Memoirs of My Dead Life
George Moore Kessinger Publishing, 312pp, £21.44
Without question, one of the forgotten masterpieces of the English language is George Moore's Memoirs of My Dead Life. It has been neglected, perhaps, because of its unpropitious title, but more likely because con- temporaries could not take its scandalous, anarchic contents, its sharpness and unashamedness of wit, and what must have seemed its decadence. There is no other book in English like it.
If Moore is remembered at all today, it is for two novels, Esther Waters (made into a film with Dirk Bogarde in 1948) and The Brook Kerith. The first was published three years after Tess of the D'Urbervilles (in 1894), and with the same theme: a seduced girl. The Brook Kerith was published during the First World War (in 1916) and considers what would have happened to Jesus if he had survived his nailing to the cross and taken himself into obscurity.
Moore was the son of a wealthy Irish MP who died in 1870, leaving him, at 18, very rich and completely at leisure. He went to Paris, became a friend of Mallarme and the symbolists, met Manet, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir and other impressionists, got to know and admire Zola, and was among the first English writers to appreciate Verlaine, Rimbaud and Laforgue. Critics of Moore are apt to say that his early work owes too much to his French sojourn, especially the documentary character, learned from Zola, of his early novels. The fact is that Moore was a careful student of his craft, with a lively interest in what his contemporaries were essaying; and he experimented throughout his writing life with a sharp eye to form and execution. At his best, he is one of the outstanding prose stylists of the language, and also one of the most protean and various of its authors.
Far from being derivative, he was a major influence on intellectual style in his time. He is the forerunner of the decadents in England, and whereas some think that impressionism's reception in the anglophone world had to wait for Roger Fry in 1912, Moore's Modern Painting of 1893 was the first to applaud it. He wrote in English of great beauty and refinement, a mordant, swift, sinuous prose marvellously apt for the impression he wished to give, which was of unstoppably good conversation. He was both an observer and a doer - a lover of women and pleasure, and at the same time a dedicated artist.
After the Boer war, disgusted by the jingoism in England and Kitchener's cruel concentration camps on the veld, Moore returned to Ireland and joined Yeats and others in the Celtic revival movement. But nationalism and its associated pieties could not hold an intelligence like his for long, and he eventually returned to England where he lived until his death in 1933.
Published in 1906, Memoirs of My Dead Life outraged respec-table opinion among Moore's contemporaries. It is the first of three works of autobiography (the second is itself three volumes long). Perhaps the Memoirs should not be classed as autobiography so much as reminiscence, and then almost exclusively of a sentimental or erotic kind. It is a recollection of loves and losses, of passions, of romantic journeys, of affairs and adulteries, all beautifully evoked and carefully, circumstantially, described - sometimes amusingly and sometimes tenderly.
In telling of his amorous journey with Doris - she of the long curving fingers and milk-white legs - Moore describes looking forward to the moment when he can watch her undress:
Talking to her and watching her the while as she prepared herself for the night - looking on at the letting down of her hair and the brushing of it - a woman versed in the art of love prepares herself for bed so imperceptibly that any attempt to indicate a stage in her undressing breaks the harmony; for there is a harmony in the way she passes from the moment when she sits in her evening dress playing with her bracelets to the moment when she drops her night-gown over her head and draws her silk stockings off her legs, white as milk, kicking her little slippers aside before she slips over the edge and curls herself into the middle of a bed as broad as a battlefield.
One of Moore's many quotable remarks is: "A great artist is always before his time or behind it." He was assuredly before his time. If anyone were to write a version of the Memoirs now it would scarcely seem revolutionary. But then it was entirely original - a stream of recollection as a stream of consciousness, flowing without let or blush into all matters pertinently human (even a worry about whether he is going to be able to perform on the night of consummation: "She was une fille en marbre, but not at all une fille de marbre; and, all preliminaries over, I went in unto her, Saved! Saved! by her beauty from the misfortune dreaded by all lovers").
It must have been breathtaking for contemporary readers to be plucked out of the peaceful business of opening a book, straight into a mesmerising account of deliciously remembered erotic adventure. From the very first sentence, Moore casts his spell and hurries the reader away, and he does not stop until the glorious notion in the last words of the last page: "I believe that billions of years hence, billions and billions of years hence, I shall be sitting in the same room where I sit now, writing the same lines and that the same figures, the same nymphs, and the same fauns will dance around me again."