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Last charge of an old warhorse

HE was meant to be discussing his "come-back" novel Vanishing Point but Morris West The Last Confession had other matters on his mind. It just was days before his 80th birthday and  the orator's delivery was in orotund overdrive. His forthcoming View From  A Ridge would, he declared, be his Last Testament, a "personal manifesto  [expressed] in an old man's form, dear boy, seizing moments of recollection  and embroidering." That was four years ago. By then he had already retired  once, three years earlier with fanfare of final interviews, memorial banquet  and claims of being "cured of the writing disease". And within months, of  course, he had retired from retiring. Which is why, Last Testament asides aside, neither of us was entirely convinced View From A Ridge was truly amen.

A double bypass survivor of several heart attacks, West was increasingly conscious that for him "every transient day [was] simply a blessed one". Beyond that, he seemed uncharacteristically hesitant, tempted to rest on the record of his 60 million-copies-sold career. "More and more these days," he agreed when I last saw him, "I feel the need of contemplative quiet, to sit and watch the trees."

As if. He was wryly realist enough to acknowledge his driven nature.The question, if any, was almost rhetorical: he would write but would his writing be for publication? After half a century of it, he was experiencing "those 'Have I said this before questions? Does this mean anything to anybody? Who's listening? Am I talking nonsense?" Self-examination would have given the answers: "possibly", "certainly", "a devout of readers" and "pshaw".

Like an aged warhorse scenting the joust, he couldn't resist one last gallop. His ambition was high - something that would silence the literary carpers who decried his work as plot-based blockbusters dressed up in liturgical costume. He had the subject: 16th century religious thinker Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake 400 years ago and a man with whom he identified personally and intellectually. Thirty years ago, in fact, he had written a blank verse play about Bruno, The Heretic (which of all his books, he acknowledged, "had the most of me in it"), and in early 1999 he completed both a libretto and film script based on the play. His last novel was to be the cornerstone to a venture he regarded as "a fitting coda to a life's work".

As it turned out, Last Confession (HarperCollins, 214pp, $36.95) is an unfinished sonata. West died at his desk in October last year, still some six weeks short of completing his first draft. Rumours then swept the publishing industry that (a) the book would never materialise and (b) that a hired gun would complete the manuscript. Neither was true.

His publishers have done the old stager proud, packaging him in hardback complete with foreword by novelist Tom Keneally (who mourns the passing of a tribal elder) and an editor's note. In the latter, Angelo Loukakis thanks West's family for the decision to publish as is, unedited. His educated guess is that "we have been left with about 70 per cent of the word extent" West was working towards. If not for a couple of false starts, it might easily have been completed - but then it probably wouldn't hold half the romance it now does.

West told me initially that if he wrote again, it would be "a personal travel book, autobiographical in nature, an anecdotal revisiting of the scenes and characters from a long and varied life". Loukakis says that as late as early 1999, West was working on "a contemporary, largely psychological/moral portrait" of a "money-man". When he discarded that in favour of a diaristic mosaic, the cell-side "confession" of Giordano Bruno in the month before his burning, the words flowed quickly. But not quickly enough.

This is a book written by a man aware death is imminent about a man aware execution is near. There's poignancy in that, even more in what is ostensibly West's last paragraph, the words he was writing when struck down. "I can write no more today" it begins. And finishes, "who knows to what nightmares I might wake".

For such a compassionate believer, the ironies inherent in those last words resound with fatal intuition. Such externals, of course, colour judgement of the work as a whole. Because simply put there is no whole. As it stands, the book covers just 14 days. Its penultimate chapter (the last is an epilogue penned from his notes by his wife, Joy, and long-term assistant Beryl Barraclough) is headlined 4 January; Bruno was executed on February 17, 1600. By extension, West's completed version could easily have been twice as long.

There is enough here to justify publication, but only just. The most generous conclusion is that HarperCollins intend this book as homage, as a collectible for fans and as posthumous respect for a valued author. West's novels and plays have always majored in the moral dilemma, whether religious and/or political, and beyond that in how individual choice can convert into the courageous or the catastrophic. Not infrequently, his heroes have been turbulent Catholics. And so here.

His writing is as pacy as ever, his story-teller's skills strongly in evidence. There is unusual passion in the prose and a promising plot. And there are rough edges, over-gildings and passages where philosophical and theological exposition clog the flow. No doubt these would have been excised in second draft. Nevertheless, the prickly, intemperate "cloud-walker" Bruno springs off the page as lively and alive. His story, revealed in a weave of scattered anecdote and erratic recollection, is engrossing, as is West's patent identification with his protagonist.

If time had allowed, he may well have realised his ambition: the novel we are left to judge exposes the depth of his moral questing and the worldly humanity that impelled him. But the work we are left with is no masterpiece. When I finished it, I wondered briefly whether West would have wanted publication as it stood. But only briefly. Given his doughty self-esteem, there is no doubt. After all, Last Confession is intriguing in its potential, it does allow us to spy on a master craftsman "in progress"- and it is without doubt the last testament.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, June 17, 2000
Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 2000


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