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The quintessential storyteller

In 1992 I had the good fortune, during some sabbatical leave, to participate in a seminar entitled ‘Story as Pedagogy’, led by United Faculty of Theology lecturer Denham Grierson. I can remember being struck by John Shea’s words: ‘We are the story that God tells. Our very lives are the words that come from his mouth.’ To view God as a storyteller, to read Elie Wiesel’s words that ‘God made man because he loves stories’, to be reminded that we are all born into a community of stories and storytellers, was to see the nobility of the teaching vocation in a new light. Teachers are innate storytellers, and we learn who we are through the stories we embrace as our own. Our own story is sacred ground, Caroline Jones once said, and telling it connects us in a most profound way to our hearers.

In her biography Morris West: Literary Maverick Maryanne Confoy tells an interesting story ‘of research and disclosure’ about one of our great Australian storytellers. I am not sure that the term maverick, which often points to the quirky and eccentric qualities in a person, quite does Morris West justice. Nonconformist and unorthodox he certainly was, but ‘maverick’ does not really capture that passion and rich independence of mind which avid readers of his came to enjoy. Indeed, towards the end of the book, Confoy refers to the criticism by Morris’s widow Joy that her biography painted him as too distant, and did not convey his warmth and generosity as a husband and close family man. While Confoy with all modesty accepts this as a valid criticism of her work, it is hardly a substantial negative mark. Morris West was a most complex character.

He wrote often about the divided self, he saw himself as an outsider in most social contexts, he was a man of many contrasts and contradictions. After all, West would liken himself to ‘the man without a shadow’ in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Confoy is skilful at unravelling this multi-layered character for us.

As someone who has enjoyed reading a good number of West’s 32 novels, who believes that his prose is of such stand-alone quality that one can often return to savour it, I thoroughly enjoyed learning something about the man himself in Confoy’s biography. Particularly interesting is her treatment of the historical factors shaping West’s life. As the eldest child who joined the Christian Brothers’ juniorate at the age of 13, he was an outsider in his own family, he was bullied at school, he resented his years in the cloister, and he replicated his own father’s habits by being an absentee father for his first wife and children. It was not until he discovered Europe and its culture that he first began to feel at home. When his first marriage broke down, his inability to gain an annulment from the Church he loved meant he became an outsider in this context too. Even when he enjoyed immense success as a novelist overseas, many in the Australian literary community continued to see him as an alien and were somewhat envious of this expatriate’s international acclaim.

When one looks at the various themes in Morris West’s writing and their deft treatment by Confoy, one notes a certain prescience in the global problems West targets—issues which continue to trouble and challenge us today. The evils of terrorism, the abuse of political power, the malaise of centralism in the Church and its problems with a then ailing, albeit charismatic, Pope as leader, questions relating to the role of women in the life of the Church and clerical celibacy, were all issues to preoccupy West and become the focus of his writing and public speeches. Though something of an outsider in the Church, it was still family for West and he saw himself as its ‘loyal opposition’. Confoy summarises this very succinctly: ‘West wrote his way through the questions life forced him to ask.’

As broad as the sweep of global issues treated in West’s writing is, there is much of his personal footprint too. Given that he felt so much of an outsider from an early age, Confoy demonstrates that ‘this became his primary mode of engaging with life, the lens through which he perceived the world, and the reason for the adversarial stance which came so easily to him, even in his close relationships’. His writings, therefore, are permeated with the experience of the alien and the outsider, the struggles of characters with divided selves. Confoy illustrates how these struggles mirror West’s own personal conflicts as he kept asking and attempting to answer three key fundamentally religious questions: who am I; why am I; where am I going?

Confoy has done us a great service in writing of a complex and driven man who constantly confronted the ‘defaced mosaic’, as he put it, of his life. Through his writings the quintessential storyteller helped a myriad of readers to understand their own story. Confoy’s fine biography helps us to appreciate the irony that Morris West struggled hard to do the same for himself. 

Christopher Gleeson sj is the director of Jesuit Publications.



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