Brian Moore's latest novel, The Statement (Bloomsbury), carries disturbing echoes - after all, the "hero" is a collaborator, a Nazi sympathiser condemned in absentia for crimes against humanity in the murder of 14 Jews. An odious anti-Semite, anti-Black, Pierre Brossard has been on the run for 40 years, sustained by his unshakeable belief in the absolute rightness of his actions and by the Catholic Church's complicity. But hold the furore - this is no first novel (he has written 17 previously, including The Secret Passion of Judith Hearne, Black Robe and The Colour of Blood) nor does Moore claim French nationality to give his imagination added validity.
In fact he's hard-pressed to claim any nationality at all, other than writer. This Belfast-born, Canadian citizen and long-term resident of Malibu is, at 74, "an exile from everywhere, at home in many places but at home nowhere." This sense of personal disconnection with place and race resonates in his increasing impersonal writing - the tale is all, tight, tense and crafted. Now, however, he's in Melbourne for the Writers Festival, which requires some singing for the suppers. Like his tales, he is also somewhat tight and tense, but his performances are equally well-crafted.
*********WE MEET BY ACCIDENT AT THE ESCALATORS in the Regent hotel complex - with his tidy physique, well-lived in face and dolorous demeanour ("too much coffee the day before," he says later, "led to insomnia"), he looks more like a veteran steeplechase jockey than an intellectual spur under the Vatican's saddle. His books often have a religious motif, without religious intent.
It has led to sharp exchanges in the past, with some works denounced and even banned in some countries. ("Jesuits and the smarter elements of the church don't dislike me," he tells me later, "because they realise I'm not a polemic person against them. I'm just as likely to write a book that's supportive. They have a strange relationship with me - sometimes they're very hostile, other times they consider me quite balanced.") Tired as he is, his eyes miss nothing. Over time, wariness and weariness give way to a joking, chatty persona. His is the musical accent of anecdote, investing already astute observations with rougish impetus.
Through 30-plus degree heat and high humidity we trudge to a park for photographs. He's self-conscious both at the attention of sunbaking lunchers and of the lens, but when he's brushed aside in a crush of schoolgirls mobbing our photographer, he's amused. "Proof it's a visual age."
Riding the PR trail is not something he finds easy, he confides as we settle at a thankfully air-conditioned restaurant nearby. "I don't personally like publicity, but I was a newspaper man so I sympathise. Some people thrive on it but for me it's a bit like being a boy back at school and having to pass an examination."
As I watch him over the next day or two doing the festival rounds, I see someone far more complex than he owns up to, yet just as uncomplicated. At the opening reading the night before, for instance, he'd seemed discomforted within a panel that comprised a "tired and emotional" Peter Ackroyd, a confident Ruth Rendell, a masterful Malouf and a scatological Tom Robbins. At our interview, he is manfully "doing his duty". At an intimate publisher's dinner that night (the temperature has dropped 18 degrees, with heavy rain), he is among his peers, relaxed, yarning, wry, witty. At a profile session the next day before a supportive audience, he is open, charming, feisty and very, very sharp. In the overall examination, his rating is definitely A.
TWICE A WINNER of the Canadian Governor-General's Award for fiction, thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, recipient of numerous other awards in several countries, with five of his novels made into films, Moore has been translated into 16 languages and has a healthy 40-year sales record. It must be satisfying, no? Well, yes. But also no. He feels he's not as well known as he could be, that despite his achievements he's never really been secure. His very versatility has counted against him. People prefer to feel comfortable with a "brand", he says, to know what they're buying from an author. With him, that's something different every time.
He lives by the Thomas Mann axiom that 'every tale should tell itself'. Story is everything. "Unless you're Joyce or Borges or Flann O'Brien (his triumverate of author heroes), very few people are good or original avant garde writers - most just copy each other. The writers we remember were dedicated story-tellers."
He also avoids, with a passion, any hint of the autobiographical. "A lot of books today are really just the author talking about himself - that's fine if you like who the author is; I think you should like the books, without knowing the author."
Which is ironic, given his wealth of raw biographical material. Brought up in a devout Republican Catholic family, with six sisters and two brothers, he left home at 20, renounced Catholicism ("as soon as I stepped on the boat - I hadn't done so before because I didn't want to hurt my mother") and saw action with the Allied forces in Italy (as a supply clerk). He witnessed the Anzio beachhead, the invasion of southern France and during a two-year stint in Poland with the UN as a port officer ("It made me see right away that Communism there was a totalitarian society"), the Russian retreat and post-war Auschwitz.
In 1948 he went to Canada with his first (French) wife and son, working as a journalist in Montreal before quitting in 1953 to write novels. In 1959, a Guggenheim Fellowship took him to New York for seven often bleak years. He divorced, lost contact with his son (they reconciled several years later). By 1966 he was settled with Jean, his vivacious Canadian-born wife in Malibu, after he went to California to write the script with Alfred Hitchcock for Torn Curtain ("I needed the money"). Jean and he are inseparable, living she says "like monks at Malibu" but travelling together annually to Europe (and Australia).
Untouched during those post-war years, he's nearly died twice in his writer's retirement - in 1953 a motor boat smashed into him. Result? Six skull fractures, three months' convalesence, an awareness "that I'd better get busy because I did not have unlimited time". And in 1976 a duodenal ulcer attack at a Dublin literary fest led to a butchered operation and three weeks in intensive care. Result? Permanent ailments and a conviction to "stay away from conferences and festivals".
"Without having anything dramatic happen to me, I've seen a lot," he admits, "but as a character I'm not interesting at all. What I can do, perhaps, is create interesting characters. When I wrote Judith Hearne (his first novel, which was turned down initially by a dozen perspicacious publishers), I was very lonely, writing in a rented caravan, I had almost no friends, I'd given up my beliefs, was earning almost no money as a reporter and I didn't see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster. "Writers like me, you see, lead a surrogate life. We don't really have a life of our own. I'm only happy when I'm writing about something or somebody else - perhaps that's part of the problem of not being better known than I am - I live through my books, in a way. No personality of my own." He laughs, then leaves. If nothing else, his scriptwriting years around Hollywood have helped him perfect an exit line.
This profile appeared first in The Australian
Copyright (c) Murray Waldren
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