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Brian Moore and Rimbaud: the unfinished poetic finale

brian_moore1.jpgBelfast-born Canadian writer Brian Moore (1921–1999) wrote the screenplay for The Blood of Others, based on Simone de Beauvoir’s novel Le Sang des autres, and co-wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain. But it is as a versatile and prolific fiction writer that he is most revered, and Graham Greene described him as his favourite living novelist. Both writers deal with Catholic themes and, like Greene, Moore was a master storyteller whose works included both historical novels and thrillers. What is less well known is that, when he died in 1999, he left a half-finished novel about Arthur Rimbaud…

Moore’s early works of pulp fiction, some of them published under a nom-de-plume, were thrillers, and he returned to that genre years later after becoming an acclaimed novelist. Lies of Silence (1990), nominated for that year’s Booker Prize, and re-published in 1998 in a French translation by Catherine Cheval, is a novel of suspense, dealing with The Troubles in Northern Ireland and their effect on the people caught up in them.

Some of Moore’s other works are based on real events. The Revolution Script (1971) is a fictionalised account of the Quebec Liberation Front’s kidnapping the previous year of James Cross, Britain’s Trade Commissioner in Montreal, and the murder of Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s Minister of Labour. Pierre Brossard, Moore’s protagonist in The Statement (1995), is based on a French Nazi collaborator arrested in 1989 for war crimes including the murder of Jews, who was alleged to have evaded punishment by being protected by the Catholic Church and former Nazi collaborators.

With 20 books (excluding the early pulp fiction) to his name, Moore resisted any attempt by publishers and literary agents to fit him into a literary straitjacket. The Montreal-based critic Denis Sampson’s biography borrowed Moore’s own self-description with its title Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist. Robert Fulford, in an obituary for Canada’s Globe and Mail, said he was ‘a novelist who never failed to surprise his readers’. And, in his Los Angeles Times obituary of Moore, Thomas Flanagan, quoted Graham Greene as saying: ‘Each book of his is dangerous, unpredictable, and amusing. He treats the novel as a trainer treats a wild beast’.

lonely_passion.jpgDespite his attempts not to be pigeon-holed, a number of themes crop up again and again in Moore’s work. Like many literary exiles, he returns to home discomforts in finding inspiration for his characters, their cultural and religious heritage, their aspirations, their demons and their internalised conflicts. His early novels, including the critically acclaimed debut Judith Hearne (1955), later adapted as a film starring Maggie Smith, are located in Moore’s own home town. And in the most autobiographical of his works, The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965), Moore illustrates the tensions of growing up in wartime in an Irish nationalist and staunchly Catholic household and graphically describes the October 1941 Belfast Blitz.

Wallace Stevens’ poem is not only referenced in the title of Moore’s Bildungsroman, but quoted by the book’s main character, Gavin Burke, who describes Stevens as his favourite poet despite being unsure about the meaning of the poem’s words. In the final chapter the poem’s significance suddenly becomes clear to Gavin, a hitherto under-employed Air Raid Precautions volunteer whose duties now involve dealing with corpses of the Blitz’s victims, as he encounters ‘the bare, calloused feet of an old woman, sticking out from the bottom of a pile of bodies’.

Although not a poet himself, Moore’s affection for, and influence by, poetry comes across in this novel – Gavin also quotes Auden, MacNeice and Yeats, his rebellious adolescent mind interpreting Yeats’ ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’ as a vision of ‘the grown ups’ world in ruins’ as a result of the Second World War .

Moore’s second novel, The Feast of Lupercal (1957), about a sexually inexperienced and repressed 37-year-old Catholic schoolmaster in Belfast finding himself attracted to a Protestant girl 20 years his junior, references the text of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

As Moore’s biographer, Jeanne Flood points out the title of his 1968 novel, I Am Mary Donne, references Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’. In the book’s epigraph, ‘O body swayed to music, O brightening glace,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ (from W B Yeats’ ‘Among School Children’), Moore signals that he is about to reveal himself in the practice of his art

In The Mangan Inheritance (1979) the protagonist, failed poet and cuckolded husband James Mangan, who quotes Byron and T S Eliot in his internal monologue, seeks to discover a literary connection with a bohemian Romantic poet in Ireland who has the same surname. Reviewing the book for the New York magazine, author Darcy O’Brien reveals that the present-day Mangan ‘finds out that his relatives, alive and dead, are a scabrous collection of thieves, drunks, lunatics, whores and perverts. The worst of them are or have been poets, and they make one see why the Irish passed a law in the sixth century A.D. limiting the number of poets in the country to no more than 1,400 at a time’.

MacNeice, Yeats and Eliot all make a further appearance in Moore’s 1970 novel Fergus, which is also prefaced by a few lines from Stevens’ ‘The Auroras of Autumn’. Fergus Fadden is an Irish-born writer living in California who, racked by traditional Catholic guilt, is haunted by figures from his past and forced to reappraise his life and its purpose.

catholics.jpgLines and imagery from Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ flicker throughout Catholics, Moore’s 1972 futuristic account of a confrontation between old and new doctrines of Catholicism. The novella, which won the WH Smith Literary Award in 1973, established Moore’s literary reputation and led to a film version (for which Moore wrote the screenplay), starring Trevor Howard, Martin Sheen and Cyril Cusack.

Moore’s early novels were set in Belfast or featured recent Irish emigrants to North America. But, as his work progressed, his geographic horizons did also. No Other Life (1993) is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Ganae but the story is loosely based on that of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected President. Moore’s last published novel, The Magician’s Wife (1997), is set in France and Algeria in 1856 and tells the story of a renowned magician who is despatched by Emperor Napoleon III to demonstrate to the Algerian ‘natives’ that a Christian Frenchman can perform powerful miracles.

Moore’s twenty-first novel would have been set in Africa also, focusing on Rimbaud’s life in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) in the 1880s. He started working on this project in early 1998. According to Moore’s biographer Patricia Craig, the book was half-finished when he died 12 months later. The 170 pages of the unfinished novel are presumably included in Moore’s archive, which is held at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, although they are not listed in the archives’ contents. It would be fascinating to see what Moore wrote and, if Moore’s estate would be willing to consider commissioning it, whether a contemporary novelist sympathetic to Moore’s work would be up for completing the project.


Robert Smith

22nd June 2020

Posted on:Wednesday 1st July, 2020