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15th Annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes : THE ROBERT KIRSCH AWARD / Given for a body of work by a writer living in or writing on the American West : WINNER: BRIAN MOORE : The Epiphanies of Love and Loss

November 13, 1994|JACK MILES | Jack Miles is the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and a Times editorial writer

The anonymous judge for the Robert Kirsch Award noted that among the many distinguished authors living in or writing about the American West, there is "only one inescapable candidate" for The Times' highest literary honor--Brian Moore.

Moore, a resident of Malibu since shortly after World War II, is certainly the most distinguished novelist living on the West Coast of the United States, although his reputation is international. In fact, the judge noted, Moore is "like the prophet without honor in his own country," celebrated with many literary prizes in England, Canada and his native Ireland, but never here.

From his first novel, "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," which developed the cult status among British students that "Catcher in the Rye" did in the United States, the judge observed that he has had a loyal and discerning following that reaches beyond the reputation of being "a novelist's novelist" by which he is also known.

Though none of his 18 novels is quite like any of the others, he writes for the most part in a traditional novelistic manner; the judge offered a comparison to author Graham Greene, whose work Moore admires and who in turn designated Moore as the contemporary novelist he most admired.

"Like Greene," the Kirsch judge commented, "Moore has written novels of the kind Greene called his 'entertainments'--serious thrillers which in Moore's case even more than in Greene's have a marked psychological and moral interest--though the bulk of his fiction, like Greene's, is concerned with the most profound and reverberating moral questions, such as the dilemmas of Catholic faith, of the uniquely isolated individual in a hostile society, of passionate but unrequited love.

"When I think of the problem of the serious writer in our time, who works in the shadow of mass catastrophes that threaten to overwhelm the imagination, I think of Moore and his ability to find a context and a scale for the individual life through which he can engage the great questions of politics, faith, and conscience, and I am grateful that he lives among us."

Moore's Judith Hearne is a literary triumph of a very rare sort, for she is the sort of woman in whom virtually no man--and no male writer--would take an interest. (Her failure with men is, in fact, one of the themes of the book.) The challenge of drawing a believable character of the opposite sex is one of the largest any novelist faces. Male novelists usually overcome it by creating a larger-than-life spectacle of a woman or, if the woman must be ordinary, moving her through a set of extraordinary events. In this novel, Moore makes Judith compelling without resorting to either of those ploys.

In several of Moore's novels, including "I Am Mary Dunne," "The Doctor's Wife" and "The Temptation of Eileen Hughes," his fascination with the kind of woman who holds up half of heaven but rarely merits literary attention returns to the fore. Married or not, the Moore heroine is the little woman, small because she has never been allowed to grow; but he notices her with a kind of love, as an attentive teacher might notice a child sitting a bit too quietly in the corner. She interests him in the very plainness of her character. He draws her out and makes us interested in her without ever tricking her out in quirky characterological adornment. There is something, finally, quite dazzling about this feat.

Brian Moore is a Northern Irish ex-Catholic who has spoken gratefully of the upper-class Protestant family who opened to him the larger world of English literature and secular British culture. He eventually left the British Isles for, initially, Canada (he remains a Canadian citizen) and then the United States.

But rather than a migration from one country to the next, this movement has been a concentric enlargement with Belfast ever at its center. Quite literally, Moore divides his time among the several countries to which he owes some emotional allegiance, among which France--as for so many Irish intellectuals--must also be numbered. If he is not in flight, he may be said to be in a particular kind of exile, taking his place in the history of distinguished European writers who for personal or political reasons chose to live at this far western edge of the western world. Among the recognizable varieties of California writer, the European in exile is unquestionably one.

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