At various points throughout Brian Moore's 1976 novel THE DOCTOR'S WIFE, there were collections of episodes and incidents so embarassing and anxious for the characters that I started to physically cringe, the way I used to do as a kid while watching Jack Tripper get into trouble on THREE'S COMPANY. I had to turn away from the screen during those moments, and there were times, while reading this book, that I wanted slam the thing down. It's a testament not only to Moore's skill as a novelist, but also to the power that words can still have, that the concept of story itself can continue to muster, if we only allow give ourselves up to the lanuage of imaginary acts.
It's also the kind of literary novel that seems to straddle the line between popular fiction and its more snootier brethren. Brian Moore, who was born in Norther Ireland, and attained Canadian citizenship before eventually moving to Malibu, California, was considered by Graham Greene at one time to be the best novelist in the world, With this book, if you went just by the story you might be shaking your head at high praise such as that. The plot is nothing to write home about, after all: The wife of a small-town doctor in Ireland goes on a holiday in France, expecting her husband to arrive in a few days to join her, but instead she finds herself falling in love (lust?) with a young American tourist, and they begin an affair. And there you go.
Not much to it, right? Yet if we can argue (broadly) that literary fiction is more concerned with 'character' than 'narrative' (and I think we can), and that its focus tends to dwell on 'language' over 'plot' (which is the case here), then the novel is a shattering success at creating the kind of confident literature that simply does its thing.
Moore initially keeps his omniscient narrator's point of view on the wife, but gradually, over the course of the book, we shift to the perspective of her friend, her brother, her husband -- but never her lover. His motives and psychology remains as murky to us as they do to our heroine. Yet by giving all the other intimates in her orbit the virtue of open introspection, we can see how her actions, so relatively tame by modern standards, shatter notions of goodwill and expectations that lock so many peoiple in, and the wider world at bay.
The language is not overy fussy, just direct, yet there's nevertheless an abiding, understated elegance that comes when a writer knows just when to relent. Nothing is forced, and we quitely, relentlessly observe all the wrenching heartache of a woman who allows herself to relinquish an old life in favour of something more. This is the plot of a thousand and one Harlequins, true, but it's also the stuff of real life, and Moore's care for his characters allows this story to take on the emotional texture of your neighbour's secerts.
Reading it, I became amazed anew -- at the oddness of words themselves, how they could correlate with one another to create an alternate world. Here we have a novel that was published before I had even reached the first of my birthdays, by an author long dead, in an edition.that has probably been shuffled around the bedrooms of the globe for the past thirty years, yet it felt so immediate and true, intimate and wounding. Even as I'm studying the literary style of the writer, I'm sucked right into the world that he's melding, and a spell has been cast, and I feel all the while like a kid of fourteen wandering around the stacks of the library downtown, searching.