Today I get to combine two of my challenges of this year – Novellas in November and my Brian Moore Readalong.
The Brian Moore choice for this month is Catholics, which, at a mere 92 pages, is Moore’s shortest book. In her biography of Moore, Patricia Craig recounts an anecdote about the fact that his books are generally quite short.
…at a dinner party … Brian, hearing some pompous writer claim he had trouble keeping his novels to under 700 pages, chimed in: ‘That’s funny, I have trouble getting mine up to 200’.
Catholics was originally written as a short story and for a time was going to be the centrepiece of a collection of Moore’s stories, but was instead published as a novella. As a writer, Moore has always favoured compact narratives, so the slight length is unsurprising and there is much to savour in this short but detailed work.
The parable-like Catholics is a futuristic tale of ecclesiastical politics and moral questioning. Written in 1972 and set in the near future, it features a world where the Catholic Church has gone beyond Vatican II and has now abandoned almost all its mysteries for a more secular form of worship. Confession, along with the traditional Latin Mass has been banned, in preparation for a merging of Christian and Buddhist faiths.
There is, however, resistance: Muck Abbey which resides on an island off the coast of Kerr continues with the old traditions. After being featured on a television programme, the Abbey now attracts thousands of tourists – ‘pilgrims’ who, nostalgic for the old ways, travel from all over to hear Mass in its traditional form, held outside at a Mass Rock. A young American Catholic priest, James Kinsella, has been dispatched from Rome, charged with bringing the monks of Muck Abbey into line with the ecumenical changes. He meets with Tomas O’Malley, the Abbot of Muck Abbey, who is resisting these changes despite his own crisis of faith.
Despite being a quintessential realist, faith and in particular Catholicism have been a driving concern in Moore’s writing. Catholics provides him with the opportunity to explore the clash between two different modes of faith. On one hand there is Kinsella, modern in his belief and secular in appearance, to the point where the boatmen charged to take him to the island don’t believe he is a priest, and on the other the Abbot, who is faithful to the old traditions, not because of any inherent faith in them or fear of change, but simply because they work. The Abbey which once had a dwindling congregation, can no longer cope with the numbers of people who wish to worship at their altar.
They haven’t changed. They want those old parish priests and those old family doctors. Sheep need authoritarian sheepdogs nipping at their heels from birth to funeral. People don’t want truth or social justice, they don’t want this ecumenical tolerance. They want certainties. The old parish priest promised that. You can’t, Jim.
What Moore does so well here is to explore the notion of change versus belief. His literary vision of a radical Rome may not have played out in real life, but his exploration of the importance of liberation theology is spot on. Is it possible to ask a congregation to turn their back on the bedrock ideas of their faith in the name of modernisation? Is modernisation worth the risk if it alienates a large portion of your believers? As one monk asks, how can something be a miracle one day and not the next?
And we did it that way for nearly two thousand years…because God was there, God on the altar, in the tabernacle in the form of a wafer of bread and a chalice of wine. It was God’s house, where, every day the daily miracle took place. God coming down among us. A mystery. Just as this new Mass isn’t a mystery, it’s a mockery, a singsong, it’s not talking to God, it’s talking to your neighbour…It’s a symbol they say, but a symbol of what?
What’s most striking about Catholics is the neutrality of tone that Moore takes throughout. He neither champions the progressive optimism of Kinsella nor the pious pragmatism of the Abbot and what makes this short novel even more interesting is that it is the more secular forward-thinking priest whose faith is strongest.
Place is, as ever, of utmost importance to Moore and in Catholics, his powerful yet lyrical portrayal of this Irish rural landscape, edged as it is on the Atlantic, suggests a freedom that comes with faith, whereas the Catholicism of his Belfast streets is one that constrains, compartmentalises and limits.
Catholics didn’t have a strong emotional pull for me and it does feel like a slighter work than the other novels of his that I have read this year, despite its clarity of focus and some beautiful writing. I missed Moore’s dark humour and the lack of his trademark well-defined female characters was definitely a factor. However it was a great success for Moore, winning the WH Smith Best Novel of 1972 award and being adapted for film.
I much preferred the exploration of faith in his later work Cold Heaven but this is still a focused and interesting exploration of the themes that Moore both built on and returned to in his later work.
It’s hard to believe that next month is my final book for my Brian Moore Readlong!
Why not join in during December when I will be reading The Magician’s Wife, Brian Moore’s last novel published in 1997.
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!