Heaven: August Book Group - The Shoes of the Fisherman

SarasaSarasa Shipmate
edited January 16 in Limbo
August's pick is The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West. As usual there will be some questions on or around the 20th.
I'm looking forward to re-reading this. I read it in the 1970s and a lot has happened in the Vatican and to me since then. I've become a Catholoc for a start....

Comments

  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Yes, the world has changed, and reading the first few pages brought it home to me just how true that is.

    Mrs. Andras, on whom be many blessings, picked up a second-hand copy from the first printing for me at Broad Oak Books in Llanidloes last month, and then read it through before she let me get my hands on it. She wondered if it would provide better material for a Church discussion group than a book-group.

    We shall see.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Look forward to re-reading it.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    Like Sarasa I first read this in the 1970s and it made a strong impression on me at the time. The family copy had disappeared from my mum's house when we cleared it but fortunately I've managed to borrow a copy from a friend. I'm very much enjoying the reread and looking forward to the discussion.
  • I've only ever seen the movie, but just ordered the book so I can follow along.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    I'm glad to see there is so much interest. And thanks to Sarasa for starting off the thread - I really was just about to do it, honest!

    I read and greatly enjoyed Morris West's books in the 1970s, but hadn't seen them around for ages. Then last year Australian publisher Allan and Unwin decided to reissue most of his novels, in print and as ebooks. This article discusses the decision.

    Many readers may not realise West was a Australian author as his books have such international settings - I didn't when I was reading them in the UK. But in the 1990s I remember him on ABC radio expounding on matters concerning the Vactican from time to time.

    The Shoes of the Fisherman was written in 1963 at the height of the Cold War. The first point to catch my eye was that Kiril from the Ukraine was regarded as Russian - things have changed.

    I'll post some questions around the 20th. In the meantime, enjoy the read.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Thanks for that link @Marama, I vaguely knew that West was Australian, but didn't know that he had studied for the priesthood. Having read Robert Harris' Conclave recently it will be interesting to compare and contrast, specially a book written by an 'insider' as opposed to one written by an 'outsider'.
    I remember his books as being extremely popular in the 1970s. I read The Shoes of the Fisherman and Devil's Advocate while working on a mobile library. I always picked a book from the shelves to read over lunch and his were always in stock.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    I have Conclave as a book-in-waiting and was going to wait till after this discussion before reading it.

    I didn't know West was Australian either.
  • The Devil's Advocate is indeed a highly recommended read. A most moving story, and, I suppose, not at all detrimental to the RC Church!

    IIRC, I first read The Shoes of the Fisherman a few years after it was published. It might be said that Pope Karol (Wojtyla - John Paul II)) didn't quite match up to West's vision of Pope Kiril, but that, of course, is something to discuss later, perhaps.

    IJ
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'm only a little way in, but I'm finding comparing the approaches to the topic of the papacy between Shoes of the Fisherman and Conclave interesting.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    I might have a look at Conclave, having finished Shoes.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    If everyone is ready, I'll post some questions later today.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    OK, here goes. Do feel free to consider any or all of the questions, and to add thoughts on any other aspects of the novel.

    1. The Shoes of the Fisherman was written over 50 years ago, and in some ways this shows. Which elements of the novel seem less relevant today, and which have remained issues which still concern us?

    2. Reading this after the papacy of John Paul II, how did you feel about the fictional Pope from behind the Iron Curtain? How realistic is West’s portrayal of a Pope’s possible influence in world affairs?

    3. The book is a rather strange mixture of drama and theology, yet it was a best seller for weeks. How do you think this works? (I read that it was published the same day as John XXIII died – a remarkable piece of serendipity!)

    4. What does the George Faber -Chiara subplot add to the story?

    5. A strong theme in the book is about discipline and submission – to doctrine and traditional practice as well as political realities. Does this tally with your understanding of Christianity?

    6. The ending is in some ways inconclusive. Did you find this frustrating?

    7. Is Morris West portraying his ideal Pope? How close have any of the Popes of the last 60 years come to this ideal?
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    My academic background is in history. The book does a good job of reflecting the Cold War era c. 1963. JP II was a conservative nightmare. Much preferred West's fictional pope. The influence may have existed in the early sixties; the influence of the Church is not comparable now. The World was also starving for a solution to the nuclear arms buildup. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink. The book echoed some of themes from Vatican II which would also have made it topical and the glimpse inside a conclave would have been considering titilating. I will address questions 4-7 later.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate

    Some first thoughts...

    1. The Shoes of the Fisherman was written over 50 years ago, and in some ways this shows. Which elements of the novel seem less relevant today, and which have remained issues which still concern us?

    The world really has moved on, hasn't it? The historical ideas which are taken for granted in the story and which the fictional Pope challenges - that the Pope is Italian and never moves from the Vatican - have long since ceased to be true, or even to seem plausible. And the closed world of the USSR and its satellites is a mere memory.

    2. Reading this after the papacy of John Paul II, how did you feel about the fictional Pope from behind the Iron Curtain? How realistic is West’s portrayal of a Pope’s possible influence in world affairs?

    His influence seems to depend on his relationship to his former jailer. I'm not at all sure that I find this believable.

    3. The book is a rather strange mixture of drama and theology, yet it was a best seller for weeks. How do you think this works? (I read that it was published the same day as John XXIII died – a remarkable piece of serendipity!)

    I'm thinking about this...

    4. What does the George Faber -Chiara subplot add to the story?

    It's interesting, but I'm not sure that it improves the book. Would it have mattered if the editor had told West to excise that part of the story? I doubt it.

    5. A strong theme in the book is about discipline and submission – to doctrine and traditional practice as well as political realities. Does this tally with your understanding of Christianity?


    Certainly this has been a traditional feature of some Christian churches, the Roman Catholic Church among them. But in a day when - for instance - the majority of women in the western world reject the Pope's teaching on birth control, the notion of a disciplined church all following the same rules seems rather quaint. (I have form here, having fallen foul of Methodism over precisely the issue of Doing What you're Told or Else.)

    6. The ending is in some ways inconclusive. Did you find this frustrating?


    Not really; I like an open-ended ending, so to speak.

    7. Is Morris West portraying his ideal Pope? How close have any of the Popes of the last 60 years come to this ideal?

    He's portrayed as coming close to an ideal, but rejects the idea of married clergy out of hand; sooner or later some Pope will have to grasp this nettle.

  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'm still ploughing my way through the book so will address specific questions later. I am finding that every characters seems to talk the same way rather irritating and that Ruth is decribed by George as being a 'very grown up girl' beyond irriating. I was yelling at the book, 'she's a woman.'
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Thinking about the book today - the 50th Anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring - it strikes me again just how much the Vatican and the Kremlin shadow and reflect each other.

    For the Deposit of Faith read the works of Marx; for the requirement to submit to official doctrine read the humiliation of Alexander Dubček. And so on...
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    I think the subplot is designed to illustrate the theme of redemption especially for George and Ruth. Discipline and submission tally with my understanding of totalitarianism. The ending was fine for me. West's pope is a flawed human being like all human beings.
  • I ordered this through interlibrary loans, it arrived just in time and two chapters in, I discovered that a small child (well, I hope it was a small child) had defaced many pages with crayon. I returned the book and pointed out the damage. So my reconnection with Shoes of the Fisherman is very limited.

    Thanks for thought-provoking questions, Andras. In 1963, I think Morris West was hoping for liberal and progressive reform in the Church and in society, both in terms of more sexual freedom and in society, looking to the end of the Cold War. One influence I have seen mentioned was that of the thinker and writer Teilhard de Chardin (in 1963, this Jesuit and paleontologist was listed on the Index of books proscribed by the Vatican, since De Chardin was suspected of Modernist heresy). Someone else who had begin reading De Chardin was Flannery O'Connor in Georgia and she requested permission from her bishop to read a 'banned' author. What drew many younger Catholics and idealist thinkers to Teilhard de Chardin was his notion of a spiritual evolution towards what he called the Omega Point, the ambience of the noosphere or cosmic consciousness of renewed thought. West's character Fr Jean Telemond is based on De Chardin.

    At that time Pope John XXIII had thrown open the windows of the Church by calling a second Vatican Council. It seemed a time of renewal and optimism. One impetus for the popularity of The Shoes of the Fisherman was that its publication coincided with the death of John XXIII and the election of a new Pope. Was the Vatican Council in danger of being suppressed? What kind of Pope and private person was Paul VI? These questions echoed the concerns of West's book.

    In retrospect, we know the reverberations from the changes of Vatican II are still continuing. Many of the changes West hoped for in terms of liberalisation around sexuality and marriage did not happen. But West's Kiril Lakota from Eastern Europe, from behind the Iron Curtain, has all the qualities of an unknown, very human and vulnerable man who suddenly finds himself in a position of extraordinary power and public scrutiny. While reading Robert Harris' Conclave, I was reminded several times about Shoes of the Fisherman, the question of the perhaps troubled, self-doubting man behind the papacy, the potential a single person has to change the direction of history, his alliances and friendships. Whatever the constraints on papal infallibility and speaking ex cathedra, the Pope has enormous influence simply in his personal style, his conversations with media, his example of an ascetic or luxurious lifestyle, his preferences for traditional or vernacular liturgy, his approach to canonising saints, his interactions with political leaders, his non-Italian background

    The character of Lakota, the Slav Pope, is very different from the historical figure of John Paul II who led the Catholic Church for 25 years. I'd say, a personal opinion, that the ending of the Cold War and countering Russian domination in Poland were the issues that preoccupied John Paul II to the exclusion of any other, including the demands for women's ordination and the explosive revelations about child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church . Like Lakota in some respects, John Paul II was a man shaped by the crises of Eastern Europe and not the West.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    Thank you so much for that full and very interesting post, MaryLouise. I appreciate all the background information. I will be back with further thoughts but am away with friends at present and without access to the book.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate
    edited August 2018
    Nenya, I felt a little sheepish, especially since I wasn't able to get very far with the novel itself! I had all kinds of questions in mind though, not least the changing style and impact a new Pope can have. Morris West as a lay Catholic and an Australian was prescient in his taking a close-up and personal look at a figure often distanced from the public by the role.

    There a passage in Henry James' early letters written to his brother William from Rome in 1869 where he describes watching the then-Pope ( 'His Holiness') pass by in a coach 'driving in prodigious purple state—sitting dim within the shadows of his coach with two uplifted benedictory fingers,' and that impersonal, anonymous figure of Pope Pius IX is the traditional model for popes from medieval times on. In contrast, Morris West's Pope is a troubled, existential and 20th-century man filled with self-doubt and human failings.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I read the book when it first came out, but until this month I've never gone back to it.

    Fifty years ago I enjoyed it in a not-too-critical way; what strikes me now is how desperately sad the ending is, especially - though not only - the Fr. Telemond thread.
  • TukaiTukai Shipmate
    In response to some of Marama's questions...

    Which elements of the novel seem less relevant today, and which have remained issues which still concern us?

    T: Peacemaking. The original Cold War may have ended, but the rise of Trump and authoritarian leaders elsewhere (notably Russia) , all of them prone to threatening noises against supposed enemies, and most of them nuclear armed, mean that peace in our time is back as a current concern. And now that the Pope (any pope) is seen as a global more-or-less neutral diplomat with a lot of influence still, he certainly shares that role with West's Pope Kiril.

    In contrast, use of the vernacular has been a non-issue for decades for most catholics. Although I am old enough to remember when the mass was in Latin wherever you were, I was astonished to learn from this book that all deliberations and speeches made in the Vatican were in Latin in the 1960s. (e.g. The Rota "court" and Telemond's semi-public speech).


    What does the George Faber -Chiara subplot add to the story?

    T: not much. I found incredible the whole malarkey around divorce (in both Italy and the Vatican) as portrayed , though I daresay it was once how these things were done. In some of his other books, West has a journalist character as an observer/ narrator sitting on the fringes of the main story. Perhaps this is another example of that technique.

    A strong theme in the book is about discipline and submission – to doctrine and traditional practice as well as political realities. Does this tally with your understanding of Christianity?

    T: no, but it remains the case that obedience is still a key part of the vows of many religious orders, not least the Jesuits. But I note that today, at least in Australia many nuns (and Jesuits!) find it very useful that their obedience is to the head of their order and not to the local bishop! This enables them to publicly take up many causes that the local hierarchy opposes.

    The ending is in some ways inconclusive. Did you find this frustrating?

    T: on the contrary. Only Hollywood would insist on a closed ending to a story with so many open-ended themes. In the 1960s, as an author would you have opted for a dramatic peace or for a nuclear holocaust to "complete" the story? Better to keep the options open. Though I admit to disappointment that Telemond's theories never got the public exposure and debate they deserved.

    How close have any of the Popes of the last 60 years come to this ideal?

    T: As the book makes clear, Popes are human and can accomplish only so much. Only Jesus is "ideal"

    in-joke

    I found amusing the choice of "Georg Forster" as an alias for the Russian envoy. The "real" person of that name, famous to students of Australian history (as I think West had been), was a scientist on one of Captain Cook's voyages of exploration in the 1760s.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    My apologies for having asked the questions and then run away! You may have noticed that Australia had a political crisis this week - it's been mesmerising and very diverting.

    Anyway, to return to West. Thanks, MarieLouise, for your insights.

    It occurred to me that if it was published mid 1963, then Shoes would have been written in 1962 - before or after the Cuba crisis, I wonder?

    The vernacular issue was live in 1963, but seems archaic now - I'm not sure that the annulment/divorce procedures have changed all that much, but I'm not a Catholic. Or perhaps growing secularisation means Catholics in Western countries are now prepared to countenance civil divorce.

    I had realised that Telemond was based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, but it is an incredibly sad story. Do you think things have got any easier for Catholic scientists and theologians over the years?

    And yes, Tukai, I think Georg Forster is an 'in' Australian joke. West was, IIRC, friends with Pacific historian Greg Dening (who was a Jesuit priest for some years), which may explain it. I also noticed that West thought PNG would become independent about ten years earlier than it actually did (1975)
  • Marama -- good point about the Cuba missile crisis. In Australia, as in the US, the Cold War was at the forefront of everyone's thoughts.

    From his later thoughts and disillusionment with Church reform according to various articles on Morris West, I think he hoped for liberalisation on many Catholic teachings-- not least contraception, marriage, the position of divorced or remarried Catholics and Communion. Somebody once said to me that as a generalisation, the Catholic church moved forward in two ways after Vatican II: outwardly in terms of social justice but not far enough for liberation theologians; and much more slowly as regards sexual, contraceptive and marital teachings -- the controversy over the Pill in the 1960s was something Morris West would have noted. The global scandal around child abuse was not something West or his peers foresaw at all. The sadness and pessimism in his novels are not tinged with horror.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Sorry for not contributing much to this discussion but I found this book so unengaging that I skipped most of it. One of the problems for that was I was having to read it on my phone having left my Kindle at my mother-in-laws, and it seemed to make the book harder to sink in. The other problem was that I hated the style. West seemed to be moving his characters round like chess pieces rather than real human beings.
    I had read it in the 1970s and the only thing I remember from that reading was how surprising I thought a Pope slipping out to wander round without any bodyguards etc. was. That doesn't seem so surprising now.
    Maybe another problem was that I read Robert Harris' Conclave not that long ago and enjoyed it far more than this book, even though Harris' grasp on Catholicism is rather more shaky that West's. Harris had some very strange ideas about what theSpiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola actually are for instance.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    Sorry you felt uninspired by the book, Sarasa. Mind you I haven't read Conclave. Perhaps I should.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »
    Sorry for not contributing much to this discussion but I found this book so unengaging that I skipped most of it. One of the problems for that was I was having to read it on my phone having left my Kindle at my mother-in-laws, and it seemed to make the book harder to sink in. The other problem was that I hated the style. West seemed to be moving his characters round like chess pieces rather than real human beings.
    I had read it in the 1970s and the only thing I remember from that reading was how surprising I thought a Pope slipping out to wander round without any bodyguards etc. was. That doesn't seem so surprising now.
    Maybe another problem was that I read Robert Harris' Conclave not that long ago and enjoyed it far more than this book, even though Harris' grasp on Catholicism is rather more shaky that West's. Harris had some very strange ideas about what theSpiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola actually are for instance.

    I agree about West 'moving his characters around like chess pieces.' Of course all writers do - which is why in a different context Sebastian and Viola both end up in Illyria and wearing identical (male) outfits - but West doesn't conceal it terribly well.

    I suppose that's another way of saying that it's plot-driven rather than character-driven.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    A fair assessment, I think, Andras - except perhaps for Kiril. The ‘Extract from the Secret Memorials of Kiril I Pont Max’ (monologue/ confession) at the end of each chapter give a depth to him, I feel, that the other characters do not have.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    I wonder whether anyone was, like me, struck by the similarity between Kiril walking the streets of Rome talking to the "ordinary" people and Adam Ayscough, the dean of the fen city in Elizabeth Goudge's The Dean's Watch doing the same thing? Goudge's novel was published first and I don't suppose there's any likelihood that West was influenced by her.

    I first read this as a teenager; there's a lot I had forgotten but some of it came back as I read it. Particularly the description of the smoke that denoted by its colour whether or not a pope had been elected, and the account of Kiril at prayer: "the projection of the tormented spirit into the arms of the Almighty." Powerful.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I suspect that the book really reflects West's attempt to portray what it must be like to be the Supreme Pontiff, and choosing a non-Italian not only made that easier but also made the story more attractive to potential readers.

    We get to see inside Kiril's head through his Secret Memorial; for the other characters we have to rely on the omniscient author to tell us how they feel.

    Kings and suchlike walking unrecognised among their people is a common trope in both folk stories and novels; even Mark Twain had a go at it in The Prince and the Pauper.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    I was thinking of Henry V wandering amongst his soldiers before the battle of Agincourt - at least according to Shakespeare.
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