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West, Morris L.


Novelist; b. April 26, 1916, Melbourne, Australia; d. Oct. 9, 1999, Sydney, Australia. At age fourteen West entered the order of the Christian Brothers, leaving nine years later on the eve of his scheduled final vows. As a Christian Brother he completed an undergraduate degree and taught for six years in the Australian schools of the order, both lower grades and high school. World War II drew him into military intelligence, where he also wrote and published his first novel, notable especially for its autobiographical detail.

By 1954, having left the military and worked successfully for ten years in Australian radio, West had suffered a failed marriage and an emotional collapse. A year of total bed-rest left him recovered and committed to a life of letters. In 1959, following a period of European travel, a second marriage, and the publication of a handful of undistinguished novels, West gained world attention and a prodigious readership with The Devil's Advocate. The surface story of the Church's investigation into the possible sainthood of a villager in wartime Italy is thickened by the political and procedural intricacies of

Vatican bureaucracy and subtle psychological layering of moral discernment. Thereafter, for nearly forty years, West's almost annual publications commanded wide critical and popular interest, interest centered within but not confined to denominational boundaries.

The Shoes of the Fisherman, written in 1963, projects much of the euphoric spirit of the Second Vatican Council while following the early papal career of an Eastern-bloc prelate. Kiril I spent years of his young life in a Soviet gulag, an experience that both toughened and humanized him in ways quite different from the usual clerical career path. His jailor, his personal persecutor, eventually becomes the Soviet premier; together they form a secret partnership to moderate East-West tensions. Both of these novels were immensely popular and both were recreated in film. Although West chafed at the label "Catholic novelist," which he carried throughout his publishing career, these two works, like many other novels he wrote, are fully immersed in a Catholic ecclesial context. Two titles with a similar intramural accent are The Clowns of God (1981), a futurist novel of a pope forced into abdication whose visions of the end of the world are feared as potential incitement to world crisis; and Eminence (1998), his final published work, which explores the possible direction of the papacy and Church after Pope John Paul II.

Equally characteristic of West's fictional style are his use of highly topical settings, which bring often powerful thrusts to his narrative momentum. In addition to Rome and the council, he uses, for example, Saigon during the Vietnam War (The Ambassador [1963]), and the Middle East in the midst of Jewish-Arab tensions (The Tower of Babel [1968]). The former title claimed wide interest for its insider's depiction of American complicity in the ouster and murder of a fictional President Diem. Students of West found in the novel a deepening interest in Eastern religion, especially Buddhism.

West's abiding interest in deeply spiritual encounters, explored within an explicitly Catholic context and idiom, combined with an ability to project his stories onto a stage framed by global ideological strife, caused him to be compared with Graham greene. A half-generation younger than Greene and the other heroes of the Catholic literary revival, West differs most significantly for having caught the wave of hope released by Vatican II. Thus although his moral landscapes project shadowy, often ambiguous pathways toward awareness and the good, they are far less bleak, their protagonists far less abject. Instead one finds West's stories imbued with a powerfully rising tone of personal renewal and spiritual possibility.

The comparison with Greene was costly to his critical reputation. But there were other reasons why West was considered an author of the second level. His plots are masterfully crafted and instantly engaging, but they often crowded the border of melodrama. And the chronic complaint about religious literature that the penetration of the divine into the secular is achieved more by "magic" than by a sure sacramentalism haunted the reviews of his novels. Nevertheless, even his critics honored him for his dogged persistence in searching out those narrow passages in life when the challenge of the cross is faced.

In 1996 West wrote a loosely connected but engaging retrospective of his life, A View from the Ridge. In it he reflected upon the refusal of the marriage court of his Australian archdiocese to annul his first marriage in 1951, and he declared that the spiritual crisis it provoked was a decisive moment for both his life and his art. "It forced me," he wrote, "to examine the roots and meaning of my unexamined beliefs I had held and taught for so long." Thereafter and to the end of his life, West remained outside the sacramental gates of the Church. But many vestiges of his public and professional life testify to a profound loyalty and commitment to the faith community of his birth. And his literary interpretation of Catholic Christianity during the latter half of the twentieth century will serve the interests of historians for many years to come. He died in his home in Sydney Australia on Oct. 9, 1999.

Bibliography: m. l. west,The Devil's Advocate (New York 1959); The Shoes of the Fisherman (New York 1963); The Ambassador (New York 1965); A View from the Ridge (San Francisco 1996); "Testimony of a Twentieth Century Catholic," America 117 (Dec. 2, 1967): 678681.

[p. messbarger]

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