Monday November 9th, 2009

Freedom from Futures



The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
Currently out of print

The Luck of Ginger Coffey by Brian Moore
Currently out of print

The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Brian Moore
Currently out of print

Here in the UK, Waterstone’s booksellers have a slogan on their carrier bags which reminds us that “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” Well, they’ve obviously never read Wuthering Heights. Anyway, most of Brian Moore’s work falls into the first category. Only around a third of his twenty novels are in print in the UK, which in a better world would be close to a national scandal. Moore, Belfast-born, Canadian citizen, U.S. resident, died in Malibu in 1999, and was one of the few 20th-century novelists of real stature from Northern Ireland. He was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, was Graham Greene’s favorite living novelist (in one interview, anyway), was sometime pals with Richard Yates (who envied Moore’s success), and wrote the script for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (which was neither Moore’s nor Hitch’s finest hour, an experience Moore famously described as “awful, like washing floors”).

I embarked last year on what it pleased me to call a Mooreathon, reading a dozen of his novels. The best of them intensely examine one person’s life in a moment of crisis, and the best of these, in my view, are Judith Hearne, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, and The Emperor of Ice-Cream.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Moore’s 1955 debut, remains his most famous book. The over-explanatory title was added for the U.S. publication — it tells us what to think about the title character before we meet her, which is a shame and, with Moore’s precise destruction of her character, needless.

Someone once suggested that Judith Hearne, among other Moore titles, offered reasons why the author had left his native Belfast for Canada in the 1940s: the city and its society do not come out of the book well. We see things not only from Miss Hearne’s viewpoint, but also that of James Madden, who had left Northern Ireland for America, only to come back a failure. As a result, Madden has nothing but contempt for the home (“an insult to senses attuned to immensity”) he has been forced to return to:

Walking alone, he remembered New York, remembered that at ten-thirty in the morning New York would be humming with the business of making millions, making reputations, making all the buildings, all the merchandise, all the shows, all the wisecracks possible. While he walked in a dull city where men made money the way charwomen wash floors, dully, alone, at a slow methodical pace. . . . In the city’s shops housewives counted pennies against purchase. In the city’s banks, no great IBM machines clattered. Instead, clerkly men wrote small sums in long black ledgers.

Madden is a compelling enough character in his own right, and there are frequent diversions for us to see the world through others’ eyes, but always in the end Moore returns faithfully to the object of their fascination, derision, and horror, his title character.

Miss Judith Hearne is in her early forties, and at the beginning all we know of her is that she has moved to a new lodging house, in what “used to be one of the best parts of the city,” and where she spends most of her evenings “waiting like a prisoner for the long night hours.” She suffers, cripplingly, from loneliness, though it is not her only ailment. She shuttles between her church, unloved and unloving friends, and useless hopes built on a man she has just met. The depth of her desperation is made cruelly clear by Moore when he shows us her daydreams of married life:

He came into the room, late at night, tired after a day at work in his hotel. He took off his jacket and hung it up. He put his dressing gown on and sat down in his armchair and she went to him prettily, sat on his knee while he told her how things had gone that day. And he kissed her. Or, enraged about some silly thing she had done, he struck out with his great fist and sent her reeling, the brute. But, contrite afterwards, he sank to his knees and begged forgiveness.

Judy Hearne, she said, you’ve got to stop right this minute. Imagine romancing about every man that comes along.

The novel is a harrowing but gripping portrait of a woman chasing after the end of her tether as it disappears from view. There are some exceptionally powerful scenes involving both Miss Hearne and the other boarders in the house (a motley crew who sometimes recall the wartime misfits of Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude), which it would be scandalous to reveal. Faith, in this mid-century Ulster where religion stifles all, is always an obligation and never a comfort.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960) is far lighter in tone than much of Moore’s work, and this humor comes from the central figure of James Francis “Ginger” Coffey, a fool and dreamer who, like Moore, has emigrated from Ireland to Canada. He tries to scam his way into jobs, he daydreams of a better life, he tries the patience of his long-suffering wife Veronica and daughter Paulie. When he loses a job:

[h]e economized by giving up their flat and moving to this cheap dump of a duplex. But he did not tell Veronica. For two weeks he sat in his rented office, searching the want ads in the newspapers, dodging out from time-to-time for half-hearted enquiries about jobs. But the trouble was, what his trouble always was. He had not finished his BA, the army years were wasted years, the jobs at Kylemore and Coomb-Na-Baun had not qualified him for any others. In six months he would be forty.

There is no fancy prose in Ginger Coffey, no outlandish occurrences, no sense of boundaries stretched. And yet this is what makes it a success: it is an intimate story, perfectly done. It is entertaining but also rich in character: not only the central figures (if there were any justice, the term “Walter Mitty character” would by now have its own subset, the “Ginger Coffey character”) but the teeming hordes of minor figures who remain memorable despite their brief appearances. I should add that it’s possible I got a further layer of pleasure from the feel of the Irish vernacular – not just the words, but the way they are delivered – which others might not share.

Reading Moore’s fifth novel, The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965), was a miserable experience. Why? Because for such a great novel – a masterpiece, it seems to me – to be out of print, when publishers should be fighting for the right to reissue it as a modern classic, is a tragedy.

Tragedy is more or less how Gavin Burke sees his life in Belfast as World War II breaks out. As with Moore’s earlier novels, Belfast – “this dull, dead town” – is a place which crushes its people through stagnation, parochialism, and the ever-present dead hand of religion (“all would remain still in this land of his forefathers. Ireland free was Ireland dead. The terrible beauty was born aborted”). This is Moore’s most autobiographical work. Not only does Gavin’s attitude toward Belfast reflect Moore’s, he also has the same wartime job as the author did: working for the FAP (First Aid Party) of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), a post which seems simultaneously not manly enough (“a paradise for parasites”) and a bridge too far for his parents, who want him to return to school. But Gavin, reading poetry by Yeats, Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, which he knows none of his family would understand (actually, for Stevens, include me there), has hopes:

How could you tell him that for you, the war was an event which had produced in you a shameful secret excitement, a vision of the grown-ups’ world in ruins? It would not matter in that ruined world if Gavin Burke had failed his Schools Leaving Certificate. The records would be buried in the rubble. War was freedom, freedom from futures. There was nothing in the world so imposing that a big bomb couldn’t blow it up.

Gavin is not the only one who sees the war as an opportunity. A middle-class Catholic lad, he is well aware of the nationalists in Belfast who reject British rule, like one of his colleagues, “Your Man” Gallagher:

What most of his Falls Road neighbours felt about this war could be summed up in the fact that they considered it a point of honour to leave a light shining in their upstairs windows at night in case any German bombers might come over the city. Your Man, a former member of the IRA, agreed with the slogan that England’s adversity was Ireland’s opportunity, but he no longer had any great hopes of the IRA as a force to overthrow the British. He put his money on Hitler.

Other FAP men also want the bombing to begin in earnest, “so that people will stop making fun of them. Heroes can’t be heroes without disasters.” (Even when it does, the old divisions remain: one old woman, being rescued by Gavin and his friend Freddy, cries, “Let go of me. Are youse Fenians?”) The FAP men are a motley crew indeed, “a thread of lonely people, willing to put up with any charade in order to spend their evening hours in the company of others.” What Moore does so well in The Emperor of Ice-Cream is invest them all with a full personality, not least the leader of Gavin’s group, Mr. Craig, who exhibits the megalomaniac qualities of any man with limited power in one arena and none elsewhere in his life. This fine line in grotesques extends to minor characters like the boor Bobby:

Ah, but you didn’t hear about my little game last month in Portstewart. I got heaved out of a Methodist church. We were passing by, Sheila and I, and we heard these sweet young voices singing hymns. So we went in, went up to the church loft, and there were all these children. And a lovely little soprano, about fourteen, I think. When she started her solo, I slipped in beside her and put my hand up her skirt. She ended on a very high note indeed.

Moore’s triumph in deft characterization is to make Gavin sympathetic to the reader, despite his delusions of grandeur and self-defeating behavior. He maintains conversations with the demon on his shoulder, his “Black Angel.” This enables Moore to present internal monologues with wit and life, particularly in Gavin’s conflict with his parents, who don’t accept his youthful desire to do things differently, and his flirtations with communism and rejection of religion. “Gavin wondered if his mother would ever speak to him again if she could spend just thirty seconds inside his mind. He doubted it.” Yet we see the wider picture, too, not least through the development of Gavin’s character from youthful rebellion to someone who realizes, as the Black Angel side of him goes silent in adversity, that “as always, the one who egged you into things had no words when retribution came.”

The Emperor of Ice-Cream is a novel which seems to have everything, not least a fresh perspective on the much-novelized subject of the Second World War. As the last of that triumphant run of Moore’s early novels to take mid-century Belfast as its setting, it is a high point in his output and could not be bettered, a perfect amalgam of multifaceted subject and unfussy form. It confirms Moore as one of my favorite novelists and elevates him, for me, into the rank of 20th-century greats.

John Self writes about books at Asylum. This piece was adapted from a series of posts about Moore on that site.

Mentioned in this review:

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
The Luck of Ginger Coffey
The Emperor of Ice-Cream
In Cold Blood
Torn Curtain
The Slaves of Solitude