Great Irish Writers: Carlo Gebler on Francis Stuart
A Libraries NI initiative saw four Irish writers make the case for four Irish writers. Read the first speech and give your opinion
On February 10, 2011, Derry Central Library played host to one of the most fiercely contested debates the city has ever seen. The topic? No, not politics for once - but Ireland’s Greatest Writer.
Organised by Kevin Quinn and Libraries NI, and chaired by historian Sean McMahon, the event attracted a huge crowd and garnered extensive media attention in the city.
Four Northern Irish authors – Garbhan Downey, Carlo Gebler, Brian McGilloway and Anita Robinson – put the cases for Van Morrison, Francis Stuart, Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel respectively, with Irish News columnist Robinson eventually winning the house vote for her masterful tribute to the Derry playwright.
Culture Northern Ireland will be publishing the speakers’ four speeches over the next few weeks – and inviting readers to comment for or against the arguments made. We begin with Carlo Gebler on Francis Stuart.
What do we mean by greatest? Most talented, most versatile, most lauded, most successful? Or is it the life that counts; the obstacles overcome; the sufferings endured? These are some of the criteria we might use to determine greatness and there are more.
I’ve decided, however, to nominate a writer who won’t qualify as great by any of these. He didn’t write conspicuously well. He only won one prize and that was for political reasons. He didn’t sell. And he wasn’t well known. Moreover, he was selfish, he was obdurate, he was a hopeless husband and father. He squandered his opportunities. The obstacles he faced were entirely of his own making. His politics were odious. He was a collaborator.
I shall enumerate his shortcomings later; you will know the worst before you vote. First, a health warning: A bad character does not make a writer write badly. Many bad men and women have produced great literature. My nominee is one of that number.
His name is Francis Stuart. He was born in Australia in 1902. His parents were Ulster Protestants. His alcoholic father hanged himself in an asylum soon after his birth. His mother, Lily, brought him home to Ireland. They lived nice bourgeois lives in Meath and later Dublin and had nice bourgeois holidays in County Antrim with the rellies.
Like so many of his class Stuart was sent to English preparatory school, then public school (Rugby). He was a sporty, feckless schoolboy, with a gift for getting attention of the wrong kind. In 1918, aged 16, while on holiday with the Antrim relatives, he wrote a simplistic pro-Home Rule letter knowing the Antrim address would guarantee its publication in a pro-Home Rule Dublin newspaper and sent it off. He was right. It got published and his Antrim relatives expelled him from the tribe. His life as contrarian was underway.
At the end of the Great War he went to Dublin to cram for Trinity. He never went. Instead he met and married Iseult MacBride, daughter of Maud Gonne MacBride and stepdaughter of Major Robert MacBride, Irish Republican aristocracy. The marriage was miserable. Iseult hated sex. Stuart loved sex. Stuart promptly concluded that ideology, and in particular Republican ideology was antithetical to sexual instinct. He was 50 years ahead of the Freudian William Reich there.
Stuart spent the 1920s and the 1930s working as a poultry farmer in Laragh, County Wicklow, conducting clandestine affairs, and writing (in my opinion) pretentious, pseudo-mystical, anti-democratic, causally anti-Semitic novels. In 1939 he was invited to Germany to give readings. He arrived in Berlin in April and for the next five months he was treated like royalty: what was he thinking? Yes, he went against the grain, but this was a bit more than that.
At the end of his German reading tour Stuart was offered a position as a lecturer in English and Irish literature at Berlin University. In August 1939 he went home. In September war was declared. Had Stuart been wise he’d have read the runes and stayed in Laragh. But Stuart thought, 'There’s a war coming, I’m a writer, I should be where the action is. I’ll escape Iseult. I’ll go to Germany.' He went to London, wangled an exit visa for Switzerland, and made his way to Berlin.
Over the following war years Stuart taught, had love affairs, wrote a life of Casement for a German publisher, translated news bulletins for William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’), wrote talks for Joyce, and then wrote over 50 talks of his own which he broadcast to Ireland between 1942 and 1944. Post-war Stuart spun these talks as being about literary matters. No. They were political, also crude, patriotic, Anglophobic, and implicitly anti-Semitic.
In 1945 Stuart and his lover Madeleine (later the second Mrs Stuart) were picked up by Free French troops. She was released but Stuart was kept while attempts were made to frame charges. As a national of neutral Ireland, even though what he’d done was stupid and immoral, it wasn’t criminal. He was released.
The experience of imprisonment, and worse the vilification that flowed from being identified with the regime that enacted the Holocaust, did something extraordinary to Stuart. It made him a much better writer. He wrote two extraordinary novels, little classics, about post-war Germany, Redemption and Pillar of Cloud. Victor Gollancz (of New Left Book Club fame) recognized his talent and published these and many other novels.
Stuart, with Madeleine, moved first to London and, after Iseult’s death (March 22, 1954), to Ireland, to County Meath, where he wrote his masterwork, Black List, Section H. He described this as 'a novel where real people appear under their real names where possible', but in fact its a fictionalised autobiography that enunciates his personal philosophy in the hope of finessing his rehabilitation, or, if you prefer, of persuading credulous readers he wasn’t as bad as was made out to be.
The book's proposition is ludicrously simple: in any situation the artist’s duty is always to identify with the loser at that moment. Stuart’s alter-ego in the novel, H, devotes his life to this creed. Thus, for example, in Ireland in 1920, though married to Iseult, ardent Republican and Anglophobe, he opts to help a stranded Auxiliary (an officer class Black and Tan). You see, that’s what a writer’s supposed to do.
The novel ends with H in a cell of Belgium Fascists awaiting the worst. He has been a selfish fool, H realizes. He has failed to sympathize for five years with the losers, the Jews and the conquered nations. But now, miraculously, at the 11th hour, he’s been thrown in with the vanquished, where he belongs and providing he’s ‘mindful’, the experience will make him a much better writer.
In other words, strip everything away, especially the nonsense about the writer’s duty being to align himself always with the loser, which may be an admirable creed but it was one H and Stuart certainly did not practice, strip it all away and what are you left with? Answer: self-interest. Everything H does, he does for himself. And it is this enunciation of self-interest as the bedrock of H’s personality and by implication his own personality that makes Stuart great.
Our culture loves to believe in altruism, saintliness and purity of heart. Writers are particularly expected to exemplify these virtues. 'Now God is dead writers’ have a priestly function,' according to Saul Bellow. No, says Stuart loudly. I (and possibly you too dear reader) am a being who does nothing save what is in my self-interest.
It is not a new idea that self-interest is a great driver, if not the driver of human behaviour. In our parish Jonathan Swift had something to say about this. But Stuart is the modern writer who tells this horrible but necessary truth best, and we really need to be told that truth very emphatically. Even if we don’t agree with it, we are never going to improve as a species unless we face it and, I would argue, accept it.
There is also another reason to support Stuart if you’re from here: because he reminded us with every sentence he wrote that there was a world beyond Ireland and our narrow Irish concerns (sin, soil and sex, as the late great David Marcus brilliantly summarized them) if we only had the wit to raise our gaze from the ground and look towards the horizon.
Stuart pointed the way and told the truth: therein lies his greatness. Many may accept he looked out of Ireland but will object his focus on self-interest is reductive and bleak. I disagree. It is bracing, liberating. For me it is the truth. And isn’t that what greatness is – telling the truth, even a truth?
At the moment the French are going through agonies over Louis Ferdinand-Celine, a great writer who wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the 30s and 40s and was so far to the right he thought Vichy wishy-washy. He was lined up for 'national celebrations' in 2011 (the 50th anniversary of his death) and then de-selected by the Culture Minister, Frédéric Mitterrand.
Many French intellectuals want this reversed. The philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy produced the best sound bite of this spat: let’s celebrate Celine, he said, and then France can 'explore the enigma that one can be at the same time a great writer and a complete bastard'. Ditto Stuart: give him your vote and then ask how could he be so interesting and so awful?
This is the talk given in Derry Central Library on Thursday, February 10 as part of Libraries NI initiative. Check out Culture Northern Ireland over the coming weeks to read Garbhan Downey's speech on Van Morrison, Brian McGilloway's speech on Seamus Heaney and Anita Robinson's speech on Brian Friel.