In the war-shattered remains of a German town occupied by the French Dominic Malone tries to stay warm in a freezing room and stave off his constant hunger with meagre rations. Dominic, an Irish poet, had spent the Second World War in Germany and now lives among the defeated.
He becomes close to two displaced Polish sisters, Halka and Lisette. Halka was incarcerated in a concentration camp during the war and later in a mental institute where she was regularly electrocuted as part of her treatment. Dominic is attracted to Halka because of what she suffered but it is only after he is also incarcerated and questioned about why he spent the war in Germany that Halka begins to come close to him.
In a postscript to this 1994 edition of the Pillar of Cloud (first published in 1948) Stuart writes: “I suppose a central impulse in compiling The Pillar of Cloud… was to record my conviction… that pain and anguish are great evolutionary forces through which mind and heart, nervous system and psyche, mature and develop in complexity.”
Dominic had believed that out of the carnage that had swept over Europe during the war years would emerge a new type of society in which old materialistic values would be rejected.
A “Rumanian” called Petrov, shares Dominic’s hopes and says he has found signs of a new way of thinking in some obscure French literary magazines.
Petrov tells Dominic: “Scattered through little magazines and reviews that are only read by a few people are the new words of annunciation and despair… they went down to the uttermost end of desolation by the words they have brought back with them – words that could not have been spoken before, words that have been formed in that particular world-darkness, and the only words that have encompassed the darkness and not been encompassed by it.” P64
However, he says that only a few of those who survived the war had been truly transformed while for most people: “these torments have not borne fruit.” P64
Dominic’s hopes for a new sort of society are also undermined by the attitudes that he experiences around him but he is comforted to know that Halka shares his disillusion.
“It was good to feel her sharing his hatred of all the mediocrity, staleness, the tame, stale sentiment, or all the belittlement and diminishing of the heart.”P68
Petrov’s disillusion leads him to abandon hope in a new society emerging. He tells Dominic: “I lived with the faith that Europe was emerging from the darkness that had fallen on her with a new vision.” But he had abandoned that belief. “We live in a world delivered up to the Beast of mediocrity armed with the weapons of destruction, and the only thing to do is come to terms with it.” P157
Yet for Dominic his faith that a new type of humanity should emerge is the only thing that could justify all the death and destruction that took place during the war. He realises that he must be true to that vision by marrying the seriously ill Lisette to try to get her back to Ireland for the sake of her health even though it is Halka who he loves and who he may never see again.
It is this act of self-sacrifice by Dominic that allows Halka to come to terms with the suffering that she went through and to restore her belief in humanity, even if that is limited to a few individuals like Dominic.
The Pillar of Cloud is a vehicle through which Stuart explores his belief that “pain and anguish” can be redemptive factors that can lead to good.
Dominic says: “I needed a war and hunger and cold and imprisonment. I needed all those things before my eyes were opened enough to see a good woman.” P188
He contrasts his attitude with that of his uncle who lived out the war in security in Ireland and ignorance of what was happening in Europe.
“In order to enjoy a good game of golf and come back to a glass or two of sherry in a well-appointed club house, one must tacitly believe in the sacredness of property, in the sacredness of marriage, in the security of society, in the police force, in the established system of education. Dominic might once more play golf and even enjoy it, but it would always be with his tongue in his cheek, always with an amused wonder at there really being such a thing as golf links left in the world.”p189
In his novel The Angel of Pity, written in the early 1930s, Stuart envisages a post-war scenario and writes: “Show me the being who has suffered most and I would feel more humble before him or her than in the presence of the greatest geniuses that the world recognises. I would know beyond doubt that he had gone further towards finding the eternal truth than anyone else, whether as an artist, a lover, a saint or in some more obscure capacity. He would be bound to have at least some qualities of these three types because his being would be developed to the greatest fullness of experience.” (The Angel of Pity P72)
The Pillar of Cloud was Stuart’s first novel to be published after the Second World War, during which he lived in Berlin. After the war he spent several years in southern Germany, Austria and France a refugee and was imprisoned by the victorious Allies. It echoes his pre-war philosophy but is given added depth because he is able to draw on real life experiences.
The philosophies expressed by the narrator are clearly Stuart’s and they would continue to inform all his post war fiction in which he constantly created scenarios in which a damaged individual would find himself at odds with a materialistic world and only find solace in the company of a few like-minded, and equally damaged, companions.