A Mellow Morris West Celebrates His Australian Homecoming with the World Is Made of Glass
Morris West may be best remembered for The Shoes of the Fisherman, his blockbuster novel about the election of the first East European Pope, published in 1963—15 years before John Paul II. But West also seems to possess a gift for anticipating literary trends. His 22nd and current book, The World Is Made of Glass (William Morrow, $15.95), deals with the world of psychoanalysis—the subject of both 1981’s critically acclaimed The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas and Judith Rossner’s current best-seller, August. Glass, maintains West, is “my most mature and austere work.”
For all his prophetic gifts, West, 67, looked backward—to 1913—to find the inspiration for Glass in a snippet from the autobiography of Carl Gustav Jung. “A lady came to my office,” wrote Jung. “She refused to give her name…what she had to communicate to me was a confession.” From that cryptic entry alone, West created the character of Magda Liliane Kardoss von Gamsfield, a beautiful and aristocratic physician and horsewoman who also happens to be a murderess given to violent sexual perversions. At the time Jung is having his own troubles. The great Swiss psychotherapist has made his bitterly traumatic break from his mentor, Sigmund Freud, and has taken as his mistress an ex-patient, Toni Wolff—even as his wife, Emma, is pregnant with their fifth child. In alternating chapters West weaves a riveting narrative of patient and healer, both teetering on the mental and moral brink.
“This book deals explicitly with sex and sexual fantasies—and it’s the first time I’ve done a full portrait of a woman,” says West. It is also, he insists, “really a profoundly religious book in the sense that it gets down to how you function without a belief in a deity, as many people have to do.” He is untroubled by the inevitable comparisons between Glass and The White Hotel, in which a woman patient conducts a dialogue with Freud. West says he was already into his research when The White Hotel came out, and that he deliberately avoided reading it until his own novel was finished. “They’re different books by totally different authors,” he says.
Glass, in fact, was written originally as a play until West concluded he was “sitting on a Comstock Lode” of material. Though he never underwent Jungian analysis himself, he has read Jung extensively over the years and feels a certain kinship with him. Jung, the son of a minister, and West, who is still a devout Catholic, both rebelled against narrow theological training. “Our histories,” observes West, “at that psychic level are not so different. Jung expresses something in me. I’ve been through a lot of emotional wear and tear in my time.”
After nearly 12 years in a Christian Brothers monastery, West, a native of Melbourne, served in the Australian army, then spent some 10 years writing radio scripts. “I cracked up from overwork in the mid-’50s,” says West, whose first marriage (which produced two of his six children) ended in divorce. “I was carried crying out of my office.” Walking out on a hospital balcony one night, he recalls, “I knew with a curious, cool conviction that there were two solutions—to jump or go back and take life on its own terms.” He went back and soon remarried before moving to Italy and beginning his hugely successful writing career. Four of his books were made into films (The Devil’s Advocate, Fisherman, The Salamander and The Crooked Road) and two, Daughter of Silence and Advocate, made it to Broadway. His play The Hustler was produced on the West End.
After 27 years of living and writing in Italy, Austria, Britain and the U.S., Australia’s most famous literary expatriate was persuaded by his wife, Joy, herself a native of Adelaide, that it was time to go home. In 1982 the Wests returned not to Melbourne but to Clareville, a leafy northern suburb of Sydney. Their spacious home overlooks an inland waterway, where West keeps a 24-foot sailboat at his private dock. He still golfs—”badly,” he says, “and I’m unlikely to improve.”
West’s next novel will be called Sydney Ducks, referring to the Australian emigrants who settled in San Francisco during the 19th century. “They were thieves and pimps and bashers and ruffians, and they terrorized the districts around Union Square,” West reports with enthusiasm. He may still suffer from occasional wanderlust, but he isn’t sorry he’s gone back Down Under. “Joy was right when she said it was time,” West concedes. “She always is.”