It’s often been said that Brian Moore was an author who confounded expectation, each new book differing so much from the last. At first glance, The Feast of Lupercal, written in 1957 and his second novel after The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, seems like a re-tread of that book, featuring as it does a protagonist approaching middle-age who is living a diminutive and cloistered life from which they try to escape.
Lupercal could indeed be seen as a companion piece to Judith Hearne but it advances and ideas the themes introduced in that book and has a bigger target. Where Judith craves respectability, Dev, the protagonist of Lupercal, is feeling suffocated by it.
Diarmuid Devine (or Dev as he is known) is a 37 year-old teacher at Ardath College, a Catholic boarding school run by priests in Belfast during the 1950s. Dev, who was once a pupil at the same school, is a capable teacher, in so much as he coerces his charges to behave and to learn through fear of the cane, but he lives a sheltered life. He lives in a basement flat populated by items and furniture once owned by his parents, and shares a kitchen and bathroom with his landlady. He dabbles in amateur dramatics, but only as stage manager and even then, his name never seems to appear in the programmes of the shows he works on.
Dev has little experience with women, thanks to his single-sex education also at Ardath College, his innate reserve and the requirements of his Catholic faith. He recognises that certain aspects of life are passing him by, but this recognition comes to a head when he overhears a colleague refer to him as ‘that old woman’.
“Och, he wouldn’t know what I was talking about. How can you expect the likes of Dev to understand what a fellow feels about a girl?”
Mr Devine heard Turley laugh: a short amused chuckle…He prayed they would go away. If they found him now, he could not look them in the face. He had never been so mortified in his life.
What follows is Dev’s disastrous attempt to prove the world wrong. He meets Una Clarke, the niece of his colleague Heron and with the mocking of his colleagues echoing in his head, Dev rushes headlong into what he sees as a relationship with the girl, even though it is evident from the outset that it will never work out.
Una is a Protestant and has been sent to live with her Uncle to escape the scandal of her having had a dalliance with a married man. She is young, on the rebound and Dev’s infuriating innocence means he reads all her signals wrong. He lobbies, unsuccessfully, to get her a part in the next play that his group is putting on; he buys an entire new wardrobe to try and live up to her expectations; he takes dancing lessons to try and impress Una and at one point believes she may be pregnant with her married lover’s child, yet he still doesn’t stop to think that this might be the salvation he is looking for.
Their awkward courtship builds to an excruciating but masterfully written scene where Una winds up in Dev’s bachelor flat and what transpires that night threatens every aspect of Dev’s well-ordered life.
Dev’s attempt to dispel the notion people have of him as an ‘old woman’ backfires quite spectacularly as rumours of his relationship with Una spread through the school, the staff and his community. He is initially held up to ridicule for having no love-life, but finds that he will be held up to even more ridicule when it appears he has one. Within these claustrophobic confines of his life, Dev is always aware of how he is perceived and how he should behave and this is what ultimately stifles him. Throughout the book he is a frustrated and frustrating character, but he is, at all times, a product of his upbringing and his environment.
The Feast of Lupercal, while presenting a fascinating character study, is also a blistering indictment against the religious and sociological forces that shaped Brian Moore’s own adolescence in Northern Ireland. Ardath College is a thinly veiled stand-in for St Malachy’s College, which Moore attended and the novel viciously exposes how this stringent religious education led to an impeding of the development of the masculine identity. Surrounding it, the strident social mores of Catholic Belfast in the 1950s are portrayed as narrow and inflexible, leaving a character like Dev with nowhere to grow.
Every dreamer must one day wake. Until a few days ago, he had thought well of himself. Of course, there had been moments, moments that must come to everyone, when heaven and hell are only words without meaning, matched against the fact of the breathing stopped, the heart stilled. He had avoided those moments, he had put dreams to work when they came to frighten him. One of those dreams was that he had not yet been tried, but that, if tried, he would be found wanting in the needs of the world. Love and loyalty…but now he had failed in both. Why did I even fail to sin? he asked himself. To fail to sin, perhaps that is my sin.
Following The Feast of Lupercal, Moore wrote only two more books set in Belfast – The Emperor of Icecream and Lies of Silence – and the protagonists in both those books have eschewed their belief in Catholicism and display paltry allegiance to any sense of community.
The novel is beautifully structured and builds with a real sense of tension as the implications of Dev’s actions become apparent. Despite some subtle black humour throughout, the final scenes are as taut and horrifying as any thriller, and feed into the symbolism of the title. The Feast of Lupercal was an ancient Roman feast of expiation. After the offerings the priests ran through the streets striking those they met with thongs. Barren women would let themselves be struck by the priests in the belief that their barrenness would then disappear.
The book also contains some gorgeous prose. The houses in Belfast have ‘their bay windows thrust out to repel the stranger’ while washing lines ‘offered an intimate census of the inhabitants’. It is interesting to note that Moore himself, when asked to choose the piece of writing he was most proud of, choose a paragraph from the final pages of the novel.
Beside him, in the avenue, a horse and cart waited idle, as their owner offered wooden blocks by the bag at a front door across the way. The horse’s head moved like a mine detector across the gutter, reins slack over the strong back. Mr Devine watching as Una turned the corner, absently put out his hand and fondled the horse’s neck. The powerful muscles fluttered at his unexpected touch and the horse swung its head up, looking wildly down the avenue in the narrow focus of its blinkers. Horse and man looked down the avenue, and there was no one there. The horse, harnessed, dumb, lowered its head once more. The man went back to the house.
Why not join in next month when we will be reading Moore’s 1970 novel Fergus.
You can also check out the great events happening throughout the year at the official Brian Moore at 100 website.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 313
NUMBER REMAINING: 433
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!