It was the ultimate literary epiphany. A young Irishman, an aspiring novelist, takes a break from his typewriter for a bracing swim in the cold water of a lake in the Canadian Laurentians. A motorboat slams into him, fracturing his skull in six places.
He regains consciousness later in a hospital, but he cannot speak. And when he attempts to write, his hand renders lines of terrifying gibberish.
“I realized then I didn’t have an eternal ticket,” he recalled. “That crisis made me forget the journalism or making money or films. It made it clear I wanted to write novels.
12 American Rejections
“A feeling of mortality is an incentive to write.”
And when his faculties returned, he went back to the typewriter, sending his finished novel to a succession of 12 American publishers. Twelve rejections. Too depressing, they commented. Finally, a British firm published “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.” It has been in print ever since, the first of 16 novels that have established Brian Moore as a world-class author.
A few pages into Moore’s latest novel, “The Color of Blood,” and you are thrust into the murkiness of contemporary Poland, caught up in the epochal struggle between the unrelenting intimidation of the government and the irrepressible faith of the people, between those who have embraced the government’s writ, and those who risk everything to subvert it. And woven through it, the looming presence of the Catholic Church, struggling to retain its painfully won footholds of independence, to service the faith while adapting to the constantly shifting tolerances of the Communists.
How does a legendary Irish writer possess such authority about a distant, opaque land? There is no answer in the notes in the book. Just another mystery. The book jacket biography of Moore then points out that he and his wife, Jean, live in Malibu.
What is the author whom Graham Greene called “my favorite living novelist” doing in that sybaritic outpost?
As it turns out, Oxnard would constitute a more precise, though even more improbable, geographical fix. Moore’s driveway, calibrated by roadside signs and not the multidigited address, is near the Ventura County line, his narrow driveway takes you down to a bricked parking area and a charming little house perched on a knoll, overlooking a beach where the thundering waves can intimidate even the better surfers.
Moore is slight, handsome and youthful-appearing at 66. Even in a sport shirt, white trousers and docksiders, he has an unpretentious elegance, supported by a quiet wit and a precise way with words.
Like the man himself, the house is warm and inviting. The living room and kitchen of the redwood house give way to a porch and a stunning view of the sea. His office, however, looks out at the driveway, less distracting perhaps, for a disciplined writer. (“I am happiest when I’m writing.”)
Moore came to Southern California more than two decades ago, initially to teach for a year. At the time, Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated by the upper-class Britishers who became Russian spies, and, on the verge of exposure, were surfacing in Moscow. Hitchcock, having read Moore’s early work, asked him to write a screenplay that would tell a spy story from a wife’s point of view.
“Hitchcock was a living god to me,” Moore recalled, “but I turned him down. I was a novelist.” Moore paused for a self-deprecating shrug. “He offered me far more money the second time and we turned out ‘Torn Curtain.’ It was Hitchcock’s first big budget movie. Big names. He was uncomfortable. He had always been the star. It was a terrible film and I took credit for that. But, thank God, I’ve been getting residuals ever since.”
The northern reaches of Malibu, far from the distractions of the literary centers, became his permanent home, with the exception of the few months he and his wife spend in Europe and Canada each year.
Moore is a writer without a recognized nationality. “If I had a parish, I’d be better off.”
The English know he’s Irish. The Irish consider him a Canadian (where he lived several years). And the Canadians are convinced he’s an American. The Americans don’t know he’s here, and, if they did, would presume him to be English. “I’m gratified that at least when I do write American characters, the American’s don’t say he doesn’t understand Americans.”
Moore was born in Belfast, where his father, a staunch Roman Catholic and a prominent surgeon, presumed Brian would follow in his footsteps . . . in both the faith and the profession. The father was a classic Victorian with set ways. He married at 50 and fathered nine children. Brian, the second son and fourth child, was a disappointment. He never took to religion and, in school, failed math, precluding a medical career.
But even as a child, he was adroit at writing essays. “I was a hack at an early age. I used to write other boys’ essays. I was seduced by praise.” When the war came, Moore enlisted in a firefighting unit. “Because of the politics, my father wouldn’t want me joining the British Army.” He later did civilian work in North Africa, Naples, Marseilles. He was at the liberation of Auschwitz and saw the patriots beating collaborators in the streets of France. From there it was to Poland, where he worked in economic development for a United Nations relief agency. While in Poland, he returned to his fascination with writing, working as a journalist.
“I left Poland under a cloud. I wrote articles that made me persona non grata. The secret police gave me a bad time.”
Rejected Faith Early
But he didn’t take up residence in his native land. “One of the reasons I left Ireland was because I didn’t want to go to church. I didn’t want to offend my parents. Certain people are born with faith. Others are not. Even as a child I was an agnostic.”
Settling in Canada, he told a government official who placed newcomers in jobs that he wanted to be a writer. Years later, Moore wrote about the outcome: “The next day I was shipped up to a construction camp in the wilds to be a cost accounting clerk, to write up tallies on earth movers and tractors. There in a bunk house in the wild of winter, it came to me at long last that I could have no more excuses. Either I became a writer or found a new life.”
After working as a journalist for a Montreal newspaper, he moved to the mountains and began writing “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.” Instead of drawing upon his experiences in the war or Poland, he returned to Belfast, to the church, an isolated person out of step with the prescribed world.
Moore’s body of work has firmly established him as a major author of serious fiction. The books are remarkably diverse in their style and settings: Northern Canada, where a 17th-Century Jesuit is converting the Huron Indians; wartime Belfast; Carmel, California; an abbey off the coast of County Kerry, to name a few. But religion and the loss of faith are common themes.
“As a novelist, I use religion as a metaphor for all kinds of beliefs. The faith is like a carrot before the donkey. It keeps running after the carrot, and suddenly, someone takes it away. The donkey is lost. It’s that moment in life when people are forced to sit down and rethink all the things they believe in. That is the crisis point I like to go for in a novel.”
There are those who find the preoccupation with faith, and the loss of it, disturbing, and perhaps reflective of a great anguish over religion within the author himself. Moore’s brother Shamus, a Belfast doctor, reflected on this in an interview for a Film Board of Canada documentary, “The Lonely Passion of Brian Moore.” Shamus spoke of his brother’s “leaving home, displeasing his parents, his unorthodox approach to many things, the renunciation of his religious beliefs. All seem to have left scars. I can’t fathom this. He keeps saying he doesn’t believe in anything, yet he seems to be obsessed with religion.”
Reflective About Works
While there may be anguish in the novels, it doesn’t seem to manifest itself in the author. He is coolly reflective about his work and what others read into it.
“Parents form the grammar of our emotions,” Moore said in the documentary. “Writers feed on their families. There are pieces of my father in many of my books.
“The writer distances himself from the people he is observing. Suddenly, the writer is watching his mother’s funeral and he realizes that horribly he is taking notes on the mourners’ behavior. And he realizes he has lost and sacrificed something of himself by becoming a writer. I think there is truth in that.”
But on a recent visit to Belfast, Moore went by the old family home, a tall, brick building that was later used as a club. His room was at the left window of the dormer. As a child, he could look out across the street to Orange Hall, headquarters for the militant Protestants. Once a year, the Orangemen would hold a massive parade and rally, begining at the hall. Catholics tended to spend the day indoors.
“It was like the Nazis marching through the city and we were the Jews cowering behind our doors,” he wrote. The Orangemen, set upon by a great thirst after the summer march, would down pints of ale and bottles of Guinness at their rally. On the way home, they would beat “the lights and liver” out of any Catholic who crossed their path.
Now abandoned, the old family home is a shell, its windows bricked over to prevent its being used as a haven for snipers in the endless sectarian war.
“I am not a political man,” Moore said ruefully, “but being from Northern Ireland, I am anti-terrorist.”
Judith Hearne Graffiti
On that trip, Moore also drove down to Camden Street, where he set the decaying boarding house in which Judith Hearne lived. At the turn onto the street, there is a large wall. And Moore treasures a photograph showing some graffiti on the wall which read: Judith Hearne is alive and well.
Back in Malibu, Moore settles into his studio every morning and works at an electric typewriter. Although his son from a first marriage is in the computer business, Moore has never made the transition.
“There are two kinds of people,” he said. “People who want to write, and people who want to be writers. There is a truth to writing that I have found, which is extreme concentration for a short period of time. It is as if you are a nurse in an intensive care ward and the patients (the characters of the novel) may die. You’ve got to give constant attention to them.”
In “The Color of Blood,” the two key characters are Cardinal Bem and the Communist prime minister, Gen. Urban. Both are threatened by tangible and philosophical demons, while half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers are poised on the country’s Eastern border, prepared to march if either man loses his footing in their precarious balancing act.
“You know,” Moore cautions, “there is no identification in the book of Poland. It’s much easier for a novelist to invent a country. I didn’t want the burden of facts.”
But Moore talks--and writes--with authority about this unnamed but obvious country. And framed on the wall of his study is his press credential issued years ago by the Polish government.
What is now in Moore’s typewriter? A script for a five-hour film about Coco Chanel (“in real life she was a monster”) being produced for Canadian television. “The Color of Blood” will probably be filmed in England by Granada Television.
“We ‘serious’ writers are more enthralled by film than we admit. I find it fascinating. Hitchcock taught me things about film that could apply to all fiction. I now have an entire shelf of novels behind me, and for the first time I am enjoying writing for film. I do write more cinematically now.”
When Moore and his wife drive up to Oxnard to see the movies, it is she who instinctively grasps the direction of the plot. “I have a childlike block about that,” he said. “My wife always knows what’s going to happen. I don’t.
“I don’t start a book with a plot. I put characters in a state of crisis and see how they deal with it. I don’t know how it will end.”