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A chapter closes

Dateline: Oct 10, 1999

ALWAYS THE CONSUMMATE PROFESSIONAL, Australiaís biggest-selling author died as he had lived. And as he would have wished. With a pen in his hand. Morris West, the author of more than 30 books that have sold upwards of 70 million copies around the world, was working at his desk on Saturday afternoon when his heart "just stopped".

Six weeks away from delivering his latest novel, The Last Confession, to his publishers, he had spent the day surrounded by family. His grandchildren from America had arrived the previous day for a visit, and in the early afternoon he had frolicked in the pool with his youngest grandson. Then with the discipline of half a century, he retired to "the inner sanctum" of his Sydney Northern Beaches home to do an hourís work.

There, surrounded by bookcases of his own novels in multiple translation and amid walls hung with his own artwork and framed certificates denoting Fellowship of the World Academy of Art and Science and his Order of Australia, he died. He was discovered soon after by his wife of 46 years, Joy, with his head resting on his manuscript. He had passed on with his eyes wide open, his pen still gripped in his hand, his last word tailing off into a squiggle of eternity.

It was a quick, painless exit befitting a man who in so many ways had been larger than life, whose spiritual and creative questing had taken him to unknown heights of success and unknowable depths of personal angst. "His biggest fear," said his son Chris OíHanlon yesterday, "if he had one at all, was not of death but of becoming incapacitated and not being able to write or communicate. He would have been pleased at the manner of his going."

At 83, West had already faced death five times: once when suicide seemed attractive amid the trauma of a nervous breakdown, four times from physical effects - the first in 1960 with viral pneumonia, the next when an undiagnosed ulcer hemorrhaged, again in 1987 when a coronary double bypass was touch and go, and last year when he had several heart attacks.

After the bypass episode, he told me that "one had to consider on what terms one lived or died. And I was able to say, well fine, Iíve had a lot of love in my life, I donít have any enmities I want to preserve, I have forgiven as I hope to be forgiven. One is conscious of mortality but absolutely not afraid of it ... every transient day is simply a blessed one."

The eldest of six and the father of six, West inherited from his Irish mother a propensity for tall-tale telling, from his travelling salesman father a love of the journey. He entered a religious order at 14, "seduced ... by a clever proselytizing approach when I was vulnerable because of a troubled home life", leaving at 25 to become a cypher officer in the AIF and later the "wonder boy of radio". After subsequent periods as a journalist and pot-boiler novelist, he hit the big time with publication of his novel The Devilís Advocate in 1959.

His career then became the stuff of writersí dreams. Hollywood movies, million-dollar advances, a worldwide audience. His books often centred on Vatican politics, and he became a religious gadfly to a Catholic church he loved but with which he fought lifelong battles over issues of conscience and charity. Morag Fraser, editor of the Jesuit magazine Eureka Street, said yesterday that he "was a monumentally alive human being who knew no distinction between his inner and outer lives - he was very strong spiritually but also a man of the world, a human being of great humour and resilience which he needed to survive as triumphantly as he did the adversity he experienced with the Catholic Church."

His international sales success also alienated Australiaís literary community, and he was often disparaged as a "populist pot-boiler". Despite this and a baronial manner that disguised a wry humility and self-awareness, he was a long-term supporter of Australian writing who fought for better conditions. Elizabeth Webby, professor of Australian literature at Sydney University, said yesterday that he had been "a very important role model in showing how it was possible for Australians to become international bestsellers".

The family plans a low-key funeral for relatives and close friends mid-week at which his friend of 40 years, fellow best-selling author Jon Cleary, will give the eulogy. Yesterday Cleary was "too devastated" to talk at length. "I had huge affection for Morris ... I knew the human side of him, he was one of the kindest men Iíve ever met. He had true charity, not the chequebook kind which is so easy if you have money but an abundant charity of the spirit."

The church itself, however, was not so unbending. Cardinal Clancy was unavailable for comment and it was left to Brother Laurie Needham, the deputy to the Australian Provincial of the Christian Brothers, to note only that "the Brothers mourn Morris Westís passing and recognise his talents as a writer." Such terseness would have pleased the unyielding Vatican warrior.

This article was first published in The Australian.

Copyright © Murray Waldren 1999

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