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The tranquillity of the tallest poppy

 

DRIVING TO THE AIRPORT, Jon Cleary nervously watched the electrical storm seethe on the Sydney skyline. But his passenger was conscious neither of the weather nor the fact that he was being chauffeured in the only Jensen then in Australia. His mind was on his wife, close to delivering their fourth child while he flew off to New York to the publication of his new novel. He was loathe to leave, was going only at her insistence. As the two writers shook hands at the departure gate, Cleary's friend looked him in the eye: "Who knows, maybe this will be the big one, maybe it will all be worthwhile."

When Cleary met him on his return a month later - a glorious, sunny day this time - his friend was the father of a bonny boy. He was also world famous. "Simple as that," says Cleary. And then he laughs - nothing's ever that simple. But when your friend is Morris West who apparently has "a direct line to the man above", providence seems, well providential.

Now, nearly 40 years after first hitting international bestsellerdom with The Devil's Advocate (which scandalised many, had others comparing him to Graham Greene, and was eventually a book club pick, condensed, dramatised then sold to the movies for $250,000), West is contemplating yet another milestone. Or five, really, in what is already a highly signposted career. Yesterday, the Don at a clan-gathering of old friends and family from around the world, he celebrated his 80th birthday via an Italian food fest, complete with imported Napolitan folk-singer. In June, his "accidental" novel (he officially retired from the genre in 1993) will be published in the US with the now regulation fanfare and promotional tour across America and Europe. Then, towards the end of the year, comes his self-defining View From A Ridge, the de facto Last Testament of Morris West, his where-I-stand-and-what-I-believe manifesto. Shortly after, an anthology illustrated by the author. Altogether, a late-career burst of astonishing energy, bearing with it a sense of tidying up the affairs of estate...

Nothing if not determinedly thorough, West has already looked death in the eye four times: once when suicide seemed an attractive option amid the trauma of a nervous breakdown, three times from physical effects - the first in 1960 with viral pneumonia, the next when an undiagnosed ulcer hemorrhaged, then again in 1987 when a coronary double bypass was touch and go. "One had to consider then on what terms one lived or died," he tells me of the last episode. "That was a moment of defining where I stood, of whatever relationship I had with the creator and creation. I was able to say well fine, I've had a lot of love in my life, I don't have any enmities I want to preserve, I have forgiven as I hope to be forgiven, and if that isn't enough, then you made me and I resign myself to that too.

"It was a curious act of abandonment into the arms of the creator, a fixing moment in the light of which I have judged everything else since. One is conscious of mortality but absolutely not afraid of it. After such surgery, and I have discussed this with others in the Zipper Club, your emotions forever after lie close to the surface. But you get very detached from possessions - every transient day is simply a blessed one." He is prepared for the going, he says, if not sanguine about its manner. "I am on the ridge of my life, with my past exposed behind me and in front of me, the deep dark valley."

Hence his View From A Ridge. For 20 years or so, he has skittered and teased about writing his autobiography, a complex madrigal of pr promise and repudiation. In the end, a straight retelling of The Life Story was beyond him, perhaps because so much of the life is already in the 27 novels (the best of which, he tells me, he now feels was Clowns of God but that "the most of me" is in his blank verse play The Heretic about the 16th century religious thinker Giordano Bruno). Instead, he is writing his "testament", and it is due at the publishers next month. It is, he agrees, very important to him "but I am finding it very hard to define and bloody hard to write. I've settled on a pattern that approximates to Jung's Memories, Dreams and Reflections. There's no attempt at a chronology - I'm just seizing moments of recollection and embroidering on those. It's partly anecdote, partly personal memoirs of people and places, partly meditation, which makes for a certain ease of expression. I guess it's an old man's form - 'I'll tell you a story about ...' The ideas are not easy ones nor is the definition of one's own position."

*****************

"COME IN, DEAR BOY, COME IN," he had greeted me when I presented myself at West central. "Welcome to the inner sanctum. I thought we might talk here, if you don't mind my being in presidential mode." Tall and broad-shouldered, Morris West still cuts a jaunty figure, if frailer than in his prime; the Falstafian girth so beloved of profile writers is considerably more modest, the jut-jawed profile softened by age into grandfatherly amiability. Since his bypass operation, his health has been in a holding pattern of pills and diet; the combination makes him appear a little like a kid brother growing into an older sibling's clothes. The flesh may not be as willing, but the spirit continues unabashed, planning projects, working, thinking, maintaining his watchdog role on religious affairs. ("Officially," says Morag Fraser, editor of left-leaning Jesuit magazine Eureka Street, "the church wouldn't own Morris because of the outspoken stands he has taken; unofficially, he's a favourite son. And he knows more about Rome, about the Vatican and its politicking and manouevring than almost anyone - he knows where the bodies are buried, but much of that knowledge will be buried with him. He genuinely loves the Catholic church.")

A news junkie, he litters conversation with allusions to current affairs, historical precedents, analysis from the cosmic to minutiae. He's an unconscious master of dissimulation. Each discussion point becomes a hitch-hiker's mystery tour, starting in one direction before quickly sidetracking through a maze of tangental anecdote and allusion. Multilingual (he speaks fluent French and Italian plus conversational Spanish, German and Dutch), he quotes apparently verbatim from European tracts to illustrate a point. It's highly entertaining and informative, but leaves both teller and the told exhausted.

I first met West early this year when I chaired a writers festival panel of readings from works in progress. Given a certain amount of critical static, I was unsure what to expect. Backstage amid general pre-appearance nerves, he was disarmingly avuncular, a peer among peers in open-necked sports shirt, casual strides and bonhommie. Because he was the Big Name, he was also fair game for an introductory roasting. He looked startled initially but then laughed in all the right places. For which I was grateful. But when he strode into the spotlight, metamorphosis. He became leonine, patrician. The star.

The transition was not so much ego-driven as an absorption of adoring vibes from a matronly, predominantly Catholic Woman's League audience. For them, West was the panel. For them, he turned it on: sermon-from-the-mount territory, papal gravitas mixed with down-home charisma and unforced sincerity. All interspersed with frequent handkerchief-rustling and sweat-from-brow wiping (one woman told me she froze fascinated as he pulled a $50 note from his pocket by mistake and was within centimetres of embarrassment before recovering with trouper's elan). The audience hung off his words, and later from his sleeve. "Morris, Morris," they mini-mobbed, vying for his attention as he made a politely brusque exit, slow-motion pop-star, to the waiting limo. "Congratulations," I offered as he departed, "you killed 'em." "Practice, love, just experience and practice."

***************

SUCH A COMMENT, of course, can be interpreted in several ways, but what I learnt from interviewing him over two days was simply this: what he says is what he means. During our extensive sessions he was never less than charming, prepared to entertain if not always fully answer any question. True he was not shy about giving opinions, at length, and he was keen to ensure his status was fully appreciated, but he was as likely to interrupt a full-flow sonorous monologue with a sudden "Are you all right love, would you like a drink?" So what we have here is a generous, intelligent, sophisticated man well aware of his artistic strengths and weaknesses.

Why then do so many literary people sigh when his name is mentioned, make ho-ho disparaging remarks about pomposity and suggest that anyone could write a best-seller like that if they wanted? (They can't of course, which riles then even more.) Is it because he's larger than life, a friend of so many Mr Bigs, because he has outsold every other Aussie writer by far? Is it because he has been prepared to speak up with passion, and found a ready audience? Is it envy? His religious conviction? His politics? His hair, voice, manner?

*****************

IN SOME, A HIGHLY-DEVELOPED SENSE OF SELF-BELIEF is a creative prerequisite, its presence fondly tolerated. In others, it can become a matter of serious affront. So with Australia's small but self-absorbed literary community and its treatment of West. Not only did the man ignore Australia as source or setting for his mega-hits, he lived and moved in elite circles in New York, Hollywood, London, Zurich, Rome ... and enjoyed it. Ergo, ego. His friends, confidants and colleagues were international power brokers known only from newsreels, the stage he strutted was far bigger than dared be imagined by the Sydney-Melbourne axis. And he enjoyed it. He demanded, and received, a world audience. And enjoyed it.

He gave speeches and spoke out on issues with disconcerting seriousness, sometimes more hector than lecture. His books were virtually thrillers, plot-based pacy reads on big subjects with no literary convolutions. It was too much, especially when the voice was so sepulchral, the manner so baronial, the messages so emphatic. And the more the public bought his books, the greater the adulation of his audience, the more sustained became the sussuration of local - and some international - critical disapproval.

"Literary snobbism is more endemic in Australia than anywhere in the world, save France," says Jon Cleary, speaking as a victim of the syndrome himself. "Although the more intelligent in literary circles are gradually realising that any writer who gets a reader in, who recruits a non-reader to books, should be respected. But Morris has consistently been accused by academic critics of having 'sold out'. In a literary sense, it's totally untrue; in a literal sense, it's always seemed such a double-standard - it's okay for booksellers and publishers to make a living by selling books in huge numbers but not for writers." (American flash-trash author Harold Robbins has his own take on this: "Sure I sold out - I sold out my first book, I sold out my second book, I sold out my third ...")

"People say Morris has a huge ego," acknowledges Father Michael Kelly, a "close mate" and publisher of Eureka Street. "But that's more to do with his ideas being larger than reality, with his generosity of spirit exceeding what is possible to deliver. Most of his private and public interventions are never identified, yet his actions are frequently interpreted negatively because people are intimidated by them. In the arts, those with extensive view and considerable achievement are often undermined by the resentments of lesser and failed writers. The latter become critics." Touche, Father Mick.

One critic unafraid to speak out - many won't go on the record - is Melbourne reviewer Peter Craven. "Critics have authentic objections to West's writing, not only because they resent that it is best-selling and intended as such, but that it is pompous fiction aimed at a middle-brow quick-fix audience. And what turns people against him personally is that when he opines in what David Malouf has termed 'Morris West's best Christian Brothers manner', the prose of his ex cathedra pronouncements is purple and gooey in a not particularly helpful way."

Not quite, says Professor Ed Campion, writer, priest and literary bureaucrat. "Envy, simply enough, is what colours many literary judgments of West. And it is difficult to give him the respect he deserves personally without confusing the merit or otherwise of his work. He is after all writing for a huge middle audience who like a good yarn with ideas, a moral sense and knowledge of the world writ large." Translation: we're talking blockbuster here, not art house. "His audience," continues Campion, "likes his tone of authority, his magisterial manner. He seems to me to have been a teacher all his life - I've even seen him do chalk talks at literary conferences. He's well practised in the schoolmaster's art, the quotes from sages of the past, the oratorical flourish, the wisdoms compressed into pithy sentences."

Authority is probably the core of West's work. A scrupulous craftsman, his aim has always been to produce no-nonsense literate "novels to be enjoyed" which usually manifests itself as event-oriented tales coating tracts of moral agonising. He's an old-fashioned writer in that he takes care with construction, plot and language but mainly in that he writes about values. His research, he says, takes half the project time, and a large part of his appeal lies in the inference that he has access to the backrooms of power. Most of his books in fact concern the nature and/or misuse of power, and when he is praised it is for his readability and good intentions rather than literary merit. Editor/critic Rosemary Sorensen, who has worked on projects with West, says his moral line may not gel with all readers "but his books are good big stories told with ease and fluency." She also believes "a snob element about what's literature and what's not" has affected his acceptance, although his proficiency and craft are difficult to argue with. Her only caveat? "Whether his books survive him is the real question - they have immediacy but that might mean they quickly become 'historical'. After all, who reads Neville Shute or Ion Idriss today?" "If critical disdain at home ever bothered him, it doesn't now," says Cleary. "He's reached his own sea of tranquility."

***************

CRITICAL CARPING SEEMS EONS AWAY from the serenity of West's Mediterranean terrace where we sit companionably with coffee and birdsong. The writer's mid-sized black poodle Chloe is guarding his interests as we look across the pool in which he works out daily ("good for the circulation love, and at my age circulation's vital") to the cerulean waters of privileged Pittwater. Towering palms frame a pastiche of moored yachts and bushland beach, and in the autumnal sun the water flashes a mesmerising morse.

"I'm sure the old tall poppy resentment has been a large part of it," West says in te absolvum tones. "But what can you do? The only answer is longevity, then they take you as part of the scenery. That, and never, never answer back - there's no way you can debate a critic, it's his or her right to utter their opinion."

Such Voltairean sentiments are admirable but ... "Morris, Morris," I tempt, "here's your chance to hit back. You've more than earned the right - reviewers have taken rabid delight in attacking you. Commercially successful, they sniff, as if that were a pejorative. And what about that NSW Premier's Award dinner a few years ago at which you guest-spoke on the end of culture and the rise of the 'new barbarians'? (The literary crowd there responded with ruder and rowdier comments, eventually erupting into a bread roll fight. Said one guest, author Tom Keneally, in a later interview: "The contempt of the literary small fry meant very little to him. Most of us would have been crushed - but not Morris.") Is it jealousy of success?"

He fixes me with headlight intensity. His eyes, hazel near the pupil, have pale blue halos at their rim, and age has imparted a gentle, middle-distance patina to them. At odd moments, though, they fleck with assessive steel. As now. His hands, which have swooped and swirled around his words like demented currawongs, become steepled. "Success is very relative, you know," he says with quiet emphasis. "You as writer are always conscious once a work is done that it's not what you set out to achieve." He recovers his boom. "I commend Browning's The Perfect Painter to your perusal, dear boy, and if you tempt me long enough I'll even read it to you. The thing is, as the poem shows, there's always a necessary imperfection in the work. One doesn't mind that at all. With the critics, it all goes back to Dean Swift, and his big fleas have little fleas to bite 'em ... you can't waste life or work on it. I have survived." He shrugs then, c'est la guerre-ish, and gently laughs. Last.

******************

AS EVER, WEST WOULD RATHER TALK Big Picture items, universal truths rather than personal temptations. It's wrong to think that the accoutrements of success are of no interest to him; he has some, if not as many as before he sold the houses in America, Britain and the Mediterranean, and the yacht in the Antibes, to consolidate the estate. The paintings (many from personal friends) and the memorabilia that fill the house spell taste and money, as befits a man who has sold more than 70 million copies of his books in 27 languages, who still ranks in Business Review Weekly's Top 40 entertainers with an estimated $750,000 return last year, and who has parlayed those returns into considerably more via astute investment (he fancies himself as a businessman - taking pride of place on his office wall among the framed certificates denoting his doctorate of Literature from the University of Santa Clara, his Fellowship of the World Academy of Art and Science and his Order of Australia is one from the Institute of Chartered Accountants for his professional education of accountants).

Conversation on the terrace has turned to the temptations of evil, and its manifestations, and West has just enunciated a long, somewhat complex repudiation of the Devil. "I am expressing a mindset," he offers, breaking a short silence. "Yet a strong mindset in society has the devil as winning ..." "That's right, the Mephistophelian fear."

"... and when you look at the depths of degradation in most societies, it's impossible to believe in a beneficent God."

"This is the terrible paradox on which you can shipwreck in despair. It is the final loss of hope. I understand that, I experienced overwhelming despair with my breakdown, the gradual break-up of my first marriage and the overwork that went with it. I ended up in hospital, and at one stage stood at a window looking down at the drop and thinking it was not far to jump. In that sense, every creative person has the elements of mania and depression. I was lucky to be blooded during my monastic training, that the knife and the cautery were severe enough to enable me to block certain things off and cope with them. But every artist has to deal with an element of madness or excess." Which brings us with only minimal artifice to The Novel.

*************

DEDICATED TO HIS "FAMILY who ... have heard the storm winds rise and learned the perils of strange shores", Vanishing Point had its genesis in an article spotted in a Zurich hotel magazine many years ago on a service that would "vanish" people. The idea intrigued him, the why and how, and "what if the vanished becomes seriously ill - is it in the interests of the vanishers to eliminate or neglect you?" Filed away in the "too energetic" basket, the idea quietly percolated, becoming manifest when he linked manic depression, with which he has "familial acquaintance", as a possible circuit breaker. "In manic depression, one has to come to terms with the immense folly of mania, costly follies, and on the other side the possibility in the extreme of suicide. It's one of the least diagnosed of illnesses, and often goes with a great deal of brilliance and creativity." It was a case of get me pen, get me paper, I feel a novel coming on. Given that he had retired so emphatically three years ago, complete with final interviews and memorial banquet, does this restart mean he's retired from retiring? "I realised I'd have to make overt confession and say I was doing a Melba - I'm not going to make another announcement, you can count on that.

"With writing, and with age, there are always moments when you are conscious your powers can fail, that they may be failing. And then after 50 years there's the doubt of deja vu, those have I said this before questions? Does this mean anything to anybody? Who's listening? Am I talking nonsense? More and more these days, I feel the need of contemplative quiet, to sit and watch the trees."

In mid-enunciation, Joy joins us on the terrace. West becomes coltishly sentimental, introducing his wife with courtly flourish. It's his brother's birthday the next day and the no-nonsense Joy has a card for him to sign; literary matters can wait. "She's the secret of my success," he confides as he watches her depart. Forty-three years they have been married, from the early years of emotional and social turmoil and risk - "they biggest risk we took was of each other" - through the years of international acclaim to the peace of relative seclusion. She was his private secretary when he was in radio, typed up five novel drafts for him until the children became too demanding of her time, and generally kept him "on the level - she's probably my fiercest critic, doesn't hesitate to let me know when something is not working."

*******************

"MORRIS WEST?" one political commentator had snorted when I mentioned my assignment. "What can he tell you? He's an arch conservative, a bastion of the rigid Right." As with many labels, perceptions don't bear close investigation. He does pronounce ("You build up funds of indignation where you see injustices perpetrated, and you think, by Christ I've got to say something about that. Otherwise you condemn yourself to silence. But you must be careful not to become a mountebank - you have to save your best shots for the best causes").

Some see him as the Crusader, others as Don Quixote. Most often, though, his role is that of Concerned Citizen standing against the machine. It might be the plight of unwanted Australian-Japanese children, or the dangers of psychiatry and the inadequacies of the education system (these went over a treat on talk shows in the self-flagellating US) or the greed and corruption of the moneymarkets.

In 1965 he drew huge crowds (and "death threats from the lunatic fringe") to hear him crusade against sending Australian soldiers to Vietnam ("one of the things I'm proudest of in my life is the speech I gave at the National University against Australia's involvement in the war"). He's debated the papal encyclical on birth control, decried the church's attitude to divorce, derided its celibacy requirements for priests, advocated the need for women clergy. He's railed against multinational banks foreclosing on farmers, lectured former PM Paul Keating on the need for parliamentary standards. He is by no means an ersatz pinko, but if there is a common link to his public pronouncements, it's freedom - the freedom of the individual and the need for vigilence to protect it.

*******************

THERE'S A CERTAIN SYMMETRY to West's life. Eldest of six and the father of six, he inherited from his Irish mother a propensity for Irish tall-tale telling with an eye for the dark side of public display, from his travelling salesman father a love of the journey. His 17 years living overseas and his decades of frequent international travel were, he says, partly reaction against the cosseted life he led until at 25 he left, with "only 40 pounds, two reach-me-down suits ... and total naivete", the religious order he entered at 14. The church "had all my youth; I was seduced into the religious life by a clever proselytising approach when I was vulnerable through of a troubled home life; it was a flight into fiction, into what I believe is a very bad system of repressive brainwashing." Then followed a four-year stint as a cypher officer in the AIF code-breaking (and inspecting brothels for VD suspects and censoring military mail) before a decade as an independent producer and writer of radio plays.

He learnt to write hard and fast, became the "wonder boy of radio" and flourished for ten years until his nervous system and first marriage both broke down. A year's convalescence, a new value system. He determined to write and with the royalties from two slight novels paid for a trip to Italy. There he went undercover in the Naples slums with Father Mario Borelli, who was working with urchins there, wrote Children of The Sun, a success d'estime. A couple of potboilers later (and including a stint as Vatican correspondent for the Daily Mail) came The Devil's Advocate.

Now, after nearly 50 years of craft during which he helped found the Australian Society of Authors (he was its second president and negotiated better pay rates and rights), he is philosophic about his literary standing. "I do not belong to this generation of writers by age and by discontinuity. And I know I'm regarded as being outside the canon of Australian writers; it's a not unjustified perception except in the sense I've probably opened ways for Australian writers which may not have been there before. That doesn't trouble me; there is no injustice in it - it's just what happens as you get older.

"My choice of language, in attempting never to debase the language but use it to its fullest, is perhaps a better guarantee of survival than popularity. I have never had a talent for dialectal dialogue ... but I have a rhetorician's ear for the balance of a sentence. What we're really talking about is a sum of experience, a demonstrable authority which communicates itself finally to the reader. Clarity is the essential - you have to know what you want to say."

To his good mate Jon Cleary, the last word on ageing well and, perhaps, dealing with the thorns of critics. "He's fond of saying how wonderful it is that we are of an age to stop and smell the flowers. Trouble is, I stop to smell the flowers all right but he's down the road picking them."

* Vanishing Point is published by HarperCollins New York;               View From A Ridge is published by HarperCollins San Francisco.

This story appeared first in The Australian magazine.

Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1996

 

On October 9, 1999, Morris West was at his desk working on his next book, The Last Confession, when his "heart just stopped".

His passing is mourned by a large segment of the Australian writing community.

 



Murray Waldren's latest book
 
 
 
The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa (HarperCollins)
 
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