Birch, Bell and Book

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Brian Moore, pronounced Bree-an, started his life in Belfast in 1921 and ended it in Malibu, California, in 1999, and that journey – and all that it implies – is the central thread of his fiction. He wrote twenty novels. I have read them all. I bought most of them in hardback the moment they came out. Indeed he was my favourite living novelist.

Rather more famously, he was also the favourite living novelist of Graham Greene and you can see why: realistic dialogue, strong and thrilling narratives, Catholic guilt and sin, ambivalence, the moment of moral choice and the drama of the soul. The big difference between the two writers was that they went in opposite directions, Graham Greene towards Rome and Brian Moore – as fast as his legs would carry him – the other way.

If I mention a random few of Brian Moore’s novels they may ring a bell: I Am Mary Dunne (1968), Black Robe (1985), Catholics (1972), The Doctor’s Wife (1976), Cold Heaven (1983), The Colour of Blood (1987), Lies of Silence (1990). He was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times. Yet go into a bookshop now and try to find one of his books and you will be lucky. Yes, there is fashion in literature, as in all things, and reputations rise and fall, particularly after a writer’s death, but this baffles me.

His first two novels were The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) – about an alcoholic woman for whom life is a let-down – and The Feast of Lupercal (1958) – about an ineffectual male schoolteacher for whom life has in some ways never really started. Both are set in the 1950s, in rainy Belfast, on Moore’s overcast home turf, on drab days when frustration and exasperation are the norm. Despite this, both are wonderfully accomplished, droll fictions. They have a distinctive Mr Bleaney voice, a voice like Larkin’s: a true voice.

And let’s face it straightaway, for someon

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About the contributor

Jonathan Smith taught English for many years at Tonbridge. E. M. Forster may have been unhappy there, but Jonathan believes his pupils Vikram Seth and Christopher Reid were not. His latest novel, KBO: The Churchill Secret, was published in 2014.

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