A Minority of One: Francis Stuart's Black List, Section H and the End of the Irish Bildungsroman

Article excerpt

   [A]utobiography in Ireland becomes, in effect, the autobiography
   of Ireland. To read the autobiographies of Yeats, George Moore or
   Frank O'Connor is ... to be constantly impressed and unnerved
   by the casual ease with which they substitute themselves as a
   shorthand for their country, writing an implicit and covert
   constitution for their republics in images of their very
   creation. (1)

   National literature is to my mind a meaningless term. Literature
   can't be national. Literature is individual (Francis Stuart). (2)

Given the controversy that continues to surround Francis Stuart's life and politics, his choice to cast his best-known work, Black List, Section H, in the form of a novel rather than autobiography may seem simple prudence. Readers may therefore be surprised by the fidelity to the events and even named, historical figures in Stuart's life depicted in the novel through the character of Luke Ruark, or 'H', from his late teens to his early forties. Fictionalization alone, however, does not so easily decode the shorthand that substitutes a life in Ireland with the life of Ireland, nor does the Bildungsroman form provide authors or protagonists with an escape from the nightmare of history into the rarefied domain of pure literature. Despite the novel's emphasis on H's inward, aesthetic exploration over the incidents of his life as Republican operative in the Civil War, gentleman farmer, stretcher-bearer at Lourdes, lecturer at the University of Berlin, and prisoner following the Second World War, Stuart's refusal to reconcile 'national' and 'individual', the very compromise that characterizes the canonical Bildungsroman form that his autobiographical novel assumes, (3) offers a polemical challenge to the metonymic degradation that individuality undergoes in Irish life-writing. Black List's focus on the solitary journey its protagonist takes in pursuit of his subjective aesthetic ideal, rather than on the oppressive historical and social forces surrounding him, could be viewed as a convenient rationalization for Stuart's wartime activities. Considered by its own terms, however, Black List, Section H eschews the progressive development toward a representative and integrated maturity that autobiographical fiction traditionally represents, and instead plots a meandering course between instances of singular--and unrepresentative--intensities of feeling. H's messianic pursuit of the authenticity only degradation and guilt can guarantee drives him on a crusade to tear down all conventions, including ultimately those of the Bildungsroman form itself.

Weldon Thornton suggests that the Bildungsroman has all but disappeared from Anglophone literature since the Second World War because 'the relationship between the individual and culture that brought the genre into being has somehow changed'. (4) The persistence of the form throughout the century in Ireland, (5) then, offers an exception, no doubt due in part to the influence of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Augustine Martin suspects that many post-War novelists who criticize the familiar anti-individual forces within Irish society adopt a trite and self-serving posture of post-Joycean 'inherited dissent'. (6) Certainly the nets of nationality, language, and religion that ensnare Stephen Dedalus persist in later fiction, not only to constrain the freedom of the Irish Bildungsroman protagonist, but also to determine the ways in which freedom itself is conceived. As Thomas Kilroy argues:

   Freedom, then, in this Irish fiction has a profound sociological
   stress; the emphatic burden of Irishness, and it is not just simply
   of the Catholic variety, is so strong that the novels tend to
   submerge; little space is left for exploring human development in
   its essence. (7)

Just as the apparatuses of the nation--economic underdevelopment, censorious Church, essentialist identity politics--stunt the growth of the protagonist within the story, the 'burden of Irishness' inhibits the development of novels into full-fledged Bildungsromane. …