On October 9th, in Sydney, Australia, the most popular Catholic writer of the 20th century died at the age of 83, disdained by nearly everyone. Well, no, that’s not quite right. But how does one explain the phenomenon of Morris West? He is in truth more like the Italian-American storyteller Mario Puzo, whose 1969 The Godfather spent 67 weeks on the bestseller list.
But West did sell more than 60 million copies of books like The Shoes of the Fisherman and The Clowns of God. And he was the only popular Catholic novelist to write on things specifically Catholic—the sheer technicalities of the Catholic Church: the process of canonization, the ordination of priests, the internal bureaucracy of the Vatican.
Indeed, that, more than anything else, was the territory he carved out for himself, tapping a surprising hunger to learn about the way things work behind the high walls of Rome. Even non-Catholics found it fascinating, and Catholics—well, they bought his books by the bushel. There was a point in the 60s when every middle-class Catholic household in the nation had a copy or two of a West novel.
Perhaps that explains the condescension with which West’s death was noticed this fall. Some of the New York Times’s take on the author derived from mere ignorance. “Toward the end of his life, Mr. West acknowledged his unhappiness with his religion,” the Times observed. There was a certain truth to that. But the paper went on to offer as evidence the fact that West once said, toward the end of his life, that “Christian belief is not always a comfort but a bleak acceptance of a dark mystery”—which sounds more like proof that West was hanging on to his faith, a little grimly, perhaps, but nonetheless firmly.
And the Times couldn’t stop itself from repeating the best swipes its book reviewers had made at West over the years, such as “When The Shoes of the Fisherman came out in 1963 and began selling what would eventually amount to 12 million copies, Orville Prescott writing for the New York Times called the book ‘clumsy and dull,’ with shortcomings that ranged from poor characterization to an overabundance of ponderous theological exposition.”
Born on April 26, 1916, in St. Kilda, Melbourne, West was the eldest of six children. At 14, he left home to study with the Christian Brothers in Sydney, but he left in 1939 before taking his final vows. After getting his degree from the University of Melbourne, he taught modern languages and mathematics in New South Wales and Tasmania.
After four years in the Australian Imperial Forces during World War II, he settled down to become a writer—quickly establishing himself as the “boy wonder” whose radio plays were enormously popular in Australia. A pair of novels, Gallows on the Sand and Kunda, somewhat uneasily combined artsy pretensions with potboiler structure, but they were successful enough to finance his long-desired excursion to Rome. And it was there that he met Fr. Mario Borelli, an Italian priest working with street urchins—the subject of his 1957 The Children of the Sun, his first international success.
In 1959, after six months as the Vatican correspondent for The Daily Mail, he produced The Devil’s Advocate, far and away his best book—the tale of a dying English priest named Blaise Meredith sent from Rome to southern Italy to investigate the case for canonization of a mysterious man passing under the name of “Giacomo Nerone,” martyred by the communists. It contains no insights that weren’t done at a higher literary level by such Italian authors as Carlo Levi in his 1945 Christ Stopped at Eboli or Ignazio Silone in his magnificent 1937 Bread and Wine.
The peak of West’s popularity came three novels later, in 1963, with The Shoes of the Fisherman, a more-than-bestselling tale of a Ukrainian priest named Kiril Lakota, who is elected Pope Kiril I. West’s obituaries all noted the success of the novel. But what almost no one observed was West’s real intelligence about the Cold War—and his novel’s implicit prediction of what would come true with John Paul II: The resolution of the struggle between East and West and the end of communism could come about only with a strong pope from Eastern Europe.
West’s marital problems always interfered with his relation to Catholicism: He married his second wife in 1952 and, in 1970, published Scandal in the Assembly, an attack on the refusal of the Church to recognize divorce. But in the years after Vatican II, he could find no compelling setting for his tales and was reduced to writing such pure thrillers as 1974’s Harlequin (not, by any means, a bad book) and such apocalyptic dyspepsia as 1981’s The Clowns of God (a very bad book) and 1990’s Lazarus (a very, very bad book).
At his death, he was a few weeks away from finishing The Last Confession, a novel based on the life of Giordano Bruno—the 16th-century mystic, burned at the stake for heresy, with whom West strongly identified. There’s something irresistibly mockable in this picture: A millionaire author, surrounded by his loving family and friends in distant Australia, believing himself an embattled seeker of truth, about to be put to the stake. And yet, West doesn’t deserve all the mocking and condescension he’s received. The Devil’s Advocate, The Shoes of the Fisherman, even Harlequin: They were good books, of the popular, potboiling kind, and it wasn’t a bad kind to be.