photo by Gary Scott
by Mike Smith
George Moore (1852-1933) was writing in the decades before and after the turn of the nineteenth century. He was a grand old man of letters when James Joyce was still the up-and-coming kid on the block. On the several occasions that the two writers met, fireworks were promised, but neither delivered the necessary spark to ignite them. Joyce is said to have been indulgent, and Moore to have been cautious.
There was certainly plenty of fuel to set off an explosion between the two Irishmen, as Moore claimed to have invented the stream of consciousness. But there were other rifts between them – not least of which was the matter of social class. Joyce had seen his family slide down the scale of the middle class while Moore was an Irish landowner, bleeding his estate dry to feed his writing habit. In Adrian Frazer’s excellent biography (Yale, 2000) I got the sense that Moore, who is perhaps best known for his depiction of ‘lower life’ in the novel Esther Waters, would not have appreciated the idea of a life as low as mine reading his work, let alone thinking it had an opinion worth sharing! Like Joyce, however, Moore renounced his Catholicism and turned his back on Ireland, so the two did have something in common, even if obliquely. Like Joyce he had a European sensibility, and his move to London from Paris was more for its cosmopolitanism than its Englishness.
As writers too, they had more in common than you might expect as both were keen to experiment. What is remarkable about Moore is that he rarely repeated himself in form or style, and this is especially true of his novels. He published five collections of short stories in his lifetime. A sixth, In Minor Keys (Eakin & Gerber eds, Fourth Estate, 1985), was compiled from his uncollected works and contains fourteen stories. The title is from Moore’s own suggestion for the title of a proposed collection of short stories, and was used in a passage quoted by Eakin & Gerber’s informative introduction to theirs:
‘The mere act of concluding often serves to break the spell; the least violence, the faintest exaggeration is enough; we must drop into a minor key if we would increase the effect, only by a skilful use of anti-climax may we attain those perfect climaxes – sensation of inextinguishable grief, the calm of resignation, the mute yearning for what life has not for giving. In such pauses all great stories end.’ – from Moore’s introduction to Dostoyeksy’s Poor Folk
That he is writing here about endings is a bonus, I think! My excitement about the idea of being a writer was sparked by reading A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man while at school. Joyce was my literary hero; but as I have aged, so I have turned progressively towards George Moore as the embodiment of that idea.
It was Moore who alerted me to the possibility of doing without speech marks or indents to signal new speakers (thus throwing the responsibility onto their voices). He reassured me of the propriety of plundering my own and the lives of those around me for the stuff of my fiction. He showed me how to recycle what I have already written into larger pieces, or to raid those larger stories for the makings of something smaller. He encouraged me to tinker with and to re-invent my techniques, rather than to hone and perfect what might become a consistent and recognisable brand.
His reputation in some ways suffered from his diversity and, except among academics, diminished after his death. Of his books, only a couple remain in print. Perhaps it is now time for a George Moore revival, to bring him back to the attention of the general reader and allow writers to draw their own inspiration from his many different styles.