The resurrection of Morris West
Australia’s biggest-selling author is largely unknown to contemporary readers – but that’s about to change
According to religious belief, in order to be resurrected a person must first have died. In the world of publishing, the revival of a dead author’s body of work is rare, no matter how popular and acclaimed the books were back in the day. But that is just what is about to happen with nearly 30 books written by the biggest-selling author Australia has produced.
Later this month, leading local publisher Allen & Unwin is due to release most of the work of Morris West. The titles on the lengthy list are not just being brought out as ebooks – simultaneously each one will also appear in print.
That such a bold act of publishing faith has been placed in an Australian author who died last century invites a question as to what West, who was at the height of his popularity and creative powers in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, has to offer a new generation of readers who may have never heard of him.
The resurrection analogy – not to mention the allusion to faith – is apt in relation to West. The major theme of his fiction is the inner workings of the Catholic Church, especially its politics and morality. West’s novels, which have sold more than 70 million copies, typically centre on conflicts among and between Catholic priests and the laity.
West’s 1959 breakthrough novel, The Devil’s Advocate, has sold more than three million copies and, according to The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, has been reprinted more times than any other book by a modern Australian author. In this book, one of the six novels by West that were adapted for the screen, the author establishes his signature themes and style, and is thus as good a place as any to start reading his fiction.
At first glance, the plot – the investigation by a priest dying of cancer into a possible candidate for sainthood – may seem arcane to contemporary readers. But from the memorable first line – “It was his profession to prepare other men for death; it shocked him to be so unready for his own” – The Devil’s Advocate is a fine example of what is known as the intelligent thriller, that is, a novel that blends the serious discussion of ideas and genuine knowledge with high drama.
Following on from the worldwide success of The Devil’s Advocate, West set further stories in different parts of the globe, writing them into the headlines of the day. An outspoken opponent of Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, West wrote The Ambassador (1965) about a Catholic American diplomat who experiences a crisis of conscience during the period leading up to the war, which was precipitated by the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. The novel bears favourable comparison with the works also set in South-East Asia of Graham Greene and Christopher Koch.
Like fellow Irish-Australian author Thomas Keneally, Morris West trained for the priesthood only to leave before he was due to take his final vows. Steeped in the Catholic tradition, West at the same time felt compelled to query the orthodoxy of the church. He was a committed Catholic without necessarily being a fully obedient one, and thus representative of many if not most lay Catholics of his generation and younger living in countries like Australia who get divorced, use contraception and do not tolerate misconduct by priests.
For all West’s publicly stated reservations regarding the proper role of the modern church in the everyday lives of the faithful, and his own status as a divorced man whose unhappy first marriage was refused annulment, West the novelist was fascinated by the complexities of the priesthood and the power exerted by the Vatican. In several of his best known novels – among them The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Clowns of God and Lazarus – West depicts an alternative papal succession based on the liberal values that the Vatican in reality proved reluctant to embrace.
In The Shoes of the Fisherman, West’s hero Pope Kiril I is the first non-Italian modern pontiff – anticipating the election of the Polish pope John Paul II by nearly 20 years. The novel presents Kiril as the only man on the planet who can prevent World War Three as tensions mount between the Soviet Union and China.
A pope in charge of saving the world from nuclear Armageddon? Not for nothing has West recently been described in the Guardian by literary critic Mark Lawson as the author “commonly considered the pope of the Vatican thriller”.
It is not the preoccupation with Catholicism per se that is the essence of the appeal of West’s fiction, but rather the way the Church is characterised as a political institution with global reach and influence. West’s special gift as a popular novelist was his ability to turn the intellectual and emotional struggles within his faith – his own and that of others – into gripping melodrama.
That fascination with church politics and influence continues to be shared by writers who may not even be nominally Catholic. In his most recent thriller Conclave, leading British novelist Robert Harris, who is not religious, imagines a papal election that features a tussle between conservatives and reformers that could easily be the plot of a Morris West Vatican blockbuster. A similarly secular fascination with the Vatican forms the basis for the HBO television series The Young Pope.
One of the biggest-selling novels depicting the Catholic Church in recent years has also been one of the most hostile. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code portrays the church in a negative light as the perpetrator of a conspiracy to suppress the supposed truth of the Christian story.
Regardless of the author’s own attitude to the church, Catholicism remains a central subject in popular culture. In their recent book, The Bestseller Code, authors Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers identify one of the key ingredients in successful popular fiction as a widely shared topic, something that many readers can relate to from their own background and experience.
Whether readers happen to be Catholic or non-Catholic, the Church remains the largest as well as the oldest human institution in the world. For that reason alone, it makes commercial sense to bring back the books of Morris West, whose big themes – conscience versus power, the individual versus the institution – are as relatable to the struggles of secular – as much as religious – life.
It is also important to note that West could not have sold tens of millions of copies of his books without knowing how to make the pages turn. The prose may sometimes be prolix and the endings not always satisfying, but his writing is always full blooded and, for the most part, remarkably fluent.
The best of West’s novels are fresh and alive, even if their author did belong to a generation of Catholic Australians whose members have all but passed.
Simon Caterson is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri.