In Brian Moore's novels, survival is a virtue, and it was part of his gift to show how much courage and luck it took just to get from day to day. But last week, the celebrated, 77-year-old author of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Black Robe, The Magician's Wife and 16 other novels lost his own year-long struggle with pulmonary fibrosis. Moore's death at his oceanside home in Malibu, Calif., is a blow not only to his international readership, but to the many writers who admired his superbly crafted tales. "He wrote some wonderful books, he never repeated himself and he had an astonishing range," says his longtime friend Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler. "The country has lost a major writer."
Richler's readiness to claim Moore for Canada continues a long debate that will no doubt intensify with his death. At least three nations can make the argument that the Belfast-born Moore is theirs: Ireland, where his books were once banned; Canada, where he lived for 12 years after immigrating as a young man in 1948; and the United States, his home for most of his adult life. Moore himself always favoured his Canadian connection. He carried a Canadian passport, frequently put Canadian characters in his novels and returned every summer to holiday with his second wife, Jean, in her native Nova Scotia. "It was in Canada that I found a calm, a peace in which I could write, a calm I had found nowhere else," he told a Toronto audience at a tribute two years ago. "There's something in this huge, empty, beautiful yet frightening land which humbles me and yet excites me."
Moore won this country's Governor General's Award twice: for his rambunctious tale of an Irishman in Montreal, The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), and for his book of experimental stories, The Great Victorian Collection (1975). Nationalists questioned the second award, since by the time he won it Moore had been living for 15 years in the United States. But he was truly an international author, a perpetual outsider who travelled widely and set his books in such diverse locales as Ireland, Poland, Algeria and Haiti. He seemed equally at home writing about Irish spinsters, ex-Nazis or French magicians. And he displayed a mastery of several genres, from thriller to historical fiction.
Moore's very versatility may have limited his audience, for he never created a readily identifiable fictional world in the manner of Graham Greene, who once called Moore "my favourite living novelist." Yet his books have much in common, from a masterfully understated prose style to an entertainer's eye for sticking to the main action. But what elevates them is Moore's profound sympathy for the moral struggles of his main characters. Toronto critic Robert Fulford believes this focus can be traced to Moore's Catholic upbringing in Belfast, where he was born into a large middle-class family in 1921. "He may have rejected the church and the form of education it gave him," Fulford says of the professedly agnostic Moore, "but he absorbed the moral teaching of Catholicism and turned it to his own humanistic ends."
Considered the black sheep of the family for his rebellious ways, Moore came to Canada on the trail of an older woman he was in love with (he lost her). After a spell as a clerk in a northern construction camp, he went to work as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, where he was famous for the speed with which he churned out excellent copy. When a fellow journalist published a novel, Moore thought he could do better. He apprenticed by grinding out mass-market potboilers. Then, when he was 30, he married Jacqueline Scully (they would have one son, Michael), gave up his day job and retreated to a cabin in the Laurentians to write his first literary novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a painful, deeply empathetic portrait of a Belfast spinster who has lost her faith. The book was rejected by a dozen American publishers before appearing in England in 1955 to rave reviews. It would become a classic (and a 1987 film starring Maggie Smith), establishing Moore as one of those rare male authors who can write convincingly from a female perspective.
When the book was finally published in the United States, it garnered a $5,000 Guggenheim Fellowship, which Moore said he could claim only if he moved south of the border (the foundation recently stated there was no such condition). He left Canada for New York in 1959. When his first marriage broke up, he married Jean Denney in 1967. In the mid-1960s, Alfred Hitchcock invited Moore to California to write the screenplay for Torn Curtain. Moore disliked the results, and though he would write again for the screen (including Black Robe in 1991), he once compared the tedium of scriptwriting to washing floors: "I got nothing out of it except the money - like a charwoman."
But Moore fell in love with the grandeur of the California coast, and for the past 30 years he and Jean - who was with him when he died - lived in an isolated wood and stone house overlooking the Pacific. They were a close, intensely private couple who shunned literary and film circles. "A novelist spends most of his days alone," Moore once said. Now, it is his readers who are alone, in a world where they can no longer look forward to enthralling new stories from Brian Moore.
Maclean's January 25, 1999