Issues of Truth and Invention
- The Wartime Broadcasts of Francis Stuart edited by Brendan Barrington
Lilliput, 192 pp pp, £25.00, September 2000, ISBN 1 901866 54 8
In March 1992 I received a printed invitation from Francis Stuart to a party in Dublin commemorating a party he had given in Berlin on St Patrick’s Day 1941. I wondered, when I read it, why Francis had sent this. Over the years he had invited me to several events, but he had never had invitations printed. I wondered if it was clear to him, as it was to me, that the invitation was a direct provocation. He was 9o years old; a good deal of mystery and controversy still surrounded him, his political opinions, his novels and, especially, the fact that he had spent the war years in Germany and broadcast from there to Ireland.
He lived at that time in Dundrum in the suburbs of Dublin and he had settled, it seemed, into an extremely mellow and happy old age. He still wrote novels and followed public events, but he exuded a sort of dreaminess, loving cats and rabbits, remaining quiet-spoken and smiling and charming and hospitable. He preferred silence to small talk and solitude to gossip, but sometimes when he spoke, especially about public life, there was a steely anger in his tone, a clear dislike for the liberal editorial policies of the Irish Times, for example, and a clear hatred for political leaders and politics generally. In his manner he was serene: in his opinions he was not. He was the exact opposite of every member of his generation I had known.
I met him first in 1972 when I was 17 and in my first week at University College Dublin. He shared a platform with the American poet James Tate. While Tate read from his work, Stuart spoke about his difficulty in publishing his novel Black List, Section H, which had finally come out from an American university press. He did not look like a 70-year-old man. He was tall, his frame was thin but strong, his hair was grey in a crew cut. His accent sounded foreign. His position that night was that of outlaw, of someone who spoke dark and difficult truths which were not acceptable to those who controlled publication. But he was connected at the same time to the higher reaches of Irish grandeur: he had been married to Iseult Gonne, Maud Gonne’s daughter, and had been a friend of Yeats. I found myself sitting beside him in the student bar and it was astonishing and fascinating to hear someone talk with familiarity and slight contempt about Maud Gonne, and then withdraw into himself, become silent and vague and uncomfortable, refusing to deal in colourful anecdotes or fond reminiscences.
Black List, Section H had been published the previous year by Southern Illinois University Press. It was the only book by Francis Stuart in any Dublin bookshop. Because it had come from America, it cost much more than a normal hardback. Slowly, over the next year or so, I met people who had read it and talked about it in hushed and reverent tones as something special and strange and haunting. And slowly, too, an argument developed about Stuart. For some, the writing was too awkward; for others, the insistence on outlaw status was too laboured; for others, the years in Germany placed Stuart outside the pale.
I read the book myself in the spring of 1975. I began it some time on a Saturday and put it down only to go to a student party. I remember that I came back at four in the morning to the damp basement flat where I lived and picked the book up again and read it until I had finished it, at some point on the Sunday morning. Neither before nor since have I read anything that overwhelmed me in the same way. I shared nothing with H, the narrator who was so close in his biographical details to Stuart himself. I was not from a Northern Unionist background; I had not fought in the Irish Civil War; I did not marry Iseult Gonne in 1920 when I was 18; I did not know Yeats or hang around with Liam O’Flaherty; I did not go to Germany in 1940.
These, however, were merely the outlines of Stuart’s life and that of his narrator H, who used the real names of figures like Yeats and O’Flaherty to make you believe in him. What hit me hard in that first reading of Black List, Section H was Stuart’s ability to deal with the notion of a damaged self, someone who was clearly weak, clearly wrong and who felt nothing but contempt for the world around him. I had come across these anti-heroic attitudes in other books, but this was an Irish self, and a man I had met, who seemed willing to dramatise his own moral awkwardness and his own dark search for a clearing in the forest where these qualities could be, however tentatively, recognised and healed.
It was clear to me even then that most people who read the book would not feel what I felt. It continued to provoke argument, and the argument in its favour was hard to win. The book was not well written, for example, and the contempt in it certainly implied a contempt for liberal and democratic values as well as for many people. And H’s account of himself mixed self-love and self-indulgence; and there was something oddly forced about H’s outlaw status. None of this mattered to me, and none of this mattered to other people I met over the years who had also been hit by the wave of complex emotion that came from the book.
Francis Stuart was born in Australia in 1902. His parents were both Ulster Protestants, and after his father’s suicide when he was four months old, his mother brought him back to Ireland. He was sent to various English schools, including Rugby. In 1920 he married Iseult Gonne, who was seven years older than him, and was Maud Gonne’s daughter with the right-wing (and deeply anti-semitic) French politician Lucien Millevoye. (Iseult had had an affair with Ezra Pound before Francis married her; in 1917 Yeats had proposed marriage to her.) Stuart published poetry which Yeats admired. He fought on the Republican side in the Irish Civil War and was interned. He published his first book of poetry in 1923 and lived in County Wicklow with Iseult Gonne, travelling frequently to Dublin and London; they had two children. Between 1931 and 1939 he published 11 novels, an autobiography and a book called Racing for Profit and Pleasure in Ireland and Elsewhere.
Stories of the demise of his marriage begin quite early. In July 1920 Maud Gonne wrote to Yeats that Stuart’s ‘conduct towards Iseult is shocking. While they were staying with me in Dublin he struck her and one day knocked her down. He threw her out of her own room with such violence that she fell on the landing.’ The failure of their life together is dramatised in many of Stuart’s later books.
In 1940 Stuart went alone to Germany where he taught at the University of Berlin and between 1942 and 1944 broadcast to Ireland. After the war he was arrested by the Allies, along with Madeleine Meissner, who later became his wife. The couple eventually made their way to Paris and then London and then to Ireland in 1958. Stuart wrote a number of novels which dealt with his experience of the war: The Pillar of Cloud (1948), Redemption (1949), The Flowering Cross (1950), Victors and Vanquished (1958) and Black List, Section H (1971).
When Stuart returned to Ireland, Madeleine and he lived first in a cottage in County Meath, then moved in 1971 to Dundrum. Stuart published nothing in the 1960s and they lived in relative obscurity. His 70th birthday in 1972 was marked by a Festschrift edited by W.J. McCormack and this book set the tone for Irish writing about Stuart over the next twenty-five years. ‘Despite the outbreak of war,’ McCormack wrote, ‘Stuart decided that he should be where Europe was then focused, that somebody should bear witness. In addition, he felt that in wartime Germany he would at last be cut off from conventional demands on his feelings and that in isolation he might begin to find himself.’ He discussed Stuart’s novels of the 1930s and their treatment of violence and war and isolation and said that ‘perhaps no other artist in the English language was so aptly prepared by his earlier psychic life for the experience of wartime Germany, for the shades of humanity who populated Europe.’
In the 1970s Stuart began to write book reviews for the weekly Dublin newspaper Hibernia. He made himself available to younger writers and journalists and was kind and oddly wise and encouraging. Although he never openly sought either success or popularity as a novelist, he became a respected figure in literary Dublin. For example, in 1980, when Neil Jordan, at that time the most promising young writer in the country, published his first novel, it seemed natural that Stuart would launch the book. In the early 1980s Penguin reissued Black List, Section H.
For me and many others who visited the Stuarts in these years, there was a special aura around both of them, Madeleine as much as Francis. That they were religious and interested in mysticism may explain part of it, but the fact that they were old and made clear their loathing for Ireland’s pieties is also significant. They were warm and deeply engaged with the world and with each other. Many of us came away from their house inspired and cheered up.
Some of the stories were funny. When Stuart began to talk to Fintan O’Toole about his friendship with the poet Paul Potts, and his admiration for him, Fintan thought he was talking about the dictator Pol Pot. He began to imagine Stuart in Paris befriending the future mass murderer and now, after all the years, talking casually and fondly of him.
Some of the stories were not so funny. I once asked Stuart about his friendship with members of the UDA – these were the bad years of the UDA’s rule in Belfast – which I had heard about but supposed to be untrue. He nodded and said that yes he had been travelling to Belfast to see the UDA and had become friendly with one of the younger members and had met Andy Tyrie, the leader, and come to admire him in certain ways. Stuart would leave a silence at such moments and, if there were a rabbit or a cat close by, he would stroke it. I knew that he was also sending books to IRA prisoners and writing letters to them. I was puzzled by his refusal to make moral judgments of a conventional kind.
When you talked to him and to Madeleine, you knew, or could imagine, that they had been through experiences in the war and after the war which had marked them deeply. And those experiences had included their own involvement in the German side of the war and implication in its activities. I knew they both lived in the shadowy spaces between knowledge and forgiveness; their response to this was not simple, and I never fully understood it, and I still don’t.
Once – I was working as a journalist then – I came to see Stuart because another friend of his, on the Republican side, had been found guilty of the murder of a policeman. I believed the evidence to have been very scanty and the conviction unsafe. (It was, many years later, overturned.) I thought Stuart would be concerned about this, but he was not. He was pretty sure, he said, that his friend was guilty. His friend, however, was a wonderful man, and killing the policeman was part of his bravery and courage and seriousness, Stuart said. Madeleine then began to talk about the man’s girlfriend and the great love between them and what would happen now. I remember her eyes lighting up and I remember the words vividly as she said: ‘He is the love of her life.’
Always, there was the shadow of what they had been doing in Germany. In Black List, Section H, the narrator went to Germany not because he admired Hitler or the Nazis, but because he sought his own crucifixion there, sought to be where there was darkness and destruction. If the book had any politics, it was a hatred of the hypocrisy which could preach democracy and then bomb Dresden. The attitudes in it seemed to take their bearing from Stuart’s reading of Dostoevsky while interned. The narrator of Black List, Section H and the old man who lived with his German wife in Dundrum were, ostensibly, both apolitical. Only once in all those years did Stuart say anything which made me wonder about that. It was late at night in a Dublin restaurant, it must have been 1981 or 1982, and Stuart turned to me and asked if I did not believe that democracy was merely a system in which scum could come to the top. For once, I was able to argue with him – there was nothing oblique or strange about his position. As always, he spoke calmly and gently, smiling as he spoke.
By this time, he was writing a column for In Dublin magazine, of which I was features editor. The columns were short and sharp in their blanket attacks on the establishment – church, state, consumers all. They proposed a sort of anarchism and mysticism. The interesting thing, of course, was that the writer was an elderly man whose name carried with it an uncertain stigma.
In 1983 Robert Fisk published In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality 1939-45 and this seemed to settle the argument about what Stuart had been doing in Germany. Fisk’s account of the episode was based on transcripts of Stuart’s broadcasts in the Northern Irish Public Record Office and an interview with Stuart. In the interview, Francis spoke about Hitler: ‘I felt that somehow the system in Europe needed completely destroying and for me Hitler was a kind of Samson pulling everything down.’ He regarded Hitler, he said, as ‘a super-dissident’. Fisk wrote that Stuart accepted the lectureship in Berlin ‘partly because his marriage to Iseult Gonne was breaking up and also because the new job was well paid’.
‘Although Stuart was drawn towards the Nazis,’ Fisk went on, ‘because he “had the idea that the war might end in everything collapsing, and this was always my dream”, he was also a political innocent, contemplating a visit to Moscow until advised against it by some White Russian friends, and realising only after a year that Hitler – far from being a dissident – was an ultra-conservative.’ According to Fisk, however, his broadcasts ‘could have left no one in any doubt that the system of government he was expounding was the National Socialist one … But Stuart’s broadcasts were unexceptionable compared to most of the material about Ireland which emanated from Germany.’ Fisk mentioned the ‘poisonous’ anti-semitic tone of other broadcasters to Ireland. He did not, however, include Stuart in their company.
A few strange passages from the transcripts are quoted in Fisk’s book, such as this one on the German defeat at Stalingrad: ‘This has moved Germany more than any other event of the war, for while such victories as the fall of Paris might be attributed to the perfection of the German war machine, this is an affair of human beings, a triumph of flesh and blood.’ Or another on St Patrick’s Day 1943: ‘One day we will have a great hurley match, or a great race meeting to celebrate peace and we will hold it outside Belfast to celebrate the return of the Six Counties.’ Or: ‘It is of no importance at all that the Tricolour should fly from the City Hall in Belfast instead of the Union Jack if Belfast workers are to find it as hard to live and support their families as before. Such freedom is merely an illusion and such nationalism a farce and a danger.’
Stuart told Fisk that he had refused to make anti-Russian broadcasts: that as a result ‘his telephone began to ring at odd hours of the night and anonymous voices at the other end of the line threatened him with “being sent to a camp”.’ Stuart told Fisk that he hated the ‘insufferable attitude of Germans when they were on top’ and ‘if I had really asked myself in a sober way in 1940 whether I wanted a German domination of all Europe, I don’t think I would have desired that.’ He told Fisk that when he returned to Ireland ‘I hardly ever met anyone who heard me. I don’t think anyone really listened.’
Fisk also wrote about the Goertz affair. Herman Goertz was a German agent selected for a mission to Ireland. He ‘was given two objectives in Ireland; to gain the IRA’s help during a possible German invasion of Britain and their assistance in cutting off Eire’s connections with the United Kingdom’. Goertz was introduced to Stuart, who gave him Iseult’s address in County Wicklow and told him that he could contact her in an emergency. When he parachuted into Ireland in May 1940, Goertz made his way immediately to Iseult’s house. She was later arrested for harbouring him briefly and held for a month before being found not guilty.
By the time Fisk’s book came out I was no longer seeing much of Francis and Madeleine. In 1982, we had printed a letter about Stuart’s column which accused him of having been a Nazi supporter. On the morning In Dublin appeared Francis phoned me and we had a brief, friendly conversation about the letter, which, foolishly, we had not consulted him about. Since our conversation had been so amicable, I was rather surprised to get a solicitor’s letter and rather more surprised when it became clear that Francis intended to sue the magazine. We settled with him, but it was clear to me that he had wanted a court case. I thought at the time that he had wanted his name cleared of Nazi and anti-semitic connections once and for all, but I am no longer sure about that.
In 1981, with the encouragement of the Government, the Irish Arts Council set up an organisation called Aosdána. This consisted of 150 writers, artists and composers. Once the original group had been chosen by the Council, new members would be elected by the existing members, and, with certain restrictions, members whose incomes fell below about £12,000 a year would receive a stipend for the rest of their working lives. The scheme also included an honours system where a limited number of members would be elected a Saoi, or ‘wise person’. Samuel Beckett was one, so is Seamus Heaney. Since Francis Stuart was one of the original members of Aosdána, he was entitled to be nominated, and this was where the trouble began.
When it was proposed that Stuart be made a Saoi, there was some informal debate between members of Aosdána over whether honouring him involved more than honouring his work. At first, he was defeated, but in 1996 he was made a Saoi and the honour, symbolised by a collar of gold, was conferred on him by Mary Robinson, who spoke about his ‘awkward’ presence in Irish literary life. I am a member of Aosdána and I was among those who voted for him.
In October 1997 Channel Four made a programme about Irish anti-semitism in which Stuart was interviewed. He told the interviewer: ‘The Jew was always the worm that got into the rose and sickened it. Yes, but of course I take that as praise. I mean all those so-called healthy roses, they need exposing – many of them are sick.’
Interviewer: Are you ashamed that you helped Nazi Germany now?
Interviewer: Are you ashamed, yes, are you sorry?
Stuart: Did I help them by broadcasting, you mean?
Stuart: No, I’m not sorry.
Interviewer: But knowing what you do know, as the person you are now, which is the only way you can answer.
Stuart: That’s right.
Interviewer: Now, what would your answer be, and would you broadcast again?
Stuart: No, probably not.
Interviewer: Do you have any regrets in your life generally?
Stuart: Non, non, je ne regrette rien, rien du tout.
The Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers was watching this programme and would have much to say about it: ‘Honouring such a man with the highest artistic accolade this state has to offer is at best to be morally neutral about the barbarous cause he served. It is to follow the fascist chic ethic that art counts above all else,’ he wrote in October 1997. Two month later he returned to the subject: ‘Francis Stuart offered his services to the Third Reich after the outbreak of the Second World War. There would be no controversy had he repented for doing so. Has he repented, clearly and unambiguously? Specifically and precisely: he has not . . . By honouring this man who unrepentantly served the Third Reich, Aosdána has disgraced itself, which is its right, and the country which pays for it, which is not.’
Also watching the programme was the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi, another member of Aosdána. Just as Francis Stuart was connected to the higher echelons of Irish grandeur, Máire Mhac an tSaoi has her own elevated co-ordinates. She is married to Conor Cruise O’Brien. Her father, Sean McEntee, fought in the Irish War of Independence and was a minister in most of Eamon de Valera’s Governments. Her uncle was a cardinal. Every schoolchild of my generation knew her poems, written in Irish, by heart. She is a formidable presence at any gathering. She proposed a motion whereby Aosdána would condemn what Stuart had said and call on him to resign from the organisation.
In the lead-up to the meeting of Aosdána many people came to Stuart’s defence, including a number of journalists on the Irish Times. Nuala O’Faolain referred to the ‘spiritual excitement’ of reading Redemption and later Black List, Section H and wrote that she was amazed ‘that so many people are so comfortable with their own righteousness. How can they know that they would not have made the broadcasts in Berlin during the war, in the circumstances described in Black List, Section H?’ Fintan O’Toole, another columnist on the paper, wrote:
Stuart was undeniably a Nazi collaborator. And he did, in his broadcasts to Ireland from Hitler’s Germany, use coded anti-semitic phrases . . . None of that was, is, or ever will be excusable . . . But Stuart was, in the overall scheme of things, a very minor figure. If we want to talk about Irish guilt regarding Nazism and the Holocaust, there are more obvious places to begin . . . The difference between Francis Stuart and all of these other collaborators is that he, at least, engaged with the consequences of his actions. Other writers who had been drawn to right-wing totalitarianism and then became disillusioned with it – W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, for example – took refuge in an artistic flight from reality. Stuart’s work, after the war, became more real. He moved towards, not away from, the terrain of his shame.
Other commentators, including Conor Cruise O’Brien, took the opposite view.
I could not attend the meeting of Aosdána which discussed Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s motion, but I wrote a piece about the controversy in the Sunday Independent in Dublin. ‘Coming from a Unionist background,’ I said,
Stuart (and indeed H) would become a Republican, even though the politics meant nothing to him; and later in the 1930s when liberal opinion (and indeed most other opinion) considered Hitler’s Germany to be a place of evil, he would go there, he would live there during the war, he would broadcast to Ireland, and he would know what the consequences were going to be. And all this, his novel Black List, Section H makes clear, had nothing to do with politics, with anti-semitism or fascism, or Nazism, but arose from something darkly and deeply rooted in his psyche – the need to betray and be seen to betray. It arose from something else too – a passionate belief that every organised structure, and that includes liberal democracy, is rotten.
By this time, Black List, Section H had been reissued once more as a Penguin Classic, and my piece in the Sunday Independent was fuelled by the acknowledgment of the main players in the anti-Stuart camp that they had not read the book. I had done the introduction to the Penguin edition in which I wrote that in the experience of reading the book there was a feeling ‘that nothing had been invented. Not only the names were real, but the places, the gestures, the emotions and moments of truth were described and evoked with a sense of absolute truth and total honesty.’
Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s motion was defeated and she resigned from Aosdána. Stuart did not attend the meeting. A fax supporting the motion was sent by the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland. Stuart initiated libel proceedings against Kevin Myers and the Irish Times and the case was settled – in Stuart’s favour – in June 1999. The settlement included the statement: ‘The Irish Times accepts that Mr Stuart has never expressed anti-semitism in his writings or otherwise and regrets the publication of an impression to the contrary. The Irish Times has agreed to pay a sum of money in respect of the costs of Mr Stuart’s action.’
In January 1998, six weeks after the Aosdána meeting, Stuart gave an interview to Irish television in which he tried to explain his use of the phrase ‘the worm in the rose’: ‘the rose of our consumer society’, he said – ‘which to my mind is a very horrible society’. Asked if he regretted the Holocaust, he said: ‘Well, of course I regret it.’ Asked if he ever supported it, he replied: ‘Never.’ Asked if he regretted his support for the Nazis, he said: ‘I never supported that regime and I’m intensely sorry for the hurt I caused so many people by appearing to. As I did understandably appear to support it.’ The war, he said, ‘was probably by that time the greatest war in history. I have always believed that the sort of writer I am should be at the heart of where things are most intense and that I should report it, unbiased as I hoped to do, primarily for my own people.’ Asked about Hitler, he replied: ‘Hitler came to power in Germany after the Versailles Treaty, when things were very, very . . . I know people who were there in a terrible state then and he did a lot for Germany until, until . . .’ He appeared lost for words and then: ‘I think that certain people are possessed, as it’s called in the Old Testament. I think of Hitler as becoming possessed by the spirit of evil.’
Around this time, a book called Hitler’s Irish Voices: The Story of German Radio’s Wartime Irish Service by David O’Donoghue appeared and made clear that Stuart had had a meeting with the IRA leadership late in 1939 before he went to Berlin and that he had operated as a messenger for the IRA, which was interested in obtaining German assistance for its campaign. (Stuart’s brother-in-law Sean MacBride – Maud Gonne’s son by the Irish revolutionary John MacBride – had been Chief of Staff of the IRA until 1936; Stuart had also maintained informal contact with some of his old colleagues from the Civil War, those who had not followed de Valera and joined Fianna Fáil, which entered the Dáil in 1926 and took power in 1932.) O’Donoghue’s book gave the most complete account of Stuart’s broadcasts thus far. He confirmed Fisk’s assertion that there was no anti-Russian propaganda in them. He also confirmed that there was no direct or specific anti-semitic content. Stuart’s broadcasts as reported in O’Donoghue’s book supported Irish neutrality, and attacked the British. On two occasions, the broadcasts, which were monitored by the Irish security forces, annoyed the Irish Government and caused a diplomatic complaint and this may have been the reason Stuart’s Irish passport was not renewed in 1942. On one occasion, when Stuart called on troops from Northern Ireland to go over to the other side, he was himself crossing a line which could have caused him much trouble after the war. O’Donoghue notes that Francis and Madeleine (who had also worked for German radio’s foreign service) deliberately allowed themselves to be arrested by the French rather than the British after the war.
This, then, was the evidence against Francis Stuart. I wish sometimes that I had been able to go to the Aosdána meeting and speak against Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s motion.
I believe that in his postwar work, in his three best novels, Stuart had placed himself in a peculiar position. He was able to write those books only because of his own foolishness and treachery. His material was gathered in the most outrageous place in the most outrageous way. The novels do not, in Allen Tate’s phrase about Ezra Pound, reach us pure, but to refuse to praise them or honour them, or indeed honour their author for writing them, is to confuse crafted, self-conscious novels, written in the postwar period, with their author’s life during the war. The novels are dramas of guilt and innocence which do not incite us to join any party or hate anybody, but instead to consider how one strange figure ended up in Germany and broadcast for Hitler (Black List, Section H), how three wounded figures dealt with the postwar desolation (The Pillar of Cloud) and how one strange figure brings disruption and the possibility of transcendence back to Ireland from the European War (Redemption).
I cannot accept that writers should be good people. I believe that part of the purpose of writing is to speak up for the damned and I can hardly object when a novelist takes this seriously enough (or is led by other motives) to place himself outside the pale of the saved, no matter how much I might disapprove of his actions and disagree with his politics. I wish that after the war others who had collaborated or expressed anti-semitic views had also written novels which explored, or even refused to recognise, their own foolishness and badness. I wish that the business of evil were explored more deeply and more seriously in fiction. Thus I cannot complain when Francis Stuart is honoured by his fellow artists. It is not a simple matter; it does not come to us pure. But I cannot regret voting for him.
There is, however, another matter. No one in Aosdána, as far as I am aware, had lost family in the war. All of us were part of the legacy of Irish neutrality, and all of us, debating the issue of Francis Stuart, were living in a sort of backwater, protected from the terrible pain and anger suffered by the families of those killed by the Nazis. What hung in the balance was a fundamental question: had Stuart’s name been so dishonoured by what he did in the war that nothing he could write would be enough to justify offering him the highest honour an artist can have in Ireland? I believed and I still believe that the honour was justified, but I’m not sure I would believe this if I had lost family or friends in the war.
Brendan Barrington is a young American living in Dublin. Like Stuart and Máire Mhac an tSaoi, he has connections in the upper echelons of Irish life. His Irish father is a member of a family of distinguished public servants which includes a Supreme Court judge and Brendan Bracken, Minister for Information in Churchill’s War Cabinet. Barrington is an editor at the Lilliput Press. He has gone into the Military Archives in Dublin and transcribed Stuart’s war broadcasts; he has read all the novels and written an introduction to the transcripts which deals with Stuart’s politics and his controversial place in Irish intellectual life.
‘Stuart’s allegiances to the anti-Treaty side,’ Barrington writes,
in the Irish Civil War and to the Third Reich in the Second World War have usually been explained as arising from non-political forces in his psyche: a sense of adventure, a compulsion to betray, a mystical desire to suffer. These forces were undoubtedly present but they existed alongside a political consciousness that was far more highly developed, and also rather more discriminating and conventional, than has generally been recognised. The wartime broadcasts . . . are concerned primarily with politics, and could not have been written by someone as politically naive, or gormless, or blindly revolutionary as Stuart has usually been depicted as being.
Barrington examines Stuart’s claim in 1996 that he had ‘spoken and written several million words in my life. No one could ever point to a sentence of mine that was or is anti-semitic.’ He finds the following in a pamphlet Stuart wrote for the IRA in 1924 when he was 22:
Austria, in 1921, had been ruined by the war, and was far, far poorer than Ireland is today, for besides having no money she was overburdened with innumerable debts. At that time Vienna was full of Jews, who controlled the banks and the factories and even a large part of the Government; the Austrians themselves seemed about to be driven out of their own city.
Ireland should overcome the British influence, he suggested, as Austria had overcome the Jewish influence.
This is the only directly anti-semitic statement by Stuart that has ever been found, but having trawled through the fiction Stuart published in the 1930s, Barrington finds a definable set of attitudes towards Jews, expressed both by characters in the novels and directly by the author in his creation of Jewish stereotypes. There are no prizes, for example, for guessing the racial identity of Ike Salaman in The Great Squire (1939):
His keen swarthy face glowed with the cold passion that consumed him as he bent over the grey parchment. Figures. How secretly beautiful they were! What delight in getting them to dance to one’s own tune! Ah, that was the real happiness: this secret mathematical dance of figures, in rows, in spidery waltzes, in formal gavottes, to that thin maddening tune that he had long dreamed of but only heard for the first time today, the clink and clank of a great number of sovereigns.
It would be impossible to say there isn’t anti-semitism here; and the same is true of the broadcasts quoted by Fisk, where, as Fintan O’Toole has pointed out, it is easy to find stock references to international financiers and bankers and easy to see that Stuart means Jews.
Casual and less than casual anti-semitism survives in all types of writing from the 1930s. The problem with Stuart is that he wrote the stuff about Jews in Vienna in 1924, then put the stereotypes into his novels in the 1930s, then made anti-semitic comments in letters to his wife from Germany in 1939 (these are quoted in Geoffrey Elborn’s 1990 biography), then went to Germany in 1940 and lectured at Berlin University and then included easily detectable anti-semitic references in his broadcasts. ‘There is no evidence that anti-semitism was a motivating force in Francis Stuart’s decision to live, teach and broadcast in Nazi Germany,’ Barrington writes. ‘At the same time it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some strain of anti-semitism was a necessary enabling factor in that decision.’
It can be argued, then, putting it more mildly, that Stuart was not sufficiently repelled by German anti-semitism to decide not to go to live in Berlin. It can also be argued, however, that Stuart was attracted to Hitler’s Germany partly because of its anti-semitism. The truth maybe lies somewhere between the two. The evidence against him makes me, as someone who has written about his work and enjoyed his company, very uncomfortable.
Just as the tone of the IRA pamphlet in 1924 is harder and nastier than any tone Stuart would later use in his account of himself, the tone of his letters to the Irish Times in December 1938, which Barrington also quotes, is very far from his later version of himself. In the first letter Stuart opposed admitting refugees from non-democratic countries into Ireland. In his second letter he wrote:
When democracy has found some solution to the pressing problems observable in the countries where it is practised, which I would define as, among others: unemployment, slums, the tyranny of money, and the appallingly low level of general culture, then let it sit in judgment on other forms of government. But, in my belief, our bureaucratic democracies can never of their nature find such a solution, being themselves largely responsible for these evils.
Barrington has done us all a favour in unearthing this letter and the 1924 pamphlet. The main thrust of his argument is that the hero of Black List, Section H is not Francis Stuart, that the man who went to Germany and the mind that created the novel were different, and that a great number of Irish writers and commentators, including myself, have been fooled by the novel. ‘It would appear that Stuart had not forgotten the broadcasts, but had reimagined them,’ Barrington writes:
What is unfortunate – although not surprising, in light of the enormous personal affection that the elderly Stuart inspired – is that so many writers and scholars have been enthusiastic participants in this reimagining, creating a myth of Stuart that is far more palatable to contemporary sensibilities than the literary and political persona of the man who wrote and delivered the talks printed herein.
In 1976 Stuart gave an interview about the broadcasts: ‘These broadcasts didn’t usually deal with politics; they dealt very often with literature, both English and Irish, and even with other literature.’ This is not true. They hardly ever mentioned literature, and it is an interesting example of Stuart’s ‘reimagining’ of what he did in these years.
Barrington’s case, then, is that the holy fool, the awkward, apolitical and damaged figure of H in the novel is an invention,a fictional disguise, for a more political and nastier self. His point ‘is not that there is anything intrinsically remarkable about deviations between an autobiographical novel and the life on which it is based, but simply that we cannot and should not look to Stuart’s fiction to supply a reliable account of his life’.
Barrington’s quotations from the 1924 pamphlet and the 1938 letters to the Irish Times prepare you for a series of broadcasts in a similarly strident tone. And his point about the distinction between Stuart and H makes you expect a skilled rhetorician in front of the microphone. Instead, you get the sort of dullness that perhaps only someone who has done a lot of hackwork could properly recognise. These broadcasts could well have been written by the holy fool who is H in the novel, but now he has a deadline and, for the most part, a few tired and platitudinous opinions. Even at the time, some of these talks must have seemed absurd. And it is easy to imagine Stuart leaving the studio, filled with shame at his own ineptitude, once more, like H, aware of his own awkwardness and inability to exercise his intelligence and putting the whole thing out of his mind for another week.
The most absurd, perhaps, was on 12 August 1942 when he managed to compare Hitler with Gandhi. But the broadcasts are also full of the most terrible sentimentality about Irish people, their spiritual qualities, their struggle for freedom, their decency and open-mindedness, their rural life, their sport. Stuart’s efforts at a folksy, common touch must have made him cringe as much as his listeners. His efforts at patriotism were ridiculous. (‘If a committee of six average Irishmen, let us say a farmer or two, a National University student, a Civic Guard and an IRA man, were formed into a committee with sovereign powers to settle all the present problems of the world, they would make a far better job of it than Churchill and Roosevelt and company.’) Only once did he make a reference to neutral Ireland which made any sense: ‘When I hear a report on the debate in the Dáil, as I did the other evening, on whether pubs should be open on Sundays at 1 or 1.30, I’m reminded more vividly than ever how peaceful life is in the 26 counties of Ireland.’
Two things stand out, however, which give weight to Barrington’s thesis. There is an astonishingly fierce anti-Englishness in the broadcasts and constant reference to a united Ireland and the problem of partition. This is to remind us that Stuart fought on the Republican side in the Civil War and was interned. He was one of a sizable number of people who fought in Ireland between 1918 and 1923 who never settled down afterwards, never held a job (Stuart’s first job was in Berlin in 1940) and roamed American cities, or stayed in Ireland and took to drink, or kept the IRA flame alight. They remained locked into the ideology of the cause for which they fought or became totally disillusioned. Stuart seems to have done both. The tone of his broadcasts about partition and England, his call for Allied troops from Northern Ireland to defect, leads me to change my view that he had an apolitical nature, as does the content of the broadcast of 16 December 1942: ‘Like most Irishmen I have no use for second-hand opinions,’ Stuart begins. His reaction to the jokes and jeers about Hitler was to
wonder what Hitler really was. Anyone who is the butt of these small city-made mentalities seemed to me to be probably someone of consequence. I began to find out something about Hitler and the new Germany and then, of course, I was completely fired by enthusiasm, for here was someone who was freeing life from the money standards that dominated it almost everywhere I had ever been, not excluding my own country; here was someone who had the vision and courage to deny financiers, politicians and bankers the right to rule. Nor did the word dictator frighten me – I saw that as it was. Our lives were dominated by a group of financial dictators and it seemed to me at least preferable to be ruled by one man whose sincerity for the welfare of his people could not be doubted than by a gang whose only concern was the market price of various commodities in the world markets.
Let us accept then that Stuart was anti-semitic, that he admired Hitler, that he was a rabid Irish nationalist. But his primary interest was not politics. He was a chronicler of his wounded and damaged self who also had these opinions. What was he going to do now that the war was over? His first instinct was to deny his role. In April 1946, he turned to Basil Liddell Hart, who had praised one of his prewar novels: ‘Your help would be especially valuable. As you know . . . I was deeply opposed to Nazism and state tyranny, and my experience during the war only deepened this opposition. It is not the hardship of detention here, but also the hold-up in that work which I believe I could do now, that is hard to bear with patience.’ When, in October 1946, he was rearrested by the French, Madeleine wrote to Liddell Hart: ‘Please, please dear sir help him! Francis Stuart has such a fine and rare soul, the influence of which humanity has great need.’ In the earlier letter to Liddell Hart, Stuart had written: ‘What we have gone through . . . has, I think, fitted me to write a novel which will have the breadth and maturity which The Angel of Pity lacked.’
The Pillar of Cloud, finished in October 1947, was written during a time when he and Madeleine had to report weekly to French security. Victor Gollancz, his old publisher, agreed to bring out the book. It is set in the world Francis and Madeleine inhabited after the war. (The first chapter is called ‘Hunger and Cold’.) Surrounding our Irish hero Dominic Malone are a number of people who have been imprisoned during the war, and are broken and damaged presences in the book. Dominic remains under suspicion and is called in for further interrogation about his own activities. He is questioned not about broadcasts but about his visits to various prisoner-of-war camps in Germany during the war, but ‘only against one charge was he vitally concerned to defend himself. That he had ever, in any way, in thought or deed, sided with the captors against the captives, with the executioners against the victims.’ During his interrogation it becomes clear that the French are puzzled about the reason the Irishman desperately sought to be imprisoned by the Germans towards the end of the war. ‘It was not very difficult to have myself suspected and finally taken and put into a camp . . . I was not there long but I had time to see that in such places a new world was taking shape; in the hearts of the tormented a new world was born.’
A novel by any of us is a set of lies, a set of organised, premeditated fantasies. There is no such thing as an honest novel. Between The Pillar of Cloud (1948) and Black List, Section H, published in 1971, but finished much earlier, Francis created versions of himself and versions of the war and its aftermath which redeemed him, inasmuch as they could, from the ordinary guilt or blame which might attach to collaboration. It must have been a relief to write them. In those years after the war when they were virtual prisoners and were cold and hungry, Francis and Madeleine found enormous comfort in each other. (‘I needed a war and hunger and cold and imprisonment. I needed all these things before my eyes were opened enough to see a good woman,’ Dominic says.) In The Pillar of Cloud there is an astonishing air of tenderness in the moments the weak and wounded sisters Lisette and Halka share with Dominic. The writing about hunger and the search for food is brilliant. But the real world of guilt and accusation is not allowed to enter. Captain Renier, the French interrogator, is an anarchist and wants to discuss the possibilities for world change rather than accuse Dominic of collaboration.
Stuart needed to believe that he had gained something spiritual, some new insight into the human condition, during and after the war. There’s something almost inspiring in the zeal with which he worked in his fiction at trying to rescue himself, heal himself, re-create his past. At the same time he did what many others would do: he wrote letters to figures like Liddell Hart denying everything, he gave interviews in which he made inaccurate statements about the broadcasts, he even tampered with his diaries. But he was alone in using the novel to try to save the situation in which he found himself.
In some of these novels he came close to facing himself; they are not ways of denying what happened so much as tentative explorations of the notion of the criminal who is less guilty than those who would seek to capture him.
During this time, Stuart was still married to Iseult Gonne, who sent him food parcels and encouraged him to come home. After a certain point he was free to leave, but Madeleine was not free to leave with him. In 1948, Sean MacBride became Minister for External Affairs in Ireland, and for this, and several other reasons, the Irish state could not help Madeleine. Things were made worse when Stuart made it clear that he was prepared to return to Iseult, but intended to bring Madeleine with him.
By the time Madeleine finally managed to make her way to Paris in the summer of 1949, Stuart’s second postwar novel had appeared. (Madeleine, in a short memoir, published in 1984, wrote of Victor Gollancz: ‘This was an immense joy to us and Gollancz was so enthusiastic that he even sent the most wonderful telegram which we could hardly grasp. We were overwhelmed, especially when we considered that Gollancz was a Jew who could have resented Francis’s stay in Germany during the war.’) In Redemption, Francis began to imagine what would happen if a figure who had been imprisoned at the end of the war, and who had fallen in love with a German woman, returned to an Ireland in which his first wife still lived, an Ireland which had remained undisturbed by the war.
Ezra Arrigho, the returnee, becomes involved with a priest (who plays something of the same role as the interrogator in The Pillar of Cloud), the priest’s sister and the local fishmonger. When the fishmonger murders a woman and when, a little later, Ezra’s German lover arrives in the town, it is decided that they will all – the priest, his sister, Ezra, his lover and the murderer – move into a flat above the fishmonger’s. ‘Isn’t it time we forgave each other?’ the priest asks. ‘Perhaps this is our last chance to lead a new life and if we don’t take it there won’t be another. And your wife, Ezra, let her take her place in it too. Let her forgive you and Margareta and come and live with us too.’
In Chapter 14, Ezra’s estranged wife, Nancy, and his aunt talk about him – these scenes caused particular offence to Iseult Gonne, her mother and her friends. ‘There was always a kind of heartlessness about him,’ Nancy says. ‘He’d use people and then drop them.’ ‘Like he used you,’ the aunt replies. The portrait of the aunt in the book is deeply unpleasant; the portrait of Nancy for the most part renders her lonely and pathetic and sexually frigid. When Ezra meets her he says: ‘Isn’t there something horrible about the thought of all the married couples shut up together in houses and flats everywhere, all the watertight little families bound together more by fear and suspicion of the rest of the world than by love of each other?’ Ezra asks his wife to ‘abandon everything, and come out with me now and we’ll find a corner for you and get a basin and hang up a mirror – there are beds enough.’ He brings her to the house where she sees the sleeping German lover. ‘I’d go mad in a place like this,’ she says and leaves. But before she goes there is one of those moments in which Stuart had come to specialise. Nancy is looking at her husband’s sleeping lover:
The face of the sleeping girl that, without asking, she had known was Margareta had touched her with a pang of pity. Like that, asleep, people had another aspect than when they were awake and active. Awake, she was probably that designing little creature that she had expected, but there, looking at her asleep in the shadows, there had been a moment of recognition. Nancy had, in spite of her sense of wrong, seen in the sleeping face, not the feared stranger, but something almost familiar – a defencelessness, was it? – like her own.
‘The daring and delicate experiment’, the community over the fish shop, is harbouring a murderer and this allows Stuart to dramatise ideas of guilt and innocence. When the policeman tells the priest that the murderer stuck a ‘cold knife into her heart’, the priest replies: ‘That knife was not so cold as your justice. And it struck quickly. Agony is a mysterious concoction of many things, of fear and of time in the first place. In Annie’s agony there was very little time. But in his there will be weeks and months of which each hour will be endless.’ When Margareta hears what Kavanagh has done, she says: ‘Who needs us most, we will love most. It can never be otherwise.’ In a strange ceremony on the night before Kavanagh is arrested, Father Mellows marries his sister to him.
These two novels are closer to parables than pieces of social realism. They use aspects of Stuart’s experience, but merely as a way of exploring the states of consciousness and ideas of good and evil which preoccupied him, for good reason, in the postwar years. He imagined himself not only as innocent, but as a victim, and not only as a victim, but as someone who had come through his suffering to understand something fundamental about suffering. The images in the final chapter of both books are particularly solemn and almost sacramental in their ideas of communion and community; the writing is suddenly beautiful and clear, as though Stuart had in his imagination created a new space for himself. ‘The dark must have its hour, and there was no good trying to stem it when it came, with complacent words. It could not be held back as the sea could not be held back. It was like the sea, the cold unfathomable sea, balancing and counteracting the dry land and the teeming, human dry-land activity.’ What impelled Stuart in these novels is a paradigm for what pushes us all towards writing novels: the dramatic revelation of matters that are hidden and dark and difficult. The impulse was urgent and raw, and the glow of pure feeling is intense.
Stuart wrote six more novels between Redemption (1949) and Black List, Section H. In 1960 Victor Gollancz turned down a seventh. He wrote to Ethel Mannin (who had known Stuart well between the wars, visited him in Germany after the war and put him up when he came to London with Madeleine): ‘I am terribly sorry about Francis Stuart as it has of course been obvious for some time that no one except myself would publish him.’ The Stuarts had moved to London in 1951, where Madeleine worked as a cleaner and Francis, intermittently, as a night security officer at the Geological Museum. When Iseult died in 1954, Francis and Madeleine married.
Slowly, Stuart’s war activities became a rumour, a matter of conjecture; his novels with their interest in mysticism and victimhood, on the other hand, won him fame among a small number of readers. His war rhetoric was lodged in the archives: his novels, written in a different style, were open to the public. He and Madeleine had suffered at the end of the war, and those few years had soldered their relationship. Rather than collaborators, they felt like survivors.
In 1958, Francis published Victors and Vanquished and Barrington is right to see it as significant. Here, the hero ‘is an exact replica of Stuart in almost every respect, except that he refuses to carry the IRA message to Germany, refuses to get involved in collaborationist schemes while in Germany and refuses to make propaganda broadcasts; he spends most of his energy looking after a Jewish family, a wholly imagined (and deeply unconvincing) plotline.’
Yet there are moments of pure illumination in the novel, and careful examinations of what preoccupied Stuart most after the war – his own reasons for going to Berlin in 1940. Here he allows a Jewish friend to question Luke, his protagonist, not about his support for Hitler but about another matter which may have kept Stuart awake at night in the years after Iseult’s death: his leaving her and their two children in Ireland. ‘It’s not a matter of whether you met with weariness or ecstasies; it’s that your wife was your destiny and you had to learn to be one with it. Then, as that happened, your heart would have widened to embrace the difficulties and pain, and you yourself would have been changed, whether she was or no, and you would have come to some peace.’ Later, when his Jewish friend tells him that ‘it’s a disease that spreads, this hardening of hearts, and it seems to me you didn’t guard yourself against it,’ our Irish hero answers: ‘I know you’re right, that’s the worst of it.’
There is one short scene in Victors and Vanquished which I found surprising and affecting. In Berlin, Luke dreams that he goes back to Ireland and visits his wife and talks to her and she doesn’t fully recognise him. He goes upstairs and fails to see his daughter. The dream leaves him oppressed and uneasy. Immediately on reading it, of course, I fell into the trap of believing the dream, or the sense of longing behind it, to be true, part of what happened to Stuart, that his escape from Ireland brought with it complex feelings rather than mere relief. The passage has the feeling of a difficult truth being told, of something yielding in Stuart’s version of his own past. On the other hand, he may well have made it up, or allowed something he felt for a moment as he wrote the book to become something his protagonist had felt during the war.
Issues of truth and invention become more intense when we reread Black List, Section H in the light of the broadcasts and Barrington’s introduction. There is certainly a new energy in the book, a sense of lived experience delivered in comic and awkward detail. By far Stuart’s longest novel, it deals with a question which is fundamental in our response not only to crime or guilt or innocence but also to fiction itself and its discontents.
The following facts are clearly established: Stuart supported Hitler, he had anti-semitic feelings, he broadcast extreme anti-British sentiments in the war, he abandoned his family. He later evaded the truth about all of this. These facts, however, belong to the world of the courtroom or the newspaper. They do not belong to the novel, because the novel asks a different question when it comes to guilt or innocence. The novel’s question is: what was it like? The novel can deal with the ambiguities, can allow a protagonist to stalk its pages who may be guilty according to clearly established fact, but whose mind and way of noticing things and appetites and deepest feelings can be bathed in a language and a tone that render these questions ineffectual and beside the point, almost banal. Something like this happens in Macbeth after the murder of Duncan; something like this happens in The Wings of the Dove.
And something like it happens in Black List, Section H, but here it is different. It is as though the murder of Duncan were glossed over, or the betrayal of Milly Theale elided. It is as though the personalities of Macbeth or Merton Densher were described in terms of drift, in terms of distance from a moral universe which might later judge them. In this case, H goes to Germany and broadcasts from there to Ireland. This much is not left to the reader’s imagination, and most readers will have a moral view of it, just as we do of the killing of Duncan or the courting of Milly Theale. In Black List, Section H, then, the move to Germany is not left out, but what is elided and glossed over, instead, is the difficult matter of its author’s politics, the reason for that move.
Black List, Section H is, on the one hand, a study in drift. H is a gambler, an unsettled, unsettling figure, in need of spiritual healing, unable and unwilling to connect with the social, political or sexual world around him. But it is also a desperate attempt, through the medium of fiction, to explain H’s drift to Germany, to give it meaning, to make it seem part of a plan. When H reaches Berlin, having had an argument about treachery with a man called Stroud in London, he sees the boarded-up shops and he thinks about the Jews, such as Gollancz, who had been his friends:
Was his being here a betrayal of them? The message that reached his conscience from his deepest nature, from what he felt were the genes on which his being was constructed, suggested that he had to experience, in his own probably small degree, some of what they suffered, and, on one level, even more, because he could not claim their innocence. He had long suspected that his destiny bound him to them in a manner more obscure than that of their present defenders such as Stroud. He also realised that he would go to certain lengths in association with their persecutors, in violent reaction against the mores of home, thus ensuring that his condemnation would not, unlike theirs, arouse any sympathy.
Stuart wrote this twenty years after the event. It is clear that he genuinely believed that he had gained a great deal from his outlaw status after the war, that the feeling of being beyond the liberal pale gave him strength and insight and inspiration. Nonetheless, there is something preposterous about this passage; as an explanation for taking a job in Berlin in 1940, it is outrageously forced.
H is a self that Stuart imagined, even though he gave him many of his own attributes – his own hatred for authority and the established order, his own friends and associates, and the same itinerary. He did not include in H’s make-up the man who wrote the pamphlet in 1924, the man who wrote the letters to the Irish Times in 1938, the man who broadcast his admiration for Hitler in 1942, the man who made constant and easy-to-decipher references to international finance. He made him a mixture of a muddled drifter and searcher for truth. Those of us who believed that H and Stuart were one and the same person were wrong to do so.
After Black List, Section H, Stuart wrote another six novels, some autobiographical pieces and some poems. His interest in being an outlaw, in being loathed by well-meaning liberal people, was not a joke or something made up. Anyone who knew him in his last years will attest that he meant it. And this perhaps explains his efforts to sue In Dublin and Kevin Myers and the Irish Times and to send out provocative invitations. He longed for the dock. He longed to be accused in front of everybody and despised in public. He longed for public disapproval as much as he longed for (and won) the love and support of a small group of friends. He also, in his own contradictory way, longed for fame as a novelist and man of letters.
In the late 1980s when two biographers were vying with one another for his attentions, Francis remarked to a friend that he had led ‘a not uninteresting life’. He meant, I think, his connection with Yeats, his part in the Irish Civil War and his life in Germany. But the fifty years after the Second World War, when he grappled with the truth and fiction of what he had been through, coming close to what he did and then evading, avoiding and denying it, are the years which are really interesting. He was, in the end, an artist, and he created memorable images of both destruction and the possibility of healing and comfort, of treachery and deep communion, of his own hurt self and a self that he invented.
After Madeleine died in 1986, Stuart married the Irish painter Finola Graham. He became weaker as he went into his nineties, but managed still to write and give readings and travel. Eventually, he moved from the house in Dundrum into a home, and then to a private house in County Clare, where he was looked after until his death last year. Towards the end, he threw away his reading glasses and delighted in the freedom of not having to read, but he continued to write in old-fashioned copybooks. He told a visitor that he had a recurring dream that he went to a ticket office and asked for a ticket to his father, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier. He managed to combine, in the years I knew him, a steely interest in causing as much trouble as he could and an extraordinary and feline serenity. His legacy is likely to remain difficult.