The Pillar of Cloud (1948) by Francis Stuart

By JV

Dominic, an Irishman, finds himself in a small town in the French occupied region of post-war Germany. As a citizen of a neutral country (Eire) his presence in Marheim comes under suspicion from all sides and his life is precarious. He suffers from hunger and cold as do the other people who have been thrown together by the misfortunes of war. They come from Poland, Rumania, Martinique. Only the French police officers, coming from the occupier forces, are well-housed and well-fed. Through a kindly German woman who takes in young women at risk and looks after them, Dominic meets Halka and her much younger sister Lisette. Halka has been in a concentration camp and has also experienced time in an asylum as a result. One of the only ways a woman in these circumstances can survive is to become the ‘cherie’ of a French occupier. To remove her from this life, Dominic persuades Halka to come and share his garret and to bring her sister too so that he can ‘bring her back to a life of happiness and normality’, as Renier, the police chief observes is probably Dominic’s intention. Renier knows this is hard to achieve –‘all these riff-raff that are hanging around central Europe, homeless and mostly workless, the girls living on men, drifting from one to the other, and the men living on various ‘dealings’, on various forms of Black Marketeering.’
Dominic falls for Halka but doesn’t approach her. She seems to feel love for him but tries to persuade him to take her little sister back to Ireland and marry her, in order to rescue her from the miseries of central Europe. But Lisette decides that she will go to Petroc, the Rumanian and be to him whatever he wishes as he seems to be looking for a female companion. But first she takes it into her head to go off to Basle with Descoux, Halka’s former protector and a French police officer who has papers to travel from one country to another. Lisette travels on Descoux’s wife’s papers.
In chapter 10 Dominic follows them to Basle and proposes to Lisette, who accepts. He takes her with him to meet the anarchists Renier has introduced him to. They engage in a religious/philosophical debate. The anarchist maintains that when a time comes when there are no longer governments, frontiers, armies and police forces then will come ‘the proclamation of the brotherhood and unity of man’. Dominic contests this type of prophecy and puts forward the idea that no organisations of man will achieve this but that Christ, the only prophet not to promise peace on earth, who in fact promised the opposite – destruction and desolation from the razing of Jerusalem to the end of the world – had the answer. Man had only to love one another as Christ had loved his disciples and that would bring about the only true fraternity. These thoughts are a revelation even to Dominic as he speaks them. He had never ‘come to so nearly formulating what lay behind the impulse that had kept him in Germany and now kept him with Halka’ (after the end of the war when he could have returned to Ireland). This passage gives an example of how Stuart seems to be working out his own ideas on the page. It makes for heavy reading!
A pillar of cloud was one of the manifestations of the presence of the God of Israel in the Torah, the five books of Moses which appear at the beginning of the Old Testament Bible. I found this book difficult; desolate. The themes seem to be desolation and dislocation – and agonising searching of motives for actions past. One doesn’t warm to these characters as they seem to be more embodiments of ideas working themselves out against each other than ordinary souls caught up in the disruption of post war Europe. The plot is negligible. The personae are from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Rumania and France so it is slightly difficult to imagine them having these in-depth conversations in some common language. Throughout the book there is much discussion between Dominic and Halka as to the nature of ‘fraternity’ between men and women. Dominic and Renier have a long conversation about anarchy which he believes is the only thing which could save Europe.
I found this book a challenge to read but after I had read Colm Toibin’s article Issues of Truth and Invention published in January 2001 in The London Review of Books, (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v23/n01/colm-toibin/issues-of-truth-and-invention) I found the novel easier to appreciate. It is obviously autobiography as fiction and Stuart’s own words, quoted in Toibin’s article, make it easier to come to grips with the work.
‘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.’
I feel the ‘novel’ is worthy of being read although (and this might be a snobbish opinion) I can’t imagine the average middle-brow reader of the immediate post war years actually wanting to persevere with this book authored by a man who seems to have been a Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semitic; a book dealing with the recent painful events which populations were trying to forget. It is all the more amazing that Victor Gollancz undertook to publish it, as he was Jewish.
Yet, perhaps now the time is ripe for twenty-first century readers to give this book a thorough read.

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One thought on “The Pillar of Cloud (1948) by Francis Stuart

  1. Perhaps Gollancz published the book because Stuart is far more self-revealing – and damaging to himself and his opinions – than he ever realised.

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