All Hail, George Moore

In his short piece in The Guardian on James Joyce, Chris Power mentions in passing a certain George Moore: – here is the quote:

Between them [Chekhov and Joyce] their innovations – informed most discernibly, in Joyce’s case, by Ibsen, French symbolist poetry and the Irishman George Moore – have influenced nigh-on every short story writer of the last 100 years.

Innovations, of course, are another way of saying Joyce was “the first to do something” and are synonymous with that much praised quality, “originality”: – and from this quote, we must conclude this must be that peculiar kind of “originality” highly prevalent in literary criticism: – “originality that one’s borrowed from one’s predecessors”. For it is Joyce of course who is original and innovative here, and not George Moore; – it must be him because he is after all a great writer, and as we all know it is the main definition of a great writer that he is original.

Now I am a simple fellow: – I’m sure there is a good explanation for this, but I often find myself wondering why it is Joyce who is credited with this originality, and not George Moore; – and, more than that, why it is Joyce who is any longer read and studied in university courses, and not George Moore.

Let us make a few random observations about George Moore which might have relevance to Joyce. – George Moore spent a long time in Paris in the 1880s(?), hanging around with French symbolists and painters. When he came back to England, he brought back the principles of realism, which apparently were then unknown there (pace all those critics who constantly harp on about the evils of Victorian realism) – but I mean the realism of a Zola: – the kind of realism that’s likely to end you up in court and your books banned (which is pretty much what happened to Moore’s). – This is all recounted in Moore’s autobiographical work, Confessions of a Young Man, a very marvellous and entertaining read – about which Wikipedia has the nice quote: “one of the most significant documents of the passionate revolt of English literature against the Victorian tradition” – written in 1886.

So yes, he brought back realism and wrote some books in a realist style (Esther Waters is his most famous – but no, don’t read it, please! – read something – anything – else by Moore), and later Joyce wrote Dubliners in a realist style, with a bit of symbolism thrown in – and it’s meant to be a bit like Moore’s The Untilled Field – though I haven’t read it so I don’t know.

And then there’s the stream of consciousness! – As well we know, Joyce was very original in the field of the stream of consciousness – this is his greatest feat – and again, it seems to have been an example of that highest form of originality, “originality that one’s borrowed from one’s predecessors”. – Now ok, Moore wrote some realist novels early on in his career, and if he’s remembered for anything today it’s these; – but if you should read his autobiographical works (and perhaps his later novels, I’m not sure yet), you’d get quite a different impression of him.

All of which is to say that I’m currently reading and immensely enjoying Moore’s “gossipy” slice of autobiography, Ave, which recounts the time when he and Yeats brought culture to Ireland, and was written in 1911. Here’s a sample of the style: – Moore is here at a dinner with some scholastic and cultural luminaries:

At that moment the professor turned to me, and asked me to lunch the following day at Trinity, impressing upon me the necessity of coming down a little early, in time to have just a glass of wine before lunch. His doctor had forbidden all stimulants in the morning, and by stimulants he understood whisky. But a bottle of wine, he said, was a tenuous thing, and he would like to avail himself of my visit to Dublin to drink one with me. I could see that we had now struck upon his interest in life, and with a show of interest which he had not manifested in Virgil’s poetry, he said:
Just a glass of Marsala, the ancient Lilybaeum. You know, the grape is so abundant there that they never think of mixing it with bad brandy.
At that moment someone spoke to me, and when I had answered a few questions I heard the professor saying that he had gone down for lunch to some restaurant. Nothing much to-day, John. Just a dozen of oysters and a few cutlets, and a quart of that excellent ale.
Again my attention was distracted by a waiter pressing some ice-pudding upon me, and I lost a good deal of information regarding the professor’s arduous day. As soon, however, as I had helped myself I heard a story, whether it related to yesterday or some previous time I cannot say.
After that I had nothing at all, until something brought me to the cupboard, and there, behold! I found a bottle of lager. I said: Smith has been remiss. He has mixed the Bass and the lager. But no. They were all full, twelve bottles of Bass and only one of lager; so I took it, as it seemed a stray and lonely thing.
It appears that the professor then continued his annotations of Aristophanes until the light began to fade.
I thought of calling again on Lilybaeum. Really, the more I drink of it the more honest and excellent I find it. When the bottle was finished it was time to return home to dinner, and I learned that the professor’s abstinence was rewarded by the delight he took in the first whisky and soda after dinner.
An excellent old pagan he seems to be, Quintus Horatius Flaccus of Dublin, untroubled by any Messianic idea. Now Hyde – I’ve heard a good deal about him. Can you point him out to me?
As my neighbour was about to do so Gill rose up at the head of the table.

Now, Moore’s best friend while he was in France – a character who’s mentioned time and again in Ave, was a fellow called Édouard Dujardin. Dujardin is a mystery to me: – by the only true categorisation of greatness in literature, that of originality, he should be head and shoulders above everyone else in the last 200 years – yet oddly enough, no one ever reads his books, or speaks of him, or often’s ever heard of him.

Next up for Moore, I think: The Brook Kerith – a later novel.

Incidentally, Moore’s favourite book around the 1880s: Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean. A revealing choice!


8 thoughts on “All Hail, George Moore

  1. Hmm. As to “why does X get credit, while Y is overlooked” well, that’s just the way these things work, isn’t it? Which in itself creates the sub-genre (also beloved of Guardian Books pages) of the “unjustly neglected classic ripe for resurrection by some clever chap who picked his time nicely” – and which does, of course, actually serve to highlight some good stuff in the midst of the self-congratulation.

    I did study The Untilled Field in college, but alas no particular imprint remains on my memory. Ave sounds like it’s good fun – liked a drop did George, evidently.

    Ellmann cover Joyce’s personal and literary relationships with Moore and Dujardin quite well in his biography. Perhaps it’s unjust that Joyce achieved such eminence while the other two, relatively, languish unread – but that’s scarcely Joyce’s fault is it?

  2. ‘Now I am a simple fellow…’ Me too, Jethro.

    Moore’s taste for research and incorporation of the results in his narratives led to Oscar Wilde’s remark about him ‘conducting his education in public’. Something in that (other than humour). It’s irritating to find large chunks of information in novels: no doubt the writer finds the stuff fascinating, but if I wanted to know about climate change or brain surgery I’d read an encyclopedia. Perhaps Ian McEwan will be as unread as Moore in a century’s time.

  3. I feel the time is ripe for a George Moore resurrection then – particularly since his books must have of late come out of copyright.

    I’ve read the first two stories now in The Untilled Field (you can find it on Gutenburg); – I can sense the stink of Dubliners, it’s true – but I guess I’d have to re-read Dubliners too, which – not being any sort of serious critic – I can’t be bothered. Rather like your forgetting of The Untilled Field, I’ve read Dubliners twice and can barely remember any of it (just the basic style) – but I guess that’s the thing with these short epiphanic stories about nothing; I can never remember any Chekhov either. The second story in TUF has lots of good symbolism, and epiphany – and it left me wondering, since I was reading some Zola today also, whether it isn’t again Zola this comes from, who loved a good image at the end of his book to tie everything together. – Epiphany, of course, is another thing Joyce didn’t invent (though he may have rationalised it, after Thomas Aquinas).

    Wilde is a tiresome fellow, isn’t it! – I distrust everything he ever says. – To me, having read a few things now by Moore – I’d have to say his style varies wildly: – I can imagine him over-researching, particularly in his early works (I never finished Esther Waters, and there must have been a reason). TUF, though, really is written in the simple, straight-forward manner of Dubliners – there’s no “research” or “education” there. His autobiographical works, if anything, seem to lack sufficient research.

    What, in all my facetiousness about “invention” and “originality” I didn’t mention above about Moore, is that on a stylistic level – in terms of his ability to use the English language, which in my view is just about the only thing that matters in writing in the long run – I think Moore is good enough to survive – something I don’t think is true of many forgotten writers, who are in the main just plodding dullards. – Just, so far at least, NOT his novels.

  4. There, I found a nice quote:

    “‘Joyce, Joyce, why he’s nobody from the Dublin docks: no family,
    no breeding. Someone else once sent me his Portrait of the Artist
    as a Young Man, a book entirely without distinction; why, I did the
    same thing, but much better, in the Confessions of a Young Man.
    Why attempt the same thing unless you can turn out a better book?'”

    George Moore, 1922.

  5. You’ll enjoy The Brook Kerith; Moore was a very fine writer, but not, in my view, quite as good as Joyce.

  6. I hope I shall enjoy The Brook Kerith. I may wait a bit though. – I’m reading The Untilled Field at the moment; and just today I picked up a copy of Memoirs of My Dead Life.

    I quote Moore’s view of Joyce; Joyce’s view of Moore seems to be the typical classicist’s view of the romantic: – that he won’t sit down enough and painstakingly craft his novel (another notion which, curiously, is believed to form a part of modernism). – Not, of course, that Moore’s work isn’t painstakingly crafted (I don’t know!), but it doesn’t give the impression it is (ars gratia artis etc).

  7. Don’t you find the Untilled Field very uneven? SOme v. good stories and some “so what” stories? I think GM was a poor self-editor.

  8. I’ve only read 2 stories so far. I liked the one about the woman obsessed with her stained-glass window. – I’ll report back when I’ve finished. – Yes, not self-editing is part of what I see in the romantic / classical divide: – I imagine Joyce spent the majority of his waking life self-editing his work.

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