such classics as The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne (his first novel), The Emperor Of Ice Cream, The Doctor s Wife, Cold Heaven, Black Robe, The Colour Of Blood and Lies Of Silence.
Publishers and critics have long agreed that Moore is a great writer, but they have grievously differed over whether he s a great Irish writer, a great Canadian writer or a great American writer. Moore himself seems to relish this evasion of classification, and rattles off the bare bones of his CV with a you-figure-it-out grin: he was born in Belfast, emigrated to Montreal in 1948, worked as a journalist, and then moved to New York in the late 1950s.
I always like to say that I have no parish, he affirms. I live as I choose, and I write about various times and places. Of course, I ve also written about Ireland, but I think one problem for Irish writers is that they tend to be obsessed with Ireland. Because I had emigrated, I didn t want to spend the rest of my life writing about the life I left behind.
There is, however, a strong Irish piquancy to the themes that unite his books, his concern with the consequences of faith and the loss of faith, with guilt and sin.
Yes, they are the constants, he concedes. I ve never believed in things but I ve been intrigued with the fact that people do believe in them and that this belief dominates people s lives. And also with the fact that most people, when they re young, want to have either a political belief or a religious belief or even simply a belief in saving the world in some way or other.
It fails. Their confidence fails them. Usually, it s at that point where they have to examine their lives. A lot of my books have dealt with that period when whatever belief people have fails them and they suddenly see life differently.
There was nothing particularly dramatic about Moore s own loss of faith; he never had much faith to begin with. I wasn t religious as a child, he recalls. I was brought up in a very Catholic family but I just never had what they call the gift of faith, even from a very early age. That always made me uneasy.
I left Belfast partly because I didn t want to disappoint my very religious parents by not going to mass. But, to my surprise, I ve written a lot about faith and about religion. I saw that I had a certain advantage having been brought up the way I was, that I could sorta be a fly on the wall and examine it.
Is he suspicious of belief? No, not at all. If we didn t have belief and we didn t have people with convictions, the world would be even worse than it is.
Moore endorses the old adage about how, in artistic terms, the door closes on the writer at 20. Given the rich seam of material his Catholic upbringing has provided for his work, does he believe that it is actually desirable for a writer to be raised in a religious background which he or she later rejects?
Well, he replies, I suppose I could best answer that by saying if a writer is brought up in a background in which he has nothing to react against, he s not likely to write at all.
Brian Moore s latest novel, The Magician s Wife, features yet another twist on his enduring fascination with people who live their lives strictly on a kneel-to-know basis.
Set in the late 1850s in France and Algeria, the book is an historical morality tale recounted by one Emmeline Lambert, the wife of a French illusionist, who actually existed, called Robert Houdin. The most famous and inventive conjuror of his time, Houdin is sent by Napoleon III to persuade the Arabs poised for Holy War and in thrall to their own charismatic shamen that France s might and magic are the greater. Houdin s mission is to bamboozle the Arabs with French sleight-of-hand and technological know-how.
The scene is thereby set for a series of revealing stand-offs; between the old world and the new, between politics and religion, between Christianity and Islam.
My primary fascination was with miracles, Moore explains. The idea of false miracles and miraculous appearances. The Catholic Church is terrified of miraculous appearances; they don t want anything to do with them, really. They re much more comfortable with trickery.
I then thought it would be interesting to contrast the sham of Napoleon III s court and its avowed Christianity with the absolute belief of these Muslims. I went into the thing with the idea that most of us have, that Islam is a fanatical, fundamentalist religion. I came out of it with a very different idea.
In many ways, there is something quite admirable about a lot of their beliefs compared to ours. For instance, women are not held back the way we think they are. Although they wear veils, they have marriage rights. They can divorce their husbands. They often have control of the money. It s not just as simple as we think it is.
Moore was also curious to examine how a people s faith defines their national character. The main difference I found between Christians and Muslims is that we ask God for favours: Let me pass my exam. Don t give me cancer. It s always a begging bowl. Whereas their religion is totally one of accepting. They say, Our lives have been written for us by God, and whatever He sends us, we accept it .
It s that acceptance, that feeling that it s all for the best no matter how bad it is, which makes them very different from us. It also allows them to put up with things that we would never put up with.
Wasn t Moore wary about writing about Islam given what happened to Salman Rushdie when he tried it?
Not really, he maintains. But I do notice they haven t killed Salman Rushdie yet. I see him at parties from time to time. I met him at my editor s house one night, with his bodyguards. If the IRA put a contract out on your head, you wouldn t last this long. It makes you wonder how real a threat the fatwa actually is. But, as it turns out, I should probably be promoted by the Islamic religion.
It is said that the inhabitants of The Vatican, led by Opus Dei, are gearing up for an apocalyptic and vengeful battle with Islam, which the Catholic Church now regards as its greatest menace. Some of the Vatican s most extreme ideologues apparently believe that a literal Holy War is inevitable within the next few decades. Was Brian Moore aware of this when he was writing The Magician s Wife?
No, The Vatican didn t inform me about that, he chuckles. But I d reckon Opus Dei are a far bigger threat. They re Catholic crazies! What worries The Vatican is that Islam is gaining adherents all over Africa, far more than Catholicism has ever gained. It s all about power.
While The Magician s Wife is self-evidently a work of fiction, its narrative springs from genuine fact. As with all of Moore s many and diverse historical novels, the era and the setting have both been painstakingly researched. But he is assiduously economical with the actualiti; every detail exists only to serve the story.
I m not a historian, insists Moore. I m not even a history buff, particularly. It s simply, I think, that having written so many books, you run out of books about your own life. Other subjects interest me more at this point. I find a story that interests me and then start examining its background.
The biggest piece of research I did for The Magician s Wife was reading the real Robert Houdin s memoir. The interesting thing about his memoir is that, like all magicians, he doesn t really tell you how he does his tricks. He pretends to tell you. But the basic thing about magicians seems to be that they wouldn t, and won t, even tell their wives.
How closely does Moore follow today s unfolding history in his native Northern Ireland?
Not very much, really. I follow it as much as anyone else would who s living in Britain, or somewhere.
Is he simply depressed by the whole situation up there, and the snail s pace of change?
Very. Nothing changes, really. Tony Blair says that nothing s going to change in his lifetime. I definitely don t think it s gonna happen in mine. When I left Ireland, it was the Second World War. I thought that it would all change after the War. I was sure of it, because so many people had joined up from Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants, I thought, Well, when the War s over, all this is going to seem like ancient history . But it didn t.
I m obviously a terrible judge of history. When I was young, I believed that when I would be the age I am now, the world would be entirely socialist (laughs). If somebody had said to me then that there wouldn t be any communism left in 1997, I would have said, Are you kidding? There won t be any religion left! .
Is Brian Moore still a socialist?
I suppose in as much as I d be anything, yes, he declares.
F Scott Fitzgerald said that, in terms of literary style, there are two types of writers: putter-in-ers and taker-out-ers. Brian Moore is definitely one of the taker-out-ers. His prose is as cool and as clear as ice cubes in water. Nothing is permitted to obstruct the reader s view of the story. Yet, for all its apparent simplicity, there is something deeply hypnotic about the slow, elemental, languorous clinking of those perfectly-formed ice cubes.
I think that s because of the way I started writing, as a journalist, Moore reflects. I was told that the important things were Who, What, When, Why and Where. I ve always had that feeling that the journalistic idea was a good one for all kinds of storytelling. I ve been lucky in that it s a style of writing that doesn t date.
I have tried to find what s the best and simplest way to write every book I ve written. The styles are different. I ve used first person, third person. It s finding that voice to start which, to me, is the whole challenge and secret of novel writing. Getting the tone right in the first chapter is the real trick. Only then can you go ahead.
If you look at novels from the 19th century; they were full of information, because people didn t have any other sources of information. Dostoevsky would stop off in the middle of a chapter and tell you all about Russian monasticism. But the modern reader doesn t want to hear that, and won t wait for it. People say to me they read my books in two sittings, and I m delighted.
As an author whose career has already prospered for more than half a century, Brian Moore takes a sardonic delight in the coming and going of literary rage and craze. I ve been out-of-fashion so often, I ve made it fashionable, he quips.
His favourite period of being out-of-fashion was the 25-year-stretch when the American lit-crit consensus decreed that he wasn t a truly serious writer because he declined to write what Moore himself terms, with a hearty chortle, big, heavy, too-long books in the American tradition .
That amuses me particularly because I ve seen that tradition evolve in my own time of writing in America, he asserts. It all had to do with the book clubs which were very important to the publishers. The publishers liked big books because the book club could then put out an edition that was cheaper. The whole secret of that was that it was all about commercialism only nobody mentioned it. So, if you turned in a book with 230 pages, its book club chances were nil.
An awful lot of the logorrhoea of American writing at that period is due to that. It particularly affected the bad writers, the schlock writers. The people who wanted to write best-sellers all write long. They still do.
The sceptical, detached onlooker in Moore has also been extremely tickled, down the decades, by the desperation among so many of his US counterparts to be the one who finally created the (tarantara!) Great American Novel: That whole idea became a big joke 20 years ago but some of them are still out there searching for it.
Does Brian Moore believe that the Great Irish Novel has been written yet? In a way, Ulysses is the great Irish novel, except that it s not a novel which I think is very nice, he beams.
Moore admits that he knows little of contemporary Irish literature, or indeed of any contemporary literature.
I m probably not as well up on the younger writers as I should be because, in recent years, I ve started to read the things that I should ve read earlier. This year, I ve been re-reading Proust which I didn t like when I was young and now I like a lot. I have a lot of catching up to do.
I think it s hard to read if you re writing a novel. You might be able to read Proust or Tolstoy but it s hard to read other people s contemporary novels when you re writing one of your own. You tend to look at it very technically, or at least I do. You say, Aha, I see what they re going to do here or something like that. You re spoiled as a reader. I think most novelists are bad judges of other novels.
Which does Brian Moore believe is the best of his own books? I don t single any of them out really. I know what s wrong with all of them. Like the Magician, I m not telling.
There is an understated humour in many of Moore s novels that has been overlooked in the concentration on the ecstasies and agonies experienced by most of his protagonists. Does he resent this?
I don t resent it but I think you re right, he says. I really enjoy good craic and I enjoy laughter and humour. But people never refer to that in my books. Take a book I wrote years ago, The Emperor Of Ice Cream. I never looked at it for ages and, a couple of years ago, I took a look at it and thought, There s a lot of funny stuff in here . But nobody s ever mentioned that. They always mention the grimmer elements of my writing. But then, don t forget that Mr. Joyce said he considered Ulysses a comic novel.
What makes Brian Moore laugh?
I like British humour a lot, he attests. I like things like Monty Python. I like Fawlty Towers. I like that sort of humour. I like the English zany humour more than I like the American humour, which I do like also. But American humour is usually based upon cracks. It s verbal. Americans don t do the lunatic thing the Brits do so well.
Though Brian Moore is a Canadian citizen, he spends only the summer months in his Nova Scotia hideaway. The rest of the year, he lives at one end of fashionable Malibu Beach in California. The most important attribute of both homes, he says, is that they overlook water.
I feel at home by water, he asserts. The house in Nova Scotia is right beside the bay. It reminds me of Ireland a great deal. In fact, we re directly opposite. If you cross the ocean from Nova Scotia, you run straight into Ireland. The house is very remote, a great place to write. It s also in the province where my wife (Jean) was born, so we feel very at home there.
It s difficult to imagine this placid, urbane man living amid the sleaze and glitz of Malibu Beach, but Moore insists that the region s bad rep is greatly exaggerated. Oh, you can avoid all that showbiz atmosphere, he contends. The area is so large that you can actually lead your life in relative solitude.
Moore has never written a biography and has no plans to begin one now either.
I don t think my life, or indeed most writers lives, are very interesting, he proclaims. There s somebody doing a biography of me, a woman called Patricia Craig, for an English publisher. She s going around asking my relatives what I was like. People seem more interested in memoirs than fiction at the moment which I think is kind of odd. Although some of these memoirs may really be fiction.
Having passed the three-quarters of a century stage, does Brian Moore still retain his enthusiasm for commencing work every morning?
It s what I do and I enjoy writing, unlike all those people who agonise and have great trouble with it, he enthuses. I m happy when I am writing. It s when I m not writing and haven t found what I m going to do next that I m unhappy. That s when I start to worry about falling off. n
The Magician s Wife is published by Bloomsbury at #15.99.