Moore, Brian (1921–99), novelist, was born 25 August 1921 at 11 Clifton Street, on a Belfast sectarian faultline; he was the fourth of nine surviving children of Dr James Bernard Moore, surgeon, and his wife Eileen (née MacFadden) a former nurse from Gweedore. (Eoin MacNeill (qv) married Dr Moore's sister, and the family frequently visited him in Dublin.)
Family and education
Moore's father was fifty-four when Brian was born, and two unmarried paternal aunts lived with the family. This strengthened Moore's sense of being dominated by a much older generation and of growing up in ‘a house of women’ (which influenced his later interest in female identity formation). According to Moore, he lost his religious faith in childhood (partly through feelings of guilt over his unwillingness to mention sexual fantasies at confession, partly from a simple inability to believe in God).
Moore frequently reinvented his parents and family in his novels, though he disliked unwary critics who read them literally. For example, his mother was more sophisticated than the novelist's mother in An answer from limbo (1962), which has frequently been taken as a straightforward portrait; and the father in The emperor of ice-cream (1965) flees to Dublin during the Belfast blitz, whereas Dr Moore laboured courageously to provide medical assistance to survivors. His attitude to his parents combined genuine respect and affection, increased understanding as he grew older and more confident, resentment at their attempts to mould him in accordance with beliefs, which he considered narrow and parochial, and a desire to assert mastery over them by reinscribing their lives through his own world view. The most notorious example of the last characteristic is his claim, made in 1993 and denied by his siblings, that his mother lost her religious faith on her deathbed; this can be seen as an extrapolation from his perceptions of her unexpressed uneasiness, and perhaps as retaliation for some siblings’ persistent refusal to accept that his unbelief was more than an affectation.
Moore was educated at Newington elementary school (1927–33) and at St Malachy's College, Belfast, which he detested, often calling it ‘St Michan's’ (that is, a graveyard). He had recurrent nightmares about his experience there of incessant corporal punishment until he exorcised them in his second novel, The feast of Lupercal (1957). At one point Moore considered prefacing the novel with the statement that while the school was fictionalised ‘Corporal punishment, conformity and cowardice were and are complementary and continuing factors in the education of most Irish catholics’ (Sampson, 111). ‘I have a sadistic streak in my writing,’ Moore told an editor; ‘do you wonder, after a school like St Michan's?’ (ibid, 110).
Although gifted in English composition, Moore regularly failed examinations because of his complete innumeracy (perhaps the result of his having been forced, in a kindergarten run by Mercy nuns, to change from being left-handed to being right-handed). This precluded him from following his father and two brothers into a medical career, and he was regarded as a failure by school and family. At the same time his rebellion against his background became more overt; his literary tastes diverged from those of his father as he found a focus for his discontents in James Joyce (qv), and while his parents’ clericalism and Anglophobia were expressed in right-wing sympathies (they favoured Franco and Mussolini in the 1930s), Moore became involved with left-wing and literary circles through the Belfast Theatre Guild and the Jewish Institute Dramatic Society. Late in his life Moore could still reflect that The statement (1995), about the collusion of traditionalist French catholics with anti-Semitism, fascists, and war criminals, was partly inspired by the thought ‘Daddy would have supported Pétain.’
War and aftermath
Moore supported the allied cause from the outbreak of the second world war; his older relatives were neutralist with mild pro-axis leanings. Throughout his life Moore regarded Éamon de Valera's (qv) neutrality as morally contemptible and Diarmuid Devine, the infantilised, conformist schoolmaster of The feast of Lupercal, is normally referred to as ‘Dev’. Moore became an air-raid warden (1940–41) and handled corpses during the Belfast blitz. These experiences, and the shock administered to his elders by direct experience of war provided the basis for The emperor of ice cream (1965). The Moore family home was rendered uninhabitable by the blitz, and Dr Moore's death in 1942 left the family in reduced financial circumstances. In that year Moore joined the national fire service, and in 1943, on the basis of the questionable knowledge of French he had acquired at St Malachy's, he was recruited by the Ministry of War Transport. He worked as a port officer at Algiers and Naples, exercising considerable administrative responsibility and witnessing the death and destruction caused by the Italian campaign; he also had an affair with a communist colleague, Isobel Hammond. In 1944–5 he worked as a supply officer in Marseilles, where he saw the purges (and tacit rehabilitation) of collaborators.
At a loose end after demobilisation (he was turned down for a job in China because the British firm involved regarded all Irishmen as dangerous potential subversives), Moore obtained a post with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association in Warsaw (January 1946 to November 1947). He saw Auschwitz and had his left-wing sympathies tempered by witnessing the communist takeover in Poland. He published two articles on this subject in the Sunday Independent, the authenticity of which has sometimes been questioned on the grounds that Moore was unlikely to have worked for a clericalist paper; but in fact he subsequently contributed occasional pieces on Canada to the Irish Weekly Independent.
Move to North America
He entered upon an affair with a confident Canadian, Margaret Swanson, and in February 1948 emigrated to Canada in the reckless and unfulfilled hope of continuing his relationship with her. After taking various casual jobs (including six months as a construction worker in northern Ontario) he arrived in Montreal, which he took to for its mixture of French and North American cultures; he became a proofreader on the Montreal Gazette and four months later obtained a job as a reporter. He drew on these experiences for The luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), whose central character resembles John Stanislaus Joyce (qv) rather than Moore. He began to submit stories to popular and literary magazines – his first literary story appeared in 1951.
Moore's marriage on 28 February 1951 to Jacqueline Sirois (née Scully), a divorcee, helped to consolidate his position in Montreal's bohemian and left-wing literary circles, dissatisfied with the conservatism of the anglophone business elite (represented by the Gazette) and the corrupt authoritarianism of the ostentatiously catholic Quebec premier Duplessis. Jacqueline's journalism helped to support the couple when Moore turned freelance in 1952, intending to support himself by commercial writing while he prepared a major literary work; she also helped to edit and type his work. Between 1951 and 1957 Moore published seven commercial thrillers (two under his own name, three as ‘Bernard Mara’, two as ‘Michael Bryan’); he regarded these as hack work and subsequently disowned them.
Moore's focus on what became The lonely passion of Judith Hearne (1955), a Joycean study of the disintegrating illusions of a genteel middle-aged Belfast catholic woman sinking into alcoholic poverty, was intensified by a near fatal accident in July 1953 (he was struck by a motorboat while swimming, and suffered multiple skull fractures) and by parenthood. Moore's only child, Michael, was born in November 1953. In the same month Moore took Canadian citizenship, which he retained for the rest of his life. Judith Hearne was well received by critics (and banned by the Irish censorship board); it is generally regarded as a classic evocation of mid-century Belfast and became a significant inspiration to younger Belfast writers. The novel and its immediate successors emphasise arrested development caused by the dominance of church and family.
After Moore won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1959 the Moores moved to Long Island. Moore had increasingly come to see Canada as provincial, though he was now regarded as one of Canada's best writers – Ginger Coffey won the 1961 Governor-General's Award for Fiction. For the next five years he moved in New York literary circles, but found himself ill at ease, a reaction that is reflected in An answer from limbo (1963). In 1963 Moore left his wife to live with Jean Russell (née Denney) from Nova Scotia, which became an important part of his imaginative landscape. He had become discontented with Jacqueline and saw his passion for Jean as his best chance of renewed happiness. Jacqueline initially refused to divorce him, but relented after forming a relationship with Jean's former husband. Moore married Jean on 14 October 1967. The divorce alienated Moore from many of his old friends, and sparked a far-reaching personal reinvention. In 1965 he moved to California to write the script for Alfred Hitchcock's film Torn curtain, an experience he drew on in Fergus (1970). Scriptwriting subsequently became a significant source of income, though Moore was careful to treat it as secondary to his fiction. His novels are often described as ‘cinematic’, and several have been filmed, though with limited success; Moore had doubts about film, because of its limitations in representing interior states of mind, and expressed disquiet about the effects of mass media in shaping popular responses. The Moores subsequently acquired a remote beachside house in Malibu, Moore's principal residence for the remainder of his life. Even his handwriting changed. Health problems led him to adopt a rigorous diet; he developed an ascetic appearance. Under the influence of Borges and Flann O'Brien (qv), he made greater use of explicit fantasy elements. From 1973 to 1990 he taught creative writing at the University of California – Los Angeles. He won the Governor-General's Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The great Victorian collection (1975). The doctor's wife (1976), Black robe (1985) and Lies of silence (1990) were shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Irishness and catholicism
In his earlier career Moore resisted identification as an Irish writer; he saw this designation as provincial, and believed that Irish writers who wrote about Ireland tended to become ‘professional Irishmen’ and muffle their criticisms of Irish society. From the late 1960s he established friendships with younger Irish writers such as Brian Friel (qv) and Derek Mahon, and was treated with increasing respect by a liberalising Ireland. He revisited Ireland more often (partly to observe an unselfconsciously pre-modern society on the verge of inevitable reconfiguration – a theme savagely interrogated in the depiction of rural sexual violence and tourist naivety in The Mangan inheritance (1978)). He watched the outbreak of the troubles with shocked fascination at this flowering of the pathologies diagnosed in his accounts of an older Belfast.
Another major stimulus was the upheaval in the catholic church following the second Vatican council. Moore first became aware of its extent when, visiting his wife's family in Nova Scotia, he overheard what he assumed to be a baptist service which was in fact a catholic vernacular liturgy. He wrote that when he went into reconfigured post-conciliar churches, it seemed ‘the thing I didn't believe in was no longer there’. At the same time he established a friendly exchange with the liberal Irish theologian Michael Paul Gallagher (qv). The changes in the church chimed with his interest in the moment when an individual finds the structures that have shaped his life disintegrating; several of his novels of the 1970s and early 1980s explore post-conciliar catholic dilemmas of faith. This led some catholics to see him as a catholic writer, while some secular (especially ex-catholic) critics accused him of lapsing into nostalgia and giving the subject greater imaginative respect than it deserved. The novella Catholics (1970), depicting the extinction by ecumenical bureaucrats of the world's last vestige of traditional catholicism in a Kerry island monastery, was often seen as endorsing the traditionalist viewpoint, although such a situation would be its final refutation.
Moore insisted that he was a post-catholic unbeliever, ‘a Graham Greene going in the other direction’, and that his interest in catholicism derived from a wider interest in the nature of faith and the way in which it shaped lives and filled them with conflict. He shows respect for contemplative faith so long as it does not attempt to influence the external world; those who make such an attempt are presented as fools or dangerous fanatics. Explaining the decision of the heroine of Cold heaven (1983) to persist in rejecting religious commitment and leaving her husband for another man after she has witnessed an unambiguous catholic miracle, Moore stated that this reflected his own deepest belief, in secular humanism. He died without the sacraments.
From the mid-1980s Moore produced a series of sparely written novels resembling Graham Greene's ‘entertainments’, exploring characteristic themes through memories of youthful travels and fabulations based on contemporary political events. Well received at the time, some of these became dated as they were overtaken by later political developments (though they may become more accessible as their models recede into the past), and in some instances Moore's distrust of political messianism shades into a weary and pessimistic conservatism. The colour of blood (1987) has as hero an (implicitly) Polish cardinal who pursues pragmatic coexistence with the communist regime despite opposition from proponents of a confrontational strategy; the tacit assumption that the eastern bloc would last indefinitely is reasonable enough in its context, but it is troubling that neither the cardinal nor the reader is ever allowed the smallest doubt about the correctness of his strategy, and his opponents are without exception theocrats and terrorists. Lies of silence (1990), inspired by Moore's experience of a bomb scare when visiting Belfast to receive a Litt.D. at QUB in 1987, can be seen as similarly overdetermined; disquiet at the accuracy of his portrayal of the IRA as pimpled sadists without serious political motivation or significant popular support was not confined to republican sympathisers. His last novel, The magician's wife (1997), is a striking fable about the extent to which nineteenth-century European colonialism rested on hollow display and unsustainable bluff.
In the mid-1990s a campaign was launched in Belfast to preserve Moore's derelict birthplace as a monument to the author; Moore supported the demolition of what he saw as an irrelevant memorial of a dead past. He died 11 January 1999 of pulmonary fibrosis in Malibu. While it remains to be seen whether his literary reputation will survive the passing of the historical context to which he responded, his probing of that context, and his contemporary influence, make him an unquestionably significant figure. Moore's papers are held at the University of Calgary.