Wherever there's revolutionary fire and brimstone, spiritual upheaval and poverty, Brian Moore is sure to go. In his 20 novels, from The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne to Black Robe and No Other Life, he's transported readers to such locales as his native Ireland, Haiti, France and the Canadian wilderness, a literary trek that's made him an often misunderstood missionary among contemporary writers. Often mistaken for a Catholic novelist whose specialty is religiously and politically charged thrillers, Moore in fact rejects Catholicism-and Christianity in general. Instead of siding with the angels, he clearly sympathizes with the alleged demons and devils-infidels, barbarians, heathens and savages, whose faith is genuine, if sometimes brutally misguided.
Moore's heretic leanings have never been more evident than in his latest novel, The Magician's Wife (Dutton). It's a semi-historical work set in France and Algeria during the last half of the 19th Century. His heroine, Emmeline, accompanies her husband on a mission to Algeria after he's recruited by Emperor Napoleon III to deceive Islamic "fanatics" with his magic tricks. But the magician's wife rebels when she realizes that she's become an accomplice in French plans to colonize Algeria.
Despite her moral and political awakening, Emmeline doesn't have the resources to derail the imperialist machinations of church and state, which puts her in the company of numerous other Moore heroines and her s, whose desperately ordinary lives he chronicles in moments of crisis. Because his characters are so often circumscribed by spiritual and physical squalor in alien pockets of the world, Moore is probably the last writer you'd expect to find living in splendid isolation behind an iron gate in Malibu, his home for more than 30 years, ever since he was lured to Hollywood to write a script for Alfred Hitchcock.
"It was an accident that we found this place, but a happy one," Moore says. Giving PW the grand tour, he sounds almost apologetic for the immaculate appearance of the house, with its tile floors and tribal rugs, its mixture of rustic and courtly furnishings, the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the coastline. He briefly stops in his L-shaped office, where he has a "bit of a view" of the ocean, a laptop computer, a leather sofa and a pair of nine-foot shelves that hold editions of his books in a dozen languages. Then he steps onto the patio, just in time for a glorious view of the Pacific at sunset.
Moore and his wife, Jean, rented the house when they arrived in California, expecting their stay to be temporary, the novelist says, as he settles into a white sofa in the living room, warmed by the brick fireplace. They later bought-and dramatically expanded-the house when he discovered that the climate was as agreeable to his work as it was to his senses. The novelist exercises mentally as well as physically by listening to books on tape during his morning hikes along the coast. Lately, he's been "rereading" Proust on his cassette player, in both French and English.
The 1966 film that Moore wrote for Hitchcock, Torn Curtain, was one of the director's (and author's) most forgettable efforts, but it gave the novelist a seductive taste of Southern California living. The attachment was reinforced not through more film work but by another fortunate accident. Before he could take his Hollywood money and run, Moore accepted a "very easy job" in the UCLA English department. "I taught a class in writing, which I'd never done before," says Moore, who at that point had published five novels. "I picked my own students, I was there only one day a week, I never took any work home with me. I wasn't one of these writers who gets all involved with the kids. I was ruthless. But when the year was up, UCLA was very keen for me to stay on. I did that for 15 years."
The UCLA library has brought him serendipitous literary benefits, Moore says, allowing him to do much of his research at home rather than trudge off to inhospitable corners of the world, most of which he'd already seen at one time or another. "I found Black Robe in the Jesuit diaries there," Moore says of his 1985 historical novel, which vividly recounts the tragically misbegotten efforts of French missionaries to bring Christianity to the Huron, Iroquois and other Indian tribes of Canada. "Rooting around the stacks, he also found a motherlode of historical documents for The Magician's Wife-most notably a book by a Pennsylvania woman, In the Courts of Memory, which extensively described Napoleon III's series at Compiegne, where the first section of the novel takes place.
Moore says his initial inspiration for The Magician's Wife came from Flaubert, who in a letter to George Sand mentioned Houdin, a famous French magician (whose name was later appropriated by Harry Houdini). "He'd been sent to Algeria to trick the holy men into believing he had greater spiritual powers than they had, and I thought, Christianity has really lost its purity when that can happen. As soon as I read about it, I knew that this was my material."
Far from the Literary Places
Born in Belfast 76 years ago, Moore, whose first name is pronounced "Bree-an," still has a vestigial Irish accent and a healthy Irish complexion. Except for the red-and-blue-checked shirt collar, he looks almost priestly in his navy crewneck sweater and black corduroy pants, straight out of central casting with a manner that's both beatific and curmudgeonly. Hal d by the flaming sunset, he seems positively devilish while talking about his dealings with Hitchcock and UCLA.
Besides the UCLA job, the Los Angeles area appealed to Moore because it wasn't New York, where he'd previously lived. "I was part of the literary scene there for a while," he says, "and I didn't like all the jealousies about who got what advances and this and that. I didn't want to be part of the literary world, or any movement, in any country. There's no less literary place than Malibu."
Like Joyce and many other Irish writers, Moore was just as eager to leave Ireland, or at least Belfast, where his childhood was, if not quite as miserable as the one Frank McCourt recalls in Angela's Ashes, almost as oppressive. A doctor's son (who was to write a 1976 novel titled The Doctor's Wife), Moore was an early casualty of the Catholic church. "I was brought up in a very religious family. I didn't dare tell my parents this, but from the age of 10 I couldn't believe in Catholicism."
Graduating from St. Malachy's College in 1939, Moore was able to escape Belfast through WWII, serving with the British Ministry of War Transport, which took him to North Africa, Italy and France. He briefly worked on a postwar U.N. mission in Poland, then emigrated to Canada, where he got a job on the Montreal Gazette as a proofreader and reporter.
"I enjoyed feature writing," Moore says, "and it was the first job I ever had where I was a success. But I was 26, very badly paid, and I said to myself, 'I don't want to be here when I'm 40, with the city editor assigning me to cover a Rotary Club luncheon on a cold winter day.' So I decided to take a chance and write a novel."
Deliberately or not, Moore neglects to mention that he wrote several pulp thrillers (e.g., The Executioners) as Michael Bryan, according to one biographical source. The book that he considers his first novel, however, and the one that proved to be his salvation from daily journalism was Judith Hearne.
"It was turned down by 12 American publishers as being too depressing," Moore says, noting that the superlative reviews of the English edition later made it a hot commodity in this country. American critics were equally enthusiastic when Judith Hearne was published by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 1956, Moore adds, though with temporarily unfortunate consequences. "Orville Prescott praised the book in the New York Times [calling it "a remarkable tour de force"], but the publisher had only printed 3500 copies. It took eight weeks to print a second edition, but by then it was dead."
Comatose, as it turned out, but not dead. Amazed that it was later revived and remains in print after 40 years, Moore acknowledges that for an earlier generation of readers, Judith Hearne may be his most affectionately remembered novel. It's the emotionally harrowing story of a Belfast spinster, crippled by self-pity, self-delusion and alcoholism, whose pathetic appeals for help are rejected by everyone, including God. Judith Hearne may also be Moore's most stylishly written book, with shifting points of view and passages of prototypically Irish lyricism.
As his writing evolved, however, and his novels started appearing with metronomic regularity, every two or three years, Moore says he consciously simplified his prose, heeding Thomas Mann's injunction that "every tale should tell itself." "I'm not interested in authorial flourishes," he insists. "I want the reader to get lost in the book, so he's not conscious of who wrote it and what great similes he uses."
In that regard, his literary model might be Graham Greene, a kindred soul who once called Moore "my favorite living novelist." Though honored by Greene's blessing (which became the most-quoted blurb on Moore's book jackets), the novelist says he'd always hoped to avoid any personal contact with Greene, reasoning, "It's better that he didn't know me." Of the one occasion they did meet, Moore says: "The only thing I remember is that he was a very heavy drinker."
Whether it's due to his unembellished prose or his failure to provide uplifting messages or upbeat resolutions to his plots, Moore says he's never become a brand-name writer, despite three shortlist citations for the Booker Prize and extravagant praise from critics. "If you pick up a novel by Thomas Pynchon," Moore concedes, "you know it's going to be Pynchonesque. But my books change. I write about different things, different places, different times, in a style that's become simpler over the years."
Moore's elusive ways may help account for what he calls his erratic, "typically American" publishing history. He seems as confused as PW in attempting to track his migrations from publisher to publisher over four decades. Leaving Atlantic Monthly Press after four novels, he hopscotched from Viking to Holt to Harcourt Brace to FSG, then back to Holt, where he teamed up with William Abrahams on Cold Heaven in 1983.
Their alliance lasted through two more novels (and yet another publisher, when Abrahams moved from Holt to Dutton). Then Moore defected to Nan Talese at Doubleday for two novels, Lies of Silence (1990) and No Other Life (1993), neither of which proved to be a blockbuster. At that point, Moore recalls, "Billy made me a better offer. Nan was an excellent editor, but I felt Doubleday didn't have me at heart, so I went back to Billy for The Statement, which did better than any book I'd published in America in years."
The Statement (1996) is perhaps the most representative Brian Moore novel. It's the story of a manhunt in the South of France for a WWII anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator who also happens to be an ardent Catholic.
Moore modeled the novel's main character, Pierre Brossard, on Paul Touvier, a Vichy bureaucrat responsible for the execution of several hundred Jews. Recently reprinted in paperback by Plume, along with three other Moore novels, The Statement has even more currency today with the celebrated trial of Maurice Papon, accused of deporting hundreds of French Jews to German death camps.
No wonder that The Statement has yet to be published in France. "They don't like foreigners telling them their business," Moore says. So far, French publishers have been no more receptive to The Magician's Wife, which has been sold in more than a dozen other countries. While it involves events that occurred two centuries ago, the book is as timely as The Statement, the novelist asserts, because it shows how the French "civilizing mission" in Algeria transformed the nation's Muslims into a "warlike and vengeful people... and made Algeria a country that's in terrible condition today."
Despite his long residency in the United States, he says, "I've never felt like an American." Nor does he consider himself a Canadian, even though he's officially a citizen of Canada and has a summer home on the coast of Nova Scotia. But that still doesn't make him a novelist without a country, Moore insists, describing an epiphany he had in a cemetery in Ireland, standing over the grave of an IRA patriot. "It hit me that I've lived my life on the other side of the ocean but I'd like to be buried here. It was at that moment I knew I was totally, ineluctably Irish."