Francis, John lslay (b. 1924)

Scottish secondary-school teacher of English; civil servant; learnt Esperanto in 1942. Francis became an active Esperantist only after the Second World War. He contributed to Malgranda Revuo: [Little Review; Engholn (q.v.)], La Nica Literatura Revuo (1955-62) and Esperanto en Skotlando [Eo in Scotland| amongst others. Francis also collaborated in the second fascicle of Belarto [Fine Arts] (1961). Many aspects of Francis’s poetic genius are only to be found in the above-mentioned periodicals. in his later years, Francis has become better known for his novels.

Francis’s notable poem La Kosmo [The Cosmos] was published in Kvaropo [Foursome] (1952) with works of three other leading poets, all appearing in book form for the first time: William Auld, John Dinwoodie and Reto Rossetti (qqq.v.). The four became known as the Scottish School of writers. The 236-line, five-canto poem deals with universal history: the birth of the world, its life and its end, until chaos is re-established. In this context, it is worth noting that Fracis has translated Milton (below).

La Kosmo, however important, shows only one facet of Francis’s poetry. Vilmos Benczik (q,v.) — in his commentary to the second edition of Kvaropo (1977) — writes (p. 241):

Francis himself is very sceptical about the value of this his work. When I requested his permission for the reprint, in his reply he called it ‘a mere exetcise in the Polish alexandrine’, and stated that years later he rewrote the whole as a uta: Ĉu iluzie | ke esto efektivas | internenie? [Is it illusory | that existence is a reality | amid nowhere?]

Having read the five chapters, it is, however, not possible to accept his completely negative opinion . . .

At the head of [La Kosmo] a poem by N. Kurzens [q.v.; ‘Ne Sufiĉas Nur Vivi!’ [It’s not Enough Just to Live)] stands as a motto. The last two lines . . . eloquently conceptualize Francis’s main recipe for life: . . . ne sufiĉas nur vivi kaj vivi aktivi necesas! [. . . it’s not enough just to live and live — it’s necessary to be active!]

‘Francis’s way of expressing himself,’ Benczik continues (p. 242), ‘is very precise and at the same time evocative, graphic: e.g. the living being idiĝas sinampute [is born by self-amputation].’

He is inclined to originally formed statements that surprise, the élan of which is nevertheless now and then weakened by a didactic tone. The construction of the poem is severely proportional, and the last — fifth — chapter ends with the verse that begins the first: . . . senvive sin etendas vakua firmamento [. . . lifelessly a vacuous firmament distends itself].

Benczik continues (p. 243):


[La Kosmo], as already said, gives only a pale image of Francis’s whole work. However, in essence it already leads one to infer all the important qualities of his later works, and also provides the contours of his philosophy. Without doubt one experiences him as an intellectual writer who chooses a subject and confronts it with ambition, has audaciously original points of view, and presents them in a language without ballast, precisely and concisely.

Auld (EOLE, pp. 85-6) notes the characteristic semantic density of Francis’s style, and Benczik concludes that: ‘Through La Kosmo, the reader becomes acquainted with the début worlk of one of the most significant authors of the third period of Esperanto literature.’

Reto Rossetti called Francis ‘the sober intellect’. Auld (EOLE, p. 85) points to his compassion and social indignation in, for example, ‘Ombroj en Mateno' [Morning Shadows]. Francis voices revulsion at war, and in particular at the mass carnage of the First World War; he chides tardy solemnants on the Day of Remembrance in ‘Al Malfruantaj Solenontoj de la Tago de Rememoro’.

Francis had his collection of short stories Vitralo [Stained-glass Window] published in 1960. Tazio Carlevaro (q.v.} (EeP, p. 179) recognises Francis’s talent for story-telling, and considers the predominant characteristic of his prose to be his use of irony, with which he obiectively analyses extreme examples of human customs and attitudes. In those short stories where irony is not the main trait, he writes with realism and a strong, although not always easily perceptible, sense of compassion.

Ferenc Szilágyi (q.v.), in his foreword to the work, comments on John Francis’s view of life ‘with a feeling of a newcomer’:

. . . some sort of illusionless (seniluzia) wonder for the smallness (pigmeeco) to which we are obliged to give importance, from which we can lift ourselves just a millimetre. though this millimetre. Which disappears from a cosmic perspective, is for us a requirement, an obligation. . . . Nothing other than toleration, altruism and sober helpfulness during that cosmic second we are alive, . . . And his awareness of the end of the cosmos, of the last sun-rays of the universe — which Adam in Tragedio de l’ Homo [cf. Az ember tragédiája (The Tragedy of Man) by lmre Madách (1823-64)] could not forget either —. see, this antipodal attitude in the same person never renders the writer’s words uninteresting, on the contrary, valid always and everywhere.

Francis is undoubtedly a pessimistic writer. although his pessimism does not tolerate categorization either.

In his review (1960), Henri Vatré calls Vitralo ‘not ordinary’, praising its remarkable style: ‘It is a work of art that has to be admired from very close up in order to enjoy every detail.’ ‘Our novelist has long observed people with wide-open eyes and a healthily balanced and richly doted power of perception.’ ‘The newness of Francis is rooted not so much in his world-view as in his manner of expressing it.’


Szilágyi asks why Francis’s chosen narrative type is the fable and concludes it is due to his being an epic poet and because the fable provides oppugnancy. But:

There is no semblance of a tendency to childishness in these tales, on the contrary there is an awareness we are never truly able to leave the childlike state behind. . . . Francis is not joking when he makes us laugh; for this the reader will find a host of examples.

Francis’s message is, as summed up by Szilágyi: ‘An admonition to us all — because any other attitude would be stupid — not to perturb life, not ours nor that of others, but to smooth its way — already fixed.’

Kálmán Kalocsay (q.v.), writing on ‘La Esperanta Novelo' [The Eo Short Story] in 1974, sums up the writer of Vitralo as:

. . . an author on the brink of disillusionment and pessimism, and this is why he prefers a satirical tone, lashing pseudomorality, tyranny, the idiocy of power-hunger and servility, and for these ends using exaggeration and the grotesque in his stories . . . Yet the colours of compassion and affection are not lacking from his palette.

Probably Francis’s most outstanding contribution to Esperanto prose is La Granda Kaldrono [The Great Caldron], a novel of 592 pages describing the fortunes of a family through the First and Second World wars. It appeared in 1978, but was written ten years earlier. In subject matter it may be compared to works by Baghy, Schwartz and Soros (qqq.v.). Its inspiration is Francis’s abhorrence of war. However. as Humphrey Tonkin comments: ‘The work is not a pacifist novel in any simple sense, though the tragic pointlessness of war is a recurrent theme.’

Auld describes La Granda Kaldrono as probably Esperanto’s most mature romantic novel (VDS, pp. 19-20, p. 30; 1981), and as ‘a flawless slice of real life’ (VDS, pp. 92-3). It is ‘also partly a celebration of the non-fictional Scottish Marxist John Maclean. one of the popularly most loved people in the history of Scotland, who is the axis (lokiĝo) of the novel.’ Maclean was a labour leader and an uncompromising opponent of the First World War, who was sentenced to jail on several occasions.

Francis, wishing to place the two world wars and their effects on a single family in parallel, does not do it chronologically but describes now the First World War now the Second in such a way that the parallelization is felt in a most direct, but nevertheless unforced, manner. As Tonkin puts it in his review in World Literature Today (1978): ‘the author moves back and forth . . ., pointing up the often ironic contrasts and similarities among [the characters] and emphasizing their often limited vision.’

Albert Goodheir (q.v.), in his review (1979), also commenting on Francis’s ‘unusual and difficult’ parallelization of the two conflicts. adds that ‘it truly pleases only after the second reading, but then it is really effective’.

Tonkin continues:

Francis's characters (with the one exception of John Maclean) are not so much actors as victims of the events of their time. From the novel


there emerges a new insight into the complexities of human motives. Francis himself shows deep compassion for the ordinary people who fill his narrative.

The novel is a natural evolution from Francis’s work with the short story, and the most successful episodes are those most resembling free-standing short stories. Certain of the other sections would have benefited from some revision, . . .

Tonkin adds that among the most effective descriptions in the book are those of trench warfare. Goodheir considers the descriptions of the characters and their relationships and dialogues appear completely authentic, adding, as a pastor in the area for many years, ‘particularly to someone who is acquainted with the people of Western Scotland’. Goodheir also points to the novel’s psychological authenticity and Francis’s use of irony. He sums up: ‘Here is a work that . . . is international because the problems confronted by these people are universal.’

Francis’s science-fiction novel Misio sen Alveno [Mission without Arrival] came out in 1982. Probal Dasgupta, in his review (1982), considers that Francis ‘has succeeded in producing a work that is standard for the genre, and which at the same time impresses as a good little novel with subtle and interesting characters’:

Francis’s cognitive universe represents the most conscientious and penetrating elements of the Western part of the Esperanto world. This universe appears in its many facets in this science-fiction work. As usual, the science-fiction genre enables the author to illuminate bits of the weft of humanity which one is acquainted with but which are not manifest other than when there is a collision between quite different civilisations. one of which more or less violently altering the other.

Francis’s Tri Rakontoj pri la Miljara Paco [Three Stories of the Thousand-Year Peace] (1997) invites us into the parallel world of the Empire of Yugland, continuing the theme of stories from Vitralo. Mauro Nervi (q.v.), in his review (1999), comments:

The stories are very carefully woven, and many characters, many story lines cleverly intertwined in a net of surprising relationships that certainly demand the reader’s attention and at the same time testify to the rich fantasy of their writer. The utopian strength of Francis’s prose exploits the conventional background of an imaginary (fabela) court so he can analyse the hypothesis that a legally defined death penalty for heads of state who in any way initiate war could guarantee peace for several hundred years.

However, Francis constantly argues on the dangers of such an unstable, judicially based and obligatory form of peace.

And not only socially unacceptable emotions can dispose towards war but also poetry: ‘precisely because they are poets they need anger, drama and the suffering of war, . . . strong emotions and constant struggle are necessary for poetry’ [pp. 58-9].


In this context, Nervi calls our attention to Homer’ s opinion that the gods weave unhappiness so our descendants should not lack themes for songs.

In his review (2000), Sten Johansson (q.v.) comments that readers acquainted with Francis’s previous style will fail to recognize him: ‘There is a total lack here of the humour. wit and clear-sightedness of the Vitralo stories, while the form is inflated to a word-rich, loose, all drowning flood of words.’ While Yugland in Vitralo presented some sort of essence of our world, that of Tri Rakontoj bears no relation to it at all, in Johansson’s opinion.

However, Garbhan MacAoidh, in his review (2000), believes the stories appeal to those who enjoy satire and burlesque humour. The first story has an ‘absurdly complicated plot’, the second is enlivening for its mockery of the military mind.

Francis has also written valuable studies on Esperanto literature. His article ‘Integro kaj Latentoj en la Verko de Zamenhof’ [‘Integrity and Potential in Zamenhof’s Achievement’ (Eng. ed. 1959, 1981)] in Memorlibro pri la Zamenhof-Jaro ‘Commemorative Book for the Zamenhof Year’ (pp. 50-3; 1960) (cf. Boulton) is a masterful analysis of Zamenhof’s work as a pioneering poet and lyricist.

In 2003, Francis stated in La Brita Esperantisto: ‘I have been most interested by poetry, although I have always had an inclination for writing vast novels, exploiting Esperanto’s flexibility. But I suppose l have finally become a novelist-storyteller.’ ‘I have written a fourth story on ‘La Miljara Paco’ [The Thousand-Year Peace], and I have begun a fifth, but I lost the first four pages and am not inclined to rewrite them. I do not have any plans for new works.’

Francis’s novel La Kastelo de Vitro [The Glass Castle], published in 2004, is the first he has written primarily for children. Donald Broadribb. in his review (2005), describes it as not merely a series of quite dissimilar adventures but true literature:

Children want to hear more than mere stories, they want to be able to imagine themselves as participants in the adventures. and in this respect John Francis is outstanding. He succeeds in creating the atmosphere so necessary for being able to believe in the existence of that magical world.

Other work: Foreword to W. Auld’s epic poem La Infana Raso (1956) and to his coll. of poems Unufingraj Melodioj (1960).

Francis’s translations incl.: in Angla Antologio [English Anth.] (1957) is the 1,054-line second canto of Paradise Lost (1667. rev. ’74) by John Milton. Milton’s poetry is perhaps the densest and most majestic in English, and Francis, Auld reports (EOLE, p. 86), stubbornly insisted on translating it using ‘precisely the same number of lines’. Francis then turned to the poetry of John Keats and Shakespeare’s Richard III (Rikardo Tria, 1980).

On Francis: K. Kalocsay: ‘La Esperanta Novelo’ [The Eo Short Story] (1974). V. Benczik: ‘Kvaropo kaj la Skota Skolo’ [Kvaropo and the Scottish School] (1976). M. Boulton: ‘Grandskala Romano’ [A Large-scale Novel] (1978) — on La Granda Kaldrono. B. Ragnarsson: ‘John Francis: Pintulo Bezonas Reeldonon’ [J.F.: Top Author Needs Republication] (2006).


Francis in translation into · Hungarian: poems ‘Al Malfruantaj Solenontoj de la Tago de Rememoro’ (1958) [To Tardy Solemnants on the Day of Remembrance], ‘Okazos je la Deka’ (1960) [It Will Take Place at Ten] and ‘La Vidvino Pirsen’ (1960) [The widow Pearson] appear as ‘Az emlékezés napjának majdani megünneplõihez’, ‘Pontban tízkor’ (trans. V. Benczik) and ‘Özvegy Pearsonné’ in M. Gergely (ed.) Utam a világban: Eszperantó irodalmi antológia / Mi Vizitas Mian Farmon: Antologio el la Esperanta Literaturo (1987) · Italian: terza rima ‘Al Malfruantaj Solenontoj de la Tago de Rememoro (11a Nov.)’ appears as ‘Fate in fretta. signori!’ in Dante Bertolini’s coll. In quest’era omicida / En Ĉi Murdepoko (1987).

· SELECTED WORK: La Kosmo [The Cosmos] (poem) in Kvarapo [Foursome] (1952, 2nd ed. I977). Vitralo [Stained-glass Window] [short stories. 1960). ‘Integro kaj Latentoj en la Verko de Zamenhof’ [Integrity and Potential in Zamenhof’s Achievement’ (Eng. version 1959, ’81)] in Memorlibro pri la Zamenhof-Jaro (1960). La Granda Kaldrono [The Great Cauldron] (novel, 1978). Misio sen Alveno [Mission without Arrival] (novel, 1982). Rpt in Esperanta Antologio: Poemoj 1887-1981 ed. W. Auld (1984): ‘Rezignacio’ [Resignation]; ‘Al Malfruantaj Solenontoi de la Tago de Rememoro’ (1958) [To Tardy Solemnants on the Day of Remembrance]; ‘Ombroj en Mateno’ [Shadows in the Morning]; ‘La Stumpa Popolo’ [The Truncated People]; ‘Rikolto Sin Resemos Do’ [Harvest Will Then Reseed Itself]; ‘Kalocsay’; ‘Tipolo’ [Crane-fly; Am. Harvestman]; ‘V La Fino’ [‘V The End’] pt. of ‘La Kosmo’ [The Cosmos]. Rpt in Sub la Signo de Socia Muzo ed. W. Auld and S. Maul (1987); ‘Ombroj en Mateno’ [Shadows in the Morning] (poem). Rpt in Trezoro: la Esperanta Novelarto 1887-1986 eds R. Rossetti and H. Vatré (1989): ‘Ĝermoj en Rikolto’ [Sprouts in Harvest] (1960). Tri Rakontoj pri la Miljara Paco [Three Stories of the Thousand-Year Peace] (1997). La Kastelo de Vitro [The Glass Castle] (novel, 2004). ‘La Skota Skolo’ [The Scottish School] (essay, 2005).


SOURCE: Sutton, Geoffrey. Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto, 1887-2007 (New York: Mondial, 2008), pp. 222-227.

Note: Scattered references to Francis occur throughout the book. Francis’s remarks on William Auld’s La Infana Raso can be found on pp. 265-267; on and in Auld’s Unufingraj Melodioj, p. 268, p. 270. A paragraph on Francis’s ‘A flawless slice of real life’, about La Granda Kaldrono, is on p. 406. Bibliography of Francis’s works is listed on p. 621; Ragnarsson’s essay is listed on p. 645.

Francis’s novel Kronprincedzino [Crown Prince’s Wife] (Antverpeno: Flandra Esperanto-Ligo, 2011) was published after Sutton’s publication. A posthumous collection of Francis’s poems, some previously unpublished, has also since been published: Danco de Vivo [Dance of Life] (Motherwell: Scottish Esperanto Association, 2012; 77 pp.). [RD]

John Islay Francis — Retgvidilo / Web Guide

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 26 February 2024

Site ©1999-2024 Ralph Dumain