Thursday, 13 June 2013

BRIAN MOORE The Feast of Lupercal (1958)

Flamingo Books/HarperCollins UK, 1994

He signalled for another double.  Another double was served.  But drink was no substitute, was it?  He was like a flower that had never opened.  He felt foolish when he thought of that, but it was true.  Like a flower that had never opened.  He had been afraid to open, afraid.  He was ashamed to think how few girls he had gone out with more than once.  He would not have confessed it to anyone, not even a priest, but he could count only four.  And none of those girls would even remember him today.  Not one of them.  No girl had ever found him interesting.  And he had his pride, dammit, he was not going to plead and beg with them.  He could get along rightly, so he thought, without any silly girls.  Or so I thought then, he thought now.  But it's no more true today than it ever was.  I was always lonely for a girl to find me interesting, to know one girl half as well as I knew my only sister.

The Novel:  'The Feast of Lupercal' was an ancient Roman fertility ritual, mentioned in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, during which young single men ran naked through the streets, using strips of goatskin soaked in blood to lash out at any woman who happened to cross their path, thereby bestowing the gift of fertility on her.  The festival ran from 13-15 February each year and is believed to be the precursor to what some of us now celebrate as Valentine's Day.  There were other aspects to the ritual which involved, at various times, feasting, drinking and something called 'name-drawing' –– a kind of matchmaking lottery designed to bring single men and women together under official supervision, the expectation being that they would fall in love and eventually marry (which allegedly they often did).

In Brian Moore's second novel The Feast of Lupercal the ritual serves to both symbolize and mock the life of its protagonist, the lonely virginal schoolmaster Diarmuid Devine.  

Devine is thirty-seven, a middle-aged Catholic bachelor, a little stuffy and set in his ways, who lives a respectable if rather circumscribed life in a grubby basement flat in Belfast.  All day, every day, Devine attempts to teach English literature to the pupils of Ardath College –– an educational institution, run by priests, where corporal punishment for even minor infractions –– like unintentional lapses of memory or speaking out of turn –– is viewed as a necessary, acceptable and freely administered deterrent.  (The school was based on St Malachy's, the Catholic school in Belfast which Moore himself attended as a boy.)  Dev, as Devine is known to his students, is respected and tolerated rather than being genuinely liked and admired by them, as quick to scold and reach for the cane to punish sloth or disobedience as any of his bolder, even more brutal colleagues.  Like the boys, his fellow masters view Devine as a figure of fun, someone shy and slightly ridiculous whom they often joke about as being the type of man who could 'never understand what a fellow feels about a girl.' 

All this changes when Devine meets the niece of his friend (and fellow Ardath master) Tim Heron at a party.  The girl's name is Una Clarke.  She's twenty years old, pretty with a 'boyish, unfinished look about her,' and has come to Belfast from Dublin where she plans to train as a nurse.  She also shares Devine's interest in the theatre –– his one indulgence and the one distraction, in the form of stage-managing and occasionally performing in amateur productions mounted by a local theatre group, he permits himself in his otherwise humdrum life.  Disobeying his usual self-protective instincts, Devine strikes up a conversation with Una only to learn from a gossipy fellow teacher named Moloney, after she's wandered off again, that she's a Protestant and, even more dauntingly, a Protestant with 'a past.'  The girl has come to Belfast, it turns out, to avoid the scandal she brought upon her family by falling in love with an already married man.

Devine finds himself irresistibly drawn to Una despite these revelations, taking her to the theatre and recommending her for a part in a new production being organized to help raise money for Catholic Foreign Missions.  His friends in the theatre group protest.  Miss Clarke isn't a very good actress, they tell him.  She'll need to do a lot of work on her accent before they can even consider giving her the role.  Seeing this as his chance to get closer to Una –– and perhaps to express the love he's inexplicably begun to feel for her –– Devine offers to devote his spare time to coaching her in the part.  Una and his friends agree to the proposal and so begins an intense cycle of regular evening rehearsals, interrupted by occasional visits to tea shops, restaurants and dance halls where the girl, finding this quiet older man a willing and sympathetic listener, speaks of the brief unconsummated 'affair' she had with a married Dublin accountant named Michael –– a man who promised to leave his wife and marry her, only to turn round and make his wife pregnant before this so-called 'plan' of his could be put into effect.  

Things look hopeful until Tim Heron learns that Devine has been taking Una out and, worse, that he's become her self-appointed acting coach.  Una has kept this fact from her uncle and Heron feels betrayed by what he sees as her duplicity and that of his supposed 'friend.'  Heron demands that Devine stop seeing Una and that he also drop this foolish idea of trying to make an actress out of her.  Devine protests, politely explaining to Heron that there's nothing untoward going on between him and his niece, that it would be unfair to make Una give up now after all the hard work she's done to win herself the part.  'Fair?' Heron asks him.  'Who's talking about fair?  I'm warning you, Dev, and I won't warn you twice.  You take that girl out of your play or I'll do something about it.'   

Faced with this ultimatum, Devine must decide between retaining the friendship of his fellow master or the as-yet unspecified future he hopes to build with Una.  He refuses to let her quit the play, convincing himself that wilfully if clandestinely disobeying her uncle is all he need do to prove his ever-growing love for her.  Nor can he bring himself to forgo the pleasure he gets from taking her out.  Determined to make a good impression, be the kind of dashing man-about-town he imagines a girl her age wants her chap to be, he buys himself a new suit of clothes and takes an intensive course of dance lessons so he can dazzle her with his terpsichorean prowess the next time he escorts her to a dance hall.  The problem is that they're spotted coming home late together by Heron's son –– an Ardath student who soon informs the whole school that 'old Dev' has been squiring his cousin round the place and, worse, doing it on the sly.

A few days later Devine takes Una to the theatre for her audition, only to learn that his friends aren't going to offer her  the part because the girl they originally had in mind for it has suddenly become available.  Eager to console Una, he takes her out to tea, only to have her break down at the table and declare that something 'terrible' has happened.  She refuses to supply any details, promising to ring him at home the following day –– Sunday – and explain things properly to him then.  Fearing that she might be pregnant by 'her chartered accountant,' Devine is relieved to learn that it's the accountant's wife who's pregnant, that Una has decided to have nothing more to do with him or with any other 'weak-kneed whiner' she may meet.  That night he takes her out dancing again, once again in secret so her uncle won't hear of it.  They dance together all night, forsaking all others, staying until the dancehall closes.  'Isn't there anywhere we can go?  Is every place closed?' Una asks him when they eventually reach the dark deserted street.  'What about your place?' she suggests.  'Don't you have a drink about the house?'

What happens at his flat proves to be the turning point not only of their relationship but of Devine's entire repressed, procrastinating, affection-starved life.  Una, mistaking her own disappointment and loneliness for love, offers herself to him, only to have the inexperienced Dev baulk at the idea of having sex with her at the critical moment.  'His white, sick face reflected the window moonlight as he turned to stare.  She was sitting on the edge of the bed and her face was frightened too.  Her first time.  Oh God, why didn't she say that sooner?  But now it was too late.  He could not confess that he too she would not believe him.'  Shattered by what she believes, mistakenly, to be his deliberately cruel rejection of her, Una escapes to his den and locks herself inside, spending the rest of the night there while Devine, feeling more cowardly and ashamed of himself than he ever thought possible, sits alone by his fireside, so lost in his own thoughts of sin, guilt and divine retribution that he forgets to wake her in time so she can get home before her uncle realizes she's spent the entire night out of the house.
Heron confronts Devine at school the next day, pulling him out of his classroom to ask him, point-blank, if he saw Una home from the dance he escorted her to the night before.  Devine lies and tells Heron yes, he did do this, adding that his niece is 'a nice wee girl; a good girl I'm sure.'  Praying that this is where his torment will end, that Una is certain to back up his story to save her reputation, he tries to banish the awful night they spent together and its associated humiliations from his mind –– something he can no longer do after another master discreetly informs him that a piece of doggerel verse, written by a student and suggesting that his relationship with Una has become very far from innocent, now adorns a toilet wall.  Horrified, Devine rushes to clean the filth off and, that night, tries to telephone Una, only to find himself condemned by Heron's self-righteous wife as a liar and a troublemaker.  A note he receives from Una soon afterwards –– in which she begs him to say that he took her back to his flat only because she was drunk and he agreed to let her stay there to spare her family's feelings –– only adds to his woes, as does a quiet chat he has with his landlady in which she asks him to leave her house at his earliest convenience as his rooms will shortly be required to house another tenant.

Still, Una persists, pleading with him to corroborate her story when they eventually meet in person so her mother won't have to be summoned from Dublin and subjected to another family scandal.  This, however, is where Devine's courage falters and finally abandons him.  Tim Heron is his friend, he tells her.  He couldn't possibly go back on his story –– not without hurting Tim and jeopardizing his own, now rather shaky position at the school.  In an effort to soften the blow, he openly declares his love and proposes to Una –– a proposal she rejects on the grounds that she can't marry someone 'just because I feel sorry for them.'

Panther Books UK (alternative title), 1970
Heron, in the meantime, is far from being satisfied with the questionable state of niece's reputation.  He knows about the graffiti, courtesy of Ardath's Dean of Punishment Father McSwiney, and confronts Devine about it, only to receive another denial and the promise that he did nothing –– either during or following their visit to the dance hall –– that could be construed as having taken unfair advantage of the girl.  Yet the implication that Devine slept with her, that he may have made her pregnant, is enough to damn him in the eyes of Heron, the College President, his fellow masters and, more significantly, of every boy he teaches.  His students no longer respect him and he no longer respects himself because Una has shown him what a weakling he is, proven beyond a shadow of a doubt what he's always secretly suspected about himself –– that he's unfit for and completely unworthy of love.  Faced with losing his job, he impulsively tells Heron what really happened in his flat that night, sparing him none of the most humiliating details in a desperate effort to convince him that Una really is a good girl, that he and her mother really do have nothing to fear in terms of her behaviour bringing further shame upon the family.  'You're too late, Devine, too late!' Heron shouts at him.  'The damage is done!  Peg'll not leave her with us now, after the worry we've caused her'  Outraged, Heron begins to beat Devine with the cane that every Ardath master habitually carries round with him, doing it so savagely, and with such unrelenting fury, that he succeeds in drawing blood until he's stopped by a passing priest whose primary concern is what the sight of two masters behaving so strangely will have upon the boys.

Ironically, Heron and Devine are both called up before the College President, Father Keogh, who treats them exactly as he would a pair of quarrelling students.  Keogh calmly explains what's going to happen.  The two masters will make it their business to be seen behaving in a friendly manner towards each other in public, presenting a united front to the boys for the good of the College.  And Devine will not lose his job, despite telling the wily and slightly sinister old priest that he refuses to be treated like a child, because firing him would be tantamount to making a public admission that he has, in fact, been responsible for destroying the good name of Heron's niece.  'Yes,' Keogh says before sending the chastened men back to their respective classrooms, 'if you follow instructions, it will all blow over.'  

It's with these instructions in mind that Devine has his last meeting with Una, in the parlour of his landlady who has 'unexpectedly' decided to let him stay on as a tenant after all.  They express their mutual regret about everything that's happened, declare they'll miss each other, and part as little more than what they've always been –– a lonely, timid, sexually-inexperienced man and the young, rather headstrong girl who felt sorry enough for him to entertain the idea, however briefly, that she might wish to lose her virginity to him. 

Devine's personal 'Feast of Lupercal' proves to be a sad, rather tawdry event, marred by misunderstandings, betrayals and its own, often shocking displays of violence, in which love comes a continual poor second to the maintaining of proprieties and the futile shoring up of rapidly crumbling social and religious edifices.  Like Brian Moore's most famous character – the similarly isolated and self-deceiving spinster Judith Hearne –– Diarmuid Devine is a man whose religious beliefs punish rather than console him, a man whose inability to act in his own best interests only serves to damn him to a life of unrelenting solitude.

BRIAN MOORE, c. 1955
The Writer:  The road Brian (pronounced 'Bree-an' in the Gaelic style) Moore travelled to achieve success as a writer was never an easy, direct or conventional one.  He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on 25 August 1921 to Dr James B Moore, a senior staff surgeon at the city's Catholic Mater Hospital and his wife Eileen, his former theatre nurse.  Despite a twenty-three year difference in their ages, Dr and Mrs Moore would go on to produce a total of nine children of whom Brian, their second son, was the fourth to be born.  He was given the nickname 'Bomber' by his mother, who mistook the sound of the gunfire she heard while giving birth to him for the sound of a bomb exploding in the street.  

1921 was not a good year to be a member of an Irish Catholic family living in Protestant Belfast.  Catholics were regularly shot at and wounded by disgruntled Protestants who were unhappy about the British Government's decision to call an end to all military activity in the region following the opening of the first Northern Irish Parliament.  It would be these 'troubles,' and the bitter sectarian violence they spawned, that would serve as the backdrop to Moore's otherwise entirely conventional middle class Irish childhood.  In time they would also serve as the emotional if not physical basis for much of his best writing.  

Moore received a quintessentially Catholic education, first attending a kindergarten run by nuns of the Holy Mercy order (who refused to allow him to write with his left hand and cured him of the habit by tying the offending appendage behind his back) and then the Holy Family School in the Antrim Road district of Belfast.  It was here that he was first exposed to fiction in the form of the Grimm Brothers' fairytale The Brave Little Tailor and where, soon afterwards, he displayed a precocious talent for English composition –– a talent not actively encouraged by his teachers or by his ultra-conservative parents.  (Although his gift for inventing things made him the favourite of his younger siblings, whom he would entertain for hours with stories acted out with the aid of toy soldiers and dolls' houses.)  He was never a willing or especially attentive pupil and found the harsh discipline meted out by his teachers, lay people and clergymen alike, to be counter-productive if not completely antithetical to the learning process.  This perhaps explains the early loss of his Catholic faith and his inability to pass the senior exams (twice) which would have allowed him to graduate from St Malachy's College and matriculate to Queen's University as his father – 'the great exam passer' –– had done so brilliantly before him.

Moore left St Malachy's in June 1940, during the first terrible summer of World War Two.  Although Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and therefore technically at war with Germany, Belfast was not deemed to be in any real danger by its inhabitants, the majority of whom scoffed at the idea of the city becoming a target for the Luftwaffe.  Impatient to join the fight but not at all keen on the idea of being drafted into the English army, Moore initially attempted to join the army of the Republic of Ireland in the expectation that its status as a neutral non-combatant nation would shortly have to change.  When this failed to happen, he joined an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) unit –– a community-run civil defence organization responsible for enforcing blackout restrictions in Belfast and assisting the army and police during the air raids few people still expected to occur.  The job, considered little more than a joke by his friends and family, gave Moore a certain measure of freedom for the first time in his life –– a freedom which saw him explore the city's small number of radical socialist bookshops, befriend other like-minded would-be Socialists and acquaint himself with the work of banned or otherwise Vatican-proscribed Modernist writers including James Joyce, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway.  He was on duty with his ARP unit when, in defiance of all expectations, Belfast was attacked by the Germans during four separate bombing raids which took place between 7 April and 5 May 1941, with the largest raid on 15 April killing 900 people and wounding 1500.  Moore, who considered this the event which marked his transition from childhood to adulthood, would later use his ARP experiences as the basis for his fifth novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965).

The war would prove to be something of a blessing for Moore who, following his father's death in March 1942, talked his way into a job with the British Ministry of War Transport –– a civilian department of the British civil service which sent him first to Algeria and then to Italy, France, Germany and finally to post-war Poland, where he was seconded to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.  It was during his time with the UNRRA that he began a 'disastrous' relationship with a Canadian economist eleven years his senior named Margaret Swanson and began to write and submit his first universally rejected short stories and articles to various newspapers and magazines –– something he continued to do, with the same discouraging result, following his return to Belfast in the winter of 1947.

Moore did not remain in Belfast for long.  Still frantically in love with Margaret Swanson, and with no job and no realistic prospects of finding one to keep him in the city of his birth, he decided to follow her to Canada where he intended to pursue a career in journalism despite having no experience and no formal qualifications for the job.  Swanson wasn't glad to see him and soon left Toronto to take up a new position in Washington, leaving the unskilled immigrant to fend for himself in a strange foreign city where he literally knew nobody and had no professional contacts.  After visiting a Labour Exchange, Moore was sent to a mining camp in Northern Ontario to work as an accounts clerk.  He stuck it out in the wilderness for six months, then fled to Montréal, intending to catch the first boat home.  But the atmosphere of the snowbound city enchanted him and he decided to stay, using his somewhat shaky Irish connections to bluff his way into a steady if poorly paid job as a proofreader for the Montréal Gazette, the city's most conservative English language newspaper.  In time, and with a lot of perseverance, he was promoted from 'galley slave' to reporter, churning out finished articles with a speed and facility which occasionally astounded his more experienced colleagues.  Working as a reporter also taught him the value of brevity and concision.  'If you're going to have poetic images,' he once said, 'then they'd better be wonderful –– otherwise you'll just end up with overwriting and lushness.'  It was a practice he would rigidly adhere to in his novels, which remain models of clarity and restraint combined with penetrating and occasionally devastating psychological insight.

Montréal was the city where Moore's life can really be said to have begun.  In addition to succeeding as a journalist and befriending several of the soon-to-be next generation of important Canadian writers – including William Weintraub, Mavis Gallant and Mordecai Richler –– it was also the site of his first marriage to a divorced fellow journalist named Jacqueline Sirois.  They married in February 1951 and stayed together for the next sixteen years, producing a son –– Moore's only child –– named Michael in 1953.  It was Jackie, as she was known by their friends, who supported her husband while he continued to divide his time between writing articles for the Gazette and composing short stories, one of which, titled Sassanach, was finally published by a small Canadian literary review shortly after their marriage.  Money, however, was always an issue for Moore, as was his frustration with the patronizing, right-wing views of the conservative newspaper which employed him.   When a friend revealed that he'd earned the princely sum of $3000 by agreeing to write a lurid potboiler for the Harlequin Press, Moore decided to give pulp fiction a try himself.  He found the work hateful but easy.  He could write a thriller in approximately two weeks and soon had two published novels –– Wreath for a Redhead and The Executioners –– to his creditBetween 1954 and 1957 he would write another five potboilers, choosing to publish them under the name of 'Bernard Mara' or 'Michael Bryan' to distance them from his serious work, the credibility of which he feared might be permanently compromised by the financial success of these early money-spinning efforts.  (All seven novels are now considered to be rare and valuable collector's items.)

André Deutsch first UK edition, 1955
Writing well-paid pulp fiction enabled Moore to quit his job as a reporter and devote himself full time to what he'd always believed was his true vocation – the creation of serious modern literature.  In the summer of 1953 he left Montréal for the remote community of Fourteen Island Lake in Northern Qbec with the intention of beginning what would become his first and most famous 'genuine' novel, published in 1955 as Judith Hearne.  'It was a lonely and somewhat frightening decision,' Moore would recall in a 1976 lecture delivered at Toronto's York University'I'd had reason over the years to question every belief I had formerly held.  I had few friends and many doubts.  In exile, in a summer cabin I began to make the pilgrimage back in my own mind to the house I had been born in, to the people I had known as a boy.Loosely based on the life of a lonely spinster who had been a frequent but unwelcome visitor to the Moore home in Belfast, the book's composition was interrupted (and very nearly terminated) by a motor boat accident which saw Moore sustain what could have been, had he not chosen to duck at just the right moment, a fatal head injury.  Luckily he recovered relatively quickly from the injury and was able to finish the book by the end of the year, dashing off another thriller in the meantime to keep the debt collectors happy.  His manuscript would be rejected by ten different American publishers before being accepted and published by the English firm of André Deutsch in March 1955.  Its high quality was immediately recognized by the critics, who praised its thirty-three year old author's compassionate handling of what many of them nevertheless described as a 'joyless' tale of unrewarded faith and shattered expectations.  The book established Moore, on both sides of the Atlantic, as a new and important novelist, a reputation consolidated by the publication of his second novel The Feast of Lupercal in 1957 and his winning of a $5000 Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing – for which he was sponsored by Graham Greene, Dorothy Parker and Irwin Shaw –– two years later.  

The Guggenheim money allowed Moore to move himself, his wife and the now six year old Michael to New York City.  It also provided the background for his fourth novel An Answer from Limbo (1962), a tale of a writer struggling to finish his first novel as he attempts to save his faltering marriage and cope with the unrealistic moral expectations the arrival of his disapproving Irish mother place upon him.  It proved to be a prescient work of art.  At a 1962 publisher's party in Toronto he was introduced to a beautiful young PR assistant named Jean Russell.  She and her husband Frank soon became close friends of the Moores, regularly socializing with them after they left New York and had all returned to Canada.  In October 1967, their respective marriages now well and truly over, Jean Russell became Moore's second wife after sharing a home with him in the easygoing Californian community of Malibu for most of that year.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Moore further consolidate his reputation as a versatile, unclassifiable novelist unafraid to venture into what many critics considered to be deliberately controversial territory.  In 1971 he published a 'documentary novel' titled The Revolutionary Script about the kidnapping of a senior British Trade official and the murder of a Québec politician by members of the Front du libération du Québec, a French-Canadian para-military separatist organization (which modeled itself, in part, on the IRA).  This was followed by Catholics, a futuristic novella set on an island monastery off the southwest coast of Ireland which deals with the efforts of a young priest to persuade its old, traditionally-minded abbot to conform to the Church's new, more liberal-minded teachings.  Like many of Moore's books, Catholics was later adapted for the stage and turned into a film.  Film was to play an increasingly large role in Moore's career over the next few years, with he and Jean entertaining many actors and other celebrities in their Malibu home – including Mick Jagger and his then-wife Bianca –– as the ongoing struggle to bring Judith Hearne to the screen continued.  (This goal was finally reached in 1987, starring Maggie Smith in the title role.)  

BRIAN MOORE, c. 1990
It was in the 1980s with the publication of Cold Heaven (1983) and Black Robe (1985) the story of a seventeenth century French Jesuit priest who experiences 'the dark night of the soul' as he journeys upriver to convert the native Algonkian and Iroquois tribes to Christianity –– that Moore truly began to be appreciated as the master novelist he was and always had been.  In 1987 he received his third Booker Prize nomination for The Colour of Blood, a political thriller set in an unnamed eastern European country (which bears a strong resemblance to Poland) which once again features a morally conflicted clergyman as its central character.  His next novel Lies of Silence (1990) was a shattering study of IRA violence which examines the emotional impact of Northern Ireland's 'troubles' on an innocent, apolitical, Belfast-born couple.  It was followed by No Other Life (1993), The Statement (1995) and his final novel, the surprising The Magician's Wife (1997), set in nineteenth century France and Algeria.  Moore was working on a new novel, based on the life of French Symbolist poet (and successful illegal arms trader) Arthur Rimbaud, when he died of pulmonary fibrosis on 11 January 1999.

In the obituary she wrote for The Times Literary Supplement, Moore's friend and fellow novelist Hermione Lee said this of him:  'I will think of[Brian] most going away to his study – looking out over the ocean –– to do his work.  In his last interview with me, just after his seventy-seventh birthday, he said that he had never been certain of why he was here, of the meaning of his life, and that writing was a necessary obsession to him because only there could he continue to ask – not answer – these questions.  Only in his study, working quietly, could he forget himself and everyone he knew and become "invisible," and that, he said, was joy.'   

UPDATE October 2016
You used to be able to click HERE to listen to a 1990 interview with BRIAN MOORE conducted by journalist DON SWAIM for his long-running CBS radio program Book Beat.  Unfortunately, the site is no longer active. 

Many of BRIAN MOORE's novels are still available in print via your local bookstore or favourite online retailer or as pay-to-download eBooks.  

The standard biographies are Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist by DENIS SAMPSON, published by Doubleday Canada in 1998 (but now out of print), and Brian Moore: A Biography by PATRICIA CRAIG, published by Bloomsbury Publishing UK in 2002.

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  1. Thank you for all this, a true labour of love, it seems. Belfast in 1942, was in the United Kingdom, not in the (independent) Republic of Ireland. So, NI was not neutral, just to clarify.

  2. A true labour of love indeed, Tarlach. This was my small way of trying to repay a writer who has been a profound influence on me in a number of different ways.

    Thanks for pointing out my errors re the true political status of Belfast in 1942. As you can see, I have updated the post accordingly. Thanks also for taking the time to comment & pass along your feedback. Believe me when I say that both are genuinely appreciated.