From 1999: Brian Moore’s Christ-Haunted Fiction
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in America on March 20, 1999, as “In Memoriam: Brian Moore’s ‘Christ-Haunted’ Fiction.”
In a provocative lecture delivered at Georgetown University during its 175th anniversary celebrations in 1964, Flannery O’Connor argued the case for the South as the best place for an American Catholic novelist to be. Among other reasons she gave was this one: “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”
The Irish-born novelist Brian Moore, who died in California this past January at the age of 77, would have understood that argument. In a last reflection published posthumously in The New York Times, Moore rehearsed his young life in Belfast in a series of painful flashbacks, the last of which is the most telling: “Unbeknownst to my parents I stand on Royal Avenue hawking copies of a broadsheet called The Socialist Appeal, although I have refused to join the Trotskyite party which publishes it. Belfast and my childhood have made me suspicious of faiths, allegiances, certainties. It is time to leave home.”
For all of Brian Moore's suspicions about faiths and allegiances, he could never stop worrying them, especially in their religious, and usually Catholic, forms.
And leave he did at 26, never to return except on visits. But for all his suspicions about faiths and allegiances, he could never stop worrying them, especially in their religious, and usually Catholic, forms. From his earliest and best known novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, to his last, The Magician’s Wife, the mystery of belief has haunted his best fiction. In his most overtly early religious work, the novella Catholics, Moore took on the post-Vatican II church with a vengeance.
Writing in 1972, he projected a millennial church that has abandoned all signs of transcendence in an effort to achieve pan-religious agreement; but the new Rome reckoned without an abbey off the west coast of Ireland that would make headlines—and attract thousands—with its revival of the old Latin Mass and private confessions. The generational contest is played out between an old abbot plagued by recurrent doubts (Trevor Howard in a fine television movie) and a young ecclesiastical technocrat (Martin Sheen) who has none. He comes bearing a letter from their Father General ordering an end to all the “irregularities” and expects a fight from the abbot. He gets it from the monks, but their leader surprisingly capitulates to save their way of life. The abbot, however, pays a high personal price to win over his monks. For the first time in years he personally leads them in prayer, risking again the “null,” the felt absence of God, “the hell of no feeling” that overcame him years before while trying to pray at Lourdes. To Moore’s credit, at the end the pathos outweighs the futuristic satire.
A decade—and five novels—later, Moore returned to these troubling questions of faith and the transcendent and stuck with them through most of his last seven books. The range itself is instructive: from a contemporary apparition of the Blessed Mother to a practical agnostic (Cold Heaven, 1983), though a harrowing account of French Jesuit missionaries in New France (Black Robe, 1985) and a modern day martyrology about an anti-Soviet cardinal in the pre-perestroika days of Eastern Europe (The Color of Blood, 1987), to an only slightly disguised portrait of Jean Bertrand Aristide’s struggle with church and state for justice in Haiti (No Other Life, 1993) and a political thriller about the last days of a hunted Nazi war criminal who has been protected and supported for decades by right-wing clerics in France (The Statement, 1996).
"Belfast and my childhood have made me suspicious of faiths, allegiances, certainties. It is time to leave home.”
Graham Greene, who has been ritually invoked in reviews, blurbs and obits referring to Moore as his “favorite living novelist,” spent much of his life living on and writing about “the dangerous edge,” that point where private and public life meet and clash, and where faith of all kinds is severely tested. In his later life Moore seemed drawn to that same arena despite the more domestic conflicts of successful early novels like Judith Hearne and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes.
The best of these novels, in my view, is Black Robe. What intrigued Moore about the French missionaries to Canada was the story of one Jesuit who, in the face of revulsion at the realities of life among the Hurons, “bound himself,” in the historian Parkman’s words, “by a solemn vow to remain in Canada to the day of his death.” What would lead one to make such a vow, and what might be its consequences? For a novelist like Moore this effort to cling to an absolute of conscience in the face of intolerable physical pain, spiritual despair and failure triggers the literary adrenalin. The stakes are high, and not just in world-historical terms (French colonization), but in eternal ones as well (the salvation of both the priest and the natives).
By novel’s end, after a harrowing journey, capture, torture and betrayal, Father Laforgue reaches a demolished mission station only to find himself facing the classic missionary’s dilemma: Is the Hurons’ superstition and fear of death from fever sufficient grounds to justify a mass baptism? And does his own spiritual aridity and near despair disqualify him as a minister of God’s mercy? Like the abbot in Catholics, Laforgue resolves the issue not on the basis of theological abstractions, but in response to the Indians’ pleas for help. The Huron chief counters the priest’s scruples about baptism without instruction with a catechism of his own:
“I ask you now, are you our enemy?”
“Do you love us?”
“Then baptize us.”
As he does so, Laforgue finds himself capable finally of an authentic prayer: “Spare them. Spare them, O Lord.”
Moore’s conviction, here and in all five of these late, “religious” novels, that love trumps all other spiritual values, is consonant, ironically, with the deepest truth of the Gospel and with a soupy humanistic sentimentalism. What saves it here and elsewhere is the crucible of passionate commitment and intense suffering from which it emerges. Thus Laforgue joins the other renegade clerics of 20th-century Catholic fiction: Greene’s whiskey priest, Bernanos’s curé, Endo’s Jesuit missionary. Not bad company for character or novelist.