Saturday, April 18, 2015

Moore's poignant examination of loneliness and despair

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
A novel by Brian Moore, first published in 1955; re-published in 1988 by New Canadian Library

"The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" is one of Brian Moore's earliest novels, published originally in 1955 to rave reviews. This book launched his career as a novelist and it was made into a 1987 film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins.

Set in Belfast, Ireland, in the early 1950s, it tells the tragic story of a plain-looking spinster who suffers a crisis of faith and identity in her early forties. As a child, Judith was orphaned after the death of her parents. She was taken in and raised by her aunt D'Arcy. When Judith was in her late twenties, her aunt suffered a stroke and, for the next 15 years, Judith became her primary caregiver, forsaking her own dreams and happiness in the process.

The novel opens a short time after Aunt D'Arcy has passed away and Judith is moving into another cheap rooming house. Soon she is introduced to the housekeeper's brother, James Madden, an ex-pat who once worked in America and who has returned to his native Ireland. After accompanying Madden to church and to the movies, Judith thinks that Madden has taken a liking to her, and she entertains the possibility of a budding romance, possibly marriage.

She wonders if all the years of sacrifice, caring for her ill aunt, and her faith in God, will finally lead to happiness, a dream that has eluded her for years. But James Madden is not what - or who - he pretends to be, and Judith's hopes of a romance are dashed. She views Madden's rejection - along with his mother's alleged complicity in that rejection - as the last straw in finding true happiness, and respectability.

Madden's rejection triggers Judith's slow, sad mental breakdown. She resorts to drink to dull the gnawing realization that she will probably never find true happiness, and then begins to question her faith. Moore depicts that decline through Judith's eyes and through the eyes of her roommates, friends, all of whom are portrayed as selfish, greedy, cruel and uncaring. Even her local priest, Father Quigley, seems more interested in putting in his time at the pulpit: He'd rather chastise his congregation for attending movies than provide human compassion to a parishioner who needs help.

One feels empathy for Judith, a caring and sensitive women whose best years have passed her by, who is ridiculed and pitied by those closest to her, and whose remaining years will likely be filled with more loneliness and rejection. With each passing day, Judith becomes painfully aware that she's reached a point in her life where she is unloved, alone, afraid, and beyond hope.

Through the use of occasional interior monologues, Moore takes readers into the minds of his characters to reflect on their personal biases and their attitudes towards Judith. Here is Judith's interior monologue in the midst of her decline, while she is sitting in the back of a taxi:
"Oh, I'm in trouble, in awful trouble. And nobody to help me. Where? I've got to talk to somebody, some friend, someone who can advise me, the faith, I've lost my faith, I've burned my boats and it will happen soon, it will happen. Now, if You're there, she screamed wordlessly. Now show me. Anything, a bolt of lightning, strike me down, anything. But don't leave me, don't leave me alone."
By the end of the novel, poor Judith has clearly lost her faith, her dreams, and her way in the world. Alongside Judith's heartbreaking predicament, Moore also explores the themes of class struggles, the passage of time, and the social and religious attitudes of Ireland in the early '50s.

In Judith Hearne, Moore has created a fictional character who is deserving of our empathy, a character who will resonate with readers long after the book is closed. In my opinion, "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" ranks as a great fictional narrative from one of the 20th century's great - and sadly underrated - storytellers.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Maltese Falcon is as hardboiled as it gets

If there is a such a thing as a perfectly-written crime novel, you'd be hard pressed to find a more worthy recipient than The Maltese Falcon. More than eight decades after its original release, in 1930, the book remains a true classic in the genre of hardboiled crime fiction.

Written by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon is a well-plotted, well-written detective story that has been enjoyed by generations of readers, and inspired generations of writers as well. The book has been adapted twice for the big screen, most notably a 1941 film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. It has spawned several TV parodies as well.

There are so many aspects of The Maltese Falcon that make this a delightful read. The precise use of language, the clever plotting, the subtle humour, the dingy San Francisco streets of the '20s and the lowly band of characters all make this a delightful and entertaining story, which stays with you long after you've finished reading it.

The main protagonist is Sam Spade, a cynical, cigarette-rolling private detective whose work partner, Miles Archer, has just been murdered. Some believe that Sam might have had a hand in Archer's death because of his affair with Archer's wife, Iva. The police question Spade about his potential involvement in the murder and believe him to be a suspect.

The death of Spade's partner triggers a series of events involving an amusing cast of characters, some of whom are intent on obtaining a rare and priceless figurine/bird. Among those wanting to find this bird are Brigid O'Shaughnessy, an attractive and duplicitous blond who tries to win the affections of Spade; and Casper Gutman, a heavy-set and charismatic art collector who has been trying to acquire the bird for 17 years.

Readers must remember that Hammett wrote this novel in the 1920s, when social attitudes about gender equality were much different than they are today. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade views women as little more than sex objects, and his actions towards them are mistrustful and misogynistic, as illustrated in this scene in which O'Shaughnessy is literally throwing herself at Spade:
Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: 'I'll think it over." His face was hard and furious.
At many times while reading The Maltese Falcon, I felt myself cringe at scenes like this one. I know Hammett was writing for a different audience, but that doesn't make Spades' demeaning attitudes and actions towards women any more palatable. Indeed, they don't call this hard-boiled fiction for nothing.

When it comes to describing his characters, Hammett pulls no punches and has no qualms about calling a spade a spade (pun intended). Here is the author's no-holds-barred description of Gutman when we first meet this character:
The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.
Hammett rarely misses an opportunity to call attention to Gutman's obesity, frequently referring to him as "the fat man." In Hammett's hands, such descriptions serve both as comic relief and the advancement of plot. Gutman remains a sly and calculating character in appearance, mannerisms and speech, and you know that he'll say and do anything to win the bird. That's part of what makes him so likeable and endearing.

The story advances with a steady and sometimes quickened pace, and with each chapter, readers feel closer to discovering the true motivations of the characters and the mystery of the rare figurine. Hammett does an exceptional job tossing all of the plot twists into the air, juggling them for our amusement, and making sense of them at the end.

There is a reason why The Maltese Falcon is still deemed such a pioneering work of fiction, decades after its original publication. For those who haven't had read it, you're missing a unique reading experience.