“I fell hopelessly in love with an older woman, and I followed her to Canada,” novelist Brian Moore says with a rueful smile. “She told me to get lost.”
In that incident many years ago, Moore found the plot for his 11th novel, The Doctor’s Wife. He appears to have reflected a good deal about the motivations of older women. In 1956 The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne appeared. The compassionate but unsparing story of a Belfast spinster, it established Moore as a major writer.
In The Doctor’s Wife Moore, now 54, has dared for the third time (the second was I Am Mary Dunne) to write from inside the consciousness of a woman. (He explains that having six sisters gave him some insight.) Sheila Redden is the handsome 37-year-old wife of a smug Belfast surgeon. In Paris, en route to the South of France where she expects to be joined by her husband for a holiday, she meets a young American scholar, more than 10 years her junior. He pursues her to Villefranche and woos her ardently. The middle-class mother of a teenage son, educated but unfulfilled, Mrs. Redden proves surprisingly adroit at kicking off her knickers when passion overtakes her.
Moore, who has always loved Paris, splendidly evokes shuttered French hotel rooms and boulevard cafes with precise, echoing details. But in telling explicitly of the ardor and the loyalties which rend the doctor’s wife, he will doubtless divide women readers who crave romance from feminists who don’t.
Moore’s characters seem for the most part to have dogged his footsteps. He was born in Belfast, one of nine children of a successful surgeon who was also a Catholic and nationalist in a city where the Establishment is Protestant and loyalist. (Comments Moore, “I am interested in the impact of modern values on old hierarchical societies—that and the loss of faith.”) He was educated at St. Malachy’s College (which recalls the St. Michan’s of The Feast of Lupercal). During World War II Moore came of age as a first-aid worker and fireman (as does the hero of the funny and tender The Emperor of Ice-Cream).
Emigrating to Canada in 1948, Moore for eight months eked out a living as a proofreader on the Montreal Gazette (like Ginger Coffey, the boastful rascal of yet another Moore novel), before becoming a reporter. There he married fellow journalist Jacqueline Sirois, who died last January. Their son, Michael, graduated recently from Boston University and plans to study medicine.
A critics’ darling whose books usually sell modestly, Moore finds the early success of The Doctor’s Wife sweet indeed. It is already in its second printing—with 22,000 copies out before publication. Paperback rights have brought an advance of over $100,000; movie rights fetched another $200,000.
Despite such portents, Moore sits in the sunlight of a book-filled room knocking on wood. Affable, articulate, his soft voice still redolent of Belfast, Moore is skeptical of fortune, and even more doubtful of fame. While today he makes his home on the gilded sands of Malibu, he is quintessentially the expatriate Irish man of letters. Equally at ease in the drawing rooms of London or the boulevards of Paris, he is at home anywhere but home. There, his novels—at least in the Church-shadowed Republic of Ireland—are sometimes banned for their forthright depictions of sex and their ironic revelations of Irish frailties in matters of faith and morals. He has made his career in the United States. (“I was first accepted as a writer here,” he says gratefully.) And he teaches at UCLA (“A cushy job, one day a week”).
The recipient of a number of fellowships and prizes, Moore has also earned his living by writing travel articles and screenplays. He has scripted several of his own books for films and television (The Luck of Ginger Coffey, Catholics). He likes Malibu. “I live there because it’s so dull,” he says. “Unlike New York, there’s no literary gossip to waste your time, like hearing about Norman Mailer’s million-dollar advance.”
Hearing a sound below, Moore gets up. “It’s Jean,” he says, happily. A moment later Moore’s wife comes in. She is a former Canadian TV commentator and some years younger than he. Full of the day’s news, she is charming and vivid. Traveled as both are, would they prefer to live anywhere else? “Jean loves the beach,” he says. “And I could never live anywhere but America now. It’s the imperial Rome of our time. It has the power and excitement. It affects things everywhere. The Catholic protests in Northern Ireland today began in Selma, Alabama.”