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An Irishman In Malibu : Novelist Brian Moore Has Left Behind His Homeland And Dodged Celebrity In Favor Of An Independent--minded And Highly Successful Literary Life

March 01, 1992|TOM CHRISTIE | Tom Christie is a writer based in Los Angeles

IN 1964, WHEN THE IRISH PLAYWRIGHT AND WIT BRENDAN Behan died in New York of too much Drink, his countryman Brian Moore wrote, "The angel at the head of Behan's bed, the angel of death, was fame." That image, says Moore today, has stayed in his mind for the nearly 30 years since, a time in which he has written a dozen novels while steadfastly refusing to play the fame game. It's not that he has not known fame--he has received numerous honors (his 1990 and 1987 novels, "Lies of Silence" and "The Color of Blood," were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Britain's premier literary award) and accolades from critics and fellow authors. And he has had the sometimes dubious pleasure of seeing several books (including "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" and, most recently, "Black Robe") turned into films. It's just that he doesn't live where he is famous. He lives here.

One week last fall exemplifies Moore's anomalous life. He was in Edinburgh for a reunion of the Scottish Arts Council International Fellows (who include Israel's Amos Oz, South Africa's Nadine Gordimer and Chicago's Saul Bellow), was recognized by a reader in a London bookstore and was feted at the Toronto Festival of Festivals (which premiered "Black Robe"). Two days later, he was back at his home high above the beach several miles north of Malibu, working in cherished anonymity on another film script and what will be, with any luck, his 17th novel.

Not bad for a guy who turned 70 in August. After all, he asks a visitor, how many men of his age can continue to work as he does? And how many, a visitor might add, can adapt their own books for talented movie directors by way of taking a break? How many have received mostly good, serious notices since their very first book? How many have managed to pass apparently unscathed through the literary gantlet of drink and bitterness and fame?

No, says Brian Moore, he's not complaining; he has had "a wonderful literary life." But literary lives, even the good ones, don't come easy. Like many writers, and emigrants, Moore has built his successes atop a foundation of perceived failures and has consistently renewed himself at the expense of past lives. Residing in the limbo of the self-exiled, he's a sort of literary explorer who, even now, bravely pushes himself into new terrain.

Born and raised in Ireland, a citizen of Canada, Moore has lived in California longer than in either of those places--25 years--yet says he still has no sense of place here. And he remains torn: Place, he admits, is perhaps the question of his writing life.

"I often wonder what would have happened to me if I had stayed in Ireland and written about my own world all the time. And I'm going to die now not knowing if I made a mistake or not."

Just the same, when it's suggested to him that with "Lies of Silence" he's come full circle to the place of his birth, cold and grimy Belfast, he retorts, with the laugh of an Irishman living in Malibu, "Yeah, but I'm going to leave instantly. There's no way I'm going back to Belfast again!"

SITTING IN BRIAN AND JEAN MOORE'S KITCHEN, SURROUNDED BY rough-hewn wood, terra-cotta tiles and colorful flowers in patio pots, and looking out on the Pacific, blue as the sky, it's difficult to envision the place and the people that he, and his fiction, sprang from. As with many writers, Moore has spent a lifetime trying to come to terms with both.

His father, James Brian Moore, was a surgeon already half-a-century old when he married a young operating nurse, Eileen McFadden, and then had nine children with her. Dr. Moore, though Catholic, came out of an Ulster Protestant background; he was Edwardian, severe and always wore a monocle, even in surgery. Mrs. Moore was, in contrast, " real Irish," from Donegal, and she had the language of Ireland--not just the Gaelic but the wit and the "destructive tongue." (Moore quotes Dr. Johnson: "The Irish are a very civilized race--they never say a kind thing about one another.")

Northern Ireland was just a year old in the summer of 1921, and the sectarian troubles that have plagued it since had just begun. On Aug. 25, Eileen Moore was full into labor with her second son when a nearby English regiment fired a sudden volley, and Brian (pronounced BREE-an) was born. They nicknamed him "bomb"--prophetically, perhaps, as Brian would prove to be a bit of trouble.

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