Journey to the end of the night

February 1997 / Prospect, Issue 16

In George Steiner’s novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A H, a team of Nazi hunters discovers an aged Adolf Hitler living in exile in a Peruvian jungle. Despite longing to kill him, they offer Hitler the chance to defend himself. His words are reckless, defiant. He taunts them: “I am an old man. My voice tires… You have made of me some kind of mad devil, the quintessence of evil, hell embodied. When I was, in truth, only a man of my time. Oh, inspired, I grant you… with a nose for the supreme political possibility. A master of human moods, perhaps, but a man of my time.”

In October 1996, at a quiet ceremony at the headquarters of the Irish Arts Council in Dublin, Francis Stuart, another old man with a tiring voice, shuffled up to the Irish president, Mary Robinson, stooping low as she placed a gold torque around his neck. The event marked Stuart’s election to the office of Saoi of the Aosd*(r)¡ (wise man of the tribe), an honour bestowed on only three other living Irish writers. The ceremony, for a man who once saw Hitler as “a kind of contemporary Samson,” passed in a haze of congratulation; Stuart received his admirers congenially, including his perpetual champion, Anthony Cronin, a critic who considers Stuart’s autobiographical Black List, Section H to be, after Ulysses, the greatest Irish novel of the 20th century. But once Stuart had returned home, the whisperings against him began. For like Steiner’s Hitler, Stuart was a man of his time-terrifyingly so. Many of his compatriots have never forgiven his decision to live in Berlin during the second world war, from where he broadcast to Dublin and wrote scripts for William Joyce, the notorious “Lord Haw Haw.”

Born in Australia in 1902 of Ulster stock, Stuart lives alone in a small, shadowy bungalow in Dundrum, south Dublin. At 94 and despite his recent honour, he still feels ostracised in his own country. Like Jean Genet, whom he reveres, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, with whom he has been compared, Stuart knows the anguish of incarceration and the loneliness of the political extremist. Most of his 18 novels are out of print, yet the best of them-The Pillar of Cloud and Redemption-are complex studies in sacrifice and suffering. His fiction remains neglected-most publishers being unable to separate the darkness of the life from the radiance of the work.

Black List, Section H (Lilliput) recounts the story of Stuart’s own life, from his early and unhappy marriage to Maude Gonne’s daughter Iseult and his fighting with the Republicans in the Irish civil war, to his later exile in London and Berlin. It ends with his internment by the victorious allies, though he was convicted of no crime. In a characteristic comment, Stuart writes: “What’s so horrible is to live by established categories.” The cry of the man who chooses to journey beyond traditional moral absolutes in pursuit of a savage freedom.

One of Stuart’s critics is the writer Kevin Myers, who condemns the older writer’s unwillingness to defend or excuse his activities. Stuart is convinced that he did no wrong-that the world has unjustly caged him in its hostility. Myers feels that such sentiments are unjustified. “Stuart voluntarily sided with the most bestial regime in the history of civilisation,” he says. “What’s worse, he has remained unapologetic about it. His decision to stay in Nazi Germany should affect all evaluations of him for the rest of his life, even artistic ones. Otherwise we are treating art in a frivolous way. Beckett was in Paris and joined the Resistance. Stuart, a free man, chose to stay in Berlin and make these broadcasts. As a young man he was part of the Republican movement, so he was no ingé(r)µe.”

In defence of Stuart, Ulick O’Connor, the author, playwright and fellow Aosd*(r)¡ member, suggests that what matters in literature is not how you act or what you believe in, but whether you can write well. The imagination is sacrosanct, the word supreme. “Jean Genet, a great writer, was also a murderer who spent time in prison,” O’Connor says. “Stuart went to Berlin and made some literary broadcasts. And why not? He was a neutral Irishman.”

Transcripts of Stuart’s broadcasts, although hard to find, do exist and have been read by his biographer, Geoffrey Elborn. They reveal his commitment not only to Irish self-determination but to the German war effort. After the Battle of Stalingrad, he said: “If I were a German I would be proud to belong to a nation which could produce such men. As it is, I am glad to be among them…”; and again: “Today I spoke of Liam Lynch and Cathal Brugha, of Yeats and Synge and Pearse, for a nation’s soul is revealed in its poets and soldiers. I would refer again to Stalingrad. The Irish would understand what the German people felt. 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 the triumph of flesh and blood.”

Stuart’s journey to the end of the night is shocking but raises complex questions about connections between great creative gifts and certain kinds of political or ideological damnation. Last summer I tried to explore some of these questions with him. I visited Stuart in his bungalow in Dundrum, and found myself unexpectedly invited to a party held in his honour. A tall, straight-backed man and preternaturally pale, he was impressively alert and articulate. There was nothing vulnerable about him. At ease among his small group of friends-the ubiquitous Cronin, his publisher Anthony Farrell, Finola Graham, the wife from whom he lives apart- he seemed reluctant, at first, to discuss his past. The following morning, though, he was more open about the five and a half years he spent in Germany. Stuart told me he left Ireland not only because he had received an invitation to teach at Berlin University, but because he was attracted to the messianic zeal of Hitler, with its pristine uniforms and cleansing oratory. He travelled across Europe on a false medical certificate, arriving in Berlin in January 1940.

“I saw Hitler…” Stuart began, then turned away, leaving his sentence hanging. There was a short, uncomfortable silence before he continued, adding a parenthetical clause: “I saw Hitler-wrongly as it turned out-as a kind of contemporary Samson. I hated the whole political and social setup in western Europe, but especially what was happening in England and Ireland, and I thought Hitler was in a position to tear it all down. Of course, as soon as I went to Germany I saw that I was wrong. Hitler was a great disappointment to me.”

Asked about writing for Lord Haw Haw and his own broadcasts, he said: “The speeches I wrote for Joyce were all about British atrocities in Ireland. I have written about half a million words in my life and not one sentence has been anti-Semitic. People call me a fascist. But fascists have one-track minds, whatever you say about my mind it is not one-track.

“Another reason why I stayed in Germany is that the sort of writer I am should always be at the heart of what’s going on. I am an ostracised writer, writing for other lonely, ostracised people. For this reason, if for no other, I saw no reason to leave Berlin, especially as I am apolitical and adhere to no fixed moral position. I don’t regret what I did because it made me the writer I am. The only way I can write is by operating outside society.”

Stuart may claim never to have written an anti-Semitic word, but the two writers about whom he spoke that morning with hushed respect, Jean Genet and Martin Heidegger, are remembered for their hostility to Jews. Fascinated by Genet’s life of crime and existential rebellion, Stuart praised the Frenchman’s decision to move to Palestine during the last years of his life, as if such an act, with its implicit anti-Zionism, merited a badge of honour. He described Heidegger, a supporter of National Socialism, as a “modern prophet of the greatest stature.” In passing, he added: “George Steiner-another Jew, as you know-wrote a book about Heidegger that influenced me deeply.”

When I told George Steiner about my conversation with Stuart, he expressed admiration for his work but was troubled by the life. For much of his career, Steiner has meditated obsessively on questions concerning the links between tyranny and creativity, as well as the shadow the Holocaust has cast over European culture. So what of those midnight creatures who flourished as the lights were extinguished in central Europe? Steiner was unequivocal: “I have always felt strongly that it is not our business to condemn writers like Stuart who combine enormous talent with unacceptable politics. And Stuart does have enormous talent: assessing him purely as a writer, I can say that it is with people like Knut Hamsun and Céline that he belongs-that’s mighty big company but very unpleasant. What unites these writers is that they are unafraid, very solitary, and go only their own way. I know very little about Stuart’s activities in Berlin, but I am sure he was not a great help to the Nazis.”

The comparison with the Norwegian Knut Hamsun is instructive. Like Stuart (and Céline), Hamsun is a writer of extremes, whose hatred for democracy and disgust at what he called the “average man” and “the mob” led him to embrace Nazism as an ideology of purity and apocalypse; in 1943, he was notoriously photographed shaking hands with Hitler, whom Hamsun described as a reforming nature of the highest order, believing that the FÜhrer would usher in a “rich golden age of culture” (the photograph was a mirror into which the Norwegian people peered with shame). The compliment was obliquely repaid: Goebbels praised Hamsun’s fiction for the way in which it transcended “good and evil.”

Like Stuart, Hamsun writes of lonely, ostracised figures, fanatics of perpetual indignation for whom social intercourse is a tiresome impossibility and suicide remains a constant preoccupation. Like Stuart, Hamsun’s fiction can be melodramatic, marred by whimsy and a simple-minded mysticism; his late novels, such as Growth of the Soil, and Vagabonds, extol the virtues of intuition over reason. For Hamsun, as for DH Lawrence, the conscious life is no more than a masquerade of death-he locates the self in a biological source, dependent on natural, organic rhythms.

Knut Hamsun was born on 4th August 1859, in Gudbrandsdalen, the son of a poor farmer and tailor. When he was 20, Hamsun went to live in Kristiania (now Oslo), where he devoured literature with an autodidact’s determination. He struggled for more than a decade before eventually finding a publisher for his first (and greatest) novel, Hunger.

Morbidly introspective and isolated, although utterly convinced of his talent, he started work on Hunger in a cold attic room “only three feet from the moon.” After a period as a labourer he went to the US, where he continued to work on his novel. The newness and vibrancy of American speech, with its swaggering rhythms and wised-up exaggerations, may account for some of the remarkable vitality of Hamsun’s style. For a book written in 1889 Hunger feels astoundingly modern. Just how modern can be gleaned from a superb new translation by Sverre Lynstad, which has just been published by Rebel Inc, an imprint of the enterprising Edinburgh independent, Canongate Books. The magisterial omnipotence and long, self-savouring sentences of the traditional 19th century novel are rejected in favour of a dense, fragmented interior monologue. The language is rough, colloquial, coarse. With its streaming syntax, conflation of time sequence and impressionistic style, Hunger anticipates many of the experiments of the modernist novel. Indeed it is a modernist novel. “The whole modern school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hunger,” wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer. Its antecedents are apparent: Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with its bored hero, the murderous student-dreamer Raskolnikov; Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time (1840); Turgenev’s disenchanted anarchists; Gogol; German Romantic philosophy.

To the contemporary reader, familiar with almost a century of ironic, confessional first-person narrators, Hunger seems entirely familiar: but to late 19th century readers it must have seemed like nothing they had read before. A study in urban alienation, it is narrated by an irrational, tyrannical Hamsun-like figure wandering through Kristiania like a ghost. The young unnamed narrator moves among the masses from whom he has cut himself off, stumbling into newspaper offices in an attempt to sell his articles to startled, although benign, editors. The starving writer may be demanding, cruel and spiteful, but he is equally capable of compassion and a thousand little kindnesses. Though destitute, he frequently gives away what little money he has. It is difficult not to be moved by the starving writer’s plight, or delighted by his wild misanthropy.

At the end of the novel we see the narrator-his dream of writing unrealised-boarding a ship bound for England, yet we are not crushed by his defeat. The closing paragraph seeks to discover abundance in loss, by locating happiness in the search for glory rather than in its realisation. The young writer will return, as Hamsun himself eventually did, to claim the Nobel prize for literature.

The same mingling of isolation and compassion can be found in Céline, whose thrillingly nihilistic Journey to the End of the Night is one of the great novels of the century. Yet whereas, say, Stuart’s effectiveness as a Nazi propagandist remains obscure, Céline was a help to the Nazis. Born in 1894 of a lowly Parisian family, Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (Céline was a pseudonym) had a brutal childhood. Poor, dysfunctional but restlessly ambitious, he longed to escape from all that constrained him. He eventually found a kind of release in the trenches of the western front, where he was seriously injured and decorated. Journey contains descriptions of the carnage of war that few novels, not even Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, have matched. After the war, Céline qualified as a doctor, travelled in Africa and America, before returning to Paris to practise in a workers’ clinic.

Published in 1934, Journey follows the hero-narrator, Ferdinand, as he travels from the “fiery furnace” of the western front to the jungles of central Africa, and from New York to the crumbling tenements of Paris, where he works as a doctor among the forgotten and dispossessed. Céline immerses the reader in a torrential flow of language. His delight in obscenity and his prose, shocking and raw, is hard to forget; his metaphors astonish. Céline writes of suffering, debased lives and crushing poverty with ecstatic intensity. His vision of humanity in the grasp of its own weakness is utterly cynical. With fiendish application he leads his characters to the edge of the abyss, then pushes them over. As they fall we hear only the sad echo of their voices-and Céline’s wild laughter.

Céline’s indefatigable rage eventually propelled him into the arms of the Nazis. As a collaborator who fled France at the Liberation and followed the Vichy government to Germany, he wrote vitriolic and anti-Semitic pamphlets and articles before and during the second world war, including this sentence: “It [Hitler’s anti-Semitism] is the side of Hitler that most people like the least… it is the side I like the most.” His biographer, Maurice Bardeche, asks: “What kind of writer is he, who does not accept responsibility for what he has written, when what he has written has led others to their death?” Yet, reading Céline’s preface to the 1952 Gallimard edition of Journey, it seems clear that, on the contrary, he did accept responsibility for his actions. By this time, he had returned to France, where he was once again working as a doctor among the urban poor. His preface reveals a deep sense of mourning and regret, although it is expressed in the near-frenzy recognisable from the novels and pamphlets. Clearly, the price paid for setting himself apart from all external control was too great; he had suffered too much. “So, they’re putting Journey on the rails again,” Céline writes. “If I weren’t under so much pressure, forced to earn my living, I can tell you right now, I’d suppress the whole thing, I wouldn’t let a single line through… I’ve been the cause of too much evil. Just think of all the deaths, the hatreds around me, the treachery, the sewer it adds up to, the monsters.”

Milan Kundera defending Céline in Testaments Betrayed says that what matters to the ostracised writer is sensation, the feeling that he exists, even though in distress. Stuart wrote to affirm his solitude, and owes his best work to his role as an outcast. He would agree with Hume that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” That his search for sensation took him to Germany at the moment of its supreme disgrace matters less to him than that he made the journey.

Our journey as readers, in contrast, is empty of certainty. For although all attempts at aesthetic evaluation necessarily slide into the political, to judge a writer’s work by his often unsavoury life is to do violence to that work. If we follow the logic of Myers’ argument Stuart, Céline, Hamsun or any other creative monster is literally unreadable. His life is a blanket smothering his art. On the other hand to view the novel as a hermetically sealed object, as Kundera appears to do, is to strip it of the clothes of context and historical resonance. O’Connor’s and even Steiner’s equivocations concerning Stuart’s ultimate collusion with atrocity expose the disconcerting truth that aesthetic evaluation never wriggles completely free of politics: Steiner feels obliged to suggest that “Stuart was not a help to the Nazis,” while O’Connor mutters about Irish neutrality.

The source of Stuart’s rebellion might have been pure but he nevertheless ended up, as Céline and Hamsun did before him, peering blindly into the abyss. Yet, what each writer, in his willingness to blame only himself and endure the consequences, seems finally to have understood as he languished in prison in post-Nazi disgrace, is that if civil society is to survive, self-realisation cannot be the supreme principle. These writers’ chaotic, disordered lives remind us, to echo the poet Andrew Motion, of a painful general truth: that the beautiful flower of art grows, on a long stalk, out of some very mucky stuff.