MORMS WEST, the novelist, born 80 years ago in Australia, on April 26, 1916, has never perhaps attained the status he could be said to have merited. True, in
960 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, but by and large the critics' attitude may be summed up by what was written of him in the Sunday Times after the publication of Lazarus in 1990: "Morris West is a remarkably consistent exponent of a dying art the production of literate and intelligent bestsellers." It would be hard to quarrel with that assessment "literate and intelligent". But the sting is there in "bestsellers".
Against that there can be put what the word "bestseller" implies. Quite simply, thousands of people have read and enjoyed book after book from Morris West's pen right from 1955 when he gave us Gallows in the Sand until 1993 and The Lovers. How has he attained and kept that huge readership? First of all, I suggest, it is because he has not disdained to tell a story, and to tell it with compelling urgency. Look at the way in which, in his best known book The Shoes of the Fisherman, he endows a novel examining the effect of the unexpected elevation to the Papacy of a hitherto unknown Ukrainian Cardinal with all the tension of a straightforward thriller. On every page you want to know what will happen next. Will the assembled Cardinals in conclave elect this unknown force? What will he do once he has stepped into the Shoes of the Fisherman? And, as the story unfolds, new question follows new question, each demanding an answer.
But this, remember, is in a novel posing in its whole a mightier question. What, Morris West asked, should the Church he doing given the then dangerous state of the world? And what, if anything, can be done for poor struggling humanity when its masters and the march of circumstances have brought about this state of danger? He has been able to tackle such a mighty theme, and others in several of his novels, because he has possessed another gift besides that of the gripping storyteller. He has the gift of not being subtle. He tells his stories with sweeping directness, You could say he lays them out in dramatic black and white. But he does yet more. He floods his canvases and his characters with more dramatic blood reds, sea greens and sulphurous yellows. They are the colours that appeal to the basic instincts in all of us.
They spring from Morris West's own basic instincts. One of the characters in The Shoes of the Fisherman who meets the newly-made Pope Kyril when, like Caliph Haroun al Raschid, he goes out into the streets of Rome incognito, says of him "His words came out new-minted and ringing with sincerity." Morris West could be describing the words that come out from his own pen. Ringing with sincerity. Here is another clue to what makes what he writes so appealing to so many people. Subtlety is a virtue, too. It has its attraction for the few (Literary critics prominent among them) but plain undiluted sincerity, told as it almost must be in short, simple sentences one after another, is what goes straight to many, many more hearts.
But there are yet more virtues to record. Firstly, because of this lack of subtlety, because of the huge and weighty themes Morris West has no hesitation in seizing hold of, his novels are often set in the high places of the world. Both The Shoes of the Fisherman and The Clowns of God take us up into the highest reaches of the Church. We see with Popes. We think with Popes.We live with Popes. In The Ringmaster, West's 1991 book, we are
in a secular world as powerful and prestigious, moderating between the two locked giants of our universe. And„ again, we see with the mighty figures, feel with them and learn how they exist from day to day. Make no mistake, to stand in the shoes of such tremendous figures, and to feel that one is really and truly in those shoes, is a pulse-beating pleasure.
More, we are not only taken up into the highest places but the whole wide world is equally put into our heads. Whether it is Rome and the Vatican State in all their detail, or the Vietnam of The Ambassador or the Israel of The Tower of Babel or the much simpler Hebridean islands of Summer of the Red Wolf (more of a plain thriller than the flower of Morris West's output but not without its intimations of an
exhausted and treacherous world), in each book we are given the place, the customs, the sights and the smell in vivid and believable detail. Take the first pages of The Shoes of the Fisherman with their refrain of "The Pope was dead". Who else would put in front of us each and every detail of what happens when a Pope dies: the defacing of the Papal ring, the red ermine blanket with which he is buried, the special medal struck with on it an umbrella shading only a vacancy? Who else, in the same book, would know when a visitor's plane arrives from distant Jakarta that it would have come via Rangoon, New Delhi, Karachi, Beirut? Who else would tell us this, and so confirm for us that we, the reader in suburban London, in a New York apartment, wherever, were there in Rome greeting this mysterious arrival?
"Intelligent", the Sunday Times reviewer said of that bestseller Lazarus, and there can be no doubt of the relentless intelligence Morris West brings to discovering the details of whatever background he has chosen for his next novel. I see him as an inexorable vacuum-cleaner, sucking up fact after fact so that his imagination is at last capable of putting him into the head of more than one Pope, into the head of a successor to Lenin and. Stalin in Communist Russia, into, in The Tower of Babel, the head of a Middle East banker of whom it was said "there was no one.to match him for power and prestige". Morris West is a writer of the most ambitious daring. And we readers, in our less than daring lives, can only feel deeply grateful for all the books of his 80 years.
H R F Keating, the distinguished Catholic critic and author, has just been awarded the 1996 Diamond Dagger Crime Writers' Award for his novel The Bad Detective.