25 January 2010

Disowned and Distant

Unlike Graham Greene, who never disowned his "entertainments," Brian refused to talk about his thrillers and in his later years he vainly hoped that nobody would unearth these ephemeral works or decipher the pseudonyms, I personally could never understand this. From the very beginning it was obvious that he had mastered the genre. The books were immensely readable and his genius for atmosphere, dialogue and plot was everywhere evident, but when I said that to Brian it only irritated him.
— William Weintraub, Getting Started: A Memoir of the 1950s (McClelland & Stewart, 2001).
The last time I saw Brian Moore he was sitting alone in a damp bar overlooking Vancouver's False Creek. I felt he was owed a drink. Just thirty minutes earlier he'd completed one of the worst literary events I had ever attended. The reading, from The Statement, had gone quite well, but it was followed by the most cringe-worthy Q & A.

It began badly with a woman who asked about his work habits. This is, I believe, the most common query posed at such events. It's repeated often by those who seek some sort of formula that will magically transform them into writers. In this particular instance, a rough description would not suffice; what this woman wanted were details, dammit. Her follow-up questions – and there were many – invariably began: "So, you're saying I should...."

Next up was a man who had some extremely complimentary things to say about Margaret Atwood. Praise served as preamble. After assuring the author that he and Atwood were very much in the same league, the speaker blamed Moore's relatively low profile on the fact that his novels were published by several different houses. "Your agent should attend to this", the author was advised.

It all ended with an animated, wildly overdressed man, who used the forum to deliver a lengthy speech on Canada as a "rabidly" anti-Catholic country.

"Is Canada an anti-Catholic country?" was Moore's brief, yet polite response.

Filing out, I repeated this question to my companion, a member of the Church of Rome, who countered that our prime minister, Jean Chrétien, was a Catholic (as had been seven of his nineteen predecessors). Though C of E myself, I breathed a sigh of relief.

At some point in all this mess, Moore had happened to mention The Revolution Script, his 1971 novel about the October Crisis. It was, he'd said, a mistake to have written the book. This off-hand remark came back to me while reading The Executioners. Having disowned his pulp novels, had Moore started to distance himself from other works?

Brian Moore was Graham Greene's favourite living novelist, and as one might expect, his bibliography is both impressive and long. Ignoring the pulps, from 1955 until his death he averaged something approaching a book every two years. Here's the list that was included in Moore's 1988 novel The Colour of Blood:

And here's what was printed seven years later in The Statement, the book he was obliged to promote that grey Vancouver afternoon:

Note that
The Revolution Script has disappeared, as has Canada (1963), a non-fiction title he wrote for money "with the Editors of Life". I very much doubt that this was an oversight. Once published, the titles had always been recognized in similar bibliographies until Lies of Silence (1990)... when they disappeared, never to included again.

I'd have been proud to have written either.


  1. How sad and odd. Have you read Diana Athill's 'Stet'? Moore, unfortunately, seems to have been a bit of a handful, to put it mildly.

    The worst author Q&A I've ever been at involved an obviously very nervous young woman getting up and asking, of Elizabeth Jolley, a very long, stammering, convoluted and tremulous-voiced question about a particular book. At the end there was a long silence, and then the moderator said, "Actually, that book was written by Helen Garner."

  2. I remember enjoying Stet, but nothing of what Ms Athill wrote about Brian Moore. Has it been so long? My daughter was an infant at the time... I'll blame my faulty memory on lack of sleep.

    That said, William Weintraub's Getting Started remains fresh in my mind. "A Memoir of the 1950s", including friendships with Moore, Mavis Gallant and Mordecai Richler. Most highly recommended.

  3. I'll hunt down the Weintraub. In 'Stet', Moore is one of the writers (along with V. S. Naipaul) that Athill rejoices about no longer having to deal with once she retires.

  4. If he had such a low opinion of his thrillers/hackwork, why did Moore publish them under his own name- or did he revise his opinion of them later?

  5. I'm not so certain that Moore's opinion of their worth changed, so much as his idea as to their purpose and place. The first two enabled him to squirrel some money away to start in on The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. All five pulps that appeared after he'd begun work on this, his first "serious" novel, were published under pseudonyms. I expect he didn't want the thrillers - which were useful in that they paid very well - to affect his reputation as a novelist of considerable talent. This, of course, is speculation on my part.