A pioneer of the modern blockbuster, Morris West, is published again

Daughter Melanie Bryan with the Judy Cassab portrait of her father, Morris West.  Photo: Christopher Pearce
Daughter Melanie Bryan with the Judy Cassab portrait of her father, Morris West. Photo: Christopher Pearce

A daughter's determination that her father not be forgotten lies behind a push to restore the formidable literary reputation of Morris West, one of Australia's all-time successful fiction writers.

The former seminarian wrote his first novel, Moon in My Pocket (1945), under a nom de plume while in the army. It was the first of 31 titles - many of them religious thrillers - that rocketed him into the top echelons of popular fiction alongside Leon Uris, James A. Michener and James Clavell.

While West had sold 70 million copies worldwide in his lifetime, all of his titles are out of print in Australia, some for decades.

Over the past year, West's daughter Melanie Bryan has been arranging the international rights for her father's books, and the family is keen to have them on the shelves again under the same publishing imprint for the first time.

West's back catalogue was released internationally by Allen & Unwin on Wednesday, the same day the State Library of NSW took possession of the author's portrait, donated by the West family and painted by two-times Archibald Prize winner Judy Cassab.

The portrait was a valuable addition to the library's collection, which had more than 300 editions of West's books, said Margot Riley, State Library curator.

Cassab's 1985 portrait shows the storyteller at his desk where he died in October 1999 trying to complete the final chapters of Last Confession, published posthumously in 2000.

"There is no better death for a writer," Ms Bryan said. "He had written all his life. Even in the seminary he wrote poetry, he wrote essays. This was a man who was a true writer.

"There have been several portraits of dad done by various artists but what [Cassab] captured in this painting is dad's ... deep compassion. There is something of his soul in this painting."

West sold books by the truckload in his time, said Allen & Unwin publisher Elizabeth Weiss, and yet he was less known than other popular Australian authors such as Colleen McCullough, Thomas Keneally, Bryce Courtenay and Jon Cleary.

Ms Weiss wondered if Australian literary culture was reluctant to acknowledge a novelist who largely wrote about places outside of Australia.

"Or is it that an increasingly secular Australia is now uncomfortable reading fiction that takes religion seriously? Morris West's best-known novels, The Devil's Advocate, Shoes of the Fisherman, The Clowns of God and Lazarus, all focus on the Catholic Church, with deep insight and a critical eye.

"He was writing after the opening of the church to the modern world under Vatican II, yet he anticipated the shift to a much more doctrinaire, dogmatic kind of church. Although he did not talk about child sexual abuse, he describes a secretive, hardline church."

Ms Bryan said her father recognised the dangers of secrecy in any organisation and had been privately worried by the appointment of Cardinal George Pell.

"He's been criticised recently for not speaking out about the abuses of the church but that is to misunderstand the deeply conservative time in which he lived," she said.

"People didn't speak about that sort of thing. You didn't talk about it in the family, you didn't talk about it in society, so I don't think it is fair to criticise someone for what everyone else was doing at the time.

"You couldn't speak out, there were silences in place, and, because dad also believed that you shouldn't speak out until you could prove it, you can't go round slandering even the church."

This story A pioneer of the modern blockbuster, Morris West, is published again first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.