Tag: irish writers

Reading Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

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I purchased my copy of Judith Hearne in the summer of 2010.  I finally got around to reading it last week, prompted by Cathy’s Brian Moore read-along.

As many of you are aware, Cathy is currently hosting a twelve-month read-along of the works of Brian Moore, Belfast native, resident of both Canada and the U.S. and prolific author of over twenty-five novels in several genres.  I really welcomed Cathy’s event, since Moore is one of those interesting writers who’s vaguely hovered in my literary consciousness for many years without ever quite taking shape.  Wasn’t he Irish?  No, he must be a Canadian historical writer because he wrote that Black Robe thing set in 17th century New France.  At least he’s definitely Catholic!  (Judging from my unread copy of his novella, Catholics.  Dear Readers, I never miss a clue.)  But wait — wasn’t Catholics actually a sci-fi novel, since it’s set in an alternate reality?  Or are there really two Brian Moores, one a literary novelist and one a writer of Hollywood screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock and friends?  As you can see, dear readers, Cathy’s read-along didn’t come a minute too soon for Janakay!  And while I’m not excusing my ignorance about a very fine writer, my rather facetious questions demonstrate the chameleon nature of Moore’s  talent as well as the impossibility of pigeonholing his work.

Each month the read-along features a single novel chosen as a good introduction to Moore’s fiction.  Since I’ve never read anything by Moore, I wanted to read at least a couple of the featured books in order to form my own opinion about his output.  Although I missed the first few months for various reasons, I was determined that at the very least I’d get to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, sitting unread on my shelves for almost a decade and widely considered one of Moore’s best works.  My review, however, is running (very) late and comes at the very tail end of this month’s discussion; because it will be posted at the end of the month, numerous other fine reviews (including one by Cathy herself) precede it.  Although the timing of my post made me hesitant to weigh in on a novel that’s been so thoroughly discussed, I finally decided to do so on a idiosyncratic “this is what interested me” basis and not to attempt a comprehensive overview or repeat too many details of the novel’s plot.

Being a believer that art frequently reflects in some manner the life of the artist who created it, one of the things I always find interesting is a writer’s biography.  Rather than repeat the details of Cathy’s fine overview of Moore’s life and output, however, I begin this portion of my discussion by asking whether any of you have read Stet, Diana Athill’s wonderful memoir of her career as an editor at André Deutsche Ltd.?  (Bear with me, dear readers, this will link up.)

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Editor Athill’s account of her personal & professional relationship with Brian Moore was a wonderful sidenote to reading Judith Hearne . . . nothing to do with Moore, but don’t you absolutely adore this cover photo of Athill?

Athill gives a very frank, very funny and very insightful account of working with some of the 20th century’s best known writers (Naipaul, Roth and Mailer for example) as well as with numerous other fine albeit less well known artists, including Moore himself.  Athill’s account of her editorial and personal relationship with Moore (the friendship included Moore’s first wife, the Canadian journalist Jackie Sirois) was the first time I begin to be aware of Moore as something other than a name attached to several novels I had never bothered to read.  Because I read Stet many years ago and had largely forgotten any of the specifics relating to Moore, I couldn’t resist revisiting Athill’s account after I (finally) finished Judith Hearne, the first Moore novel I’ve actually read.  

I usually dislike (and normally avoid) long quotes, but Athill’s such a marvelous writer I’m making an exception in her case.  As she recalls (pages 138-139 of my print copy, issued by NYRB Classics):

It was Mordecai [the Canadian writer Mordecai Richler] who first introduced me to Brian Moore in that he told me that this friend of his had written an exceptionally good book which we ought to go after; but I must not deprive André [André Deutsche] of his discovery of Judith Hearne.  As André remembers it, he was given the book by Brian’s agent in New York on the last day of one of his — André’s — visits there; he read it on the plane on the way home and decided at once that he must publish it.  I think it likely that he asked to see it, being alerted, as I had been, by Mordecai.  But whether or not he asked for it, he certainly recognized its quality at once; and when he handed it over to me, it came to me as something I was already hoping to read, and its excellence was doubly pleasing to me because Brian was a friend of Mordecai’s.  The two got to know each other in Paris and in Canada, where Mordecai was a native and Brian, an Ulsterman, had chosen to live in common — although the Moores moved to New York soon after we met.

Before Brian wrote Judith Hearne * * * when he was scrabbling about to keep a roof over his head, he had written several thrillers for publication as pocketbooks, under a pseudonym, which he said had been a useful apprenticeship in story-telling because it was a law of the genre that something must happen on every page.  But however useful, it came nowhere near explaining Judith.  With his first serious book Brian was already in full possession of his technical accomplishment, his astounding ability to put himself into other people’s shoes, and his particular view of life: a tragic view, but one that does not make a fuss about tragedy, accepting it as part of the fabric with which we all have to make do.  He was to prove incapable of writing a bad book, and his considerable output was to include several more that were outstandingly good; but to my mind he never wrote anything more moving and more true than Judith Hearne.

When [Moore] came to London in 1955 * * * [h]e was a slightly surprising figure, but instantly likable:  a small, fat, round-headed, sharp-nosed man resembling a robin, whose flat Ulster accent was the first of its kind I had heard.  He was fat because he had an ulcer and the recommended treatment in those days was large quantities of milk, and also because Jackie was a wonderful cook.  (Her ham, liberally injected with brandy before she baked it —  she kept a medical syringe for the purpose — was to become one of my most poignant food memories.)  When I asked him home to supper on that first visit he was careful to explain to me that he was devoted to his wife — a precaution which pleased me because it was sensible as well as slightly comic.

Once he [Moore] was sure I was harboring no romantic or predatory fancies, the way was open for a relaxed friendship, and for as long as I knew him and Jackie as a couple there seemed to be nothing we couldn’t talk about.  They were both great gossips —  and when I say great I mean great, because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form: a passionate interest lit by humour but above malice, in human behavior.  We used often, of course, to talk about writing — his and other people’s, and, eventually mine — but much more often we would talk with glee, with awe, with amazement, with horror, with delight, about what people had done and why they had done it.  And we munched up our own lives as greedily as we did everyone else’s.

Although Athill’s house published five of Moore’s books (beginning with Judith Hearne in 1955 and ending with The Emperor of Ice Cream in 1966), neither the professional nor personal relationship between Athill and Moore was destined to last.  For the details of their breakup, you can’t do better than to read Athill’s honest and generous account (pages 142-150).

Biography is all very well, I can hear you say, but this is a book blog and — what about the book itself?  Hearne is what I’d consider a small canvas, interior novel; i.e., it has few characters, is strongly focused on the eponymous heroine and has a very, very simple plot.  Moore sets his novel in his native Belfast in the 1950s and superbly portrays that city’s strongly traditional culture and its deep Roman Catholicism.  It opens when Judith, an aging spinster who has come down in the world, is moving into the latest of a successive of shabby boardinghouses, each less genteel than the one before.  Judith’s world values women almost entirely for their beauty, their material possessions and their activities as traditional wives and mothers; it barely tolerates unmarried women like Judith who have neither money nor good looks.  During the course of the novel Judith primarily interacts with her landlady, Mrs. Henry Rice; Mrs. Rice’s monstrous son Bernard; James Madden, a fellow boarder and Mrs. Rice’s brother; a couple of priests and/or nuns; and the O’Neill family, whom Judith mistakenly regards as long-time friends from her youth.  Madden, a sexual predator and conman newly returned from America, convinces himself that Judith has money, and cultivates her as an “investor” in his harebrained business scheme; Judith, desperate to grasp a last chance at marriage and a place in her world, in turn convinces herself that Madden wants her as a wife.  Both are wrong, with tragic consequences for Judith, whose discovery of the truth causes her to give in to her alcoholism and to lose ultimately the little she had.  Although Moore adopts the very interesting stylistic device of using a few short segments of the novel to narrate the viewpoints of a few secondary characters, his unrelenting focus remains on Judith Hearne and her inexorable downward spiral.  

The astonishing technical ability noted by Athill is on display from the opening sentences of the novel, in which the “very first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt” and “the colored oleograph of the Sacred Heart.”  Her aunt’s photograph, which goes on the mantel, and the Sacred Heart, placed on the wall at the head of her bed, tell us instantly everything important we need to know about Judith:  she has come down in the world since her aunt’s days and she is guided by the dictates of her religion.  Her notions of class and religion are the lodestars of her life, their symbols the talismans that establish her home.  Moore ends his novel with a tragic repetition of the same scene, where Judith, now an inmate in a charity hospital that was also the scene of an earlier humiliation, unpacks the same two objects, which, she thinks to herself, make this “new place” her home.  I differ a bit from Cathy’s fine review, which sees “a little seed of hope” in the ending in that Judith continues to make the best of an impossible and tragic situation.  I’m afraid I do not.  If you’re in doubt, however, I’d go with Cathy’s reading.  Not only has she read the book twice to my once, but I also prefer her interpretation over mine, as otherwise Judith’s story in almost unbearable.

Since I’ve deliberately avoided reading most reviews until after I post this (I plan to start clicking away immediately thereafter), I don’t know if other readers felt that Moore threw them a curve ball with this novel (for those disinclined to sports and/or from countries other than the U.S. , this is a tricky pitch in which the baseball fools the batter by not taking a straight path).  For the first half or so the novel reads like a straightforward, realistic rendition of a tragic life that is lived in an historically accurate time and place.  As Judith begins her downward spiral, however, the novel becomes an existential quest in which Judith learns that romantic love, friendship and religion fail to provide any meaning to human existence or any comfort for some of those forced to endure it.  Ultimately, the Judith Hearnes are alone in a world bereft of human comfort or religious succor.  

There’s so very much to say about this novel — the unexpected humor; the beautiful economy of the style; the very great scene in which Judith concludes that that she’s been praying to “bread” rather than the consecrated body of Christ;  any scene involving the monstrous Bernard — well, I could go on and on but that’s what a multiplicity of reviews is for, isn’t it?  The only way to appreciate the richness of this brief novel is to read it and experience it for yourself.  

Did I like this novel?  No, I did not.  Judith’s story and the universe in which she lived are both far too bleak for me; it was so tough emotionally to watch this lost soul disintegrate that I had to stop every chapter or two to give myself a break.  Do I think it’s a masterpiece and am I glad I read it?  Yes to both questions.  

Not terribly relevant to Moore’s novel, but in writing this post it finally occurred to me that certain aspects of Judith’s character reminded me at least superficially of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois (“Streetcar Named Desire,” 1947 or thereabouts), the story of another formerly affluent woman who, unable to cope with the reality of her reduced circumstances and romantic disappointment, also ends up institutionalized.  Of course, there’s the difference in nationality (Irish vs U.S.), lack of a religious element (very important to Moore) and genre (novel vs. play).  As I said, superficial.  Probably because I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Taylor’s 1954 short story “Hester Lily,” I was also reminded of her very observant portrayal of Miss Despenser, an aging spinster driven half-mad by loneliness, living in drastically reduced circumstances and who, like Judith, turns to alcohol to ward off despair. Lastly, at least according to Colm Toíbín as quoted by the great Wiki, Moore’s novel takes from Joyce’s short story “Clay” (Dubliners) the idea of a lonely spinster of a certain age visiting a family, an event which both comforts and confounds her.  If you have any thoughts on my rather superficial comparisons, or have some different ones to offer, please do share.