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‘Decent draperies of fiction’ conceal the essentials about West


By Maryanne Confoy
HarperCollins Religious, 173 pages, $22, paperback


Wandering through Scotland once in the throes of a prolonged writer’s block, Morris West was christened a Seannachi. In a pub, anointed by the locals, he was given the gift of storytelling all over again. In a world spinning out of control, the Seannachi “express the gift, the grace, if you will, which holds them together.” Storytelling has held West together, he would readily admit, and has also been the lifeline he offers to people who are trying to hold their own worlds together.

Morris West is a prolific writer of nearly 30 novels and plays as well as numerous journal articles and published lectures. He is probably most familiar to American readers as the author of Shoes of the Fisherman and Clowns of God.

This book might have been titled Morris West on Morris West, because close to half of it consists of West’s own words. Interestingly, near the end of the book, Maryanne Confoy lets West explain why he has declined to write an autobiography: “The chronicles of my works and days” he said, “have already been presented under the decent draperies of fiction.”

Most writers draw heavily on their own lives. The aspect of West’s life that he turns to most often concerns church, faith, community and authority. Speaking of his novels, West disclosed that “all deal with the same aspect of life, that is, the dilemma when, sooner or later, you’re faced with a situation where nobody can tell you what to do ... the moment when God is silent and you can’t ring up the pope.”

Under the umbrella of personal responsibility, Confoy identifies several sub-themes that lace West’s writings, among them love and friendship, faith and doubt, authority and the church. West himself had a few difficulties with the church. A lifelong Catholic and one-time seminarian, West found himself outside the proverbial fold. An improvident marriage and a denied annulment fueled his contention that people must “not hand over responsibility for living to any religious or external authority.”

In his novels, West frequently calls the church to task for choosing authority over charity. For West, “The simplicity of the gospel message ... has been hidden behind mountains of legislative interpretations of how to live the gospel.” Instead of being a place of freedom for its members, he contends that the church has become a place of oppression.

This theme is particularly prevalent in the nonfiction The Silent Schism, and Lazarus, a novel. “One by one the critical voices are being stilled,” he writes in The Silent Schism; and goes on in Lazarus, to predict a church in the 1990s of “men and women of ardor and good will frustrated by clericalism (no longer trusting a church) ruled by fiat and not by faith.”

Nevertheless, he reminds people in Lazarus, through the voice of a pope “with a changed heart,” of their responsibilities for and in the world and ends the novel on a note of hope. Confoy points out that West’s lifelong relationship with the church, the church into which he was born and which he reminds his readers he has never left, is best summed up in his own words: “It was the hardest community in the world to live in -- yet all its members wanted to die in it” (The Devil’s Advocate).

There are no easy answers for West or his characters whether they are dealing with church, or authority, or faith, or aging. He pushes readers beyond socially conditioned responses, even beyond their own threshold of comfort to situate them firmly on a solid base of question and uncertainty. Still and all, in The Tower of Babel he writes: “Sooner or later, believing or unbelieving, every man had to find 1 inch of soil on which he would stand and defy the world. Sooner or later he had to say ‘This is all I know. It is not enough but so be it.’ Sooner or later, prophet or mountebank, he had to take his own small shard of truth in his hands, write his name on it and toss it into the bowl, prepared to live or die by its draw.”

West lived his life by his draw; he created memorable characters and stories out of his own life (all decently draped in fiction, of course,) as both he and his alter egos staked out their inch of soil. I learned a great deal about West from Maryanne Confoy and am inspired to reread some West novels and to search out others to enjoy from the new perspective of his spirituality.

Late in the book, Conroy speaks lovingly of West as “the great sage with the gift of tears.” Tempered now by three near-death experiences, he has confronted the mystery and affirmed the light, all the while remaining true to his muse, Gaelic bard to the core. He is Seannachi, both title and art.

Editor’s note: Morris West: A Writer and Spirituality is published by HarperCollins in Australia. It is not available in most American bookstores, but may be ordered on-line at www.collinsbooks.com.au.

Judith Bromberg, a regular reviewer for NCR, teaches high school literature.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998