Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte; tr. by Jean Francois Alden by Mark Twain

Once, in a bookstore, I found a copy of the Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and read on the back jacket flap the statement that Mark Twain considered this his best book. That's a surprise, and in the reading lists they assign and laud, it's clear college professors and other authorities don't agree with Twain's self-analysis. But I do believe I enjoyed this more than I ever enjoyed Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Reading a master's work at one's own pace, untroubled by thesis deadlines, may help. Also, I like the middle ages.

It's a strange book, as well is should be since it's about a strange person. It may be the most serious and the most transparent in tone of any novel of Twain's I remember. You really do feel that a mournful fifteenth-century relic is speaking out of heartbreak, and only occasionally does the normally ebullient and joshing Mark Twain get a word in ("I still opened up with a small lie, of course, for habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time"). The language is very simple, simpler also than what I remember in Twain's other novels. It's as if the language must serve appropriately as a frame for Joan's own simple background, speech, and goodness. The book is a bit like another gospel, in which Joan's words, like Christ's, really ought to be set off in red type.

What the author wants to understand in these Personal Recollections, written from the point of view of Joan of Arc's page and secretary, Sieur Louis de Conte (whose initials match Samuel Langhorne Clemens') is what every historian and biographer has wanted to understand about her. We know who she was and what she did, and what was done to her. But why was she believed and obeyed, and then why was she destroyed?

It seems that, when this illiterate peasant girl came out of Domremy in the winter of 1429 to demand that she be allowed men-at-arms to go and fight the English occupying France -- she spoke of going "into" France, as if her birthplace had been outside it -- what stunned people was her ability to speak to her betters without fear. I can only assume that class differences were so enormous in those days that even the term is weakly inappropriate. When she faced lords and generals calmly, it was not just that a peasant was talking uppity. It was as if an animal was speaking. It was a miracle. In Twain's telling, she quickly became famous for being famous, like a speaking deer or calf from the pasture, and her career was underway.

For background, in 1429 France north of the Loire had endured English assault and occupation for ninety years, and France south of the Loire was a kind of medieval Vichy, a France in quotation marks. England's three great victories against French chivalry on French soil, Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, had each served as near death blows to the country. Before his death the French King Charles VI, who was insane, had actually signed over his throne by treaty to the English monarchy as a result of the defeat at Agincourt. His son the Dauphin, eventually to be Charles VII, not only thus had no throne to assume but worried about his legitimacy anyway. Justly so. Twain does not say, but Wikipedia does, that in fact Charles' own royal parents told him he was his mother's bastard by another father. He was on the point of fleeing the country.

Into this mess from out of nowhere stepped the beautiful young Maid, the speaking deer, claiming her divine Voices commanded her to do two things: to raise the siege of Orleans and so defeat the English in their current predatory project, and to escort the Dauphin to Rheims to be crowned and anointed by God King of France, and insane men's treaties be damned.

She did both things. Twain notices what must have been her fundamental role in all this, assuming that France and all its generals were not simply suddenly awash in a white light of revelation for upwards of two years because of her. She was a talisman. Famous for being famous, examined and vetted by the Church in an era when the supernatural and organized religion both bestrided Western national life, her presence at the head of the armies intoxicated men and really drove them to victories as nothing else had done, for ninety years. To serve in this way she did not need to be a natural military genius, freakishly come to earth in the body of a peasant girl, although these Recollections describe her as that, too. She had only to inspire, to command by divine instruction a simple and temporary change in French tactics: assault against occupied cities and forts, rather than the perpetual enduring of siege or, at most, wearily besieging the besiegers. Somehow she seems to have known at least this, what other generals -- MacArthur, for one -- have known. Defensive warfare is defeat.

But at some point during her brief career, maybe at the height of her triumphs -- standing in full armor at the altar of Rheims cathedral, watching her king being crowned -- it must have dawned on powerful men around her that after her work was done, this weird force of nature could never be released and left to her own devices again. Imagine the miracle of the speaking animal in some other lord's camp, on future battlefields, or dazzling other peasants, or serving as some duke's marriage prize. She had to be kept close, even while the French court undermined her victories by timidly backing away from attempting the great prize, the capture of English-occupied Paris, in favor of more treaties with enemies whom Joan had proven she could destroy. While the king dithered past the glory days of summer 1429, she stayed on, skirmishing here and there in the environs northwest of the capital. And who knows, for all her protestations that after Rheims her mission was done and she wanted to go home and tend her sheep, La Pucelle may have long since learned to thoroughly enjoy her extraordinary new life and been very loath to give it up. She must have had other aspects to her personality besides her "Voices."

In May of 1430 she was captured by the forces of the English-allied Duke of Burgundy, who kept her for the ransom he expected to be paid by a mortified and grateful Charles VII. It didn't come; the French were probably glad to be rid of her. Her English enemies offered the ransom instead, and legally the Duke was obliged to accept it. She was now a year from her death.

Her destruction was as strange, to modern eyes, as was her rise to power. For a year, French churchmen and lawyers in England's pay pursued the same two rough courses with her that, it so happens, a later generation of powerful men would pursue in the legal and physical destruction of another woman and another force of nature, Anne Boleyn. The cases are unrelated except that both times, authority wanted two things, an admission of guilt from the accused, which should have led to rehabilitation and mercy, -- and it wanted the death penalty. (The Tudor system was at least mercifully quick. Anne Boleyn was dead two and a half weeks after her arrest.)

What the French authorities harped on, sixty men looming over her in six consecutive trials during which Joan sat publicly in chains with no legal counsel, was her refusal to swear an oath to reveal everything about her career to the Church. In other words, the church wanted to officially pass judgment on her Voices, and to know exactly all they said to her. She insisted that these Voices, whom she identified as St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, had specifically commanded her to keep a few things secret. She answered her accusers as well as possible but would not promise to disobey these divine orders.

Her consulting with her own private experience of God over the Church's understanding of it therefore made her, essentially, a Protestant. She was not tried as such and would not have understood herself as such, but it was her obedience to her private religious conscience that brought her to the stake. That, and of course the English monarchy's determination that she should die. In the last days of her life, she actually did submit to the churchmen's demands, having been brought out of her dungeon to see the stake and the pile of smoldering wood waiting for her amid excited crowds in the middle of Rouen's town square. She believed that upon signing a paper then (remember she was illiterate) and returning to women's dress, another thing authority harped on, she would be allowed to attend mass again and at least have women jailers. If Twain's Sieur de Conte is correct, back at the prison her English guards simply instantly stole her new women's clothing while she slept, and left a nineteen-year-old girl nothing to wear but her former, useful men's things. When she put them back on, she was considered to have relapsed into heresy. The punishment was death by burning, in Rouen on May 30, 1431.

A quarter of a century later, she was officially rehabilitated and declared a martyr by the French church. Twain's loyal Sieur shrewdly notices that this was after the English had been almost entirely driven out of France, and could only look back and spit that the pusillanimous king, Charles VII (called "the well-served"), had no better rights to his throne than those given him by a condemned witch and Satan worshipper long since properly burned as heretic. One way to wipe away that smear was to declare his benefactress Joan of Arc good again. Her aged mother had survived, to attend the opening of the rehabilitation trial at Notre Dame in Paris. Beatification followed many centuries later, in 1911, and then sainthood in 1920, although of course Mark Twain could not know that; I remember a college professor of mine saying that this last had everything to do with buttressing French morale after World War I.

She is such a strange figure that it's hard to know, to put it bluntly, what is the weirdest thing about Joan of Arc. Her youth? Her sex? Her humble origins? Her acceptance by men as a military commander, even if only a talisman show of one? (And she may have been a good one anyway.) What of the Voices? -- rye fungus poisoning, common in the European diet perhaps as far back as ancient Greece, and a possible source of hallucinations? God, truly? Why did the voices happen to speak French, the English wanted to know, and why were they mute when it came to warnings of what her persecutors in Rouen were up to, her Sieur wanted to know? And how can she have been a patriot before what textbooks call "the rise of the nation state"? And a French patriot to boot, who yet spoke of leaving Domremy to "come into" France? If so, then where was Domremy?

In the end, there is no doubt that a large part of her fascination for Twain and perhaps for many readers is that she is also a very Christlike figure. (She was "the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One.") She seems to have been personally flawless and totally innocent, that is, for someone whose destiny was bizarrely military. She transfixed crowds, loved righteous battle, but after victories cradled dying Englishmen in her arms. That all her life is known from sworn testimony at a trial ("the only story of a human life which comes to us under oath," italics original) also conjures up images of patient silence before Pontius Pilate and a recording humanity too, albeit when her time came Joan was not silent. Her very character seems to have been miraculous. Even at the stake, while burning, she warned a man nearby who was holding a cross aloft for her to gaze at that he must move away, or he would be hurt. One wonders if, in another era, she could have easily served as the unwitting foundress of another church herself.

The Recollections are a very different piece of work from what we think of as the oeuvre of Mark Twain. His best book? Perhaps not, but perhaps he meant it was the one he most loved writing. To at least honor his taste in reading it, even for curiosity's sake, seems the right and really very pleasureable thing to do.

Birthplace of Joan of Arc, Domremy, France

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Kaiser: His Life and Times by Michael Balfour

The theme of this enormously dense book is Kaiser Wilhelm's personal responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, and consequently for its hideous aftermath, World War II, and the decline of Europe (John Keegan would say its "ruin") as a civilized world power.

It's a book that could only have been written in the 1960s, not in the sense that nobody before or after that decade could write enormously dense books about the Kaiser, but in the sense that by publication date (1964), enough time had passed to give the author some perspective, all the while events remained alive enough to encourage him to take his reader along on leisurely explorations of little details which later scholars probably summarize or ignore. There are details, for example, about how fast the train went carrying the body of Queen Victoria to her funeral site in 1901, the Kaiser her grandson, who hated being late, accompanying her ... possibly 92 miles per hour ....

I am not sure, also, if later books on the World Wars are quite so apt to begin, as this does and as William Manchester's The Arms of Krupp did, with serious and pained explorations of the, do we dare say, atrocious German character. It was 1964. Photographs and memories of the concentration camps were only twenty years in the past. Veterans of 1940-1945 were still young men barely into their forties; plenty of veterans of 1914-1918 were still hearty men in their late sixties or just nearing seventy. They had had their lives shaped and had set foot on a continent whose millions, across two generations, had had their lives destroyed by German decisions. When they sat down to read or to write about it, it seems they wanted answers to the question why. Why the Germans.

The passage of forty more years has laid most of those veterans in peaceful graves, and so has faded immediate memories and dulled that curiosity. I suspect political correctness has done the rest, frankly freezing any tendency to dare ask questions about national characteristics which sober men once asked -- even when they recognized that the Nazis were partial to those questions, too. Michael Balfour begins what one expects to be a simple biography of the Kaiser with a chapter on the huge topic "The Historical Background: 400 B.C. - A.D. 1880," and follows this with a second big chapter on "The Background to Anglo-German Relations." Anyone expecting a life story to begin with a discussion of a subject's parents or grandparents soon learns he is in the hands of a different type of scholar.

As he probes the Kaiser's moral responsibility, what Balfour studies in this book is the tragic conflation of three or four giant historical circumstances, centering on one people when that people was still burdened with the personal crapshoot of a hereditary monarchy. By the nineteenth century political liberalism and parliamentary democracy had evolved, most naturally and prominently in Britain. But "Germany" -- Bavaria, Hesse, Prussia, dozens of other small warmed-over medieval fiefdoms -- had only just united as a nation state, and Germany's people equated their country with the means that had unified it: a powerful military, a landed and splendid noble class, and a mystic, ancient German-ness outdazzling small things like individual rights, middle class urban living, and drab, democratic electioneering. By the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution and surging economic prosperity had arrived, most prominently in sea-girt, trading, colonizing Britain. But Germany was landlocked, and its economic life amounted to a long game of catch-up, mostly Balfour thinks because so much of its population was either absorbed in farming and the military, or lost to emigration ("800,000 left in the decade after unification alone," among them a set of my own great-grandparents, who departed in 1874.)

In the late nineteenth century, also, the nations of Europe still stood ready to contemplate war with one another in any combination at any time for any reason. It seems as if the middle ages had not died, and powerful men still ogled dragon-drawn maps and grinned over what dukedom could be had for what princess and why. Add to this that behemoth to the east, Russia, which considered itself the owner of the Balkans and yet made it policy to overleap central Europe ("we are Central Europe," the Kaiser said) and ally with France and Britain, too, for whatever reasons it liked. Add to this the Industrial Revolution's improvements in weaponry and transportation, and you have a sinister stage for the Kaiser to tread.

Then there is Wilhelm himself. The reader expecting to learn about his private life, his marriage, and the births of his children will not learn much. This is a man's book. Wilhelm grew up under the thumbs of his frantically English mother, Queen Victoria's eldest daughter Vicky, and -- not to sound comical -- of the frantically German Bismarck. German-ness and Englishness warred within him. He was intelligent but light-minded, and he had power, simply because he was born, at a time when a Germany suffering political and economic growing pains could pursue lethal plans because "the national mood" would not have it otherwise.

On June 28, 1914, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was assassinated. The killer was a Serbian subject of that empire. The assassination of an empire's heir really serves as an announcement that that empire is stupid and shouldn't exist. A simple way of putting it, but those of us who have never quite understood why the Archduke Franz Ferdinand's death mattered might perhaps understand that. Russia, would be owner of the Balkans, supported Serbia. Outraged Austria was Germany's ally, and so in that summer the clanking machineries of alliance and counter alliance, of monarchical and ministerial decision-making in Russia, France, Germany, Austria, Britain, all moved. Russia was the first to mobilize troops. In five weeks, the rest was done. One of the reasons why war had to be declared, Balfour says, was simply because pre-arranged railway timetables for getting German troops to the front --any front, for any reason -- required the pestering of Russian officials for explanations and replies that, outrageously, failed to come on time. When they didn't, the Kaiser, on August 1, 1914, signed the declaration of war which called into being all the others.

At the back of Norman Davies' huge book Europe, there is an appendix with the numbers of soldiers killed or dead of wounds by 1918: in round figures Russia lost 1.7 million, France 1.35 million, Britain 908,000, Italy 650,000; Germany lost 1.7 million, Austria-Hungary 1.2 million. It remains incomprehensible to see human deaths, and these the deaths of active young men only, expressed as fractions of a million.

The Kaiser signed the paper which started World War I, but how much was he responsible for everything leading up to it? Balfour concludes that "he was not fit for the outsize job destiny assigned him." True, but no one would have been. And, under the Kaiser's leadership (or lack of it), what was Germany's responsibility? More than once, Balfour says that it should be incumbent on nations, as it is on individuals, to realize they are not alone in the world and that their actions and ambitions will rub up against other peoples' and other nations,' and perhaps cause problems and suffering. Small actions, apparently trivial choices especially could be paramount in retrospect; in describing the Kaiser's birth to a young mother who suffered a horrific labor and delivery, Balfour asks whether history might have moved differently, if only the doctor attending had been a German committed to saving the baby rather than an Englishman committed to saving the mother (who lived to work the influence she did).

He does not quite say that the Great War proves nations should rise above happenstances, recognize their frightful moral interdependence, and trim the sails of their self-interest accordingly. As a historian and an adult he knows they don't and won't, especially not the most active and the most ambitious. On his last pages he writes, in fact, that there is no way of imagining how World War I could not have happened. "There are a number of things which one cannot imagine happening in a significantly different way unless one presupposes so many other alterations in the world as to turn the exercise into idle speculation." Germany was anxious for its "place in the sun." Britain was rich. Russia supported Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm was born. And so on. " 'It happened because it happened,' " as Norman Davies quotes a later scholar in Europe.

Balfour ends with a quote that is true, if not terribly helpful. (What helps to understand World War I, and/or human nature? Scholars write huge books, and still don't know.) It also serves to illustrate a writing style that is really beautiful, and beautifully sustained, throughout all the enormous density:

We must always remember that it is our choices and decisions which will go to circumscribe the freedom of succeeding generations. Taken individually they may seem trivial, but taken together, and along with other people's, they add up to destiny.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson

I do, occasionally, take up brand new books. I like those nice, crackly new mylar covers, and the feel of new paper and the look of clean bright typeface. I like, who does not, the possibility of fresh discovery, something good of today. And I remember finding and liking new books when I browsed the library shelves at the age of ten or twelve or a little more. Have I since become snarkily judgmental? Or have the books all declined precipitously in quality? Surely it can't be possible that intelligence and talent left the human race -- or the English-language publishing world -- sometime around June of 1977.

I plucked this, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, off the New Arrivals shelves a few days ago. It looked good. A quick sample of the prose was nice ("a routine of mutton and moonscapes, walking and headaches, watching and waiting, pie baking and poem making"). I am sorry to say that within thirty pages, the promise fell away and the book confirmed the teachings of my inner voice, which has warned me for a long time: in general, avoid new books.

Why? Because not only did this one begin awkwardly and self-consciously, with the author writing in the present tense and omnisciently ("She can stand it no longer. When she looks from her window ....") about a subject whom she will subsequently treat in a more traditional style ("This is the story of four small notebooks whose contents Dorothy Wordsworth never meant to be published"). But it exemplified the bloodless, navel-gazing, oh so archly aware attitudes that come straight from people whose only meaningful education has been in the thin air of the university classroom, and whose cohorts have these last thirty years gone on to suck any healthful oxygen out of English-language publishing officialdom. The result is not only a book like this, but a veritable book-stuffed universe lived in, loved, and guarded by themselves. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth sings the Academy, with a capital A.

What people learn in an Academy's English literature departments, it seems, is to perfect a basic human skill, and that is the ability to see patterns. If you can see patterns and then weave them into something more or less semantically clever -- if you can " 'make extracts,' " as Mr. Bennett teases his bluestocking daughter Mary in Pride and Prejudice -- then you may be on your way to a book contract with an important firm. (Did I mention that no important firm has ever offered me a book contract? Full disclosure.) Here is where I stopped reading Frances Wilson:

She weighs and measures her condition: her heart is full, she cries until it is lighter; her brothers are together, she is apart from them; they are walking, she is still; she leaves them under the trees, she sits upon a stone. Dorothy initially wrote that she sat upon a stone at "the foot of the lake" before changing "foot" to "margin," which gets in more her sense of frames, limits, borders. It is William who provides the contours of her life.

I would not doubt that William Wordsworth provided the contours of his sister's life, but in this particular case, she may have read over this one page, realized that lakes don't have feet but they do have, what, beaches, shorelines, ah! -- margins! and corrected even her private words accordingly. But to an academic, this is pattern. Capital P. This is something to analyze. And of course the resulting extract is always plausible, publishable, because as long as you provide evidence, who is to say that your pattern analysis might not have been right? At any rate you are thinking for yourself, as your professors want you to do. You are writing your paper. Dorothy Wordsworth is in no position to argue.

I don't know what the rest of the book is like, but I take it that Frances Wilson's oeuvre is the dissection of the idea of the Journal, any journal, as such. "The self as a perceiving subject." Pity, then, poor Dorothy, or any diary keeper. Who knows why people do it? To purge the mind (Aristotle). To not purge it (" 'Aw, Sport, because I've seen them, and I want to remember them,' " Harriet explains in Harriet the Spy). Every journal keeper might list the pretty flowers she saw on a walk, or write down an appalling encounter with a bereaved neighbor who had lost all her children to disease in a year and a half. Let those jottings come under the eye of a well-meaning academic two hundred years on, however, and you've got pattern. The flowers "symbolize her sorrow," as they do for Hamlet's Ophelia; by the tale of the mourning neighbor she "communicates her own fear for her immediate future." It didn't all just happen. No one could get a book out of that.

In the end you can tell you've got an anemic, modern book on your hands, Modern with a capital M, when the quotes in it from older sources, meant to be ancillary, stand out as fresh, adult, and simply normal. The lines from Wordsworth's poems stand out. A bit less so do the snippets from Dorothy's journals. You read them and feel encouraged to go and seek them out for their own sake. That's good; and previous eras have certainly also produced their share of anemic books, which I am sure one by one suffered their inevitable fate, and were forgotten. What strikes me about Modern publishing, and what makes my inner voice say 'life is short, avoid it,' is that a whole industry should seem to be so devoted to making and selling such thin, repetitive, adolescent product. The really dense, impressive but new book, randomly plucked from a shelf as opposed to sought out from an author whose talent you know, is a rare treat. How do good, untried things ever pass the narrow gate? Perhaps it is just randomly done.