In the last months of his life, as he fought the pulmonary fibrosis that finally killed him on Sunday night, Brian Moore was working on a novel about Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century French symbolist poet, a subject far distant from anything he had written before. His many loyal readers will know what that means: even at the end, the most versatile of the world's serious novelists was planning to astonish us once more.
There was no writer more surprising than Brian Moore. In the breadth of his curiosity, empathy and moral intelligence, he was unique. He wrote persuasively and memorably about terrorists in Ireland, journalists in Montreal, war criminals in France, revolutionaries in the Caribbean, 17th-century Jesuits in New France--and about lost, desperate, yearning people anywhere from Belfast to California. He was a writer of great audacity and literary ambition, as he demonstrated even in his first serious novel, Judith Hearne.
It was published in 1956, when he was a Belfast-born Montreal journalist, honing his craft by writing pulp novels. Judith Hearne's early rejections became a legend: it was turned down 10 times in New York, and didn't get an American publisher until after it appeared in England, to excellent reviews. But it was like no first novel before or since, and it's not hard to see why it dismayed the first editors who read it.
In Judith Hearne, Moore depicts a desolate life, stripped of warming humanity. This is a bleak post-Catholic novel, like several of his subsequent books. Judith, a lonely Belfast spinster, has lost her faith in a better life to come and is now losing as well her hope for a little grace in this world. More than four decades later, I can recall the shame I felt for her when she makes herself a pathetic fool, in her own eyes, by groping for a few crumbs of happiness. Somehow, the shame seemed as much mine as hers. I took that as a sign that I was in the hands of an exceptional writer.
Moore's ability to depict women convincingly was not limited to Judith Hearne. Over the years he became known as a male novelist with a rare talent for creating female characters. I Am Mary Dunne, published in 1966, was a spectacular case. A feminist novel written before the wave of feminist novels began, it set out the predicament of a sophisticated young woman who realizes that she's defined, even in her own mind, by men. Moore once wrote: "there isn't a man alive who has the faintest idea of what a woman is, how she thinks and feels....are we ever going to get through the Iron Curtain of male generalizations about women?" Stepping through that curtain in several books was among his great accomplishments.
In retrospect it seems clear that Moore habitually created large obstacles that he could then conquer. When the world was growing weary of books about writers, Moore produced An Answer from Limbo, a dazzlingly good story about a young novelist's angry need to write a masterpiece. After making a reputation as a realist, Moore turned to elaborate fantasy in The Great Victorian Collection and again in Cold Heaven. Having long since escaped from his early pulp books into serious literature, he set out to redeem his old trade. In Lies of Silence (about Irish terrorists), and The Statement (about a Vichy France war criminal on the run), he used the techniques of a thriller to shape subtle parables about guilt and betrayal.
Moore tried other forms of writing, with some success. He wrote the script of Torn Curtain for Alfred Hitchcock, a TV adaptation for Claude Chabrol, and a stage version of his novel, Catholics. But he was happiest writing his novels, and perhaps happiest of all whenever he could say, as he remarked of Black Robe, that his current project was "a different book from anything I've done."
There were those who questioned Brian Moore's credentials as a Canadian writer; when The Great Victorian Collection won a governor general's award for 1975, the Globe and Mail critic wrote that Moore shouldn't be eligible because he no longer lived in Canada. That raised an awkward question: is acquired Canadian citizenship valid for a lifetime, if the citizen wants it to be? Moore always said he was a Canadian writer because it was in Canada that he became a writer (in the 1940s and 1950s), and he carried a Canadian passport to his last days. He lived much of his life in Malibu, California, but he was never emotionally far from Canada. He returned in 1970 to write The Revolution Script, about the October Crisis; he wrote Black Robe, about the Jesuits of New France, in 1985; and Canadians showed up often in his other books. He and his second wife, Jean, often spent summers in her home province, Nova Scotia, and a few years ago they built a house near Lunenburg, which Moore described as "our second base." Was he a Canadian? In my opinion, Canadians would be fools to suggest otherwise.