Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Brian Moore by Patricia Craig

Brian Moore
by Patricia Craig
Published by Bloomsbury

The first adult book I ever read, (apart from classics), was Brian Moore's Feast of Lupercal when I was 12 years old.  It was my mother's library book and I read it secretly, the explicit sexual content giving me hot flushes.  But apart from the thrill of the illicit, I was aware even then of the quality of the prose.  It was set in a school and schools and school-masters were familiar territories.  The novel laid bare their secret lives. Even to an innocent 12 year old (and I was) the atmosphere of claustrophobia, thwarted lust and the humiliation of sexual inadequacy, was vividly conveyed.

After that I read quite a few of his novels, though they were all so different from one another that I didn't always like them.  The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Black Robe, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes were the ones I favoured, but my absolute favourite by a  mile was I am Mary Dunne, which I still think is a masterpiece.  A day in the life of a pre-menstrual, unstable woman who isn't sure who she is - at the time I read it, the psychological profile fitted me like a glove. I couldn't believe it had been written by a man.

So I pounced on this biography of Brian Moore in a second hand shop, wondering why I hadn't noticed its publication.  Published by Bloomsbury, written by a respected journalist and editor, it held out high hopes which were quickly dashed.   How could a respectable publisher like Bloomsbury allow such a badly edited book?  The prose inclines to the academic, serious in tone, but contains phrases such as 'After the exhibitions  and gold-medals and what-not obtained during his schooldays ....'  'Socially, her background seems a bit of a hotch-potch . . .' etc etc.    

The first couple of chapters are an impenetrable maze of three (or was it four?) generations of Brian's family tree before he was born.  The families are large and many of the names are the same or very similar. Confusion had set in before the end of chapter one, but I pressed on.  The justification for this seemed to be that Brian drew heavily on his family for the characters in his novels, so I would need this information later on when the novels came up for discussion.  That didn't seem to happen.

I did learn more about Brian Moore's life and his complicated family politics, but never felt that Patricia Craig got close to his essential character, even though she knew him and he had given her hours of interviews before he died. He had a triple identity - Northern Irish Catholic, Canadian citizen, but living in America. Mind-boggling! She never gets to the heart of his novels quite, and this is a pity - I wanted to know and that's why I carried on reading. Most of the biography is concerned with Brian up to middle age - the last half of his life seems to be crammed into the final chapters of the book in something of a hurry, yet some of his later books are his most important. It was also the period when he was living shoulder to shoulder with members of the 'jet-set' - there's a brief glimpse of Bianca Jagger and David Hockney dropping in for an impromptu party, and a dinner with Hitchcock, but I'd have liked more.

She also skipped lightly over the period when he wrote about a dozen best-selling thrillers (under a pseudonym) in order to pay the bills and buy time to write the serious novels.  This was something I didn't know about and it must surely have been very important in the process of learning his craft.

The biography also infuriated me by referring to events before they'd actually occurred, giving vital information which, when the event did happen I had to skip backwards to re-read. Sometimes events weren't referred to at all until they were long-gone.  I only discovered that Brian had been a creative writing fellow at UCLA for 17 years, when his letter of resignation was referred to.  Time-hopping, I believe, is something the biographer should try to avoid for the sake of clarity.

This book is such a lost opportunity - a fascinating subject and one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century.  The author had all the material -  it just needed a good editor!

Note to self - must read The Emperor of Ice Cream.......

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