Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 13, 2009

The Devil’s Advocate (1959), by Morris West

devils-advocate Although we mostly read contemporary Australian literary fiction, every year at summertime ANZLL chooses a classic of Australian Literature – it’s a good way of catching up with authors that we might not otherwise encounter.  This year our choice was Morris West’s The Devil’s Advocate, which was first published in 1959. It’s a most interesting book, and a reminder that Morris West – despite the lack of awards, prizes and a spot on the shelves of today’s bookseller – is well worth seeking out in libraries and second-hand shops.  (Or BookMooch).

(Update 2.2.10: I’ve just discovered that  The Devil’s Advocate did win a prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, in 1959.  Other winners of this award form a rather august company –  Iris Murdoch (1973), Aldous Huxley (1939), .E.M. Forster (1924) and D. H. Lawrence (1920) – so it’s an impressive award.  If anyone knows of any other awards won by Morris West, please let me know in a comment.)

devils-advocate21I’m not very keen on the bookcover above.  It makes it look like a book of religious devotions, and although religion is central to West’s preoccupations, The Devil’s Advocate is more interested in how humans deal with the divine in their everyday lives.  The cover on my copy is a photo from the 1980 screen adaptation – with  John Mills as Monsignor Blaise Meredith and Ramone Valli as Cardinal Marotta .  It’s much more apt because it shows the stern, sceptical characters of these two men, charged with the tough business of determining whether a local hero was a saint, or not.

The Catholic Church takes the business of assigning sainthood very seriously, and there’s a dry, legalistic process to go through.  The potential saint must demonstrate faith, and there has to be a miracle.  Meredith is dying from cancer, but he’s sent off to Calabria to ascertain the facts when some villagers claim sainthood for one of their own.

It doesn’t seem promising.  Giacomo Nerone certainly didn’t behave in saintly ways: he was a deserter, a traitor, and a collaborator; and he didn’t marry Nina when he got her pregnant.  Yet this dubious character who was condemned to death by the local partisans is beloved by the villagers, and they want him canonised.  In the time he has left, Meredith has to interview the main protagonists and make a recommendation, but in the process he learns as much about himself as he does about Giacomo.

There are some interesting characters: a world weary doctor called Aldo Meyer who came to the village hoping to make a difference but ‘his plans had made shipwreck on the venalities of officials, the conservatism of a feudal Church, the rapacity and mistrust of a primitive, ignorant people’. (p19).  He is an outsider too: a Jew who has never really been accepted by villagers who would rather pray than accept medical intervention even when their lives depend on it.

ballykissangel1There’s Cardinal Marotta: ‘a man hardened by power and sceptical of devotion, but he too carried on his shoulders the burden of belief and in his heart the fear of the noonday devil’.(p24).  He is almost merciless in his pursuit of truth:  he chooses Meredith for his “Devil’s Advocate’ because he wants someone  willing to keep ‘the Faith pure at any cost of broken lives and broken hearts’  …’learned, meticulous, passionless’…’cold in judgement, ruthless in condemnation’...[possibly lacking in] ‘charity or piety, but he could not lack precision’. (p24)  Not the avuncular or kindly priest we see in TV shows such as Ballykissangel today!

West paints a dismal picture of rural Italy.  The land is barren, ‘raped ruinously for centuries’ (p32) and the village of Gemello Minore is in terminal decline.  The people are illiterate and superstitious, poverty is endemic, the local priest is a drunk, and the isolation serves as a refuge for an unsavoury artist and for an English Contessa to be contemptuous to the villagers.  The adjacent village of Gemello Maggiore is keen on the beatification because it will bring prestige to the area, but it is the people of Gemello Minore who knew Nerone and are crucial to events.  Flawed they may be, but they turn out to have heroes amongst them.  I was pleased with this, because the contribution of post-war Italian immigration to Australia shows that even though many of those who came here were uneducated, they did not lack intelligence or imagination and their work ethic was amazing.  Their children, able to access the education their parents had been denied, went on to university and the professions in great numbers.  West had been to Southern Italy in the 50s, and he would know more about it than I would from my 2005 stay in a congenial villa in Tuscany, but I feel that the judgement of his characters is too harsh.

What I like most about this novel is the way West raises issues still so relevant today.  There’s a homosexual artist who wants to know what place there is in the church for him.  The loneliness of priests condemned to celibacy is poignant, and the issue of conformity to rules that don’t seem to mesh very well with real life is also an important theme.  What may seem  a little dated, perhaps, is the clash between Communism and Catholicism.  During the Cold War Catholics were much exercised by this because the suppression of religion was a central tenet of Communists – Marx had said that it was the opiate of the masses….

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.  (Source: Wikipedia)

This incompatibility of  post-war Communism and Catholicism in Italy is at the heart of Giacomo’s sacrifice, and it makes for very interesting reading.  I was reminded of Sir Thomas More’s dilemma in A Man for All Seasons, in which More is also confronted with choosing between life with his family in exile and the moral imperative to stand up for belief.  Both Giacomo and More are men of conscience, and that conscience is informed by their faith.

Conscience seems an old-fashioned word today, but people still find themselves challenged on moral issues.  Faith may guide some, and others will find their way through personal morality or philosophy, but some decisions haunt us no matter what route is taken to get there. ..

It’s a great book and I’m going to look out for more by Morris West!


  1. Morris West’s The Devil’s Advocate also won the Brotherhood Award for Fiction from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.


    • Hello Jim, and welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers:)
      Thanks for this info, I remember doing a Google search to find out what I could about this book and not finding much so I’m really very grateful. If you can tell me what the source is, I may be able to add the award to his Wikipedia page. (Anything added to WP has to be independently verifiable, they are quick to pounce on anything that’s not). )


  2. It was a finalist for the 1960 National Book Award. But there were 17 finalists (not counting the winner, “Goodbye, Columbus” by Philip Roth), so being a finalist wasn’t as impressive then as it is (usually) now.


    • Hello, Brad, thanks for this info:)


  3. I’ve just reread this book after a period of nearly 50 years. It was the first book that made me become a real reader. Up till then I had mainly read “set” texts and The Devil’s Advocate was given to us at college (1965) as a set holiday read, but I couldn’t put it down! Never had I met such use of language, esp. the use of metaphor to engage the reader e.g. this passage…Meredith has just arrived in Valenta and surveys the view from the balcony of his guest-room…
    “The moon was high over the valley- a ship of antique silver, placid on a luminous sea. The orange groves glowed coldly and the olive leaves were bright as dagger-tips out of a twisted mass of shadows. Below them the water lay flat and full of stars, behind a barricade of logs and piled rubble, while the arms of the mountains encircled it all like ramparts, shutting out the chaos of centuries.”
    Later, as a teacher, I loved teaching metaphor and was constantly amazed at how children responded with their own figurative ideas. In England, I rarely found anyone who had read or even knew Morris West. Over the years I was delighted to find several more of his books in second-hand bookshops and last month again found The D’s Ad. So I was delighted to come across this website today. I didn’t know it had been made into a film!


    • Hello Livvie, thank you for your comment – how nice to discover an enthusiast from so far away! West really was a remarkable writer, but yours is the ultimate compliment – that it was *this* book that made you a reader:) Best wishes, Lisa


  4. Is it just me, or is there a connection between Nick Black and Neroni? Brothers perhaps? Same surname, or is it too obvious for comment? Re-reading after many years. Missed a lot first time; reading too much into it this time?


    • Hello John, and thank you for your comment. But I’m sorry, I’ve only read it once, and that was eight years ago now. So I’m just guessing when I say that you’re probably right. Perhaps an allusion to Satan… sometimes alluded to as Old Nick?


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: