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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Morris West: Literary Maverick by Maryanne Confoy



I spent the summer of 1964 reading in the British Museum and at midday I used to go for my main meal of the day to a trattoria on the edge of Soho. Nearby on Soho Square was an elderly church, St Patrick's Soho, that had been damaged in the blitz and that had once been a centre for O'Connell's Irishmen in London. Now, however, it was the chaplaincy church for London University students. On a table there I discovered some student magazines, bought a couple and took them to read with my meal. One of them carried a long article on Morris West, then at the beginning of his stellar career as an international bestseller novelist, written by someone with some such name as Gervase Blennerhassett. Only... as soon as I began to read it, I realised I had read it a year earlier in Sydney, in Tom Fitzgerald's fortnightly Nation, written by my friend Brian Johns. The English magazine had pinched it. I wrote to the editor asking who was Gervase Blennerhassett, since I knew Brian Johns as the author. I got a reply saying that the editor was in Spain and would write to me on his return, which of course he never did. The Brian Johns interview stayed in my mind because in it Morris West described his work as "preachment in dramatic form", and when he died, in 1999, I used this phrase in an obituary, saying that each of his novels raised questions of ethics which he tried to explore through his characters. At times, indeed, his interest in the ethical argument was so intense that all his people seemed to speak with the single voice of Morris West. Aware of this univocal tone, he boasted that it was the reason he had been translated into 27 languages. He was proud too of his sales - 60 million, I believe - a figure that indicated how his preachments fed a public hunger for a moral sense and ethical discussion. Mockers who wrote that Morris West wrote about popes because it allowed him to pontificate were pissing into the wind of his popularity. So the publication of Maryanne Confoy's Morris West: Literary Maverick (John Wiley, $29.95) puts me into a reminiscent mood. Confoy's book is strongest on his early years in the Christian Brothers, then as an Army Intelligence Officer (reading soldiers' letters gave the ex-monk a sentimental education), dogsbody to Billy Hughes and a driven, work-obsessed producer of radio serials. Then the marriage breaks down, so he moves to Europe with a new partner, who alerts him to a slum priest in Naples, the subject of his first successful book. After that comes The Devil's Advocate (1959) and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) and his long quarrel with the church hierarchy and its matrimonial laws - he thought church should be a conversation not a papal monologue. At this point Confey's colours begin to fade, her story-telling lacks immediacy, relying on printed pages rather than live witnesses, although she says quite enough to convince you that he became a "difficult author", as publishers say. Her book would suffer by comparison with David Marr's life of Patrick White or RL Foster's WB Yeats or Oliver MacDonough's Daniel O'Connell; but such comparisons would be unfair since Dr Confoy is a theologian, whose focus and interest are the ideas that inscaped West's life and writing. She cannot be blamed for not writing a book she never intended to write. On his early years she draws heavily from his first novel, Moon in my Pocket (1945), the 'hurt book' as he described it to Brian Johns, that has a Morris West lookalike at its centre, a cultured, sensitive, noble monk who is checked by ignorant, boorish superiors and colleagues. Its vanity may be risible but it carries the theme music of its author's future life: high romanticism and idealism married to a certainty of his superior worth. It sold 10,000 copies, an astonishing figure for its time; and it remains a necessary, if painful, text for the history of religious life in Australia. It is our loss that the author resisted suggestions to reprint it. Moon in my Pocket also gives a first taste of another West characteristic, his didacticism. He may have left the Christian Brothers after eleven years but he remained a teacher all his life. I once saw him address a crowded tent at the Adelaide Writers Week with a piece of chalk in his hand. Drawing stick figures on the board and peremptory in his didacticism, it was as if he were back in the classroom. Then there were the speeches and articles - I cannot recall one that was a light-hearted jeu d'esprit rather than full-on pulpit oratory. Irony or understatement were not in his repertoire. I chaired some of his lectures and remember in particular his Veech Lecture (1994) for the Catholic Institute of Sydney, when he got so wound up that his spectacles misted over, he lost his voice for a time and occasionally punched his chest, apparently to keep his heartbeats even. Transfixed, I sat there with my hand poised, to give him absolution in case of sudden death. Another time, the year before he died, I chaired a lecture at the Strathfield (NSW) campus of the Australian Catholic University, once the training college for the Christian Brothers. It was the first time he had been back there in 58 years, since he had left the Brothers at the age of 24 with forty pounds in his pocket, a change of clothes in a suitcase and a one-way rail ticket back to Melbourne. Before his lecture I watched him walk round the buildings dispelling his demons as I thought; yet when he spoke it was no easy passage down memory lane but, as ever, hard truths hardly won. Another aspect of that Strathfield speech: it was given on a Sunday afternoon as a fund-raiser for a new venture promoting religion and the arts. As such, it was a typical example of Morris West's generous donation of his own time. Years earlier, he had come to a conference for multicultural writers at the Literature Board's request - nothing in it for him, except losing a day's writing time. Place that with the hours and days he gave to founding the Australian Society of Authors, the writers' watchdog organisation; and his long negotiations with the ABC for better pay scales, when the national broadcaster was a significant source of income for writers. He was generous with his money too, as his continuing endowments of the National Library of Australia prove. One day someone will write a thesis or even a book about all the good writers the Christian Brothers have produced in Australia - Tom Keneally, Barry Oakley, Bob Santamaria, Morris West, Peter Skrzynecki, Desmond O'Grady, Jim McClelland, Graham English and Jack Hibberd are among them. When that day comes, Maryanne Confoy's Morris West will shine in the bibliography as a key foundational text.

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