Monday, October 29, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE LAKE” by George Moore (first published 1905; revised 1921)
            Fifteen or twenty years ago, I had one of my odder excursions in reading. For some reason I began to read my way systematically through the works of  three late- nineteenth/early-twentieth century authors, each of whom once had a considerable reputation; but each of whom has subsequently fallen into relative obscurity. By coincidence (and not because I was trying to make some satirical point) each of them happened to be called George. There was the fastidious, over-intellectual George Meredith. There was the desperate, struggling realist George Gissing (whom in the end I judged to be the most sympathetic of the three). And there was George Moore.

            I ended up reading nearly all the works of all three.

            I’ve written about Meredith and Gissing before on this blog [look ‘em up on the index at right], but I have not yet ventured into Moore-land.

            He was a very contradictory and annoying person, was George Moore (1852-1933). Of Irish Catholic background and education, he nevertheless had the attitudes, instincts and habits of thought of the Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry. He certainly wrote some novels and stories about Ireland (A Drama in Muslin, The Untilled Field). In some ways his most accessible production is his gossipy, and often very bitchy, three-volume memoir of Irish and Dublin literary life Hail and Farewell, the separate volumes being entitled Ave!, Salve! and Vale!  But George Moore was really more at home in Paris, where he’d trained as a painter and absorbed the influence of Zola; and in London, where he lived for the last twenty or so years of his life. One of his first major novels A Mummer’s Wife, was a Zolaesque account of alcoholism among a travelling acting company. It has an English setting. The novel that is often considered his best, Esther Waters, is set among raffish bookies and touts at English race-tracks. Anyone reading these two would assume the author was an Englishman, not an Irishman. To compound the confusion, when Moore’s memoirs of his Paris days, Confessions of a Young Man, were translated into French, their title became Confessions d’un jeune Anglais.

            Yet in the novel I choose as this week’s “Something Old”, The Lake, Moore deals with a very specifically Irish theme and situation.

            Like Henry James, Moore had the unlovely habit of attempting to re-write and bring out new editions of his works after they had already been published. As somebody said, he was always “looking for the perfect literary style”. This meant the last years of his life were spent tinkering with his own texts and sending out pompous newsletters to friends. As you will note from the heading, The Lake was first published in 1905, but was revised for a later edition in 1921, and it is only in this edition that I know it.

            Father Oliver Gogarty is a rural parish priest in the west of Ireland. He has become a priest partly through the influence of his two sisters, both of whom are nuns, and partly because he does not wish to follow his father into the dull life of being a country merchant. A village gossip, Mrs O’Mara, tells Father Oliver that Nora Glynn, the parish organist and schoolmistress, is pregnant. Father Oliver confirms that this is true when he confronts Miss Glynn. Imprudently, Father Oliver preaches a fiery sermon on the virtue of chastity when he knows that Nora Glynn is in his church.

            Nora flees from the parish.

            Months later, Father Oliver receives a letter from Father Michael O’Grady, a priest working in London, reproving him for his all-too-common and uncharitable course of action, and telling him how Nora and her baby are faring in London. Father Oliver is now wracked with remorse for his own intolerance. He ham-fistedly tries to make amends. At this stage, he still thinks in terms of saving Nora from her sins. When he hears that Nora has become secretary and companion to an agnostic literary gentleman, Walter Poole, who is doing sceptical research on the origins of Christianity, Father Oliver fears for Nora’s soul and wants to draw her back into the Catholic faith. More urgently, he fears that she might be Walter Poole’s mistress.

            When he discovers she is indeed Poole’s mistress, Father Oliver has a flash of insight. He at last acknowledges that the real cause of his anxiety for Nora was his own sexual attraction to her. Faced with this realization, his own sense of vocation and religious faith slowly slide away.

            He still has things that tie him to his village parish. There is the simple trust of the country people. There is the fact that he has to be moral mentor and guide to his alcoholic curate Father Moran, who looks up to him. More than once he has had to deter Father Moran from drinking bouts. Even while coming to see women as the life-force, he still has many priestly habits of thought, and sometimes lapses into seeing the hand of God in many events about him.

            But he cannot continue to live in bad faith. The question becomes – how can he disengage himself from the parish and the priesthood without destroying many people’s trust and without himself becoming an object of scorn and calumny? The answer comes from the lake, about the shores of which he often wanders, meditating. He conceals civilian garb on the far side of the lake. Under a full moon he strips off his priestly clothes and leaves them on the side of the lake near the parish. Then he swims across, naked, dons the civilian garb and flees, leaving the parishioners to believe he has drowned.

            Under another name, he makes a new life for himself as a journalist in America.

            When it comes to the novel’s ending, the symbolism of the lake is fairly obvious. It represents a sort of baptism as Oliver leaves one life and is initiated into another. (Like Fred Henry falling into a river, and later fleeing across a lake, in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms). But the lake features frequently in this novel long before the ending is reached. More often, Moore presents it as an image of the private soul, reflecting only oneself, to which one should be true in spite of the pressures of society. I’m also sure that an author so conscious of his symbolism as Moore would not have chosen to call the agnostic writer Poole by accident. Poole is the pool into which Nora sinks. The lake is the new life in which Oliver immerses himself.

            There are some oddities about the novel’s style and structure. The main event of the story (Nora’s pregnancy and Father Oliver’s intemperate denunciation of her) has happened before the novel begins. As Moore says in his introduction to the 1921 edition “the one vital event in the priest’s life happened before the story opens”. We learn about this anterior action not only via Father Oliver’s agonised thoughts, but in letters exchanged between Father Oliver, Father O’Grady and Nora herself. The novel is thus an odd combination of the epistolary and the stream-of-consciousness.

            This does not always work. Some of Oliver’s letters are written in a self-revelatory, heart-on-sleeve style that is hard to reconcile with the way he is otherwise depicted. Then there are Moore’s elisions. We are told of, but do not have dramatised, a key illness and fever into which Oliver sinks and from which he emerges with a completely new religious perspective. It is as if we have been cheated of a key step in the character’s development.

            And yet the novel as a whole works. The logic of its development is flawless, from the priest’s unthinking zealotry to his doubts to his self-understanding to his quest for a new life. Moore would not be Moore if at least part of his purpose was not only anti-Catholic polemic, but also a vague sort of pagan affirmation of Nature in all the descriptions of lake and shore and woods. There is this “pagan” note in the moment where Oliver is about to jump into the lake and “stepping from stone to stone he stood on the last one as on a pedestal, tall and grey in the moonlight – buttocks hard as a faun’s, and dimpled as a faun’s when he draws himself up before plunging after a nymph.” [Chapter 14]. Moore’s master Zola had taught him the ways of anti-clerical polemic with his novel La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret; and Moore himself later wrote his agnostic novel about Jesus, The Brook Kerith. Indeed the character of Walter Poole in The Lake could be in part a self-portrait.

            But The Lake is not crude anti-church polemic. Father Moran (despite his alcoholism), the kindly old Father O’Grady, and Father Peter (who preceded Oliver in his parish) are all shown to be good and sincere men by their lights, genuinely concerned for their parishioners. But Moore can’t resist moments where formal religion is presented as something for the ignorant peasants. Just before Oliver swims the lake, there is a raucous scene of low comedy where peasants scuffle over whether a baby should be baptised Catholic or Protestant. There is also one delightful scene of more subtle comedy where Father O’Grady visits Father Oliver from London, and the two priests circle about the problem of actually talking about Nora, when that is really what they are most interested in talking about. In this scene, Moore seems to be gently suggesting the insufficiency in celibate priests’ approaches to women.

            The Puritanism of Irish Catholicism and the drawbacks of clerical celibacy are things that Moore obviously has in his sights. But he knows the country and the situation too well to serve us stereotypes.

            The Lake is still a key Irish novel.

Two cheeky footnotes:
            (A.) Moore was acquainted with the famous Irish wit and author Oliver St.John Gogarty, and chose the name of the hero of The Lake in mockery of his friend, who otherwise had nothing in common with the hero of the novel in either temperament or outlook. I have this information from Ulick O’Connor’s biography Oliver St.John Gogarty (1964).
            (B.) There is something strange about Moore’s criticism of clerical celibacy when Moore himself never married, seems to have lived most (and possibly all) of his life celibate, and wasn’t very good at intimate personal relationships. Motes and beams, I guess.

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