Monday, July 29, 2013

Mark Twain, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte


Opening Passage: This is one of those books that has no strict opening passage, since it purports to be a translation of a historical work, and thus has its fictional translator's preface, plus the prefatory material of the quasi-fictional narrator, as well as the work itself. But this is the first paragraph of Book I, Chapter I:

I, the Sieur Louis de Conte, was born in Neufchateau, on the 6th of January, 1410; that is to say, exactly two years before Joan of Arc was born in Domremy. My family had fled to those distant regions from the neighborhood of Paris in the first years of the century. In politics they were Armagnacs—-patriots; they were for our own French King, crazy and impotent as he was. The Burgundian party, who were for the English, had stripped them, and done it well. They took everything but my father's small nobility, and when he reached Neufchateau he reached it in poverty and with a broken spirit. But the political atmosphere there was the sort he liked, and that was something. He came to a region of comparative quiet; he left behind him a region peopled with furies, madmen, devils, where slaughter was a daily pastime and no man's life safe for a moment. In Paris, mobs roared through the streets nightly, sacking, burning, killing, unmolested, uninterrupted. The sun rose upon wrecked and smoking buildings, and upon mutilated corpses lying here, there, and yonder about the streets, just as they fell, and stripped naked by thieves, the unholy gleaners after the mob. None had the courage to gather these dead for burial; they were left there to rot and create plagues.

Summary: Personal Recollections is the story of Louis de Conte, a quasi-fictional character based on occasional mentions in historical documents of Joan's page.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. Perhaps the ultimate sin of the historical novelist is thinking that there is no mystery to history, that he has it all figured out, that extraordinary people don't exist and astounding events never happen. Even if this were true in fact (which it is not), it is not what historical evidence, layered and multifaceted as it is, actually gives us; it is not the way anyone actually approaches their own history or the history of their nation; and it is not what makes us think that history has stories worth telling. The inevitable result of approaching historical fiction this way is that you lose the richness that makes historical fiction worth writing and reading in the first place: instead of full-bodied history, such a novelist gives us a cardboard diagram of it, and, even worse, tries to pretend that this flat diagram was all there ever was to the matter, when we know that even our own lives are not that flat and one-note. The historical novelist who is worth his or her salt gives us characters and events that can deliver as promised, gives us a story that is as rich as history must be to be the kind of thing making all the stories possible, does not confuse 'historical novel' and 'hatchet job'. Twain manages it, and he manages it because he loves the story he's telling and is out to convey what he loves about it; but he loves it enough that he's honestly trying to let it speak for itself, to show its wonderfulness on its own, which is what we do when we truly love something and are trying to tell others about it. God have mercy on historical novelists if they ever forget such a thing; and God have mercy on us if we ever lose the ability to appreciate it.

Favorite Passage: There are a lot of good ones, especially humorous ones with the Paladin or serious in some of the descriptions of battles, but most are too long to put here. This (somewhat brutal) one gives a good sense of the better serious ones, in which we are fully confronted with the fact that we are actually in a war that is often taking place in and around the homes and farms that surround the cities:

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.

Recommendation: An underappreciated bit of Mark Twain at the top of his writing game. You cannot go into it, however, expecting uproarious humor -- it is a very serious work, although attempts to treat it as completely atypical Twain are unconvincing (it is notable that in Twain's lifetime it was attacked both for not having enough of Twain's humor and for having too much of it), and the interactions between the Paladin and Noel are sometimes hilarious. For the most part it's more along the lines of what one gets in The Prince and the Pauper, but less whimsical, and the humor occurs largely in the side-lanes of the story. Most of the criticisms of this work, which has nonetheless always had its fans, are due, I think, to readers who cannot reconcile it with their preferred images of Mark Twain, not because of anything in the book itself; and, frankly, having read more of these criticisms in the past two weeks than I would ever bother with otherwise, they largely show the general stupidity and incompetence of critics and scholars discussing Twain, since they often seem to be incapable of grasping very elementary points of symbolism, theme, or plot, and in particular those that are involved in serious historical fiction. I don't recommend the critics, in general; if you haven't noticed, they've done very little more than stir up my impatience and make me roll my eyes. But the book itself is definitely recommended.


  1. The finest book I have read about S. Joan was Lang’s, who
    was, of course, a Reformed Protestant, and perhaps an agnostic; but I thought
    Twain’s was good, as well.

    nice you mention ‘The Prince …’; I have been very much a fan of his ‘Sawyer’
    stories, much more than of ‘Finn’, and maybe still am a Sawyer person, and I have
    remarked that, save ‘Finn’, most of his writings tend to be disregarded or
    openly scorned, including the ‘Sawyer’ books, etc..

  2. But
    I still think that Lang was better than Twain.

  3. As I remember, Stevenson, Lang’s friend, another agnostic
    Scotsman, was a keen reader of the documents of S. Joan’s process.

    When I was
    a kid, a girl from our class fell ill, several of us visited her at home, and
    her mother told us that the girl has been reading ‘the process of Joan d’Arc’,
    and ‘the process of Jesus Christ’, I felt a bit envious, I only knew something
    about Joan from a book by a Romanian children’s writer, Mrs. Elvira B..

  4. branemrys12:48 AM

    Lang actually wrote several books on St. Joan; which one did you have in mind?

  5. I meant 'The Maid of France. Being the Story ...', not 'The Story of Joan of Arc', which is less endearing.

  6. Lang has also a poem, which I didn't find very interesting ('Dark Lily without blame ...'), where he descends into stock attacks ('... still thy Church unto the Maid denies ...').

  7. Martin T.10:14 PM

    Everything I know about Joan I know from Twain. Any other books besides Lang I should look up. ?

  8. branemrys10:46 PM

    The single best historical sources are those of Regine Pernaud,

    Shaw's *Saint Joan* gives a different take on Joan that, like Twain's, manages to work fairly well despite the author's own anti-Catholic leanings.

  9. hussain ladak5:24 PM


  10. hussain ladak5:25 PM

    Lang actually wrote several books on St. Joan


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