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Brian Moore: An Appreciation

January 17, 1999|THOMAS FLANAGAN | Thomas Flanagan is the author of several novels, including "The Tenants of Time" and "The Year of the French."

Editor's Note: Brian Moore died last week in Malibu at the age of 77. In 1994, he was given the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement by The Times for his many novels. To mark his passing, Book Review asked several colleagues and friends to comment on his life and work.

Brian Moore was a wonderful writer, one of the few genuine masters of the contemporary novel. He has left us as legacy some 20 novels, 11 of them distinguished and a handful of them unique, isolated triumphs. "Isolated" because they seem like the work of 20 different writers, almost entirely lacking those explicit or subterranean bonds which, so we have been taught, constitute the coherences in a writer's work--continuities of setting, tone, attitude, style, theme. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but when we stand back to think about his work as a whole, it is a fact which inevitably draws our attention.

This apparent lack of thematic or technical continuity does not seem to have bothered him, although it may have helped to make him, as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt has noted, "one of the best known obscure writers alive." There is no Yoknapatawpha County in his assembled novels, no plowed and tilled acres to claim as territory, no burdens of guilt or innocence passed forward from one generation to the next. There is, in short, no typical Moore novel. And this is one of the deliberately offered pleasures of his art.

His early novels, to be sure, are set in his native Belfast, and the first of them, "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," has acquired its own fame as a portrait, at once humane and unsparing, of a spinster's harrowing life in a harrowing culture. He removed himself to a safe distance from Belfast and Northern Ireland long before any literal shots were fired there, and his return visits were wary. His later novels might be set in the wild forests of 17th century Canada, Paris, the beaches of the Riviera, London's West End, California, North Africa. And the theme, in any given novel, might be adultery, religious doubt, political guilt, the disintegration of tradition, lies, the pleasures of sexual passion. (I know of few writers who can evoke such pleasure with greater vividness or less fuss. Whether this is a major or minor accomplishment, it is most impressive.)

And with an equal lack of fuss, he became one of Ireland's "wild geese" in that country's tradition of self-exile, the tradition of Wilde and Joyce and Beckett. But his travels carried him far beyond Paris, the usual destination. He was in North Africa and Italy during the war and later moved to Canada, where he became a journalist and took out citizenship. And then, finally and for many years, to Malibu. Clearly he thrived there and certainly his work did, those novels which stood on their own feet, without leaning on their predecessors. Each of them is unexpected and idiosyncratic, filled, each one of them, with its own energy, color and scents. Each one launches itself afresh upon an exercise in fable-making.

It is difficult, Anita Brookner wrote a few years ago, to think of another writer these days who is "taking risks of such unfashionable magnitude." Perhaps that is why he has never been quite fashionable. He had a sense of magnitude and a confidence in his own skill. Confident, also, in the power of fable, a story well told, to sustain the writer on his tightrope and to entertain, perhaps to dazzle, the audience.

He always impressed me, on the rare occasions when we met, as that rarest of creatures, a good writer who enjoyed writing. He was a slight, trim man, with great reticences and great courtesy. His literary style resembled him--lean, direct, undemonstrative and exact. The style resembles that of two other contemporary masters of story--William Trevor and Graham Greene. A late novel, "The Statement," about a war criminal on the run with the help of Catholic Church officials, is like a deliberate tribute to Greene's manner--a swift, breathless thriller which is also a serious moral exploration of guilt. And the compliment has been matched. Greene once wrote of him: "Each book of his is dangerous, unpredictable, and amusing. He treats the novel as a trainer treats a wild beast." Magic, very rarely the literal magic of the occult but more often simply the stage magic of the prestidigitator, is used in Moore's fiction as a metaphor for a combination of skill, dazzlement and illusion. But he worked his own fine effects with one of fiction's earliest resources--a seductive story told with a spare elegance of language. His final novel, set during the 19th century French conquest of North Africa, is called "The Magician's Wife."

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