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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

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. "I learned in the war the value and the fragility of human life," Morris later wrote in A View from the Ridge: The Testimony of a Twentieth-Century Christian (1996). 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. Three of his early novels were set in the South Pacific.

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." ('Behind the Best Sellers; Morris West' by Edwin McDowell, The New York Times, 9.8.1981) 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. West described the pope as a man who carries the sins of the world on his shoulders.

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, is said to have been based on the character of the famous theologian Teilhard de Chardin. Before being elected Pope, Kiril Lakota, an archbishop of the Russian Catholic Church, has spent two decades  as a political prisoner in a Siberian labor camp. Lee Roy Andersson's overblown film version of the novel from 1968, starring Anthony Quinn (Kiril Lakota), Sir Laurence Olivier (the Soviet premier Piotr Ilyich Kamenev), and David Janssen (George Faber), who had played Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive television series, was met with lukewarm reviews. The New York Times wrote that "the first two hours are unintelligible." Like in David Lean's Doctor Zhivago, most of the outdoor  scenes set in Siberia were shot in Finland. Alex North received Golden Globe for the Best Original Score.

The story 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), about the election of a "law-and-order" candidate to lead the Church. West's trilogy foretold the rise of a pope from the behind the Iron Curtain fifteen years before it occurred: the first volume was published just before Pope John XXIII died; the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978. In The Ringmaster (1991), a political thriller,  West managed to predict the breakup of the Soviet Union. Much of the story was set in Japan. The Ringmaster of the title is Gilbert Anselm Langton, a  publisher, professional polyglot and paid negotiator.

The Ambassador (1965), written from the perspective of a fictional American ambassador to South Vietnam, examined the relationships between the Vietnamese government and the U.S. military and local officials – the author himself objected the Australian presence in the Vietnam War. To gather background material, West traveled in Bangkok, Saigon, Hong Kong and Japan, and interviewed President Diem. However, West denied that anything except the basic situation in the story was drawn from life. "Critics may call my new book anti-American. I have faced up to this as I've faced up to the fact that certain Catholics, on the basis of my other books, will always regard me as a potentially dangerous man." ('A Novelist Named West Faces East,' Life, 19 March  1965)

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. West's drama drew a parallel between psychoanalysis and confession. It was based on a true case study by the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who wrote his autobiography: "A lady came to my office. She refused to give her name, said it did not matter, since she wished to have only the one consultation." (Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G. Jung, recorded an edited by Aniela Jaffé, rev. ed. 1961, p. 122)  The play opened on Broadway in the spring of 1982 and was also made into a novel in 1983.

West explored a turbulent period in Jung's life. Dr. Magda Kardos von Gramsfeld (the name was invented by West) travels to Switzerland to meet Jung, whose break with Freud started his spiritual crisis. Jung also has an affair with Antonia Wolff, his former pupil. In the novel,  West tells the story from Magda's and Jung's point of views. The author himself never underwent Jungian analysis, but he once said that "Jung expresses something in me. I've been through a lot of emotional wear and tear in my time." ('A Mellow Morris West Celebrates His Australian Homecoming with the World Is Made of Glass' by John Dunn, People, November 14, 1983)

Masterclass (1991) was a morality tale set in the world of art. All his life, West was a keen collector and in addition he was 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, gave an account of his spiritual journey. 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. The central character was the sixteenth-century Italian philosopher and scientist Giordano Bruno, who was burned after a seven-year trial at the stake in Rome. West, who identified himself with the anti-dogmatic monk, became interested in Bruno's life when he lived in Rome and saw his statue in the Campo de' Fiori.

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); 'The Shoes of the Fisherman,' in Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners by Peter E. Dans (2009); Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by David Mote (1997); A View from a Ridge by Morris L. West (1996); 'West, Morris L(anglo),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975) - For further information: Australian Authors in Australian Literature Page.

Selected works:

  • Moon in My Pocket, 1945 (as Julian Morris)
  • Gallows on the Sand, 1956
  • Kundu, 1956
  • Children of the Shadows, 1957 (UK title: Children of the Sun)
    - TV film 1961, in ITV Television Playhouse, dir. George More O'Ferrall, with Maria Andipa, Francesca Annis and Joseph Cuby
  • The Crooked Road, 1957 (UK title: The Big Story)
    - Prod. Argo Films, Triglar Films, 1965, dir. by Don Chaffey, starring Robert Ryan, Stewart Granger, Nadia Gray, Katherine Woodville
  • The Second Victory, 1958 (UK title: Backlash)
    - Prod. Melaleuka, 1986, screenplay Morris L. West, dir. by Gerald Thomas, starring Anthony Andrews, Helmut Griem, Mario Adorf, Max von Sydow
  • McCreary Moves In, 1958 (as Michael Yortigt; The Concubine, 1973, as Morris West)
  • Vendetta, 1958 (television play)
    - TV movie 1958, in Armchair Theatre, dir. Stuart Latham, starring Andreas Malandrinos, Anthony Newlands and Leonard Sachs
  • The Devil's Advocate, 1959
    - Ihmeidentekijä (suom. Auli Tarkka, 1960)
    - Des Teufels Advokat, prod. Bavaria-Filmkunst Verleih, Geria Productions, 1977, screenplay Morris L. West, dir. Guy Green, starring John Mills, Paola Pitagora and Stéphane Audran
  • The Naked Country, 1960 (as Michael Yortigt)
    - Prod. Naked Country Productions, Queensland Film Corporation, 1985, dir. by Tim Burstall, starring John Stanton, Rebecca Gilling, Ivar Kants, Tommy Lewis
  • Daughter of Silence, 1961 (play in 1962)
    - Vendetta (suom. Ritva Tiusanen, 1962)
  • The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1963
    - Kalastajan kengät (suom. Marjukka Kaasalainen, 1964)
    - Prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) 1968, dir. by Michael Anderson, starring Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier, David Janssen, John Gielgud, Vittorio De Sica
  • The Ambassador, 1965
    - Suurlähettiläs (suom. Mauri Sariola, 1967)
  • The Tower of Babel, 1968
  • The Heretic, 1969 (play)
  • Scandal in the Assembly, 1970 (with Robert Francis)
  • Summer of the Red Wolf, 1971
  • The Salamander, 1973
    - Peitenimi Salamanteri (suom. Antti Salomaa, 1974)
    - Prod. Incorporated Television Company (ITC), Opera Film Produzione, Orbi S.A. 1981, dir. by Peter Zinner, starring Franco Nero, Anthony Quinn, Martin Balsam, Sybil Danning, Christopher Lee
  • Harlequin, 1974
    - Terrorin vuosi (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1976)
  • The Navigator, 1976
  • Proteus, 1979
    - Proteus (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1980)
  • The Clowns of God, 1981
  • The World Is Made of Glass, 1983 (play in 1982)
    - Maailma on lasista tehty (suom. Ilkka Malinen, 1984)
  • Cassidy, 1986
    - TV movie, prod. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Generations Films, 1989, dir. by Carl Schultz, starring Bill Hunter, Caroline Goodall, Martin Shaw, Denis Quilley
  • Masterclass, 1988
  • Lazarus, 1990
  • The Ringmaster, 1991
  • The Lovers, 1993
  • Vanishing Point, 1996
  • A View from the Ridge: The Testimony of a Twentieth-Century Christian, 1996
  • Eminence, 1998
  • The Last Confession, 2000 (edited by Angelo Loukakis) 

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