“He’s just like a lot of Irishmen I know. He pretends to be a wild Celt but he’s frightened to do anything his neighbours wouldn’t approve of.”
Brian Moore’s The Feast of Lupercal, is arguably, a companion novel to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Both novels concern middle aged lonely protagonists who live in Belfast. In the latter novel, spinster Judith Hearne, a piano teacher in her 40s moves into a boarding house. Judith’s life is on the descent. She nursed a horrible aunt until she died, but now that crutch/burden is removed, Judith, who likes booze a bit too much, is on the slippery slope. The Feast of Lupercal, concerns Diarmuid Devine, a lonely, repressed English teacher who works at a Catholic school. He’s a fading nondescript 37 and has a tiny basement flat furnished with items from his now deceased parents’ home. Even his bed “was one he had slept on since he was a boy.” Whereas Judith is clinging, desperately to the shreds of respectability, Diarmuid is entrenched in respectability and conformity, seeing his last chance at love and intimacy slipping away.
It’s usually a blow to our self-image when we learn people’s true opinions about us. At school one day, Diarmuid overhears a bathroom conversation in which he hears himself called an “old woman.” It’s as though that conversation turns on a switch, and for the rest of the day Diarmuid begins picking up hints that’s he’s aging. He’s not viewed as much of a young eligible bachelor anymore (if he ever was); somehow he’s passed that line and is seen part of the aged/neutered crowd. He attends a party to celebrate the engagement of a young couple, and the host, a sixty year old, refers to Diarmuid as a peer. Following this blow, Diarmoud finds himself mingling with the elderly. The leftovers.
Here were the old ones. Tim Heron’s mother and his wife’s father, an aged uncle, a solitary aunt. Five or six unmarried females, elderly, out of things. All of them dressed in their Sunday best, wondering what to do with themselves. For they had so looked forward to this party, and now, as usual, they were not enjoying it. They sat in a stiff oval on the sofas and chairs, trying to think of small, useless remarks. Unwanted, even by each other, they were the kind of relatives who must be invited to every function because, being the least noticed, they were the quick to take offence. Someone had given them glasses of sherry and there were a few small biscuits of a plate. They waited for supper, like children for a treat.
There’s one exciting aspect of Diarmuid’s life, amateur theatre, but even this is regulated by the church. Still, in his better moments Diarmuid can imagine that he’s a bit dangerous, a tad exciting, and that night at the party, he meets Una Clarke, a young protestant girl who’s moved from Dublin in a cloud of scandal and hopes to attend nursing school in Belfast. Diarmuid is attracted to her, and he begins to think this is his chance for love….
This is a closed, claustrophobic society in which everyone knows everyone else and gossip floats freely in the air. In this sort of atmosphere, people like Diarmuid can never escape the perceptions and judgments of others. Una is smart enough to know she has to escape to fresh pastures. She’s clearly someone who has her own mind and admires those “who defy people and do what they think is right.” An acquaintance describes Diarmuid as a “fella that wouldn’t say boo to a dead duck.” so this timid schoolmaster isn’t exactly her type. On one hand Diarmuid’s attracted to her, yet on the other he worries what people will think–that the “authorities” will think. She’s a curious choice for Diarmuid. He’d probably be better off going for a Catholic wallflower, but he selects Una partially because she is ‘dangerous’ but also because she’s open and not stigmatized by the rigidity of religion. But is he also interested in Una, perhaps, because, it’s not likely to work?….
The Feast of Lupercal examines one man’s struggles against himself, and author Brian Moore cleverly sets up the plot so that Diarmud eventually, finds himself in a tragic, moral dilemma. Diarmuid must face that fork in the road– who he is and who he’d like to be.
While this is an excellent novel, this isn’t my favourite Moore. I struggle with passive characters, and I struggle with characters whose lives are dictated by religion. I much preferred The Doctor’s Wife and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.
In some ways, The Feast of Lupercal reminded me of a Wharton novel (The Age of Innocence) in which characters are suffocated and influenced by the society in which they live.