Now it may be fashionable to turn up late, but turning up 10 months late for the centennial celebration of the great Brian Moore can only be called tardy. It’s not that I couldn’t get hold of the novels chosen each month – I have them all. It’s just they are old and musty, and I do not enjoy reading musty books. So they are now stored with vanilla scented candles where they will remain until the musty smell has been replaced with vanilla loveliness.
There are no such issues with this month’s choice as it was published only last year by Turnpike Books, and, I believe it is the first time a selection of Moore’s shorter fiction has been published in one volume. These are early stories, written in the 1950s, when Moore was publishing mainly crime novels as Bernard Mara or Michael Bryan. (Only two of his literary novels were written in the 1950s.)
The settings in this selection of 8 stories are as diverse as the settings in his novels, ranging from Belfast to Sicily to New York to the Caribbean. Some reflect the autobiographical preoccupations of the young atheist who fled Belfast to escape the strictures of his Catholic upbringing. Others depict culture clashes and experiences far removed from the everyday Irish experience of the1950s. All are powerful in which Moore, with his direct, unadorned language, renders heightened tensions visible, almost palpable. My favourites are those where those tensions veritably crackle.
In The Dear Departed the recently widowed Mrs Kelleher awaits word that her estranged son will return to attend his father’s funeral. She has telegrammed him against the wishes of her husband and her other children. (After all 16 years is a long time – what right does Michael have to return?) Her thoughts pass over the course of her marriage, her own difficulties with her gruff husband, and the argument about religion that led to the rift. Her voice, that of a mother just wishing for the return of her lost boy, is authentic, Moore demonstrating the empathy with the female psyche that would make many of his better known female characters so unforgettable.
Vince, the protagonist in Uncle T has also fled across the Atlantic after a religious argument. The story opens as he takes his bride to New York on honeymoon. There he is to meet with a long lost uncle who is offering him a job in his publishing company. You can almost hear the hiss of punctured expectations when the uncle turns up to the hotel with a bottle of brandy in his hand, air deflating more and more rapidly as the couple are taken across the city to Uncle T’s shabby flat to have dinner with his less than classy wife to discover that the job is less prestigious than anticipated. This evening reveals both the reality and the legacy Vince’s Irish working-class roots, and his wife (he has married up) is not impressed. The key question is this. Is Uncle T a vision of the man her bridegroom will become? The evening ends with a decision for Vince that answers that in full.
Many may object to the language or the attitudes on display in Lion of The Afternoon, which features Jack Tait, an achondroplastic dwarf, working as a children’s entertainer. I’m glad they stand as they accurately reflect the prejudice and ignorance of the time.
Finally in Off The Track we have two tourists seeking the authentic experience of their Haitian holiday destination. They remove themselves from the usual tourist traps and go inland, seeking to document their experience. The locals, however, are hostile and adverse to being photographed. When our tourists do find a accommodating subject, the consequences for him are horrendous. The kit in use may be old-fashioned, nevertheless this story is a timeous reminder that just because we can take opportunistic and surreptitious shots with our smartphones, perhaps we shouldn’t be so presumptuous!
I think I read that The Dear Departed is the first volume of short stories from Brian Moore. I hope so. I would welcome a second.