Interview

With author Brian Moore

July 11 1977
Interview

With author Brian Moore

July 11 1977

With author Brian Moore

Interview

Brian Moore’s latest novel, The Doctor’s Wife, has become an international best seller and Moore’s first great commercial success; paperback and movie rights amount to nearly $450,000. A long way from Moore’s penurious days as a proofreader at the Montreal Gazette. Moore lived in Quebec for 12 years after emigrating to Canada in 1948 from Ulster. His first novel, The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne, won unanimous critical acclaim. Ten novels followed over the next 21 years, a body of work that has brought him to the front rank of Canadian letters. He has twice won the Governor General’s award for fiction. In 1971, Moore wrote The Revolution Script, a novel ization of the FLQ kidnapping of British trade commissioner James Cross. During a recent visit to Canada from his home in Malibu, California, Moore spoke with Maclean’s contributing editor Hubert de Santana about Quebec, separatism and writing.

Maclean’s: What are your views on Quebec and the question of separatism?

Moore: My sympathies in the question of separatism tend to be with Quebec in its feeling that it has not been properly treated since Confederation. I say that because during the 12 years I lived in Montreal— those were the years of Duplessis, the dictator of Quebec at that time—I became very aware that Quebec was the fiefdom of the Anglo-Saxon interests in Canada. Duplessis was, as the revolutionaries called him later, Le Roi Negre, who kept things in order for the big American and British companies.

Maclean’s: Do you feel, then, that the Québécois are justified in seeking a firmer control of their own destinies?

Moore: The desire of the Québécois to have a greater stake in industry and in jobs at the management level is something I’m completely in accord with; and I think it’s the duty of the rest of Canada to help them as much as it can.

Maclean’s: As an Ulsterman, you must surely be aware of the dangers of separatism. Moore: I have serious reservations about the separatist cause, because I’ve seen what happened to my own country when one part of Ireland was, by political decision, cut off from the rest of the country; and I think that something analogous could happen in Quebec, unless the Québécois are prepared to sit down and think out this question: what will separation really mean to Quebec?

Maclean’s: What do you think of the leaders of the separatist movement?

Moore: My fear about separatism is that there seem to me to be no real thinkers, no intellectuals, who have considered the pros and cons of the separatist cause, with the exception, possibly, of René Lévesque. Maclean’s: Can a valid analogy be drawn between Ireland and Quebec?

When Trudeau goes to Washington it’s as a branch manager, reporting to headquarters

Moore: Ireland is an analogy, because Ireland had a revolution against England; however it was not an economic revolution: the Free State remained an economic dependency of England. If Quebec secedes from Canada tomorrow, it will remain an economic dependency of the United States, unless it goes for a totally revolutionary regime in the Cuban manner. Maclean’s: Do you think that is likely? Would there be popular support for such a regime in Quebec?

Moore: It seems to me that there’s no popular backing for that type of departure in Quebec, and for that reason I think that there’s a danger in separatism. The danger is—and I say this as someone who lived in the old Quebec—that behind every movement toward nationalism in Quebec there has been a spectacle of a very reactionary, fascistic type of party such as the old Union Nationale was; such as the Social Credit

people were. And I think that out there in the vast hinterland of Quebec there are an enormous number of people who would very quickly pledge allegiance to that type of flag.

Maclean’s: Is there a danger that the Québécois may now inflict upon the minorities in the province the same injustices against which they fought?

Moore: They must now ask themselves: are we going to perpetrate the same kind of injustices we suffered by forcing our language on a minority here—a minority which is not Anglo-Saxon? A quarter of the people in Quebec are not French; and of those remaining, some are immigrants from Europe, people who have no root at all in the Anglo-Saxon tradition but who came to Canada to become a part of that tradition. And I think those people, like minorities everywhere, have a right to be heard in this question.

Maclean’s: This brings us back to the language issue, and the way it could be used as an instrument of nationalism, to prize out unwanted minorities from the province. Moore: The language question is an interesting one for both Quebec and the rest of Canada to decide. There is a feeling among people here, and not just among rich English people in Westmount, that the language question is a cover for something much deeper. I don’t think that any Québécois feels threatened by the spectre of losing his native French tongue, but if you want to get the German Jews out of Germany, you start talking about them as foreigners, or as people who aren’t of our race and don’t have our background; and I suspect that there’s a sort of racism, like antiSemitism, behind this insistence that people speak French. It’s a way of getting them out of Quebec. And it’s a way of saying to a young person whose name might be Moore: “No matter how well you speak French, we know very well you’re not French—and you will not get the same chance as a person who is French Canadian.” Now to go from being exploited and badly treated, as I’ve said before, to putting that type of bad treatment on to other people is, I think, a dangerous mistake. And I don’t think the average Québécois has thought this out yet.

Maclean’s: Do you think that English people in Quebec have reason to feel threatened in this situation?

Moore: I do think that. I think they’re justified in feeling threatened. Particularly since, as I say, many of the “English” are not English. Many are Europeans who came to Canada in the past 20 or 30 years:

Greeks, Italians, Ukrainians, with the understanding that they were coming into an Anglo-Saxon country, and that they were goingto be able to educate their children in the language of this continent. You don’t cure one injustice by starting up another. Ulster is a perfect example of that. Maclean’s: Is independence economically feasible for Quebec?

Moore: Quebec is an extremely large country, and a rich country, with great natural resources. It is already a branch-plant economy of the United States and Britain, just as Canada is a branch-plant economy. And so to change the titular masters I think would be quite possible for Quebec. Maclean’s: To return to the Irish analogy, independence would mean a drastic drop in living standards for the Québécois, just as unification of the North and South in Ireland would lower Ulster's living standard. Moore: Undoubtedly if they secede they will have to tighten their belts, lower their standard of living and, for a generation perhaps, accept an inferior standard of living to their present one, and put up with many, many other strictures and sacrifices for the cause. Ireland is a country filled with people who are deluded into thinking that they will die for Ireland, if necessary. But very few of them are willing or able to think for Ireland. Ireland doesn’t need more patriots. She needs people who can think how to cure her economic mess. The same thing could be true of Quebec. Maclean’s: Are you saying that nationalism is not worth dying for?

Moore: What I'm trying to get at is what Yeats said: “Nationalism is an old bitch gone in the teeth”—it’s certainly not worth dying for. I don’t think that to improve the lot of Quebec it’s worth sacrificing a generation of Québécois.

Maclean’s: Have people outside the province any right to decide this issue, or even offer an opinion on it?

Moore: It’s a decision that only the Quebec people can make for themselves. It's impertinent for an outsider like myself, as it would be for someone from British Columbia, to give an opinion on what the Quebec people should do. But it is not impertinent for the people in the Maritime provinces, because the British, as you know, cut this country up deliberately to keep the French from getting to the sea. So the Maritimers are potential victims of any further split.

Maclean’s: What will it be like if Quebec actually secedes from the rest of Canada? Moore: If Quebec secedes, for Canada it will be like having part of its stomach removed: you can function without it, but you’re never going to be a well man afterward. So for Canada that's the decision which has to be made. And if I were a Canadian government of any stripe I would desperately try to appease Quebec in the sense of trying to keep it within Confederation, because I think it's very much needed.

Maclean’s: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau

has assured the U.S. Congress that the unity of this country “will not be fractured. ” Moore: Well, Trudeau is a manager going down to headquarters and reporting. He is saying to the United States and to Toronto that, as long as you leave him as Le Roi Negre in charge of Canada, nothing in Canada will be disturbed. That’s a normal position for a Canadian prime minister [to take] in Washington or London, and always has been.

Maclean’s: How strong is Quebec’s cultural link with France?

Moore: As everyone including the French Canadians knows, they have almost no link with France, not even an emotional link. They didn’t even have the French Revolution as part of their political heri-

Nationalism is like hard drugs: if you become addicted, you're going to be in trouble

tage. They now are a race apart; a Frenchspeaking race who I don’t think could ever ally themselves with France in any real cultural sense today. I’ve lived in France off and on for many years, and the thing I notice about France is the same attitude of condescension toward the French Canadians as the British have toward the Loyalists in Northern Ireland. They love French-Canadian books if they are about Eskimos, or remote villages, or films that seem to have an exotic touch. And they will even award literary prizes to Quebec writers. But in their heart of hearts the French consider the French Canadians wogs! And that’s not going to change. Maclean’s: How would you sum up your attitude to present-day Quebec?

Moore: I would sum it up by saying that while 1 do not believe the French Cana-

dians to be a violent race, as are the Irish, they should be warned that nationalism is like hard drugs: even in small doses it should be supervised. It’s dangerous. If you take it in large doses, you may become addicted. And when you’re addicted to nationalism in this day and age, you're likely to be in trouble.

Maclean’s: What did growing up in Ulster teach you about separatism?

Moore: I am as old as Ulster—I was born the year Ulster became a state [ 1921]—so I can remember it from my childhood to the present day. And the only warning I can give to the Parti Québécois and the Quebec people is the warning of Ulster. We were born as a state out of a desire to separate ourselves from the major movement in the country, and it’s been a total failure. Maclean’s: And it has deepened divisions within the community, and inflamed sectarian passions.

Moore: It has caused a hatred between Catholic and Protestant that is almost ineradicable at this point. There could be a similar thing between anglophone and francophone here: a difference of religion, a difference of background. And the thought of anything like that even beginning to happen here is frightening. Maclean’s: Let’s turn now to a consideration of the infamous Irish Question. Can you see any possible solution?

Moore: The only possible solution to the Irish Question—again, it will probably take two generations, which is a frightening thought—would be for Britain to pump a massive amount of money and energy into the Southern Irish economy, to bring it up to the standard of the British economy. The minute you had a situation in Ireland where it became economically feasible for the North to join the South, and where they felt they weren't losing anything, and had a British standard of living, then the whole thing would become possible. But I don’t know whether Britain is wealthy enough or willing to consider doing this.

Maclean’s: When you left Ireland, why did you pick Canada?

Moore: I fell in love with a girl; she came to Canada, and I followed her, and she told me to get lost! I was in Ontario, and I didn’t like Ontario because of my background: at the time it seemed to me another sort of British outpost. I left Toronto and came to Montreal, where I felt immediately at home, as any Irish person would: it’s a Catholic culture, it was different, it seemed almost European. I didn’t feel that I had merely traded one kind of British domination for another.

Maclean’s: Why did you leave Canada? Was it because you find it easier to write about a country when you are awayfrom it? Moore: The reason I left Canada was more pragmatic than that. At the time I lived in Canada, it was very difficult to earn a living by writing, much more difficult than it is now. I was given a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the condition was that I would spend a year in the United States. So I went

to the United States to get my fellowship money, and once I was there I started to write The Luck Of Ginger Coffey, which is a book set in Montreal. I wrote it in America, with American money. In my day it was almost mandatory for a [Canadian] writer who wanted to make a living to have an American market, to write and be published in America, and so on.

Maclean’s: Would you care to live in Canada again?

Moore: Oh, yes. I’ve never realized the possibility of coming back to Canada to live, but I come here every year for at least a month. I go to Nova Scotia where my wife’s people live, and I go to Montreal, where most of my old friends are. And in a sense I think of Canada as a second home. So I don’t rule out the possibility of coming back to live here.

Maclean’s: Has the lot of Canadian writers improved since your day?

Moore: That is one thing which has enormously improved in the past 25 years. I think Canada has been exemplary in the way it has handed out money to artists and encouraged the arts. On a per capita basis, the Canadian government pays out 20 times as much as do the Americans. That’s been one of the very good things, and for the Quebec artist this could be a factor: under independence there might no longer be subsidies of this kind. It would be difficult for a poor country, such as Quebec would be, to subsidize the arts.

Maclean’s: Do you think of yourself as a Canadian writer? I ask this because to me much of your work is quintessentially Irish. Moore: I’ve been asked this question often, and I’m sure people are tired of hearing me discussing it. I consider myself a writer, and not Canadian or Irish or whatever. I am a Canadian citizen, and I’ve written about Canada, and I’m going to write more about Canada. There are Canadian themes in a lot of my books, so I do consider myself a Canadian writer in that sense. I also say, completely objectively, that Canada has been better to me in the way of giving me grants and prizes and helping me than my own country, Ireland, ever was. I was banned in Ireland for years, and I was only accepted in Ireland in the past 10 years, when the rest of the world had accepted me a long time ago. So I would prefer to regard myself as a Canadian writer in the sense of feeling an allegiance to the country for what it’s done for me.

Maclean’s: Did you always want to be a writer?

Moore: Yes, I did. And I won essay prizes in school, and was told that I was good at that. That’s important for children: to feel that they’re good at a thing, and to be encouraged.

Maclean’s: You have written about women with compassion and insight; and long before women ’s lib was ever heard of you were examining the conflict between strong, sensitive women and weak, chauvinistic males. Moore: One of the troubles of the women’s

lib movement in writing is that they’re only writing about women characters. They’re suffering the male chauvinist thing in reverse. I did write only one book completely from the point of view of a woman, and that was I am Mary Dunne ; and that was before women’s lib came into vogue. And my latest book, The Doctor’s Wife, is also about a woman. I suspect, now that women’s lib books are in vogue, people, particularly women, will judge my books more harshly in their portraits of women because I am now, in the mind of some of these people, moving on to their turf! I was on their turf before they started writing. Maclean’s: You seem to be as much interested in female biology as you are in female psychology. In both Mary Dunne and The

In their heart of hearts the French consider the French Canadians wogs!

Doctor’s Wife you examine the effects of premenstrual stress on the heroine.

Moore: The reason I did that was very specific: I wanted to write about depression. I wanted to explain that low states of mental distress are very prevalent among women. I’ve noticed that. The menstrual cycle dictates enormously what women do. There have been studies that have proven that most female crime is committed by women in that bad moment of the menstrual cycle. So I said to myself that at least half of my readers, being women, will understand that I’m not discussing a mad person, I’m discussing a varying degree of a depression which might afflict any woman. That’s why I did it. As for The Doctor’s Wife I was trying to depict that period when, even in the most “romantic” love affair, the sexual element dominates the relationship.

Maclean’s: Your keen interest in women has sometimes caused you to be suspected of homosexuality.

Moore: Well, it’s not something people tell me. Although when Judith Hearne first appeared in England the publishers seem to have made a point of saying on the jacket that I was married and had a son. Maclean’s: The marriage described in The Doctor’s Wife is a desolate and joyless one. Do you believe that in real life the odds against successful marriage are high? Moore: Marriage is not an irrevocable state now, as it was in the days of our forefathers. It is literally true that one marriage in four in the Western world now ends in divorce; in the United States it’s one marriage in two. And I find that cheering rather than depressing, because I was brought up in Ireland where marriages had to last, no matter how desperate they were. One of the great crimes of the Catholic church was its implacable stand on divorce. Maclean’s: Many of your characters are left to face an existence without God after the collapse of their religious beliefs. Are you against formal religion?

Moore: People want to believe and always have wanted to believe in something more important than having a fairly good time, or having enough to live on. In poor countries like India, religion sustains them in their terrible poverty, as it does in a lot of Catholic countries. So if religion helps one to get through life, then I’m not against it. Maclean’s: Which authors have had an influence on you as a writer?

Moore: When I was young I was influenced by Joyce, of course, and also Hemingway; most people of my generation were. It’s hard to remember who influenced you. I could say that in my adult years the writer who impressed me and did have some influence on me was [Jorge Luis] Borges. The idea of writing The Great Victorian Collection didn’t come from Borges, but reading him gave me the courage to try it.

Maclean’s: For any Irish novelist the influence of James Joyce is inescapable; but were there any other Irish authors whom you particularly admired?

Moore: A writer who hadn’t an influence on me because I read him too late and whom I consider a genius is Flann O’Brien. There is no modern writer quite as inventive as O’Brien, and I’d put him ahead of Gide or Joyce or anyone in that category. It’s a tragedy that O’Brien was an alcoholic and died without realizing all his capabilities, but At Swim-Two Birds is one of the most remarkable books in 20th-century literature. And if you are Irish, there is the voice in his work—and I’m very interested in voices, hearing the person speak with the exact speech pattern perfectly reproduced—O’Brien has it as no other Irish writer does. And one of the tragedies of O’Brien is that when an Englishman or an American reads his books he probably misses that absolute wonderful fidelity to the way Irish people really speak.^