Friday, 28 November 2008
I read Blacklist Section H by Francis Stuart again during a recent holiday. I first bought it more than 25 years ago and must have read it a dozen times since. It is a book I keep going back to and coming away with something new each time. I have spent quite a bit of time and money tracking down Stuart’s novels over the years, many of which are now out of print, and there are now about 20 on my book shelf.
I even tracked the author himself down in 1997 to do an interview following the publication of his last novella King David Dances. He was 95 at the time when I visited him at his home in Dublin and he was very hard of hearing and had trouble walking. Never-the-less he sat patiently with me for more than an hour and half and I'm sure he sussed out that there was more than mere journalistic interest to my questions.
It was quite surreal to hear him talking about his final meeting with Samuel Beckett in Paris when they were both in their eighties, or about conversations he’d had with WB Yeats and Liam O'Flaherty in the 1930s, and according to his biographer, Kevin Kevin Kiely, he was even introduced, briefly, to James Joyce in a Paris cafe.
However, there is always something slightly awkward about admitting that your favourite writer is Francis Stuart for he is still derided by many as a Nazi propagandist. And let’s face it there is no getting around it, Stuart went to Germany in 1940 to teach in Berlin and went on to broadcast propaganda to Ireland on behalf of Nazi Germany.
Blacklist is autobiographical but written in the third person as if Stuart was trying to stand back and dissect his own life - in particular as to how he ended up living and working in Berlin during the Second World War. Detractors who accused Stuart of being a Nazi collaborator labelled Blacklist as an attempt at self-justification, however, there is too much going on here for it to be a simple as that. Stuart goes out of his way to portray himself as flawed and selfish but with painful insights into his own psyche.
From a scene in Berlin, Stuart’s narrator, H, comes across a street in a former Jewish district and contemplates the fate of the Jews under the Nazis (this would have been in 1939 before the ’final solution’ had been fully implemented).
He writes that H “had to experience , in his own probably small degrees, some of what they suffered and, on the 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 their present defenders… 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 is a complicated character and seems to have had the attitude of ‘whatever everyone else is for I’m against it’. He was born to Irish parents in Australia in 1902 but his father took his own life when Francis was an infant. He was brought back to Ireland by his mother where he was brought up by his unionist relatives in the north until he went to public school in England. Despite his Protestant/Unionist background he married Iseult Gonne - daughter of WB Yeats’s muse Maud Gonne - and became a Catholic and a Republican who smuggled guns to Ireland for the IRA and was interned by the newly formed Free State government in the 1920s.
His novels from the 1930s seemed to almost anticipate what would actually happen to him in later life. His narrators go out of their way to align themselves with fringe elements or commit acts that ensure their isolation from society. It is from this position of isolation that Stuart seemed to believe that writers and poets would be able experience the imaginative counter currents in which great art is produced.
In Blacklist Stuart defines H’s situation shortly after his arrival in Berlin: - “Time: Deepest winter, 1940. Situation: uncertain, compromised, companionless, cold to freezing… Alternatively: alone and free and passionately involved in my own living fiction, imaginative participation unimpaired, unpredictable possibilities.”
Stuart equates great art with suffering and isolation and his novels are constantly name checking novelists, poets and painters who were pushed to the fringes of society or endured mental or physical suffering to produce great art – Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Keats, DH Lawrence, Osip Mandelshtam and Emily Bronte.
Infact, Emily Bronte actually appears in one of Stuart’s most original novels – A Hole in the Head – written in the 1970s and set in a fictional version of Belfast, where a severely mentally disturbed writer, recently abandoned by his wife, arrives in Troubles-torn ‘Belbury’ with Emily, who is as real to him as the people who exist outside his mind.
I think you almost have to buy-in to that ‘outsider’ philosophy to understand Stuart, otherwise you would simply label him as the equivalent of the schoolboy who got caught smoking behind the bike shed when he knew it was wrong but tried to justify it by saying he did it all in the name of art. The criticism would be valid if Stuart had simply produced vacuous, self-serving novels after his years in German but even his fiercest critics had to grudgingly concede that there was a certain depth to them.
The 1940s novels The Pillar of Cloud and Redemption jar against the conventional narrative of post-World War II history – which for the most part has been set down by the victors. Stuart’s his ‘late-harvest’ books (written when he was in his seventies and eighties) – A Hole in the Head, Memorial and The High Consistory ¬- challenge conventional morality and often jolt you into questioning values that most people would not consider questioning. And if you can get hold of them Pigeon Irish and The Coloured Dome, written in the early 1930s, are worth reading, not least because they seem to articulate the very philosophy that Stuart was subsequently accused of manufacturing to justify his decision to go to Germany a decade later.
However, the jumping off point has got to be Blacklist Section H, but be warned it could turn in to an obsession.