Eileen Hughes, in Brian Moore’s new novel (his thirteenth), is a Northern Irish shopgirl who is taken up by her employers. If she is also taken in, she has no one but herself to blame. There is something a little willful and perverse in Eileen’s innocence. When the rich McAuleys, Mona and Bernard, owners of the department store where Eileen works, whisk the girl off to London for a holiday, both she and her mother commend their generosity and Eileen’s luck. There is no thought of looking for a flaw in the arrangement. What could be more natural? A childless couple (though the wife is still only thirty), struck by some captivating quality in the young shop assistant. If it pleases them to make a fuss of Eileen, though the girl has nothing special to recommend her, it is surely a harmless and agreeable impulse.
Eileen is happily clueless to begin with, gazing in rapture at Buckingham Palace and imagining some undramatic changes of identity for herself (“Now she was a London girl with a good office job, or maybe a nurse…”); but a clue on page 8 alerts the reader to the true state of affairs. “She was a girl some men might find beautiful….” Of course, we knew something of that kind was coming. Eileen has found favor because of Bernard’s fervor; it is the husband who is captivated, not the wife. This is no squalid infatuation, however, in Bernard’s view; it is a passion which thrives on silence and cunning. It has nothing to do with lust. It is a type of courtly love, Bernard believes, chivalric and unerotic. Truly, there is more of idolatry than idle fancy in his feeling for Eileen. It is also, of course, utterly misplaced.
Things begin to go wrong from the start. The holiday party arrives to find its booking mishandled; Eileen is obliged to put up in a maid’s room (“A maid’s room. And here we were planning to treat you like royalty,” Bernard jokes). Mona, who sees difficulties ahead, is out of temper. Eileen is oppressed by too much of Bernard’s company, while Mona is off somewhere on her own. And foolish Bernard, whose mind is full of grandiose plans and unrealistic expectations, suddenly renounces prudence for the luxury of confession. “You haven’t the slightest idea of what I feel about you, have you?” The knowledge of Bernard’s devotion, in fact, comes to Eileen like a withdrawal of grace. She can do nothing but make preparations to leave.
Brian Moore is a novelist who pushes his characters to extremes; whatever course they are set on, they will savor its effects to the full. This is not, as a rule, because of any extravagance of temperament or idiosyncracy in the characters themselves; on the contrary, it is often their fatal ordinariness or dullness which makes them susceptible to destructive pressures. (We remember Judith Hearne, in Moore’s first novel, a middle-aged Belfast Catholic handicapped by personal defects and a sense of social diminishment.) Out of their most predictable actions an opening is made for the access of stress and distress which will drive them to breaking point. The lucky will benefit in the end from the contretemps and confusions which beset them (Ginger Coffey, Mary Dunne); the luckless will not (Judith Hearne, Sheila Redden). In Moore’s last novel but one (The Doctor’s Wife) the banal theme—holiday adultery—was allowed to infect the narrative: Sheila Redden is as commonplace a woman as the author can envisage, and the book is not very distinguished either.
Moore is justly praised for his reluctance to use the same form or story line twice; and in each of his novels we can discern an element of reaction against the previous one. It is therefore natural that his semi-documentary The Revolution Script should come, in the list of works, just before his striking and subversive novella Catholics (the most concise and elegant of all Moore’s books); and that the most outlandish (The Great Victorian Collection) should lead to the most resolutely mundane (The Doctor’s Wife). Now, after the complications, revelations, and reversals of The Mangan Inheritance (about an Irish-American determined to establish his kinship with the nineteenth-century Irish poet maudit James Clarence Mangan—an inspired choice of subject) we find Moore’s latest work, true to the established pattern, more compact and straightforward. The last work, a novel of ideas and incidents, is followed by a novel on a single theme: the fixed idea.
In The Temptation of Eileen Hughes Brian Moore limits his stylistic range deliberately by staying within the compass of each character’s possible apprehensions. Eileen’s and Mona’s jejune reflections are presented directly, without comment: “The McAuleys had been to lots of places and liked to talk about them”; “Oh, he had gone right around the bend, there was no doubt about it.” As always, these are adept impersonations; the authentic tone is caught in all its triteness. It is part of Moore’s technique to turn the unsubtle to subtle purposes.
It is subtle, for instance, to place a naïve and unintelligent girl at the center of a piece of fiction which is formidably knowing and proficient. Eileen is neither sharp nor shrewd enough to get the peculiar situation under control. The embarrassment of it, the wish not to seem unkind, the outraged sense of Bernard’s transgression: these cause confusion in the girl’s mind. The guilty knowledge she is forced to bear becomes unbearable when she discovers that Mona, too, has cause for guilt. The reason for Mona’s truancy becomes apparent when Eileen sees her pick up a young man in the hotel bar. It is too much. Eileen vomits into a washbasin.
Her mind is made up, though: she is going back to the safety of her mother’s terrace house in Lismore (an imaginary market town about forty miles from Belfast). The prospect of foreign travel, which once seemed alluring, is not really a serious temptation for the simple minded Eileen. It is Eileen herself who constitutes the temptation, with her black hair and white skin like a storybook madonna. Bernard, his wife reflects, “had never wanted anything the way he wanted Eileen.”
Emphatically secular though it is, Moore’s fiction quite often gains some profitable side effects from the Catholic dogma it travesties or repudiates. Moore grew up, between the wars, in Catholic, middle-class Belfast, and set his first two novels (and the later The Emperor of Ice-Cream) there. (Since 1948 he has lived in Canada and America.) No writer has evoked with greater clarity the drabness and dullness of those northern residential suburbs. Provincial inertia, religious stringency, and the deadly effects of these were Moore’s earliest themes. Each of his Belfast novels is centered on a certain kind of failure: social, in Judith Hearne, sexual, in The Feast of Lupercal; and intellectual, in The Emperor of Ice-Cream. This is a way for the author to dramatize the bitter malaise his birthplace engendered.
He does it with good humor and steadiness, though, and a great deal of energy. In Fergus (not one of his most satisfactory novels) he makes high comedy out of his protagonist’s inability to cast off the sorry pious teachings of his guilt-ridden boyhood. Irreligious Fergus is pursued and tormented, in scenes of transcendental farce, by ghosts and figures from his Catholic past. When Moore causes a “miracle” to happen (as in The Great Victorian Collection) it is as worldly as he can make it: the sudden appearance of a group of valuable objects in a parking lot.
“I’m sorry. It seems I can’t work miracles.” Bernard McAuley explains ruefully to Eileen when he fails to get her a seat on a flight to Belfast. But has he really tried? Eileen, in any case, is not to escape so easily from the consequences of her foolhardy London trip. Vacillation, unrest, and awkwardness have now overtaken the three main characters who all try to put a casual face on their growing desperation. Some ploys, deceits, and persuasive gambits are tried. But Eileen is adamant. She is going home. Bernard succumbs to abject and grotesque depression, exceptionally unbecoming in an Ulster Catholic businessman and local magnate. It is Bernard’s obsession that provides the distorted Catholic element in this story; he is an ex-seminarist who can relish to the utmost the thrill of blasphemy. “My fallible god” he calls Eileen, who doesn’t understand him. Eileen is also the lady in the tower of medieval chanson (but Bernard singularly lacks the troubadour’s joie de vivre).
These pretty images vie with the unspoken sentimentally Catholic ones: it is not a mistress Bernard wants so much as a kind of mystic rose. (He doesn’t need a mistress; we remember, in Fergus, the hero’s indictment of the Irish as “a nation of masturbators under priestly instruction.”) And neither of these iconographies, of course, has any connection with the dismal state of affairs that actually exists. It is for his disabused realism that Brian Moore has been most justly applauded—that, and the functional, unembellished style he devised to accommodate it. If the new novel lacks the playfulness, the drama, and narrative density of The Mangan Inheritance, it has other, bleaker qualities to recommend it.
Moore’s Belfast has already passed into history, the monumental tedium he described having generated its own antidote. In his new novel, and in The Doctor’s Wife, he records that changes have taken place; but perfunctorily, without too much feeling for the present quality of life in Northern Ireland. All the current causes of disaffection are crammed into one disgruntled sentence in The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, and virtually left at that: “Nothing but British Army patrols and searches and bombs and shootings and burn-outs.”
Dublin is to Belfast as England was to France in the last war (“In no way dare we who were in Britain compare ourselves with the French,” Elizabeth Bowen wrote). But it has had some experience of terrorist acts. In May 1974, three car bombs exploded in a Dublin street, killing twenty-eight people—among them a child who became the subject of a graceful elegy by Eavan Boland: “Child / Of our time, our times have robbed your cradle.” One of the heroines of Kate Cruise O’Brien’s short stories was there too—“I looked around and I saw a black leather boot on the ground”—and as a consequence develops a slight case of agoraphobia.
This story, “The Glass Wall,” is one of the fifteen—some of them no more than fragments—which make up her collection A Gift Horse. In it, the rueful narrator tries to associate her own neurosis with something tangible and reasonable: a fear of bombs. “Of course, you come from Ireland,” says the doctor who treats her after she has had a breakdown in a Sheffield store. The neurosis is real, the fear is real, but stronger than both is an element of playacting (“I was desperate by then and indignant. I mean, I was dying wasn’t I?”) which acts as a solvent. What saves O’Brien’s heroines (most of them, at any rate) from tendentiousness or whimsy is their habit of mocking the instinct for self-dramatization which afflicts them all.
The skimpier episodes occur at the beginning of the book, when the focus of interest is a pert child named Sarah (or Elizabeth). Sarah’s mother (gold toenails and a clear drawling voice) prefers to go barefoot and allows her daughter to change schools at will. O’Brien’s style at this stage is full of irksome eccentricities—“ ‘And she doesn’t,’ said the pigtailed form prefect, ‘fit in’ “; ” ‘You wanted,’ she said, ‘to see me.’ ” When she aims for the splendidly dotty, she is apt instead to hit the merely pretentious:
“Darling,” said her mother, who had decided that it was time that Sarah stopped asking the questions about shoes, “darling, shoes are like the Empire.”
Fortunately the affected brevity of these early pieces is quickly abandoned. Kate Cruise O’Brien writes effectively about women under pressure, women pentitent or mildly self-assertive, women coping with rejection and dejection from various causes. It’s the absurdity of their predicaments that strikes her, and she endows them with enough self-knowledge to view their foibles and addictions dispassionately (her range of characters is not wide: Sarah, Elizabeth, Anne, Joanna, and Janine are all interchangeable, give or take a few years). If desperation drives them to take action, it will not do so without restraint: “She felt embarrassed at the thought…. She couldn’t talk to her children when she was on her way to peer at her husband’s mistress.” Disaster takes the form of a series of minor contretemps.
The predicaments of O’Brien’s women are neither dire nor uncommon. One (in the title story) cannot rid herself of a selfish lover; another is permanently and secretly exasperated by her husband’s bluster (“A Matter of Principle”). Margaret, in the longest and most ambitious piece (“Some Rain Must Fall”), constantly compares her own privileged childhood with the chastening upbringing of her husband. This is a high-spirited, optimistic account of marital difficulties. In other stories, a salutary wryness (“Losing”) or a bleak despondency (“Pieces of Silver”) predominates. O’Brien’s heroines are all contemporary women who attach themselves, with open-eyed recklessness, to unsatisfactory men who berate them for their immaturity, their wanton behavior, their inadequate housekeeping, and their bulging tummies. If there’s a dominant theme running through the collection, it’s the business of settling for less (a phrase the author uses in “A Child Is Born”)—cutting your losses, making do, cultivating equanimity, at whatever cost. It is better to settle for less, the stories imply, than to remain permanently unsettled.
Most of the stories in A Gift Horse are set in Dublin, but the background is not very important or distinctive: an Irish location no longer necessarily contributes political drama or intensity of a narrow social kind. Kate Cruise O’Brien’s concern is less with the state of Ireland, north or south, than with the states of muted domestic fury she explores so concisely and competently. The Irish story, from its beginnings in the work of George Moore and James Joyce, has generally found its most effective subject matter in the peculiar repressions and deprivations of Irish life. However, as these have become less striking in recent years (in the Republic at any rate), they no longer provide a literary impetus for the discerning, disenchanted author. The starting point for much contemporary Irish fiction, like fiction elsewhere, is the vagaries and disturbances of ordinary experience. City and suburban experience for the most part—and Kate Cruise O’Brien is among the most accomplished of a small group of writers (most of them women) who are bringing an urban sharpness and frivolity to the Irish story.
October 8, 1981