Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is so magnificent a title you think it a great shame if the actual novel did not live up its name (interestingly, the novel was originally called Judith Hearne. It was later re-named. )

Fortunately, the novel is every bit as good as its title promises.

Cinema goers may remember the film version, starring Dame Maggie Smith. I saw this film ages ago (it was released in 1987) and thought it not bad.

The novel covers the dull and unrewarding life of Judith Hearne, a woman who has seen the better half of 40, and doesn't look so crash hot either. She spent her best years looking after a senile aunt who didn't treat her too well. Her hopes of marrying a man and thus hopefully relieving her life of its boredom, misery and loneliness have continually been dashed.

This is partly her own fault. Her personality - one that tries to keep up appearances - continually works against her. By trying to fit in and appear normal, and by so doing attempting to cover up an ocean of insecurities underneath her social veneer, she botches everything up. She's a bit of a freak, and worst of all, she knows that most people see it too.

Thus Brian (pronounced Bree-an) Moore paints portrait of a pathetic woman, one you wouldn't want to know, but for whom you feel quite a bit of sympathy, because you recognise yourself in all of her social awkwardness. You know her life could be better if she would make a few changes, but the tragedy of course is that she can't change. She's trapped inside her own pathetic personality.

One of the reasons we don't judge Judith Hearne too harshly is the fact that Brian Moore makes it quite apparent that Judith is very much a product of the Irish religious society she lives in. This is quite starkly highlighted when she is losing faith, and realises that if she has no faith, then she has no society. She will be truly and utterly alone. Hence atheism becomes ultimately untenable, even though logically she realises there can be no god for her. Why would he make her life so miserable, and not strike her down when she denounces him in church?

Aesthetically, this is the most pleasing of novels. It is difficult material to handle. The subject matter of a lonely middle aged woman could easily become mawkish. But the author balances everything perfectly and doesn't put anything in that rocks the novel off centre. Moore's great triumph is to make such a psychologically convincing portrait. Everything that happens in the novel makes sense and is grounded in day to day reality.

For example, Judith Hearne has a weekly visit she makes to the O'Neill family. She sees them as 'normal', a happy family she aspires to. The O'Neill's aren't really enthusiastic friends, but more pity her and put up with her. One afternoon, Mrs O'Neill even falls asleep halfway through Judith Hearne's chattering. This is an amazing detail; it's almost funny. Then on Judith's side, she eventually tells Mrs O'Neill to her face that she never really liked her. Black comedy again. Here's one of life's realities, making friends with people we don't really like.

What The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne highlights is how much we are trapped by and controlled by the societies we live in. We're not that free afterall. No wonder Brian Moore left Ireland for Canada at a young age and started a career as a writer. Maybe Brian Moore is Judith Hearne?

This is the sort of novel that Australian writer Patrick White should have aspired to. I wonder what he thought of this brilliant novelist?

Judith Hearne was such an enjoyable read I get the impression I will be re-visiting this novel in the years to come as personal favorite.


Of note to film buffs, from Wikipedia:

'He (Brian Moore) also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain and The Blood of Others, based on the novel Le Sang des autres by Simone de Beauvoir.'

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