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BLACK ROBE 1991
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The lonely passion of Brian Moore: The chapters in Brian Moore's life included a Catholic boyhood in Ireland, working as a journalist in Montreal, simultaneous affairs involving his wife and another literary couple in New York City, and a lonely exile in Malibu. He also managed to write his literary masterpiece, Black Robe. Describing the arrival of Jesuits in 17th-century Canada, it was also, Moore said, a paradigm for religious conflict in Ireland.: [National Edition]Tibin, Colm. National Post; Don Mills, Ont. [Don Mills, Ont]26 Aug 2000: B12.
In the second chapter of Brian Moore's first novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Miss Hearne gets to know her fellow boarders, especially the landlady's brother, the returned Yank, Mr. Madden. They discuss the difference between men and women in Ireland and America. "Guys beating their brains out to keep their wives in mink," Mr. Madden complains. "It's the women's fault. No good. ... Me, I wouldn't have nothing to do with them." Miss Hearne, deeply alert to nuances of education and class, thinks to herself that he can't be very well educated if he can speak like that. And then she replies: "O, that's not like Ireland, Mr. Madden. Why, the men are gods here, I honestly do believe." As Mr. Madden continues, Miss Hearne becomes aware of his maleness: "He was so big, so male as he said it that she felt the blushes start up again. His big hand thumped the table."
Brian Moore began to think about Judith Hearne when he was 27, in exile from Belfast, and trying to write short stories in a remote part of Ontario: "I thought of this old lady who used to come to our house. She was a spinster who had some civil service job to do with sanitation and she lived most of her life with her 'dear aunt.' They'd not been 'grand' but they had pretensions, and she had very genteel manners." The novel is full of Joycean moments. It is set in a Catholic Ireland that is half genteel and oddly insecure; it allows Judith Hearne's vulnerable consciousness great dramatic power; and it uses different tones, cadences and voices.
Yet none of this explains the intensity of the novel, the relentless and clear-eyed versions of spiritual suffering and abject despair set beside tiny instants of pure social embarrassment and nuanced social observation. Moore manages to make the large moments in the book -- Judith running at the tabernacle in a Catholic church in a fit of drunken despair, for example -- as credible and powerful as the smaller pieces of self-delusion and social comedy. "It is also a book about a woman," Moore wrote to his publisher, "presenting certain problems of living peculiar to women. I wrote it with all the sympathy and understanding that I am capable of."
Moore clearly knew that you could achieve certain effects by writing about a woman in the Ireland of his time which you could not achieve in writing about a man. A man can swagger with drink, his drunkenness, even in a genteel context, will not bring disgrace, but pity maybe, or tolerance, or a sort of liberation. A middle-aged woman, however, who gets drunk alone in her room in a genteel boarding house and does not remember that she sang all night and has to face her landlady and her fellow boarders the next day is a piece of dynamite.
The problem for Moore, John McGahern, Aidan Higgins and many other Irish writers, was how to create a male character who was neither comic nor lying on his back in the dark. In a society that was merely half-formed and had no sense of itself, a society in which the only real choice was to leave or live in a cowed internal exile, the failure to create a fully-formed male character in fiction was emblematic of a more general failure.
The four novels which Brian Moore wrote after Judith Hearne -- The Feast of Lupercal (1957), The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), An Answer from Limbo (1962) and The Emperor of Ice Cream (1965) -- struggle with this, and all of them bear the mark of the problem more clearly than any sign of its resolution.
Brian Moore was born in Belfast in 1921 into what can almost be described as a ruling-class Catholic family. His father was a surgeon, the first Catholic to be nominated to the Senate of Queen's University Belfast and a pillar of society. Moore's mother, 20 years younger than his father, had been a nurse at the hospital where his father worked. She came from an Irish-speaking background in Donegal, from a family of 19 children.
Moore, who from an early age had wanted to be a writer, had two reasons for going to Canada. One, he had fallen in love with a Canadian woman; two, in his interview for a visa, he was told that he could become a journalist. In 1948 he started his long North American exile.
He began in Toronto, trying to find newspaper work, his love affair falling apart, but moved soon to Montreal, where he was hired, like Ginger Coffey in his novel, as a proofreader. He liked the city, its provincial energy and divided culture reminding him of home. Slowly, he found better newspaper work and a group of friends. In 1951, he married a fellow journalist, Jacqueline Sirois; their son was born in 1953. That year, too, he became a Canadian citizen.
He began to write thrillers for money. Published under pseudonyms they were immensely successful. They financed the writing of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and subsequent literary novels, and together with his work as a journalist and his personality, which was modest, hard-headed and non-flashy, they helped establish his prose style, which increasingly favoured the non-poetic and pacy, the clear and terse, the brisk and sharp.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne won instant critical success in England, Canada and the United States. It was banned in the Republic of Ireland, and this, at the time, was also a kind of critical success. The letter Moore received from his mother in Belfast concentrated on the more sexually explicit parts of the novel: "You certainly left nothing to the imagination; and my advice to you in your next book is leave out parts like this." That, too, was part of the rite of passage for an Irish novelist of that time.
In 1959 the Moores moved to New York. In Canada, they had become friends with many writers, especially Mordecai Richler; now Moore became friends with Philip Roth and Neil Simon. They divided their time between Manhattan and Long Island. Moore won prizes, sold movie rights and began to achieve a sort of fame, but he lived in those years in a world he grew to distrust: "I lived in Greenwich Village ... and I noticed that the serious writers there were quite interested in bestsellerdom, publicity, immediate personal fame, that they were ... shameless little puffers-up of their talents and muggers-in-public for anyone who would write them up." This world gave him the background for his protagonist Brendan Tierney in An Answer from Limbo, but the novel is damaged by Moore's raw disapproval, and is wooden and unconvincing.
Brian and Jacqueline Moore met Frank and Jean Russell in New York in 1963, and the two couples, all of them interested in journalism and writing, began to hang out together. In the summer of 1964, Jacqueline and their son Michael went to Long Island while Brian stayed in New York working on The Emperor of Ice Cream. Frank Russell, who had won a Guggenheim for his nature writing, also left New York. Brian and Jean became lovers that summer, and not long afterward Jacqueline and Frank also became lovers. Brian dedicated The Emperor of Ice Cream to Jean (as he would all his subsequent books) as Frank Russell dedicated his next book to Jacqueline and Michael. It all seemed neat and amicable, but slowly, in fact, became bitter and difficult. Moore broke with friends who supported Jacqueline, including his publisher Andre Deutsch, to whom he wrote a letter announcing that he was going to find a new publisher. "But the letter did not end there. It went on for another page and a half, and what it said, in what appeared to be a fever of self- righteous spite against the woman he had dumped, was that I had sided with Jackie, and no one who had done that could remain his friend ... Mordecai [Richler] told me at the time that other friends of the Moores had been taken aback by this 'He who is not with me is against me' attitude."
Within a year Brian and Jean had begun their long sojourn in California, having been enticed there by Alfred Hitchcock, for whom Moore wrote the screenplay of Torn Curtain. (Moore, after all, knew much more about corpses than Hitchcock.)
The California the Moores inhabited was an isolated stretch of coast at Malibu. Moore worked hard on his novels. He had written five, all of which dealt in various ways with his own background. Now he needed new styles, new subjects and no interruptions. The Moores travelled a bit each summer, going to the West of Ireland, the South of France and Nova Scotia, but mainly they lived in solitude and isolation.
It is unclear whether Moore ever believed that he had lost anything by his long exile, but in a 1967 interview there is a chilling sentence about the mother in An Answer from Limbo, who comes from Ireland to New York to look after her grandchildren and save her son and his wife some money: "I could do the mother with my eyes closed." The mother is, in fact, a collection of stereotypes out of central Irish casting. Moore may very well have had his eyes closed when he imagined her. His sense of Irish character and Irish speech becomes weaker and weaker, culminating in Lies of Silence (1990), a novel set in a contemporary Belfast which has as much truth and local flavour as a CNN news report. Also, many of Moore's North American characters have a strange hollowness and lack of urgency. He had left the Irish prison and sat alone in his cell in nowhere. The house in Malibu became even more isolated when the State of California decided to clear that stretch of coast of its inhabitants. The Moores refused to leave, but by 1976 all their neighbours had gone and they were alone.
Moore's two most successful novels since The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne -- Catholics (1972) and Black Robe (1985) -- are set in isolated wildernesses, where no knowledge of a society, its mores or manners or peculiar speech-rhythms is required.
Irish playwright Brian Friel's 1980 play, Translations, seems to have made a great impact on Moore as he began to work on what is probably his best novel, Black Robe. Both works deal with a central moment in the colonial drama, Friel with the changing of place names in 19th-century Ireland, Moore with the arrival of the Jesuits in 17th-century Canada. Both deal with the idea of an intact native culture colliding with a more technologically advanced colonial dream. Both bring the colonist and the native face to face, with a powerful sense of the two watching each other, with violent and tragic results. Both works represent a great stylistic departure for the two writers.
"I've discovered that the narrative forms -- the thriller and the journey form -- are tremendously powerful," Moore said. "They're the gut of fiction, but they're being left to second-rate writers because first-rate writers are bringing the author into the novel and all those nouveau-roman things."
In an interview he also said of Black Robe that "the whole thing could be a paradigm for what is happening" in Northern Ireland. "Originally, I'd have said that wasn't true, but maybe subconsciously I was thinking of it . . . The only conscious thing I had in mind when writing it was the belief of one religion that the other religion was totally wrong. The only thing they have in common is the view that the other side must be the Devil. If you don't believe in the Devil, you can't hate your enemy and that may be one of the most sinister things about Belfast today."
Moore's view of the gut of fiction and those "nouveau-roman things" takes him close to the man on the golf course in E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel: "You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story." Although this view was to be the ruin of his subsequent work, it was the making of Black Robe.
The landscape of Black Robe was very close to him: "I would go into my room and my mind would go back to the Montreal winter I remember and the cold and the St Lawrence River. When I thought of the river I could see it, because I had gone up and down it so many times." As he was writing the novel, Moore also visited, according to Moore's biographer, Denis Sampson, "various sites and museums of Iroquois, Algonkin and Huron cultures, in particular Midland, Ont., where the original Jesuit mission of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons has been reconstructed, complete with Huron longhouses and villages."
Moore managed in Black Robe, in a way that Conrad did not in Heart of Darkness, to make the natives, as he says, "among the strongest characters in the book." But the figure of the Jesuit Father Laforgue remains a towering and haunting presence. Moore allows him to be the central consciousness of the book. He gives him faith, but more importantly, he gives him fear. Moore was interested in clashing systems of belief, but it is the sense of the physical in the book -- the river, the forest, the cold -- and the astonishing sense of threat and violence that gives Black Robe its power. The violence is terrifying, almost unbearable. Against a background of implacable nature and inevitable disaster and the immediacy of Moore's tone, Laforgue's faith and the reader's knowledge of who will finally prevail seem very small things indeed.
Moore was 65 when he published Black Robe. "I'm entirely conscious that most novelists don't do their best work past 60 and often seem to run out of material. What keeps me going as a writer is the belief that I can write new kinds of books," Moore said in 1995, four years before his death. After Black Robe, he produced five more novels, set in Poland, Ireland, Haiti, France and Algeria. He adapted the style of the thriller and the tale, using clipped sentences, briskly set scenes, dramatizing crises of conscience for individuals and societies. Economy was all. He did not revisit Poland to write The Colour of Blood, but used scenes from Graham Greene's account of his visit in the 1950s. (A review of Greene's gave him the original idea for Black Robe. He and Greene admired each other greatly.) He did not visit Haiti to write No Other Life. "There's too much information in most novels," he said. "Novelists showing off."
Brian Moore was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a novelist showing off. In the sentences he wrote and the life he lived, he almost made a display of avoiding show. He remains a fascinating case because he had nothing to go on when he began, no tradition to call on, no example except that of Joyce, who was not much use to him save as an example of sheer dedication.
Moore was clearly damaged by exile because the sort of novel he wanted to write required a detailed knowledge of manners and morals; imaginatively, he lost touch with Ireland and never fully grasped North America. Yet he could not have stayed in Ireland: His independent spirit and questing conscience had no place on either side of the Irish border. Out of this sense of loss and exile and displacement, he produced three masterpieces and an emotional territory filled with loners and failures, faith and unbelief, cruelty and loss of identity and a clear-eyed vision of man's fate.Illustration
The following sources were used to help me do a film review of Moore's 1991 film: Black Robe.
SOURCES USED IN CREATING FILM REVIEW PAPER