My Brian Moore at 100 read-along continues this month with Fergus, his seventh novel from 1970, which is a world away from the Belfast of Lies of Silence and The Feast of Lupercal, but which still contains many of Moore’s themes and autobiographical touches.
In fact, Fergus is strikingly autobiographical. It tells the story of an Irish writer, Fergus Fadden, who has had some success with his first two novels and has attracted the attention of Boweri, a Hollywood producer. Fergus has been employed to write a screenplay (needing the money to fund his divorce) and having submitted the first draft, has been waiting anxiously for word back from the studio. The lack of contact has made him convinced that Boweri is unhappy with his screenplay and wants to either fire him, or have him make unacceptable changes.
A few years previously, Moore had attracted the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who was impressed with The Feast of Lupercal and asked Moore to write a draft for what would become Torn Curtain. Moore initially turned the offer down, but when Hitchcock doubled his financial offer, Moore accepted and moved out to Hollywood. Like Fergus, Moore’s screenplay was met with silence until he heard that Hitchcock was hiring two more writers to make changes, a decision that Moore would later challenge sucessfully in court.
Moore’s time in Hollywood wasn’t a particularly satisfying one and Fergus plays out those frustrations. Fergus is not only worried about his writing career and his precarious financial situation, but is also worried about his literary reputation and his relationship with his much-younger girlfriend Dani.
The novel is set over the course of one day and in the one setting of Fergus’s modern house overlooking the beach outside Hollywood. Fergus’s anxiety manifests itself in hallucinations of his family and friends from Ireland who appear before him, literally materialising around the confines of his California home. Some of these people are long dead, some still alive but appearing to Fergus as different ages, and some are even people he can’t remember. As Fergus’s day passes, with the arrival of Boweri to talk about the script and Dani’s drunken mother coming for dinner, the ghosts from Fergus’s past co-exist, commenting on the life that Fergus has chosen to live.
It’s a bravura concept and well-handled, blending moments of subtle comedy with some moving and emotive interactions, particularly when Fergus engages with his family.
He leaned his forehead against the cool glass, and as he did, sensed that his father had come up and was standing directly behind him. ‘You know very well,’ his father said, ‘that is I were around I’d be proud about your writing, I’d be pleased as punch. Hmm?’
It was true, he supposed. He stared, through the glass, at the sea.
‘Yes, I’d be delighted about your writing,’ his father continued. ‘But, your present life, that’s another matter. Thank God I’m not around to make judgements on that. I should hope though, that if I were, I’d be kinder to you than you are to me.’
Much like the themes explored in his previous novel I Am Mary Dunne, Moore uses the trope of a haunting as an excavation of the past, exploring the idea of identity and the need to ‘find a way back’ to the person that you once were.
As Fergus’s father, mother, siblings, friends, teachers and old girlfriends appear to him, they provide Fergus with a means to question the decisions he has made and the life that he has arrived at. These manifestations of his own stress, force him to examine the validity of all that he has done. Has he treated the women in his life well?Should he ever have left Ireland? And most importantly, is his writing any good or is he turning into a hack for the money?
This question of creative authenticity comes to a head when Fergus’s old journalist friend Mandel appears to him and delivers a tough assessment of his career path.
His work, such as it is, ignores the great issues of the age. His life is narcissistic; he is completely ensnared by the system. True, he has rejected his ethnic background and denounced the class, race and religion into which he was born… And so, ultimately, made reckless by his rootlessness, his has been led, sheep-like, to the final solution. Hollywood!
As the visitations grow more frequent, they start to feature people that Fergus can’t remember and he is goaded for it. How has he allowed himself to forget so much of what has made him?
As this blurring of the lines between what is real and what is part of Fergus’s imagination becomes more confused, Moore builds the narrative to a quietly terrifying showdown, the outcome of which makes sense of all that has gone before.
In some ways, Fergus feels like an extension of Moore’s Belfast novels, despite it’s glamourous US setting. The distance allows Moore to be a little more forgiving of the place where he grew up and the novel has a touch of nostalgia and more than a drop of that old Catholic guilt about a life and a set of beliefs that has been easily cast aside. In the final, moving pages, Fergus’s father sums up what Fergus has been striving to understand. ‘Don’t you see?’ he chides, ‘If you have not found a meaning, then your life is meaningless.’
The inherent artifice at the heart of the novel – the idea of literal ghosts appearing from the past – doesn’t constrict its import or its emotional depth. Moore succeeds in a fine balancing act, which could have gone wrong, but shows his skill as a master of the magical – something that he will explore in more of his later work. It is also impressive how he has taken a situation that is so specific to is own experience and made it recognisably universal.
Why not join in next month when we will be reading what is often considered to be Moore’s masterpiece The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
I know quite a few of you have already read Judith Hearne, so do feel free to share your posts again. You can also check out the great events happening throughout the year at the official Brian Moore at 100 website.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!