THERE IS AN established niche in dramatic criticism for "the well-made play," but reviewers of fiction have never developed a comparable category to describe the moderately ambitious, professionally rendered novel, the sort of literary entertainment with sufficient overtones of complexity to make one want to stick the word serious before literary. This is a pity. A review ought to convey some idea of what to expect from a book, since the wrong expectations can so easily spoil the reader's response.
Pick up Brian Moore, for example, expecting him to live up to those boiled adjectives that drip from the critics' pens like lies from the lips of practiced perjurers ("brilliant, moving, powerful," and their variants: "brilliantly moving, movingly brilliant," etc.) and you will be disappointed. But pick him up expecitng high talent in the service of a small design, go to him anticipating economy of style, characterization and description, as well as the pleasure of a plot that keeps you reading until the last page, and I can assure that your expectations will get along splendidly with his abilities.
The Temptation of Eileen Hughes is Brian Moore's 12th novel, and it is so well made you can read it straight through without suspecting it of profundity. It seems a highly skillful "what happened" novel, to be read for plot, not a "why did it happen" novel to be read for psychological and moral insight. It was only on second reading that this tale involving a 20-year-old Northern Irish shop girl visiting London with her 30ish employers, Bernard and Mona McAuley, grew for me, revealed depths of motivation that made the story of Bernard's temptation of the eponymous Eileen into a fresh and convincing comment on two mysteries of the human heart, the sources of evil and of love.
The plot is a light coloring of event painted over a thin canvas of a few days. Hoping to enjoy her first holiday away from troubled Ireland, Eileen is first disturbed by the sight of Mona picking up men in the hotel lobby, and then shocked when Bernard declares his long pent-up love for her. Unhesitatingly, she refuses Bernard's advances, which are possessive in that peculiar Jamesian way, not carnal, because she finds him repellent, because she is a fine Catholic woman, but most of all because she resents being used as a toy by the McAuleys, who it now appears have employed her for two years only so that Bernard could keep his ardent eye on her.
Crushed by her refusal, Bernard tries to kill himself; but with the help of a young American swain she meets at the hotel (an animated cliche unworthy of Moore), Eileen manages to save his life. Two brief scenes follow, both set in Northern Ireland, which fill us in on the consequences of Bernard's desperate act; and an epilogue set some months in the future rounds out the tale with a tragic touch. At 211 small pages, the novel reads nearly as swiftly as my outline of this plot. But both work as a work of art and as a pattern of meaning, there is far more going on in it than I can easily summarize.
For one thing, there is Moore's prose, which shifts from description to thought to dialogue with admirable ease. Here is a sample passage. It follows a scene in which Eileen has run across a park to escape from Bernard, who has huffed and puffed after her, only to collapse in a pitable heap. Eileen has been looking on, hiding in the bushes, but she is stirred by this sad sight:
"It was then that she decided to walk past him, close enough for him to see her, but pretending she had not seen him. She did this, passing close to him. He lay, staring at the sky. He was not pretending. He had not seen her. She walked back to him and said, 'What are you doing here?'
"He sat up, smiling a victim's smile as though telling her he knew she was lying. 'I've been running,' he said. 'But I'm afraid I don't have your speed.'
"'I thought you were going to let me go for a walk on my own?'
"'I can't help myself. You're my magnet. I was just lying here thinking: What if she goes and marries someone. Will that make a difference? And I decided, No.'
"She laughed, embarrassed. 'Of course it would. You'd soon get over it, in that case.'
"'No. I'd still love you. I will always love you.'
"To her left, through the park railings, she saw a stream of taxis rushing by on the road. The words he had spoken rang in her head. I'd still love you. I will always love you. She saw herself years from now, in Ireland, in Belfast or Dublin, married and out walking a pram with a child in it and there, in the street, would come walking toward her, Bernard McAuley, older than now, and his face would light up at the sight of her and they would have some awkward chat and he would pretend to admire her baby. I will always love you. To have some men, any man, love you all his life without you ever kissing him or giving him a kind word. She looked down at him, at his bald spot. God help him."
It is a quiet but magisterial passage. Notice how the shape of the action, Bernard chasing but being unable to catch Eileen, foreshadows the ultimate futility of his love, and at the very moment the reader is starting to hope for him! Notice how the rhythm of the prose mirrors both the back and forth of Eileen's immediate feelings as well as her whole character -- her lack of sentimentality (that bald spot), her decency, her sense of the poignant. Finally one must applaud the casual way that dark note is sounded, the abrupt "God help him," which subtly signals the reader that this romance is about to turn grim.
Space compels me to skip over Moore's uncondescending but droll handling of the simple head the accompanies Eileen's simple heart. (Suffice it to say that when Bernard speaks of "crossing the Rubicon," Eileen is puzzled by the reference.) Nor can I say anything about Mona, whose dilemma as a beautiful woman first pursued and then inexplicably ignored by her husband, is made mildly affecting. Still, Mona is interesting chiefly for the light she throws on Bernard; and it is his torn soul that gives the novel its depth and originality.
Briefly, what the clues Moore leaves to Bernard's motivation suggest is that the essence of domestic evil is repetition, the taking out of earlier hurts on the people we love. Bernard's pattern of repetition involves temptation. As a young man he had been fired by the love of God, had indeed gone into a monastery, but by luring him with cars and other worldly goods his businessman father tempted him to renounce his vocation. Ever since, his thwarted spiritual ambition has cast a shadow over his days; and, like an animal thrashing a thorn out of its side, he has been driven to repeat the temptation, but always in his father's role, as if to remove it from his life. Thus, a plain man wooing a great beauty, he tempted Mona to marry him with trips to Dublin and expensive dinners; and thus, too, he tempts Eileen with the prospect of a grand estate in the Irish rurality. He reveals the pattern of his repetition when he tells Eileen "You can even have your own car," and instantly our minds go back to that first temptation and the part played in it by a car.
Repetition also has a more savory role in his love for Eileen: his absolute devotion to her, after all, is a redirection of his earlier love for God, and makes sense only when seen in that cosmic light. But just as his love was rejected by God -- else, or so he thinks, he would have been given the strength to resist his father -- so it is rejected by Eileen. "Love," he learns, "is a religion whose God is fallible." Scorned by God and by woman, and conscious of his wicked need to repeat, Bernard is among the more damned characters in fiction; and his plight would be unbearable if we did not peer at it from Eileen's so reassuringly healthy consciousness.
To repeat, this vision of evil and love is only suggested; we have to work it out from hints; Brian Moore is an artist, not a psychologist or a theologian. But it is not the only depth that will open for the attentive reader of this deceptively professional novel whose brisk surface is not an opaque sheild of perfection, like that of so many well-liked plays, but the unexpected mask worn by tragic wisdom.