by MARK O'NEILL
The old ladies started to queue outside the lecture hall
half an hour early: trim, spick and hats carefully chosen. I was just as excited, as one o'clock drew near. Then he appeared, bronze healthy and vigorous, an enormous smile lighting up his face.
He spoke forcefully for an hour, then signed his book and conversed with animation for as long as his loyal readers wanted him. He was delighted at this public relations exercise, no grumpy author chivvied by desperate publishers. It was an impression that stayed with me when I went to see him, Author of 16 novels (and sick to death, I had imagined, of interviewers), he comes over as a lively executive more than an anguished auteur de tristesse. Australian by birth, he has led a nomadic and financially erratic life; only in 1959, with his seventh book, did he break through to the level of readership and fortune he has maintained since.
For a writer, West has an unusual problem. He knows that whatever he produces will be translated into 27 languages and be read by over I million people. At the same time he is a deeply religious man who spent eight years as a teaching monk with the Order of Christian Brothers.
"I want what I say to be read by as many as _ possible. If I want this to happen, malgre tout, I have to involve as many as possible. If that means cliché and theatricality, then it is necessary. And I have to remember that in Japan they never kiss in public."
The success of the visual media has made him refine his art. People are less credulous and more easily bored than they were: "They used to love the travel writings of, say, Peter Fleming, just because it was unknown, but not any longer. For me, the selection becomes harder. I've got to be clear, got to be simple. The novel is for the street, the market place, not the salon." And its strength as a persuader — its privacy with the reader — compels the author to keep the reader interested.
In his style, then West strives for drama and simplicity; he prides himself on his skill as a story-teller. In his choice of subject-matter also he chooses situations that are recognisable to his audience: the conflict in the Middle East, neo-Fascism in Italy, the Diem assassination in South Vietnam and in his most recent novel, "Harlequin", the attempt of a ruthless corporation man to take over an established gentlemanly banking house. Why should Diem talk to him? He had read "The Devil's Advocate" and thought that the author of it would be sympathetic to him. "He told me much more than he would a journalist, because it wasn't coming out next day word for word. People like to meet authors and artists; and it helps being an Australian, you don't have a label."
Soon afterwards, Diem was assassinated with American connivance. The Ambassador told West the inside story and "it all fell together. And I asked myself what if that were me? How durable would my moral system be in that situation? How would I deal with the dilemma of power?"
So he involves himself as closely as he can, or dare, with his subject. He has used the same method in "Harlequin". In it there is an Israeli assassin operating in New York called Aaron Bogdanovich: "I've known him for 10 years. He has warned me not to become too friendly with him."
West spent one and a half years researching "Harlequin" and six months writing. "Especially for such a large audience, it's got to be right." Evidently, he does not trust his own intuition and imagination enough.
Does this search for detail suit him or does he want to be more didactic? "Harlequin" is unusual in that it lacks an important spiritual character; in most of his earlier works the hand of the Christian Brothers is ever-present, if not overt.
"Over the years I've become more religious, less dogmatic, certainly less polemical. To enter a polemic is to limit the . argument to those it doesn't concern." The certainty of his early years has been diminished by the morally ambiguous situations he has chosen to write about. But critical of the organised Church though he is, he remains deeply attached to traditional ritual himself.
So I was left with this apparent division in his character — one part the business-like, skilful novelist with a gigantic output at regular intervals. The other a less confident, humble man, who was sure of very little and wanted to convey this scepticism to othermen. I wonder which part of him the old ladies liked. His method of research is that of the documentary maker. Take "The Ambassador"' the book set during the South Vietnam war. Disturbed by a polemic in the Sydney Christian paper, he went to Saigon. A friendship with the Australian Ambassador there led him to long meetings with Diem and his family.