Morris L(anglo) West Critical Essays

West, Morris L(anglo)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

West, Morris L(anglo) 1916–

West, an Australian novelist, is a Catholic writer best known for The Shoes of the Fisherman. He has also published fiction under the pseudonyms Julian Morris and Michael East. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Set in the Outer Hebrides to which a novelist, 'engulfed in a black despair' and 'afraid and ashamed and sad to be a man', retreats in the hope of regenerative experience, [Summer of the Red Wolf] could be described approximately as a love story. There's the novelist's relationship with a woman doctor, central to the story, but more than that is the relationship with his new environment, which is intense and lyrical, an analogy with his search for a new identity. The book almost loses itself in this enthusiasm and only later on recovers in time to develop a more conventional plot involving a murder. Mr West is a skilful storyteller and has a masterful way in setting his scenes, which only occasionally overreaches itself in the descriptions of the spiritual purging which match the wild stillness of the islands. In some passages these narrowly escape being mannered, but there is a satisfying wholeness about the book in the end.

David Haworth, "Hot Corridors," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 1, 1971, p. 449.

[In "The Salamander," the] time is the present, the setting is Italian, and what starts out looking like a slick, enjoyable little suspense story about a good cop who prevents a Fascist takeover of the Italian government is eventually inflated to almost weather-balloon proportions by the author's ponderous reflections on modern statecraft; by a lot of well-researched but not particularly relevant details about such arcana as the Bankers' Club in Milan and the Chess Club in Rome; and by an inordinate number of passages that begin "We Latins…". Mr. West has a professional, springy way of writing that is very hard to resist. But most of his plot situations are clichés, and, except for their thick Italian coating, his characters—the overworked, fallible hero; his urbane, bloodless boss; his heart-of-gold double-agent girl friend; and his soigné mentor, the Salamander—all seem descended from spy books we have already read or spy movies we have already seen. (pp. 184-85)

The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 5, 1973.

Morris West has been producing highly readable, entertaining fiction for years, and has managed to combine a reputation for seriousness with popular success. I wonder how he describes Harlequin. It is certainly filled out with 'meaty' ruminations on the decline of the West, the responsibility of the law, the corruption of justice by big business, but all of this intelligent despair to me seems simply ladled out to add a little sheen to what is really a very capable thriller about financial double-dealing. In fact, while reading it I was nagged by a persistent echo of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books: Harlequin has the same world-weariness about crime, the same penchant for moralising, and has a villain who could have stepped right out of Pale Grey for Guilt. But unlike MacDonald, West makes his characters intone lavender dialogue, and characteristically ends sections with a wilful leap into the deepest purple. (p. 478)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 4, 1974.

"The stem of the wineglass snapped in his fingers and the liquor spilled like blood on the white napery," Morris West reports at a tense moment in this thriller about international banking [Harlequin]. The sentence tells most of what the prospective thrillee needs to know about Harlequin. Not very long after the invention of the novel, literature divided into two mighty streams, one in which wineglass-stem snapping during moments of tension was impermissible and another in which it was obligatory. Admirers of one stream do not go boating on the other.

Those inclined to press on regardless of what spills on the napery will have no trouble imagining a dashing Swiss banker named George Harlequin. He is a master of eight or ten languages and all women who see him, he plays a Spanish guitar passably, and in matters relating to Eurodollars he is a past master. But as the novel begins, he lies ill and helpless in a Los Angeles hospital. (pp. K13, 116)

Because West is a romantic, everything works out cozily in the end. That is to say, the plot is tidied up, despite a few corpses lying about, and most of the good guys live wealthily ever after. The untidy questions about terror, commerce and diplomacy remain, and the disappointing feeling arises that the author was not really serious in bringing them up. Had his eye been bleaker, his novel would have been better. (p. 116)

John Skow, "Suitable for Framing," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 4, 1974, pp. K13, 116.

Mr. West is a compelling storyteller, and he has us pretty much in thrall before it begins to dawn on us that his story ["Harlequin"] is nonsense, his view of life sentimental and apocalyptic, and his characters nonexistent. (p. 167)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 16, 1974.

Harlequin, the latest novel in Morris West's extensive chartings of a modern Christian attitude over twenty years and through eleven novels …, is severely flawed, partly by virtue of weaknesses inherent in the fictional mode in which the novel is shaped and partly because of a cumbersome structural dichotomy which has been progressively emerging in his work. I mean that of a world institutionalizing itself into ever more complex forms of evil or nihilism on the one hand, while the central characters on the other hand resolve their problems and conflicts through a simplifying Christian vision or in weighty but irrelevant moral pronouncements. What emerges in (to my mind Mr. West's best novel) The Devil's Advocate (1959) as a personal quest for salvation at odds with the lives of other flawed characters develops in The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) into a conflict between Russia and America, the threat of nuclear war being resolved by a humble Ukrainian Pope who had once been tortured by the very Russian leader he now negotiates with. This pattern of the simple Christian visionary involved in a naive salvational relationship with a world of proliferating evil is complexified ten years later in The Salamander (West's third novel set in Italy yet moving in the course of its plot to innumerable world capitals), and is most racily articulated in Harlequin, again hopping from Geneva, to Hamburg, to London, to Washington, to Mexico City, and to New York.

Harlequin (its title would suggest as much) derives principally from romance. Throughout the labyrinth of the novel's plot and its elaborately structured imagery of kings, courts, jesters, princesses, wizards, geniuses, puppets, magic, dark woods, and monsters, one is reminded variously of episodes from the world's quest literature: from the Odyssey, the Medieval prose Lancelot, Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller, Gulliver's Travels, even Alice in Wonderland. (p. 87)

One cannot justify this attempt to modernize the romance-quest with its factitious accumulation of events from the current political scene, its too patent Christian moralizing, its undistinguishable characters who become mouthpieces to outworn ideas by trite evocations of its cleverly designed plot, its narrative skill ("pure entertainment," "a good yarn"). Eventually, every work of fiction (if the art is not to become wholly degraded or dissipated) must stand up to the critical question of how and to what degree it manages the unity and synthesis of all its parts, its own as well as those implied by its form. Henry James's criteria for the modern novel ensure that unity of character and universe which is the indispensable requirement of any work of fiction by identifying both with consciousness and sensibility. The modern popular detective novel with its focus on the fragmentary nature of the institutionalized world essentially dissociates the human spirit from any meaningful relationship to that world and turns its people into moral dwarfs and puppets. Morris West, in spite of the Christian sensibility he attempts to infuse within his writing—indeed as a direct result of his attempting to do so—cannot bridge the gap between the hell without and the peace within. He would have to change his style and hence his vision to do that. (p. 88)

Allen Bentley, in The International Fiction Review, January, 1975.

Although Morris West's publishers tend to label him a suspense novelist, he does not settle submissively into the genre. He does construct edge-of-the-chair situations, but the manner in which he builds them concedes little to thriller conventions. There are no had-I-only-known first paragraphs, nor does a West character ever suffer one of those unexplained shivers of apprehension.

And West has a talent, possessed by only the very best, for creating the illusion that his people propel the plot, rather than being puppets of it. He manages to convince us, for instance, that his hero might very well decide to retreat from danger, and if he did so, we feel, West would be happy—might even prefer—to spin out a perfectly ordinary story. But the hero does not so choose, and West, with the same apparent air of reluctance as his protagonist, is forced to involve himself in misfortune and murder.

Harlequin, like other West novels, is not standard suspense stuff, although the plot outline reads like it….

Heads cave in, bodies fall, and there is the standard amount of tracking down and slipping in and out. West uses the other conventions, too. Desmond [the narrator] is in love with Harlequin's wife, Harlequin's secretary is in love with Harlequin, and Desmond and the secretary manage a relationship besides. How West can make such a plot read like literate, high-level fiction is a question into which any number of suspense writers might profitably inquire….

[It] isn't just a matter of polishing prose. Others polish as thoroughly. Nor is it simply that West explores an intelligent theme—in this case, civilized man versus the inhumanity of a malevolently mechanized system. Many suspense writers take on that kind of theme and even some of the very bad ones deal, as West does, with the extent to which good must employ evil in order to conquer it.

Perhaps the way West turns his genre into, if not art, then certainly serious fiction, is by the subtlety with which he covers the bones of the plot, and the consequent impression of inexhaustible space in which his characters may maneuver. They never seem to make the expected move; the plot appears to work against normal reader expectation; but every step treads inescapably toward a patterned denouement.

And yet West's novels have a failing which is as puzzling as their success. They are not—although this is a symptom of the failing rather than the failing itself—memorable. I have read many less talented authors whose works live in my memory. But West's do not, and I suspect this book will be no exception.

Line for line, paragraph for paragraph, West is a virtuoso at the art of telling stories, and this novel proves it once again. But either he is unable or he refuses to cast the kind of spell his plots promise. And a story, no matter how urbane and intelligent the telling, must cling to our emotions.

Patrice S. Coyne, "The Machine," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 14, 1975, p. 177.