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The quintessential storyteller

  • 27 April 2006

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