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Many younger friends of mine are engaged in courses of study, reading groups, and other collaborative undertakings focused on “great books” and pursued for their own sake. This is an encouraging trend; may their tribe increase. But an overweening emphasis on “greatness” is wearisome. I want to propose a different sort of project, not at all in opposition to but rather complementing such enterprises. There are so many books that are not “great,” but are also worth saving from oblivion, at least for the moment.

Here I want to present one candidate for revival: the Irish-born novelist Brian Moore (1921–1999; his first name is pronounced “Bree-an”), whose native Belfast celebrated his centenary in 2021 with a week-long festival.

It’s pleasant to imagine the novelist observing these tributes (from the precincts of limbo, perhaps, though he was certainly not unbaptized; he grew up in a devout Catholic family with eight siblings). He would return to Ireland imaginatively in his fiction and for occasional visits in the flesh, but Moore left for good when he was twenty-one. He headed for North Africa with the British Ministry for War Transport, and was later posted in Italy and France. After the war he took a job with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, which took him to Warsaw. (All the places where he spent time would show up in his novels over the years.)

In 1947, futilely following a woman he’d been in love with, he went to Canada, where he became a citizen in due course, married a different woman, and began his career as a writer. Later, after a stint in New York, he would move to California with his second wife and settle permanently in Malibu, with regular sojourns up north.

The official list of Moore’s novels includes nineteen books, beginning with Judith Hearne (1955 in England), retitled as The Lonely Death of Judith Hearne for the American edition in 1956. Though it was billed as a first novel, this was misleading. It was preceded by three pulp novels, two of them published under Moore’s own name and one with a pseudonym; four more pseudonymous pulp novels followed. Once his career got fully rolling, Moore tried to suppress mention of these books, but in time the experience of writing them would serve him well. 

If (as I hope) I persuade you to at least look into Moore, you might want to read one or both of the available biographies: Denis Sampson’s Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist (1998) and Patricia Craig’s Brian Moore: A Biography (2002). Both will repay your time and attention; both are frustrating in various ways. Unsurprisingly, despite sharp differences in style and approach, both biographers emphasize the extraordinary variety of Moore’s novels. At the beginning of his book, Sampson describes an interview Moore gave him in Toronto in 1994. Walking by a lake after they’d finished, Moore said:

I’m always surprised when someone comes up to me at a book-signing and says, “Mr. Moore, I’ve read all your books.” Each one is so different in my mind that I can’t imagine someone being interested in all the different kinds of books I’ve written.

My response to what Moore said is a bit different from Sampson’s (you’ll have to look up his take on your own). I have at least started all nineteen of Moore’s “official” novels. I have most of them on a shelf in the front room. There were several I didn’t finish, though I hate to stop reading a book midway through; I Am Mary Dunne was one of these (I divested myself of that one), and Fergus was another (still on the shelf, though I’m not sure why). There are several others that I read once, ages ago, and haven’t read again. And then there are those that I have reread over the years, returning to them more than once. Moore’s observation seems quite acute to me, if we add the proviso that for some readers that unpredictability is alluring, even if in some particular instances we may not care for the result.

“Wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “We should read Moore because he is unpredictable?” In a word, yes: robustly unpredictable (though I am not saying “should”). Patricia Craig begins her biography of Moore with an epigraph of sorts, a quote from Christopher Ricks’s review of Black Robe: “The only wise prediction to make about a new Brian Moore novel is that it will be unpredictable and wise. Supremely clear-headed and clear-hearted, he is the best living novelist of conscience.” An interesting observation from one of the finest critics of our time. Are all of Moore’s novels “wise”? I’m not sure; Ricks does over-indulge in wordplay now and then. Still, not a bad recommendation.

I am going to mention one particular book that stands out for me, plus a sequence of novels that have quite varied subjects but are linked by their angle of attack. First, my favorite among Moore’s works, the novella Catholics (1972), which over the decades I must have read seven or eight times at least. We are to imagine a near-future (in the frame of the novella, the 1990s) when the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, responding to the siren-song of a silver-tongued liberation theologian—and more broadly to “the spirit of the times”—has drifted far away from orthodoxy. Moore’s ear for double-speak is keen here; we read of “the apertura, possibly the most significant historical event of our century, when interpenetration between Christian and Buddhist faiths is on the verge of reality.” On a small island off the coast of Ireland, a small congregation of renegade traditionalists has refused to get with the program, and an over-confident American priest has been sent to deal with the recalcitrants. Written neither from the perspective of a faithful believer nor from that of a brashly confident scoffer, Catholics is at once moving, blackly comic, and enigmatic: a small masterpiece.

Now about that sequence of novels: I mentioned earlier that Moore’s pulp novels (third-rate Chandler and Hammett, he said), which he tried to disown, had an unexpected payoff. In a series of books following Black Robe (1983), Moore returned to the style of the thriller, but with decades of mastery at his command and with a wonderful range of terrain. In The Colour of Blood (1987), Lies of Silence (1990), No Other Life (1993), and The Statement (1995), political conflicts intertwine with matters of faith in Poland, Ireland, Haiti, and France. At no other point in his career did Moore write a suite of novels like this, so closely linked in style and theme even as their particulars are richly varied. Decades later, in much different circumstances, these books still compel attention.

As I wrote almost twenty-five years ago: 

When a writer repeatedly proclaims that he has left faith behind in childhood—in fact, never had it—and then proceeds to write book after book in which a crisis of faith plays a central role, we may reasonably wonder if he is not engaged in his own evasive maneuvers, conscious of a pursuer at his heels. And we may hope that at last he will turn and be caught.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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Photo by psyberartist via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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