Who am I? Brian Moore, I Am Mary Dunne

Brian Moore, I Am Mary Dunne. Vintage paperback, 1992. First published 1968

Some time ago I heard William Boyd being interviewed on the radio about the novel he’d recently published – I think it must have been Restless – in which he narrated in the first person from the point of view of the female protagonist. How did he manage so successfully to get inside a woman’s head, being a man? He said he began by reading everything he could by women writers, then asked all of his female friends about what made them tick, then sat down to write. And it didn’t work.

What did, he said, was to stop asking, ‘What would a woman think in this situation? How would a woman react to this event?’ and to ask instead, How would my character react or think? – the way he normally would about any character – and not to try consciously to bring gender into it.

I am Mary Dunne coverCanadian-Irish writer Brian Moore does something similar but to more artistically, morally and socially serious purpose in I Am Mary Dunne. The novel is largely the interior monologue about a single day in the life of the titular protagonist – a latter-day Mrs Dalloway. Now married to the renowned English playwright Terence Lavery (odd to read about a fictional character with the same surname as my own), Mary, a former actress, now playing the role of dutiful wife, had previously been married twice before. Each marriage had ended when she started having an affair with the man destined to be her next husband, as her dissatisfaction with the current man became intolerable.

Mary is suffering from PMT, when her ‘Mad Twin’ is liable to take control of her mind and actions, or she goes into a ‘Down Tilt’ that threatens to take her over the ‘cliff edge’ of sanity, or to lapse into the ‘dooms’ of depression.

But this only partly explains her existential crisis: ‘Who am I?’ is her constant refrain as she replays this disastrous day in her head. She’s taken to forgetting her own name (she has had so many; her names are all those of the men to whom she belonged) – a clear indication of her incipient loss of identity. ‘If we are what we remember’, she reflects on the opening page, does that person die ‘because I forgot her?’ It’s hardly surprising that she’s suppressed some of the most painful of these memories, for to remember them calls into question her raison d’être, her agency as a sentient, adult being.

Her day had begun badly, with a smartly dressed man in the street (it’s set in New York) making a coarse sexual comment to her. It went downhill from there, each (usually sexually initiated) disaster exacerbating her sense of inadequacy. Several further encounters push her closer to that edge, including the news that her mother in Canada is about to have a rectal polyp, possibly malign, surgically removed. Early in the evening she finds herself almost hysterical back in her apartment with Terence, her ‘rock’ and salvation, she tells herself. Why feel afraid of the one man who she feels safe with? Surely she must be mad?

That’s pretty much the plot, apart from a long final sequence in which a former friend of hers and her second husband Hatfield’s in Canada comes to dinner with her and Terence and makes an extraordinary, drunken confession about his love for Mary, to which he adds a further bombshell about the death of Hatfield half a year ago, and about which she’d only recently heard.

As I read the book rapidly – Brian Moore tells a cracking good story in fluent, pacy prose – I found myself totally engaged by this troubled woman’s stream of consciousness. Her extreme mood fluctuations and tendency towards hysteria seemed understandable, and I felt for her. She castigated herself mercilessly for her instability, neurotic tendency, and volatility, frequently reciting the lacerating words of confession she’d learned at convent school: my fault, my most grievous fault. It was impossible not to empathise with her, or to judge her.

Yes, Mary had entered into some disastrous relationships with men – and made friends with some pretty unreliable women – which resulted in her loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.Was she really shallow and promiscuous, ‘the Un-Virgin Mary’, with ‘sex on the brain’, as her lunch partner and friend Janice had suggested? Perhaps Janice suffers from ‘autopsychosis’, thinks Mary, unaware of the term’s applicability to herself –

A disorder in which all ideas are centred around oneself.

If Mary was more Magdalene than Virgin, it was not surprising, given the gender relations and social conditions of the time; in 1968 when the novel was first published a sexual revolution was well under way, but was still very much in its early days (and arguably still is). For women of 32 like Mary, surrounded by educated alpha (well, perhaps beta in most cases) males, resorting to that default position was characteristic of – even incumbent upon – most women of her class and position then: to define themselves according to the male view them. Mary was measuring her life’s progress by her ability to please the men in it to whom she looked for salvation, lacking in herself the wherewithal to find it, she’d been socialised to believe – and what better means of pleasing those men than by using her sexuality?

The novel is very good on the male gaze, of women’s clothes and how they impact on their daily experience (underwear, and what to do with it, for example, at moments of passion – or how it feels when getting off a bus). Mary (and Janice) are very conscious of their good looks and the admiring, often lascivious gaze these inspire in the men around them. When told her husband had a reputation as a ‘letch’ at his workplace, Janice asks Mary if that were true, why didn’t any of the women complain, or why wasn’t he fired?

‘Oh, Janice, grow up. Nobody took him seriously. Besides, if men were fired for making passes at girls, most of the men we know would be out of a job’

We like to think that women are treated with more respect nowadays, not just in the workplace, but recent events have shown that this is still not the case. This novel is not, unfortunately, a dated period piece when it comes to its depiction of gender inequality. Just look at the recently published 2016 Vida Count on women and the media.

I could say so much more about this interesting, emotionally charged novel, but have gone on too long already. So: those reservations I mentioned just now. The Bechdel Test asks of a work of fiction (as Virginia Woolf did in her 1929 essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’) if two or more women are featured in it talking about something other than men, or are simply ‘shown in their relation to men’.  I Am Mary Dunne consists of very little else. But by the end Mary has learned to do otherwise.

And of course, that’s its point. I initially had my own skewed, male take on her narrative and the shortcomings in Mary that it revealed, and I need to aspire to Brian Moore’s more generous sensitivity in taking a position here.

So let’s end with this: after an ‘unspoken argument’ with present husband, Terence, Mary reflects, with mounting despondency, that life is largely meaningless or lacks ‘purpose’:

Most women don’t even live lives of quiet desperation. (Quiet desperation is far too dramatic.) Most women live lives like doing the dishes, finishing one day’s dishes and facing the next until, one day, the rectal polyp is found or the heart stops and it’s over, they’ve gone. All that’s left of them is a name on a gravestone.

This is a brave, contentious and largely successful attempt by a highly gifted novelist to probe and delineate one woman’s struggle to locate and identify who and what she is in a world in which her identity is a commodity of little significance for most of the men she devotes her body and soul to. Unlike Thoreau, the source of that ‘Quiet desperation’ quotation, most women don’t have the luxury of being able to take themselves off to a cabin in the woods to find themselves.

The only other Brian Moore novel I’ve read and written about here is Black Robe, which could hardly be more different in style, theme and tone. I’d recommend both novels.

I Am Mary Dunne is also reviewed at John Self’s Asylum blog

And at the Lizzy Siddal blog

Both make powerful cases for Brian Moore to be considered a novelist of high importance. I agree.




Brian Moore, ‘Black Robe’: a critique

Brian Moore, Black Robe.  Paladin paperback, 1987; first published in Great Britain 1985

In this visceral quest narrative, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels meet Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s whisky priest/Catholic crisis stories.

Samuel de Champlain, map of New France, Canada, 1612

Samuel de Champlain, map of New France, Canada, 1612

At the age of twenty Daniel Davost, a French orphan, has arrived at Sieur Samuel de Champlain’s early seventeenth-century French settlement that will become Québec city in New France, Canada.  He asks to accompany the Jesuit priest, Father Paul Laforgue, on a dangerous river expedition by canoe, with Algonkin ‘Savages’ (as the French settlers in the region hypocritically call them) as guides – they are on their way to their winter hunting grounds, and are given gifts as inducement .  Word has reached Champlain that the two priests at a Jesuit mission deep in the ‘country of the Hurons’, have succumbed to sickness, or may have been murdered.  A replacement is needed.

Daniel harbours a secret: he is not motivated by missionary zeal, as he leads his countrymen to believe; he has fallen passionately in love with Annuka, a young Algonkin woman, who is to accompany the group with her family.  Daniel is aware he is in mortal sin for this deception.

The group undergoes numerous tribulations on the way,

Champlain; book illustration from Champlain's 'Works', 1925, vol. II, p. 39

Québec settlement, 1608, by C.W. Jefferys after a drawing by Champlain; book illustration from Champlain’s ‘Works’, 1925, vol. II, p. 39

culminating in their capture by the fierce enemies of the Algonkin – the Iroquois; not all of them survive.  They call the cruel torture to which they subject their victims, with typically fierce ‘Savage’ irony, ‘caressing’ them.

After a not entirely convincing escape scene, Daniel, Laforgue, Annuka and her father resume their quest.  Laforgue goes on to the mission village alone; there he finds old Father Jerome dying, having suffered two strokes.  His assistant had been murdered.  The villagers are dying of fever, presumably smallpox, and their sorcerers accuse the ‘Blackrobes’, as they call the Jesuit priests, of bringing the illness among them:

…the Blackrobes did not speak of curing rituals to combat sickness, but of death and another life to which they wished to lead the people.   The Blackrobes spoke this way because they were the sorcerers of death…[they] were devils of great power.

But the Algonkin sorcerers are forced to concede, and agree to let the village be baptised – they have no choice, for their people have no resistance to the disease which the Europeans tend to survive; this is seen as evidence of the superior power of the Jesuits’ god.

There is more than a culture clash here; the rival belief systems are mutually incompatible.  As Aenons, a local sorcerer says to Laforgue:

You and your god do not suit our people.  Your ways are not our ways.  If we adopt them we will be neither Norman [the Savages’ name for the French] nor Huron.  And soon our enemies will know our weakness and wipe us from the earth.

Iroquois-Algonkin battle: engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage to America's NE coast

Iroquois-Algonkin battle: engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage to America’s NE coast

It’s hard not to feel saddened when they agree to give up their animistic beliefs, that there is a life-force or spirit in all living things –  trees, animals – which the Savages respect and embrace joyfully.  They despise the French desire for material possessions and lack of sympathy for the spirit of the country. One of the strengths of this novel, however, is that Moore avoids sentimentalising either side; he portrays the barbarity of much of the Savages’ society – its casual cruelty, polygamy, sexual licence and misogyny, foul-mouthed ‘filthy banter’ in their talk (there are almost as many profanities in their speech as in Trainspotting), and the ambiguity of the Jesuits’ faith and mission.  Was the coming of the Europeans a deliverance for benighted heathens into the enlightenment of Civilisation, or was it a tragedy for a noble, ecologically balanced world?  Moore is able to keep most of these questions open without attempting to provide pat answers.  But the sorcerer was right: some ten years after the Algonkin agreed to submit to baptism, they had been wiped out by the Iroquois.

Central to the dramatic success of the novel is the conflicted character of Laforgue.  His apparently indomitable Christian faith weakens and almost breaks by the end of the novel.  From the start he longs to be called to undertake the mission, but lacks complete conviction in his fitness to fulfil it;  as early as p. 41 he muses on the ‘Jesuit house in Dieppe’ he had left behind, its priests reading their breviaries in their cloisters:

He had been one of them.  But from now on he would read his office in some clearing in a strange forest, or behind the wooden palisades of a distant mission house.  He looked again at the rabble of Savage women, emaciated, burdened by years of toil, limbs gnarled, faces worn by sun and wind; at the brown laughing girls; at the children, wild as the forest which was their home.  With these people he would live for years, perhaps for the rest of his life.  A sudden sadness came upon him.

Algonkin couple, 18th century watercolour

Algonkin couple, 18th century watercolour

He dreads failure, or going native, as most of the depraved, greedy, fur-trapping French settlers have; their descent into the sexual depravity (as they see it) of the Savages disgusts him.  Even Champlain wears a beaver-fur robe, like an Algonkin chief.

By the end, he clashes with the fanatical Fr Jerome; as he reasons, the villagers at the mission only ask for baptism because they fear death:

‘Or because they fear God,’ the sick priest said.  ‘Alas, most Christians do not perform their duties because they love God, but because they fear Him.  This fever is God’s hand.’

The priest’s paralysis and declining health – he almost seems to be putrefying while still alive – highlights the tensions between his zeal for converts, for saving souls, as he sees it, with the fever God’s missionary tool, and what Laforgue sees as the ‘sophism’ of baptising the heathens uninstructed, under spiritual and mortal duress.  ‘The end is good!’ insists Jerome.

Brian Moore (1921-1999)

Brian Moore (1921-1999)

The style throughout is lucid, and the prose is spare, as the quotations above demonstrate.  The pace of the plot is cracking; in fact there’s almost too much dramatic action.  But this slight weakness is countered by the powerful, sympathetic portrayal of this clash of belief systems.  Moore never slips into hagiographical representation of either side; neither does he demonise them.  When the village sorcerer at the novel’s end asks Jerome if those who are not baptised will die of the fever, Jerome replies, ‘That is for God, not me, to decide.’  ‘That is not an answer’, snaps the sorcerer; he demands one.  Jerome repeats he doesn’t know, then says:

‘But let me ask you.  If you were our God, who would you spare?  Your friend or your enemy?’

That is an answer’ [says the sorcerer].

Laforgue looks on, more and more disenchanted.  Daniel has become a Savage, he reflects:

And I, what am I?  Do I still have the right to challenge Jerome, who is strong in his faith, I who am an empty shell?’

Later he thinks:

What are these baptisms but a mockery of all the days of my belief, of all the teachings of the Church, of all the saintly stories we have read of saving barbarians for Christ?  Why did Chomina [Annuka’s father] and go to outer darkness when this priest, fanatic for a harvest of souls, will pass through the portals of heaven, a saint and a martyr?…The hosts in the tabernacle were bread, dubbed the body of Christ in a ritual strange as any performed by these Savages.  God, whose wishes he had dedicated his life to fulfil, was, in this land of darkness, as distant as the pomp and magnificence of the Church in Rome.  Here in this humble foolish chapel, rude as a child’s drawing, a wooden box and a painted statuette could not restore his faith.  Yet somehow he must try.

Whether he manages to find his faith again is left unclear; what he does find is a redemption that I found more satisfying; he finds that he has come to love these ‘Savages’ in their ‘vast, empty land’.  As he pours baptismal water on a sick brow, a ‘true prayer’ comes to him at last.

All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.