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|Morris (Langlo) West (1916-1999) - wrote also under the pseudonyms Michael East and Julian Morris|
Australian writer whose best-known works include The Devil's Advocate (1959) and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963). Although primarily a novelist, West made his reputation with Children of the Shadows (1957), a nonfiction account of the slum children of Naples. West's books have been called "religious thrillers" – they combined religion and political intrigue with an international setting and topical subjects. The author was a number of year a member of Christian Brothers before starting his career as a writer.
"As he drank the toast he understood with stark clarity the nature of damnation: that it was self-inflicted and irreversible. You ate the meal you had cooked through in turned to fire in your gullet. You drank the traitor's cup to the dregs, but before you set it down it was filled again with gall and wormwood. The lies you told were graven on stone and you carried them at arm's length above your head as a sign of infamy." (from Masterclass, 1988)
Morris Langlo West was born in Melbourne, the eldest son of Charles West, a traveling salesman addicted to gambling, and Florence Hanlon; she worked as a cleaning lady to support the family when Charles had spent all his money on horse racing. Both of his parents were of Irish descent. For a period of his childhood, West lived with his aunt.
West studied at St. Mary's College, St. Kilda, Victoria, and at the University of Melbourne, receiving his B.A. in 1937. His aim was to become a Christian Brother, and for several years he was a member of the Order. From 1933 he taught in New South Wales and Tasmania, but before taking his final vows, he dedided to leave religious life in 1940. During the World War II West served in the Australian Imperial Forces Corps of Signals, in the South Pacific, from 1939 to 1943. While stationed in Queensland, West wrote his first book, A Moon in My Pocket (1945), based on his experiences in the religious order, and published under the name of Julian Morris. The work, which questioned religious customs, became a bestseller.
In 1943 West became a secretary to William Morris Hughes, former Prime Minister of Australia. "What I didn't know was that I was one of a long line of his secretaries, which at that time numbered 72. The old man would in furious anger sweep his desk clear of papers and say pick them up. I survived three months." After his discharge from the Army, West was a publicity manager at Radio Station 3 DB in Melbourne for two years, and founder, later a managing director of Australian Radio Productions Pry Ltd (1945-54). During this period West wrote and produced soap operas, including The Burtons, sponsored by the BEX Company, which made headache powders.
In 1951 West suffered a breakdown, and was hospitalized for three weeks. He sold his share of the business, and settled with his second wife near Sydney as a writer. In 1955 he moved to Sorrento, Italy, to start a new life. Prior to West's marrage to Joyce Lawford, his secretary at ARP, he was married to Elizabeth Harvey, who ran a hairdressing business. They had two children; Morris Julian West, the source of one of his pseudonyms, and Elizabeth West, who became a nun. In 1965, he got a civil divorce from Elizabeth Harvey and married next year in a civil ceremony Joyce, thus placing himself outside the Church. With her he had three sons and one daughter.
After 1954 he was a film and dramatic writer for the Shell Company and the Australian Broadcasting Network. From the 1950s West lived abroad. Between the years 1956 and 1968 he lived in England, and later in Italy, Austria, and the Unites States. In Vatican he worked six months as the Vatican correspondent of the London Daily Mail. West returned to Australia in 1982. Only three of his novels were set in his home country.
All of West's books reflect his Catholic faith. In his religious thrillers he argued for a Church that will place forgiveness before punishment. West also wrote a number of political thrillers, such as The Salamander (1973), a story about new Fascism in Italy, and Proteus (1979). As a novelist West made his international breakthrough with The Devil's Advocate (1959), which received the Royal Society of Literature's Heineman Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the National Brotherhood Award from the National Council of Christians and Jews. West depicted the canonization process of Giacomo Nerone, a deserter, and the Catholic Church's investigation made by a complex English priest, the "devil's advocate." West used in this novel his own experiences from the period when he was working in Vatican and met a number of Cardinals and also the American Bishop Paul Marcinkus, who served as chairman of the Vatican bank, and was involved in a financial scandal.
The Shoes of the Fisherman started West's "Vatican trilogy". Jean Télémond, whose ideas on evolution are condemned in the story by the new Pope, Kiril Lakota, was based on the character of the famous theologian Teilhard de Chardin. However, in general, the Pope is portrayed in a positive light. The trilogy continued in The Clowns of God (1981), in which the Pope resigns from his office, believing that the world is on the brink of Armageddon, and Lazarus (1999), a story about the election of a "law-and-order" candidate to lead the Church. This work foretold the rise of a pope from the East Europe fifteen years before it occurred: it was published just before Pope John XXIII died. In The Ringmaster (1991) West managed to predict the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The Ambassador (1965) dealt with the Vietnam War – Morris objected the Australian presence in the war. For the work, he traveled in Bangkok, Saigon, Hong Kong and Japan, and interviewed President Diem. Tower of Babel (1968) was a suspense and espionage story about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The main characters are a hard-bitten Israeli general, a dedicated Arab leader, an amoral international financial wizard, a cynical Jewish double agent, a lovely Israeli sculptress, and a pleasure-seeking Frenchwoman. In The Navigator (1976) and The Clowns of God. West used ideas from science fiction. The latter novel was set at the end of the 20th century.
"What is an agent? A spider who spins a web and waits quietly at the center of it, while unwary flies and mosquitoes are trapped in its sticky meshes. The center of the web is always in a shadowy corner. We do not come upon it quickly or easily. We see the threads first and the trapped insects, buzzing and struggling..." (from The Tower of Babel)
After publishing The Clowns of God Morris began writing The World Is Made of Glass, his first play since Daughter of Silence, which ran on Broadway in 1961. The play opened on Broadway in the spring of 1982 and was also made into a novel in 1983. West drew a parallel between psychoanalysis and confession. The novel explored a turbulent period in the life of the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Dr. Magda Kardos von Gramsfeld travels to Switzerland to meet Jung, whose break with Freud started his spiritual crisis, depicted in Erinnerungen, Träumen, Gedanken. Jung also has an affair with Antonia Wolff, his former pupil. West tells the story from Magda's and Jung's point of views. Masterclass (1991) was a morality tale set in the world of art. West himself was a keen collector all his life and a patron of two major galleries in Australia. "West is adept at portraying the cognoscenti of the art world -- the power brokers, poseurs, pirates, experts, fakers and collectors -- and his narrative illustrates that wealth and a consistent Christian ethic are uneasy companions." (Clifford Irving in The New York Times, June 9, 1991)
West's autobiography, View from a Ridge, an account of his spiritual journey, appeared in 1996. At the time of his death, West was Australia's most successful writer, whose books had sold some 70 million copies. Morris West died on October 9, 1999, in Sydney, while working at his desk with his new book, The Last Confession, about the sixteenth-century Italian philosopher and scientist Giordano Bruno, who was burned after a seven-year trial at the stake in Rome.
Before the release of his 24th novel The Lovers (1993) West said that he has now finished as a novelist. However, he published in 1998 a new thriller, Eminence, which continued his scrutiny of the papacy and the Vatican. The protagonist of the last of his six "Vatican novels", Cardinal Luca Rossini, has been tortured in an Argentine prison in the 1970s. Later he becomes the confidante of the seriously ill pope, and a member of the electoral college. After the death of the reigning pope and during the intrigues of the papal election he must again face his own past and secret love. "So, he had made a choice: to stay within the system, use it as a fortress from which to wage his private wars. The choice was highly dangerous. It involved another rift within his damaged self. He was now both victim and vindicator. By all the beliefs which he professed, vengeance was itself a crime. It preempted the rights of divinity." (from Eminence) After the Cardinals elect him Pope, he refuses the honor.
Among West's several awards were National Conference of Christian and Jews Brotherhood award (1960), Royal Society of Literature Heineman award (1960), James Tait Black Memorial prize, and Dag Hammarskjöld prize (1978), Universe prize (1980). He was a fellow of Royal Society of Literature (1960) and World Academy of Arts and Sciences (1964). After returning to Australia, he established the Morris West Trust Fund to help the National Library to publish books of value to the national heritage. West was honoured by the Australian government with the Order of Australia (1985) for his services to literature and cultural life. West also received several honorary degrees from universities.
For further reading: Morris West: Literary Maverick by Maryanne Confoy (2011); Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by David Mote (1997); A View from a Ridge by Morris L. West (1994); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975) - For further information: Morris West reflects on life, love and the Catholic Church; Australian Authors in Australian Literature Page.