Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Mark Twain's Joan of Arc

One of the most consistently interesting series of book blog posts I've run into is Brandon's fortnightly reads at Siris. Every two weeks Brandon picks a book off his shelves to read, profiles it, then reports back two weeks later with a detailed review including favorite passages, etc. His latest review is of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a book I'd vaguely known about but never read, but now find myself very curious about after reading Brandon's review.

From the review:
Personal Recollections is the story of Louis de Conte, a quasi-fictional character based on occasional mentions in historical documents of Joan's page. He is, in effect, country gentry who grows up with Joan in Domremy, as the above opening suggests. He, along with two others, Edmond Aubrey, usually called by his satirical nickname, "the Paladin", and Noel Rainguesson, end up attending Joan on her incredible journey first to the King then to victory, then to her capture and trial. Especially with regard to the latter, Twain makes an effort at sticking to the evidence, but this is not a cut-Joan-down-to-size exercise; for one thing, Twain himself actually admires Joan, and his narrator adores her (Twain occasionally has to bring in the fictional translator to defend Louis's accuracy), and for another, we're talking about a seventeen-year-old girl who took control of the armies of France and turned a losing war into a winning one, despite having no military background, so trying to treat her as unremarkable is going to fail, regardless. But Twain's Joan is also in many ways a plausible seventeen-year-old girl. She hates fighting; she's just not afraid to do it. She weeps for the deaths of enemies as well as the deaths of friends. She doesn't want to fight wars; she wants to be done with it and go home, and is sometimes impatient with the fact that people keep delaying her. The only reason she is there is because the Archangel Michael, and Sts. Catherine and Margaret, told her to do it. It turns out that she has a natural talent for it: she has the 'seeing eye' and can thus estimate very well what a man can do in battle or where the weaknesses of an enemy are. And much of her success is purely military in nature. One of France's problems was that its command was highly disunified, and she suddenly brings a unified command. Her popularity with ordinary people increases military recruitment massively, and sometimes additional funds. Other aspects of her success lie simply in the fact that she is a peasant girl: she sees immediately what the nobles, whether French, Burgundian, or English, miss, namely, that as far as the majority of people are concerned, what really matters is legitimacy. All the nobles on both sides are so concerned with territory that they simply don't realize until after the fact the sheer devastation to the English cause of Charles being anointed King of France in the right place and in the right way, because until that point they were fighting merely one possible contender for the throne, and after that point they are fighting a person widely recognized by the peasantry as the legitimate King of France. Most of what Joan does is not miraculous, but just talent and shrewdness. But she never claimed to be performing miracles; from her perspective, she was just following the advice of her Voices who, being saints in heaven, could be counted on to know what to do. And Twain captures this very well.

Twain does not stint on the arts of storytelling here; he pulls out at one point or another almost every tool in the toolbox. We have brutal, ghastly description, like the opening scene of Paris with rotting corpses. We have hilarity, in the form of the buffoonery of the Paladin, the perpetual exaggerator, who can never tell a story again without making it even bigger than it was previously. The story is structured not just by plot, but also by narrative voice, by recurring themes, by symbolic images. One of the more interesting cases is Twain's use of the Fairy Tree, which we know of from Joan's trial. It is used to capture her childlikeness, and her peasant roots, and also her ability to be somehow ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. It gets a lot of discussion at the beginning, and only occasional mentions afterward, but it is not a minor feature, even later: whenever it is mentioned something very significant is happening. It is a sign of the Something More, the Legendary in Real Life, of which the common people have always had a sense, however much courts and scholars may try to exorcise it.

Twain's book seems to me to be a model of how to do historical fiction well. His fictionalizations and historical details are both carefully chosen, he adapts his language to the occasion without jarring shifts, he knows when to tell and knows when to show, he is profoundly aware of the importance and dangers of the particular narrative voice one uses, he gives the reader more to look at than museum pieces while not turning the history into mere background, and, perhaps most important of all, he genuinely loves the story he's telling. George Bernard Shaw accused Twain of being infatuated with Joan, but this is not definitely the flaw he assumes it is (how flawed the storyteller who can only tell of things he does not profoundly love, and how flawed the reader who cannot stand to read of things that are so loved!), and even Shaw was forced to concede that, however he might dislike the goody-goodiness of Twain's Joan (which he exaggerates), she shows the marks of having been written by a storytelling genius, someone capable of taking a character who could easily have been implausible and making her very credible. But, of course, it is Twain's love of Joan that makes her story so vivid, and makes him take such care in writing it. This is a crafted story, and it is told in a way that gives us the illusion of having the full experience of those who were there, from the brutality of war to the humor of the pub to the piety and blasphemy of the camp to the smooth unreliability of the court. Sometimes this diversity gives us a bit of a disjointed picture, it should be said -- but this is inherited from the material, and the disjointed character of France itself in the fifteenth century.

Where Twain most succeeds, I think, is that he gives us a Joan of Arc capable of becoming JOAN OF ARC. It is clear from things that Louis says that Twain realizes fully that this is the standard a tale of Joan of Arc must achieve. It is one that is rarely achieved, due to modern flaws. Despite modern contempt and dismissal of hagiography, historical figures don't get hagiographies for no reason. Twain's tale is not a hagiography, but his Joan is one that someone might write hagiographies about. Despite the modern love of characters stuck in the banal, a banal Joan would not have taken charge of the armies of France; Twain's very plausibly could. Many modern portrayals make her too bland to lead, or too hardened to be loved, or too delusional to be shrewd; Twain avoids them all, because, wonder of wonders, he actually likes Joan and is not out to 'uncover' her dark secrets or hidden flaws. And the inevitable result is that Twain's Joan makes much more sense as a character, and seems much more vivid and real, like a real person, however extraordinary, than all these supposedly knowing portrayals.

This is arguably too long a quote to include in-line from another post, but it's also not long enough. Do go read Brandon's whole post. The last paragraph strikes me as particularly key, and it gets with a long-running gripe I have with a lot of modern story telling: that it seems to conflate realistic characterization with focusing on a character's conflicts and insecurities to the extent that it seems rather impressive that the character ever does anything particularly notable at all. This works well with a certain kind of story telling, but for others it is particularly unsuited. (See, for instance, the complete inability of Peter Jackson to write Aragorn in his LotR movies.)

One of the things I found myself wondering about is how Twain would read writing about a period subject. My familiarity with him comes from Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and so it seems hard to picture him writing about medieval France. An excerpt that Brandon quotes, however, both sets my initial concerns to rest and makes me more curious to read the book:
At eight o'clock all movement ceased, and with it all sounds, all noise. A mute expectancy reigned. The stillness was something awful—because it meant so much. There was no air stirring. The flags on the towers and ramparts hung straight down like tassels. Wherever one saw a person, that person had stopped what he was doing, and was in a waiting attitude, a listening attitude. We were on a commanding spot, clustered around Joan. Not far from us, on every hand, were the lanes and humble dwellings of these outlying suburbs. Many people were visible-—all were listening, not one was moving. A man had placed a nail; he was about to fasten something with it to the door-post of his shop-—but he had stopped. There was his hand reaching up holding the nail; and there was his other hand in the act of striking with the hammer; but he had forgotten everything—his head was turned aside listening. Even children unconsciously stopped in their play; I saw a little boy with his hoop-stick pointed slanting toward the ground in the act of steering the hoop around the corner; and so he had stopped and was listening—-the hoop was rolling away, doing its own steering. I saw a young girl prettily framed in an open window, a watering-pot in her hand and window-boxes of red flowers under its spout—but the water had ceased to flow; the girl was listening. Everywhere were these impressive petrified forms; and everywhere was suspended movement and that awful stillness.

Joan of Arc raised her sword in the air. At the signal, the silence was torn to rags; cannon after cannon vomited flames and smoke and delivered its quaking thunders; and we saw answering tongues of fire dart from the towers and walls of the city, accompanied by answering deep thunders, and in a minute the walls and the towers disappeared, and in their place stood vast banks and pyramids of snowy smoke, motionless in the dead air. The startled girl dropped her watering-pot and clasped her hands together, and at that moment a stone cannon-ball crashed through her fair body.


Donald R. McClarey said...

Twain thought it was the finest thing he ever wrote, and the old half agnostic was completely charmed by the story of the Saint from Domremy.

I represented a client in a dissolution case years ago who was convinced that his wife had written this book under the pen name of Mark Twain. Yep, he was madder than a hatter.

Paul Zummo said...

I read this for the Church book club, and can't recommend it highly enough.

Brandon said...

It's very true that this could have been another Prince and the Pauper --a good story, but much closer to the sarcastic buffoonery of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer than what we get here. But Joan conquered Twain as much as she conquered France.

Gail Finke said...

I have wondered about this book ever since I heard that Twain thought it was his best. Authors can be unreliable about the quality of their work, but they are not unreliable about what makes them most passionate. When I was a child I read huge amounts of Twain (I never did like Tom Sawyer though). My favorte was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and The Mysterious Stranger CREEPED ME OUT. He was famous for a reason, he's fantastic! My daughter read Connecticut Yankee in 6th grade, I imagine it would be a good one for homeschooling, for numerous reasons.