Morris West, a “singer of forgotten songs” republished and a conversation revisited.

News today that the back catalogue of one of Australia’s best selling writers, Morris West (26 April 1916 – 9 October 1999) has been reissued by Allen and Unwin. All of his titles were  out of print.  I went to interview him at his home on Sydney’s northern beaches in 1998 (I think) on the publication of his novel Eminence, which concerned it self with one of the abiding topics for West, the politics of the Catholic Church and the study of  power and of human frailties. It’s a novel of passion, power and love in the mould of the best stories by this most eminent storyteller. This was after a spell off ill-health had sent him to hospital, and then on to a long convalescence. West  had had many honours bestowed upon him for his services to literature. He’d been awarded many doctorates and prizes, sold more than 60 million copies of his books worldwide in over 25 languages  was  very much the grand old man of Australian literature.

It’s an interesting conversation with an icon of Australian writing and I’m lucky to have met him before he died.

Ramona Koval:


Well Eminence, your latest novel is interested in the misuse of power as many of your works have been, and deals with the politics behind the election of a new Pope, a story of struggle with heart and soul and faith with earthly politics and human frailties. And you never tire of the moral questions that fuel the human experience, and your audience is always keen to read your work. Do you ever wonder if the role of moral guide has fallen on the novelist rather than on the church these days?

Morris West:

As a matter of fact I’m engaged in an interesting piece of correspondence with a very high churchman at this moment – and I mean a very high churchman – on the issue of what is provided in law and the apostolic constitution for the illness or total incapacity of a Pope. A canonist in Rome has entered the discussion saying that if a Pope becomes incapacitated there is nothing which forces his removal. He has in law, a kind of prescriptive right to continue until he dies.

I’ve taken the view as I’ve taken in the book that this produces a legal nonsense. It does produce a pragmatic problem because there are large divisions of opinion that say that the church would fall into stasis and could fall into stasis for the life of the pontiff. I maintain the view that if a pontiff is incapacitated he becomes at least in terms of governments a non-person.

Ramona Koval:

So this is one of the central dilemmas of the book of course, about what happens when a Pope is rendered incapacitated and what happens to the church and what room there is to move. Are you saying that your novel has actually stimulated the discussion on this point that may not have otherwise been discussed?

Morris West:

Well it has stimulated the discussion among certain high people put it that way. And there is a diversity of opinion among them, and I’ve been in correspondence with a couple of them.

Ramona Koval:

Do you think that if you’d just written to them privately to say that you thought that this was something worth considering that it would have had the same response as your novel with its wide readership?

Morris West:

No, you see a novelist like myself reflects and perhaps concentrates the tenor of the times. In other words it’s a fairly safe bet that if something bothers me, it’s bothering a lot of other people. If it preoccupies me, it preoccupies a lot of other people who may not be able to put the same words to it, or would not perhaps even define it in the same terms. But it does become their preoccupation.

And I’ve always worked on the principle that if it interests me enough to write about it, then it must interest a lot of other people.

Ramona Koval: The church you write about in this novel is challenged by corruption within its ranks. This story deals with the illegal removal of a dead Pope’s diary and its sale to the newspapers and with the failure of an Archbishop to stop the disappearances in Argentina, indeed to confer with the perpetrators rather than with the oppressed. And yet you still seem, at the end of this novel, to have hope in the church as an institution, even with all of this dealing with corruption and with human vices within the church, you still have hope that the church is an institution that should continue.

Morris West: Well I have hope in human nature and in the workings of the divine spirit in human nature. All institutions are prone to corruption and to the vices of their members. None of us is guaranteed against failure or corruption of any kind, witness what’s going on in the world in this moment, the follies of human nature and the failures of human nature. Now you can’t abdicate the human family unless you want to blow your brains out, you have to accept the human family for what it is, just the same as you have to accept yourself for what you are and try to improve it.

You know one of the causes of modern despair is the fact that we have had proposed to us, from various quarters, an impossible perfection. You know, ‘if you become the perfect Marxist you have a perfect society’, ‘become a perfect fascist you have a perfectly controlled society’. It’s all nonsense. The fact is that you’ve got the same people subject to the same pressures and to the effect of their own weaknesses, both inherited and acquired, and you have to live with that. You can’t change yourself in the sense of saying “well I have a bad temper I’m not going to have a bad temper next week”, of course you will. But you have to learn to control it and other people have to learn to be tolerant of you.

Ramona Koval: It’s a strong argument in the book though, for change in the church, for a more flexible move away from say celibacy and towards women in the priesthood. And I’ve always admired the strength with which you’ve battered at the doors of this institution. I mean all your life you know some might say you’ve been tilting at windmills. What makes you so confident that one voice can change such an edifice?

Morris West: Because one does not expect the impossible. One realises that it’s like watching grass grow, you get a bad year and you think grass will never grow again, but the fact is that it will grow again. You think that you are overwhelmed by the inequities of a system, and I remember, I lived through war and saw what horrors men could inflict upon each other and women, and one sees that going on all through the world. And you say “will they never learn the old song, where have all the flowers gone, when will they ever learn?”

The fact is that the learning process goes on, and so long as the voices are not stilled and the singers go on singing some of it gets through.

Ramona Koval: Is a sort of a kind of recognition of patterns what you’ve learnt at this end of your life when you look back?

Morris West: Yes it’s more than that. It’s a recognition of patterns but it’s also a recognition of the fact that all life, until you extinguish it, is a continuation of the patterns. Somebody drops the torch and somebody else picks it up again, runs perhaps a different course but the torch is still kept alight, and that’s what you have to do, that’s the justification for restless fellows like me. That’s, I guess, the justification for the constant plugging away at the certainties of the institution.

I wrote a letter to my Cardinal friend the other day in which I said “remind your canonical correspondent in Rome that in the old Celtic systems”, and he’s a Celt, “in the old Celtic systems the bard sat next to the Chief, and in the Anglo-Saxons the fool sat at the feet of the King, and the master whom we all follow told his gospel in stories”.

Ramona Koval: So it’s an honourable place for the storyteller.

Morris West: And I think this is the place that has to be claimed constantly by the storyteller. He or she has to say, this is who I am, I’m not going to change that identity, I’m the singer of forgotten songs, I’m the bard if you like strumming melancholy tunes. But I’m still here and if those tunes are forgotten then we’re all losers.

Ramona Koval: What’s happened to the storytellers in this century? There’s a whole sense that the storytellers are the popular novelists, the ones that lots of people buy and lots of people read, but in the literary world the storytellers are frowned upon.

Morris West: Well that has been a literary convention since Victorian times. To be “literary” was to have attained gentility. Now the answer is as always mixed, you can attain gentility by being gentle in the sense of being educated and careful about what you do. I have a sense of the obligation of the writer, the poet, the musician to be intelligible to the audience. If I want to communicate with you I have to pay you the compliment of being careful in what I say to you by giving myself the trouble to make it intelligible. In so far as I fail in that, I fail in my social duty to you.

If you like, that literary polish, the polish of the educated communicator is important, it’s important to me. Now I can equally well communicate to other people by ranting from a barricade and perhaps do it even better, but that’s not the way I work.

Ramona Koval: Sometimes things don’t work out in novels that we actually want to work out, and I wonder whether part of your writing, or part of the way you structure a story is to teach people, teach the reader patience?

Morris West: Well it’s not a teaching role, it’s an expressing role. It’s an expression of my own sentiments and I think the sentiments of a lot of people towards the process of living which is often a disappointing process. To give you an example, a very small example and very personal example, I’m very proud of this book, I’m very proud of it in the sense that I was able to bring it off, and bring it off successfully internationally, at age 82. Verdi you know wrote La Traviata at 84. So it was a triumph.

Now I was looking forward to doing a tour with the book to get me out of this room and out on the road. Instead I went into hospital for four weeks and the long convalescence afterwards. So that was a good lesson in the fragility of human wishes.

Ramona Koval: So one learns patience, one also learns that the good guys don’t necessarily get everything that one thinks they might deserve. I mean they don’t necessarily get them in this life, and they don’t necessarily get them in the way that they might like to get rewarded. I mean goodness is not necessarily a guarantee of anything.

Morris West: No it isn’t, it isn’t. And it doesn’t carry visible rewards all the time. If you want to take a very Christian view of it, our founder was nailed to a cross, and while that’s not necessarily the inevitable end of the do-gooder, it’s a fairly good example of if you like the mischances of life.

Ramona Koval: So it’s a big task to actually convince people to be good isn’t it? To say that they’ll get their rewards somewhere else?

Morris West: Strangely enough I don’t think that’s what we have to teach people. I don’t think we have to teach people that at all. That is the sort of carrot and the stick, ‘do good and you get to heaven’. People tend to forget that the central message of Christianity was the kingdom of heaven is within you, and it is not doing good, it is being good. It is a sense of acceptance of this wonder of creation, with all its anomalies and all its uncertainties and all its horrors, as still a gift.

I can remember years ago sitting on a hillside rather drunk with a barmaid from a country pub and I was feeling very sorry for myself, my life was beginning, I thought, to fall apart, and she put her arm around me and leaned my head against her very ample breast and said “would you be dead kid? Not for quids”.

Ramona Koval: What happened to her?

Morris West: I’ve never asked. I hope she was well treated by life.

Ramona Koval: When you look back at those times in your life that you think things are just falling apart, what do you think of that young person when you think back about him?

Morris West: I feel sorry for him, because it takes such a long time to learn. And even those who are nearest and dearest to you, you can’t teach, you simply have to prepare them, and you have to be there. You know, when they stub their toes or bloody their noses, you just have to be there, which really brings me back to what I’m on about, that it’s not doing good, it’s being loving, and being respectful of human nature.

I look out of this window and I think this is a cosmos, this is a huge creation, this is one small corner of it. The trees and birds and everything else and I’m part of it. I didn’t ask to be put here, I’ve been lucky in finding myself here.

Ramona Koval: When you reflect on your own life, what were the most trying times for you?

Morris West: Oh all the aspects of trying to find out who I was after I’d spent ten, twelve years in a monastery and came out with part of my mind well developed and the rest of me not knowing who the hell I was, in a world at war of which I knew nothing.

Ramona Koval: So it’s been catching up ever since?

Morris West: Been catching up ever since. I have an insatiable curiosity.

Ramona Koval: In this room you have buddhas on the wall that you have around you. I was surprised at that, I thought I’d find Christian iconography, but not Buddhist iconography.

Morris West: Well I travelled quite a lot in the east, and one of the things that impressed me greatly was the Buddhist notion of the continuity of things, the wheel of life which is what we’re talking about, the ever turning wheel. The respect for life which is implicit in the Buddhist theology, which is not a theology, it’s not a theology at all. And the attainment of nirvana by the extinguishment of desire is to me very interesting situation because that is what one arrives at. One says look, I have been there, I’ve done that, I’ve seen it, I’ve been privileged, I’ve survived, why should I be hungry and greedy to do more.

Ramona Koval: Is that where you’ve arrived at now?

Morris West: I think so, I think so. There are still things I want to do but they’re not necessary for me to do. I’m not clinging to anything that I can’t open my hands and let go.

Ramona Koval: I think in View from the Ridge you said, “I am charged to express Christ and to spread his good news through my own life”. And I wonder whether the spreading of gospel is the driving force behind all your work?

Morris West: No I don’t think it is. I think it is a sharing, a necessary sharing of whatever I have been able to discover of the good news. And the good news is that we are important in the scheme of things, each one of us is important in the scheme of things. We have to respect that, that notion of mutual respect, that notion of holding off the barbarians from the self and the destruction which they can inflict upon it. I feel very strongly about that.

But I don’t see myself as a crusader with a mace in one hand and a sword in the other. The notion that I have, and I’ve always had, is the fact that when you go out to scatter ideas, you’re sowing seed but not all of the seed is good, not all of it will grow or should grow, and you have to accept that notion. I’ve quoted many times the legend of Johnny Appleseed who in American folklore walked from the east to the west of America with his pockets full of apple seeds and he sowed all the apple trees in America. But he didn’t survive to eat the fruit of the apple tree.

Ramona Koval: I think you also said ‘I confess to you that the older I get the more I’m haunted by the contrast between the simple message of Jesus, and the huge and fearsome array of hierarchies and legislators and inquisitors down the centuries, entrenched behind their mountain of documents demanding as the price of faith, obedience to their majesty.’ Except that you have a profound and abiding fascination with this bureaucracy, with this power structure, with this hierarchy and its functioning.

Morris West: Because this is what we do in a society. The larger the society the more centralised we make it, the more the great temptation becomes, the temptation to the exercise of power. And strangely enough it is one of the temptations of old men and old women. It is not without significance that in Italy, where I lived a long time, the apotheosis of woman takes place when she’s a grandmother, when she becomes the matriarch. That’s where her power lies in the sons whom she has spoilt.

Ramona Koval: And what about your struggle with power? Are you having a power struggle at the moment?

Morris West: No not at all, not at all. You know, where do I go? Who hires an 80-year old? No, no, no.

Ramona Koval: Morag Fraser once said that unofficially you were a favourite son of the church, and that you genuinely love it.

Morris West: I think that’s probably true. It’s the family in which I was brought up. People have asked me why haven’t you left it? I’ve never felt the need to leave it. You know there are quarrels within a family, and there are disgraces within a family, but you don’t leave it, you’re stuck with it.

Ramona Koval:

Just finally, do you feel that life is closing down at all? I mean you’re over 80, you’ve been ill, you don’t seem though to me to be somebody’s who kind of tidying up and packing things away.

Morris West:

One part of me is doing that. The other part is saying now hang on Morris, you’ve got a lot of work to do, there’s lots to be done, you haven’t climbed Everest yet. And that’s the thing that keeps one going, and I think it’s wise. I think if there’s a counsel that I give to people of my age or who are facing the process of ageing is to say, no, no, no, don’t surrender to it, keep going, there’s always something that you haven’t done.

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