The Brook Kerith, A Syrian Story
by George Moore
Liveright, 391 pp., $5.95
When a writer takes, as it would seem, every imaginable risk in subject, handling, plot…opening himself most widely to charges of triviality, sensationalism, imperceptiveness, impiety, and blasphemy, and yet incredibly triumphs over them all, another danger is incurred. The reader may become too curiously interested in how the feat has been accomplished to attend duly to what has actually been achieved. Wonderment at the ingenuity of his design, the adroitness of his transitions, the indirections of his presentation, his daring and discretion of invention at all levels, and what else has saved him from so many disasters can becloud our view of what in the end he has done. Not the least of his problems has been to keep all this technical management unobtrusive. Ars est celare artem. Yes, but this, as epigrams often are, is itself too showy to be just. The inquisitive and critical eye can usually search out more than a little of the means employed in even what may seem the least contrived performances. The need is, as Coleridge reminds us, to subordinate “our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.”
The reissue of George Moore’s The Brook Kerith fifty-four years after its first publication (1916) offers an exceptionally good opportunity to appraise these traditional reflections. An attempt to reassess the book after such an interval brings them into sharp focus. Lecturing and benefiting from an alerted and concerned audience’s written comments, I had both its dangers and the measures by which it fended them off brought home. But was the outcome, the attainment as much made clear? This new attempt must try to weigh both means and end.
When The Brook Kerith was being written Moore was one of the most talked about literary personalities alive. This was a position he hardly shrank from. Indeed in Hail and Farewell, three volumes of it, in Conversations in Ebury Street, in A Story-Teller’s Holiday, he happily and at times magnificently supported and adorned it. From his first Zola-inspired, packthread-stitched parcels, his Esther Waters and A Mummer’s Wife, which he grew fond of contrasting with his dewdrop gossamer style, he had repeatedly been a handler of controversial themes: censorship, the unmarried mother, drunkenness, and gambling. Schoolgirls had to lock themselves up to read about them. But he treated them with a sober and sympathetic discernment unexpected amid the frivolings of his public pose. In The Brook Kerith he seemed surely out to shock again: an easy misapprehension which could not be further from the truth. As may be learned from Professor Walter James Miller’s excellently discursive and informing Foreword, the imaginative creator in Moore sheltered behind the figure of Jesus he took pains to present.
The prime technical problem was to present Jesus through an eye which the reader could accept as adequately prepared, through a personality with which we could sympathize deeply enough to permit him to be our representative through whom we might provisionally perceive and respond …