BOOK REVIEW / Nomadic life of Brian: It's hard to keep up with Brian Moore, an Irishman with Canadian citizenship living in Malibu whose new novel is based on Haiti. But it's time his work was acclaimed

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FATHER Paul Michel, the Catholic priest who tells the story of Brian Moore's new novel, No Other Life, comes from a village in northern Quebec. But the place where he was born and bred 'is only a memory'; for 30 years he has worked as a teacher on the Caribbean island of 'Banae' (a thinly disguised Haiti). When he goes back home, half-way through the novel, he imagines himself having been a doctor instead of a priest, a married man instead of a celibate, a Canadian instead of an exile. 'My life's choice came back to haunt me,' he says.

Brian Moore, too, is sometimes haunted by his life's choices. He has been publishing since 1955 (No Other Life is his 17th novel) and is acclaimed as one of the finest living novelists. Comparisons have been made with Joyce and Graham Greene. He wins prizes and is profiled worldwide. He ought to be a household name. Yet he has remained, somehow, not quite famous. Interviews with him tend to be called 'Who is Brian Moore?' or 'Brian Moore: Private Person'. A recent BBC Bookmark profile was called, to his amusement, 'The Man from God Knows Where'.

His life's choices have made him a mystery man. He writes novels about religion, but he's not religious ('I use religion as a metaphor'). He can't get away from the subject of Ireland, but he's not an Irish subject. You can't fit him neatly alongside John McGahern or Brian Friel. He is a self-made exile, and this has shaped his reputation. 'I've always lived outside literary society,' he says. 'I can adjust to wherever I live, but I never feel at home: I'm an exile from everywhere.' He is a novelist who (like Father Paul) might have been a doctor, an agnostic from a Catholic family, an Irishman who left for Canada, and, now, a Californian who never feels quite settled in America. His main characters are abroad and alone, or at risk and on the run in their own country.

He has had a settled pattern for many years now, writing quietly in Malibu, and travelling the world with his wife Jean on visits and publicity tours for two or three months a year. He and Jean are inseparable companions, enjoying Hollywood friendships and literary gossip, but happy to live for weeks on end in solitude together. 'We're like two monks,' she says. 'He's the contemplative one and I'm the one who cooks.' Still, he finds himself wondering: 'What sort of novels would I have written had I remained in Ireland? Or New York? 'Sometimes these cogitations still amaze/The troubled midnight and the noon's repose'.'

His quoting of T S Eliot reminds me of another poet, Seamus Heaney, who wrote 'Remembering Malibu' after a visit to Brian Moore's house - a spacious stone and wood house, with a terrace of tropical plants, overlooking the breakers and whales and surfers of the Pacific. Heaney's poem compares the 'abstract', 'early Mondrian' of the Pacific coast's dunescape to the stony Atlantic Irish shore, and asks what it would mean to 'rear and kick and cast that stone' and make your life's choice 'far, far' from the 'ascetic' Western sea. Moore likes the poem - he has it framed in a corridor of the Malibu house - and he agrees with Heaney that there's a struggle in his work between the 'sacro-world' of Catholic Northern Ireland and the weightless, profane spaces of the secular modern world: 'In most of my books, Ireland is part of the actual or remembered landscape.'

That remembered landscape is the Belfast of the 1920s and 30s. Brian Moore's severe, authoritarian grandfather, a solicitor, had been a Catholic convert. (Challenges to such authorities fill his grandson's books.) His father, James Bernard Moore, was a surgeon at the Belfast Catholic hospital. His mother was a Donegal farmer's daughter who spoke Irish in her youth. An uncle by marriage was the famous Eoin MacNeill - founder of the Gaelic League and the Irish Volunteers. He influenced the naming of Brian (pronounced Bree- an)'s many brothers and sisters, one of whom is a nun: Seamus, Sean, Eibhlin, Grainne, Marie- Theresa, Una, Mairead and Eilis.

Moore's father, who died when Brian was 18, was a kindly person: 'You must trust the children, never tell them they have lied,' he remembers him saying to his mother. But he was old, too - 50 when he married - and so a Victorian father. He sent his son to his own strict Catholic school, St Malachy's (later bitterly immortalised in The Feast of Lupercal) 'where teaching was carried on by bullying and corporal punishment, and learning by rote'. To his mother, a pious believer in 'the man upstairs', Brian, a nonconformist from his youth, was the black sheep. It was to him that she chose to tell her doubts, on her deathbed: 'Supposing there is no man upstairs?' That memory has given the new novel its title: what if, the priest's dying mother asks him, there is no other life? All his writing, Moore believes, stems from that doubt. It moves in the limbo between belief and what Malraux calls the 'feeling of powerlessness' in the human heart, in those who accept (and these are Moore's heroes) that there is 'no other life'.

Brian Moore left Ireland in wartime, to serve with the British Ministry of War Transport. He witnessed the Allied beachhead at Anzio, the invasion of southern France, and, on a later mission as a port officer in Poland, the Russian retreat and post-war Auschwitz. But he chose not to write about what he calls these 'journalistic' experiences: they profoundly affected him, but were not his subject. His first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, about an alcoholic Belfast spinster losing her faith, described ordinary people's lives twisted by philistinism and parochialism. Other early novels set in his home town - The Emperor of Icecream, The Feast of Lupercal - were thick in detail and rich in scorn for 'a nation of masturbators under priestly instruction'. Since then he has often used Irish themes in his books: debates on religious authority in Catholics, the drastic extremes of sexual idealisation in The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, a Gothic-horror fear of primitivism in The Mangan Inheritance. Even later novels set in Eastern Europe or 17th-century Canada can be read as metaphors for Ireland.

Recently, in Lies of Silence, he returned to his Belfast landscape and wrote with passion, within a tight thriller about two ordinary people tested by terrorism, of the 'terminal illness of bigotry and injustice'. There was some criticism of the novel as a thin and outdated portrayal of the city, a revenant's version. Its central character wants to distance himself from his home, but recognises Belfast as 'the one place where no one would ever ask 'Where are you from?'.'

Brian Moore's nomadic life, though, has given him other places as subjects. He had 12 years in Canada, with his first (French) wife and son, as a journalist in Montreal and then, after he quit his job in 1953, as a novelist: 'That was a great blessing. When I gave up journalism, I saw it for what it was.' Canada gave him the seedy milieu for the hopeless optimist Ginger Coffey's 'luck', and, much later, some nostalgic memories for the mission priests in Black Robe and No Other Life. But Canada can't really lay claim to him - even though he is a Canadian citizen. His move to New York in 1959 (after getting a Guggenheim Fellowship) provided the fraught, worldly setting for the splintering marriages in An Answer from Limbo, Cold Heaven and The Mangan Inheritance, with its marvellous scene of the divorced wife's fashionable East Side funeral in a Manhattan rainstorm. During his seven years in New York Moore had his own painful divorce (his first wife later died). In 1966 he settled, with Jean, on the Californian coast. He went there to work with Hitchcock on Torn Curtain, 'because I needed the money'. They wrote the script together, meeting six days a week for several hours a day. When they finished after four months, Moore told Hitchcock he thought the script was 'cardboard thin', and Hitchcock, displeased, hired Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to polish it. But he didn't like what they wrote, and in the end the sole writer's credit went to Moore.

After this brush with Hollywood, Moore stayed on, teaching for a time at UCLA, and then just writing. On this 'far, far' western coast he has dreamed up his most surreal fictions: the dreamer who awakes to find his dream of a vast, unique 'great Victorian collection' has come phenomenally true in a motel car-park in Carmel; the man haunted by embodiments from his past in Fergus; the woman in Cold Heaven reluctantly forced to believe, because of her husband's return from the dead, in her miraculous sighting of the Virgin.

For all this fictional tourism, Moore is no autobiographer. The powerful erotic pleasures in his novels are, famously, translated into the woman's point of view: 'My work was feminist before I ever heard the word,' he says. There are plenty of rebellious Irishmen in his books, but no temperature chart of his own life, nothing like Philip Roth's My Life As a Man.

He is never the hero of his own tale, though his life has been dramatic. For instance, he has twice come back from the dead. In 1953, he was living in a cabin near a lake north of Montreal, writing Judith Hearne, when a motor boat smashed into him while he was swimming: 'I never lost consciousness, which is why I am here today.' He had six skull fractures and took three months to recover. 'The accident made me aware,' he says drily, 'that I did not have unlimited time to do the writing I wanted to do.' (And, getting typically excited and funny: 'I've a terror of dying while I'm working on something] - I think some other bastard will put an end to it, the way they do]') Then in 1976, in Dublin, he had a massive duodenal ulcer attack and an operation which went wrong. He was in intensive care for 23 days; convalescent, 'I walked like a man of 95'.

Illness has left him thin, with everything about him - alert dark eyes, eager loquaciousness, keen pleasure in jokes and facts and ideas, rude intolerance of fools and pseuds - giving off a great zest for life. The luck of Brian Moore as Lazarus gets into Cold Heaven, which tells the story of the motor boat, but as if it had happened to someone else. Another piece of good fortune, his renewed relationship with his son, with whom he had lost touch, surfaces as a tender paternal relationship in the new novel. But the personal element is concealed.

In the last 10 years, Moore's work - Black Robe, The Colour of Blood, Lies of Silence, and now No Other Life - has become tighter, leaner, still more impersonal. These books make serious use of popular forms; they are thinkers' thrillers: 'I've become fascinated with tension, narrative, pace.' And they are less about personal relationships and more about politics. 'I've moved into something big', he says; then - self-deflating at once - 'That sounds pompous] But I can't go back to tales of adultery after this.'

'This', No Other Life, is derived from the history of Father Aristide, Haiti's only democratically elected president, a peasant boy educated by priests who became a brilliant populist leader, overthrown by an American- approved military junta. Moore was in Haiti 30 years ago, his 'young liberal ideas' shocked by the corruption and desperate poverty, by the colour and caste snobbery, and by the cynicism of America's interest, there 'only to keep Castro at bay. Now - since the fall of Communism - they don't give a shit. This is a place nobody cares about.' That was why it interested him: as one of the 'little places' (like Northern Ireland) ignored by larger powers.

At first the closeness of his novel to history made him anxious. He purposely did not read widely: 'People say, do you leave out a lot of factual detail? No, I don't put it in in the first place. There's too much information in most novels. Novelists showing off.' The problems were solved in a long quiet summer in Nova Scotia. By making Aristide's old teacher-priest and 'father' into the narrator, he rushes the tale along and makes the Aristide-figure, 'Jeannot', more mysterious: 'If you go inside the possessed character, the story loses intensity.' So the novel's moral question - where is the line between sainthood and fanaticism? - is left alluringly unanswered.

Comparisons with Graham Greene, who admired Moore's work, bore him now - as does the assumption that his novels are all planned as Hitchcockian movies. (He points out that narratives told inside someone's mind are extremely hard to translate to the screen.) Where Greene writes about remorse and guilt, Moore's subject is choice and trial and dangerous testing-points. 'Our lives are so flimsy and ephemeral - we're like actors in some little play.' Failures, as subjects for fiction, interest him more than successes, but he will say 'I'm interested in failure' or 'I'm pessimistic about history' in a tone of interested relish. He seems to be a happy nihilist, an angry sceptic who enjoys himself: 'If I'm not working,' he says, 'I'm very unhappy. I don't get it about suffering writers. My work isn't traumatic, I just put words on the page. A writer chooses to be a writer - you don't have to do it.'

He is well aware that his gifts are not matched by an international reputation. It galls him a little, but he also likes his independence: 'I'm very lucky, I can write what I want to, I've been spared some of the pressures which come with being overrated.' His profile has been raised here recently through a change of publisher (from Cape to Bloomsbury), the film of Black Robe, the Sunday Express prize for The Colour of Blood and the Booker shortlisting for Lies of Silence (the book with by far his biggest sales). In America he has an admiring following but not what they call 'name recognition'. In Europe, he says grinning, 'I don't sell in Catholic countries. I do terribly in Italy - they don't want to know about religion.' He knows that his displacements and his versatility, his refusal to write the same book twice, are part of the reason he's not a household name. But he's not bothered about winning the Nobel Prize, as long as he goes on adventuring into new subjects, writing what he wants to and exciting his readers. 'I think I'm very good,' he says, without conceit. 'I haven't disimproved.'

'No Other Life' is published by Bloomsbury at pounds 14.99. Brian Moore will be talking at the Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, 6pm, Fri 19 Feb; at the Blackheath Concert Halls, London SE3, 9pm, Mon 22 Feb; at Waterstone's, 91 Deansgate, Manchester, 7pm, Wed 24 Feb; at Waterstone's, 88 George St, Edinburgh, 7pm, Thurs 25 Feb; and at Waterstone's, 98 Albion St, Leeds, 7pm Fri, 26 Feb