Rereading Morris West, the Australian Catholic writer who in 1963 foresaw John Paul II's election
Perhaps one can find copies on the shelves of bookstores that have not yet given in to mainstream standardization; in the shop windows of stations or airports where one passes by, and often finds the time to look for something to read while travelling; among the reprints that are sold as something new; or in the discount sections of bookshops in the most unexpected countries. His novels, plays and essays have circled the globe, have been translated into 27 languages — some of which are distant from his native English — and have sold more than 60 million copies.
This is the rich and valuable literary heritage of Morris West (1916-1999), the highly successful Australian author with a refined religious and spiritual sensibility, who passed away on the threshold of the new millennium. To understand his biographical and cultural character, it is worth reading about his origins, which are outlined with a modesty that is filled with dignity and pride, in a passage from his autobiography: A View from the Ridge. The Testimony of a Twentieth-century Pilgrim (1996): "I was born into an Irish-Australian Catholic family at a time when the Irish memory of persecution was still vivid, when advertisements for staff in my hometown still carried the phrase 'No Catholics, no Irish, no Jews need apply".
His so-called Vatican trilogy was, and still is, a favourite with his readers. This trilogy was in part based on his decade long experience as the Daily Mail's Vatican correspondent, and includes: The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963), which portrays — 15 years before John Paul II — the election to the papal throne of a Russian Cardinal, Kiril Lakota, who came from the suffering world of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain; The Clowns of God (1981), which develops the felicitous narrative intuition of a Pope, Gregory XVIII, who receives a revelation about the imminent end of the world; and finally, Lazarus (1990), in which another Pope, Leo XIV — with a more fragile frame and a weaker spiritual conscience than his predecessor — lives the experience of a "conversion of the heart", after which he will exercise his authority in a different way during a period of growing violence and terrorism. One cannot forget that the Vatican trilogy is a sort of tetralogy, which opened with the very successful The Devil's Advocate (1959). This work narrates the arduous investigations of the Inquisitor Mons. Blaise Meredith, who has terminal cancer and, in his last days, makes an effort to shed at least some light on the truth of his life and that of a certain Giacomo Nerone — who in popular devotion is considered to be surrounded by the odour of sanctity.
Therefore, though it was not difficult to find West's novels and their numerous and often well-known cinematographic adaptations; perhaps coming across his plays maybe fewer (such as The Heretic, 1969) or the theatrical adaptations of his novels (above all The Devil's Advocate, 1961) is now unlikely. It is highly improbable that one will encounter the name of Morris West among the pages of those who study daily the so-called canon of English-language Australian literature, whether it is considered autonomously or within the mare magnum of post-colonial literature that "glocally" develops the motherland's language and culture. Worthy exceptions to this rule are few and far between. Until now there have been only a few longer monographs on this writer. The principal one is Morris West: Literary Maverick, about this author, who entered as a youth into the religious order of the Christian Brothers and left before making perpetual vows; yet remaining in the Catholic Church as an active and practising member. In any case, all these monographs are due to the hermeneutic efforts of Maryanne Confoy, a lecturer at the Jesuit Theological College in Parkville (Victoria, Australia), who has a clearly Catholic perspective and a profound ecumenical vocation.
Somewhat reticent about Morris West who is often compared to Graham Greene (1904-1991), institutionally authoritative books such as the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, edited by Wilde, Hooton and Andrews — which refers to his religious experience, or at least his prophetic talent, in a unilaterally negative manner — and its Cambridge equivalent, edited by Elizabeth Webby — which places him among a fortunate group of popular writers without further interpretive efforts — has been just as hesitant. What is regrettable, since by doing this one loses two opportunities: On one hand, one could cut through the usual markedly ideological and
snobbish critical veil that continues to impede reflection on Catholic writers in general; while on the other hand, one could evaluate, with a reasonable level of objectivity, the relationship between the experience and narrative writing of an author who stated that "the chronicle of my works and days" is "presented under the decent draperies of fiction". This is an author — Morris West himself explicitly states — who is aware of his responsibility for interpreting the experience of the great human family with literary resources that are at once traditional and innovative: "In the pub one night, the locals had christened me the Seannachie. The Seannach, you see, is a bard, a storyteller, a kind of Gaelic troubadour. It's a title and an art that finally unites all the disparate parts of oneself. It expresses the gift, the grace, if you will, that holds them together, unstable though they may be. It's a title given to me by simple but subtle folk. I wear it with pride". This is an author who, in the end, knew how to conjugate his narrative responsibility before the various communities that received him during his life with the imaginative courage that he owed to himself and to his unrepeatable human experience: "I write, therefore, at a constant risk of misinterpretation or misunderstanding. I accept the risks; I beg your patience and tolerance. I do not seek to impose my opinions on you. God forbid! I seek only to share my thoughts before I step down into the silence of the dark valley".