Morris L. West 1916 - 1999
Born in Melbourne in 1916 when the world was at war, Morris Langlo West was the oldest of six children born to Charles Langlo West and Florence Guilfoyle Hanlon. By the time he was six years old, West became aware of growing tensions between his parents. Charles worked as a travelling salesman and was often absent for long periods. Times were hard for many people in Melbourne at the time, and the West family often struggled to make ends meet. Matters were made worse when Charles became involved with another woman who lived in the same district, and by his gambling on horse racing. During his early years at school, West admitted to being embarrassed by the frayed second-hand school blazer that revealed his family’s straightened circumstances, and felt humiliated by his father's infidelity in the close-knit Irish Catholic community of St Kilda. Study and his own imagination became a refuge to the young Morris West who was often teased for his lack of athletic ability.
Recognising Morris's intellectual ability, and his unhappiness at home, Florence’s sister, Hilda, offered to have Morris live with them and to finance his education. West always looked on his Aunt Hilda as the mother figure in his life, but Morris acknowledged that whilst he escaped the impoverishment suffered by his family and received an education his mother could not afford, he never experienced the closeness his brothers and sisters continued to enjoy throughout their lives. West said he joined the Christian brothers Juniorate in Victoria at 14 "as a kind of refuge" from what he described as a difficult, lonely childhood.
West eventually became a teaching novice, but on the eve of taking his final vows as a monk nearly 12 years after he had first joined the order, West decided that he needed a more worldly existence outside the restriction of that disciplined, celibate institution, where ignorance was equated with innocence. However, rejoining the outside world after leading the proscribed, protected life of a Christian brother was difficult and as West later admitted, he left the religious life not knowing how to knot his own necktie.
Into the real world
West married Elizabeth Harvey in 1941, just before being appointed Lieutenant in the Intelligence Division of the Australian Military Forces. Their first child, Julian was born in 1942. West continued to serve as a cipher expert in northern Australia and it was during this time that he wrote his first novel Moon in My Pocket under the pseudonym Julian Morris, a thinly veiled autobiography of his struggle to find his place in the broader world. West was always dismissive of his earliest work feeling “no pride in it" and describing it as "the book of a very young man, full of self pity and romantic hopes.” Nevertheless it sold well at the time and was one of the very first secular books to lift the veil on the life on the religious life.
In 1944 their second child, a daughter, Elizabeth was born. West was seconded from the Army to work for the former Prime Minister of Australia William Morris Hughes, but like dozens of Billy Hughes' employees before him, West was eventually fired. He joined Murdoch's newspaper chain as publicity manager before setting up his own radio production company ARP, backed the Elizabeth Harvey's brother. He spent the next ten years successfully producing radio plays and serials at a furious pace. However, by the early 1950s, overworked and deeply unhappy in his marriage, the cracks in West's life began to show leading to a nervous breakdown which left him physically paralysed for several weeks.
The next chapters
In 1953 West defied social convention and the church, leaving his life and his family to start afresh in Sydney with Joyce (Joy) Lawford, who had worked for him at ARP. He sold the business and with Joy's support wrote his first two novels, Gallows on the Sand (1955) and Kundu (1956). Joy sent Kundu to the Literary Agent Paul Reynolds, who paid handsomely for the manuscript, and in turn lead to a close friendship between him and the Wests. Morris and Joy moved to Sorrento, Italy, after the birth of their son Christopher, which marked the beginning of Morris's nomadic life as an author. Their son Paul was born in England in 1957, and on a trip to Naples, Morris sought out Father Borelli who worked with the street boys of Naples who eked out an existence by begging and stealing. Children of the Sun published in 1957 was the result of this encounter, and received widespread acclaim and praise from Eleanor Roosevelt. The Devil’s Advocate, published after the birth of his second daughter Melanie in 1959, received the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the National Brotherhood Award from the National Council of Christians and Jews. Both the Devil's Advocate, and Daughter of Silence (1961) were dramatised and produced on Broadway then later made into films.
Morris West published one bestseller after another and his novels gained a reputation for being uncannily prophetic. The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) was published on the day that Pope John XXIII died, and predicted the election of an Eastern European Pope. The Pope in Clowns of God, who feels overburdened by his office and resigns prefigures the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, even though at the time it was published many believed such a scenario was unlikely. West’s last papal thriller, Eminence (1998) also foreshadows the election of a South American Pope. The Ambassador, which grew out of reports of Vietnam's first Buddhist burning, revealed insights into the Western dilemma in South Vietnam and The Salamander predicted the involvement of State and Church officials in neo-Fascist conspiracies in Italy. West's list of titles grew and included Summer of the Red Wolf, The Tower of Babel, Harlequin, The Navigator and Proteus. His play, The Heretic, based on Giordano Bruno was performed on the London Stage in 1973, and the play The World is Made of Glass was dramatised by West in 1982 for the Adelaide Festival.
Home at last
The West's nomadic existence finally ended in 1982 when they returned home to Australia, but West continued to write, producing Cassidy, Masterclass, Lazarus, The Ringmaster, The Lovers, Vanishing Point and an anthology entitled Images and Inscriptions. In 1998 West's final papal novel Eminence was published.
In the years following his return to Australia Morris West served one term as Chairman of the National Book Council and one as Chairman of the Council of the National Library of Australia. He was invested first as a Member of the Order of Australia in the 1985 Honours List and then made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1997. In 1997 the National Trust of Australia declared him a National Living Treasure. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the World Academy of Art and Science. Two American universities and three Australian universities have conferred honorary doctorates on him; the University of Western Sydney in 1993, The Australian National University, Canberra in 1995 and the University of Sydney in 1999. He has been awarded the International Dag Hammarskjold Prize (Grand Collar of Merit) for “Actions in the cause of peace and international brotherhood”.
A compassionate, generous man, West always insisted that dissent was important, and he deplored the racial and ethnic divisions he saw in society. He was a champion of the Arts and of society's vulnerable and oppressed, and often urged the Australian government to take real measures to address what he regarded as Australia's "social apartheid".
Morris West's philosophy on life is best summed up by the words he wrote in The Heretic:
No private lien on the truth, only
A liberty to seek it, prove it in debate,
And to be wrong a thousand times to reach
A single rightness…..
West died at his desk on October 9, 1999, pen in hand, working on his unfinished manuscript The Last Confession.
Photo by Penny Tweedie. Image courtesy of Tweedie/CameraPress/Australsope