Friday, December 31, 2010

Joan of Arc by Mark Twain

I write reviews which post on Amazon. I've been doing this for at least three years. My association with the other reviewers has been mixed, but mostly productive and beneficial, mostly pleasurable and amiable. The greatest benefit is meeting people who read all kinds of things. I'm an eclectic reader. It has been fantastic to "meet" other people who read deeply as I do (and frivolously as well).

The most shocking thing for me is that I am not as knowledgeable of writers and books as I thought I was. Just recently I discovered that Mark Twain had written a novel called Joan of Arc, one he considered his masterpiece. I didn't know it existed. So I read it. It took me two months to read, mainly because I found it tedious. Poorly written? Heavens no! The style is masterly. After all, Mark Twain did spend 12 years researching the topic and two years in writing the book. It truly is his masterpiece. I finally figured that the first two sections were written rather historically and the last section more like fiction.
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc is not an easy read, but it is definitely a worthy one. I know Joan of Arc now. I know Mark Twain much better. It is my recommendation that you meet both as they come together in this novel:

Here is my review as it appears on Amazon:

Joan of Arc had no peer. "She is the Wonder of the Ages" and "the Riddle of the Ages." "In the world's history--she stands alone...." These thoughts come from the pen of Mark Twain (Samuel Longhorn Clemons) in his essay about Joan of Arc, located at the end of his mighty historical novel about this French peasant girl's too short life.

Twain absolutely loved Joan of Arc and found her just about a perfect gem. In saying that she stands alone, he compares her life and accomplishments with those of genius of various fields. Without exception, he says, all other genuises had background training, education, experience, practice. Joan alone was the master of everything she did the first time. The only one! She commanded an army as general at age 17, never having ridden a horse before or even seen a soldier. Everything she predicted came true. She decimated the case against her in the courtroom even though she was allowed no counsel and was chained 24/7 in the company of English soldiers. Add to that her ignorance in reading and writing, basing her responses on strict memory of proceedings and charges, evidence and its twisted nature.

Twain spent 12 years researching information about Joan of Arc and found his mother load in France's dusty archives. What he discovered was "The Official Record of the Trials and Rehabilitation of Joan of Arc" written in 1456 and buried in the Archives until re-discovered in the 1800s. Twain then had access to what he termed as "the most remarkable history that exists in any language...." (441). And it told a grand tale.

Joan of Arc came from a simple, backward village of Domremy in the Lorraine region (fairly near Germany). Voices began talking to her, advising her to round up an army, then drive the English out of France, and restore the King to his throne. She's a mere 16 and knows nothing beyond the limits of her village.

Why Joan to lead an army? Why Joan to sacrifice her life for the freedom of France? One thing Twain never says in this biographical/historical novel is that God chose her. He refers to the Voices (St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret), which Joan names. In life Twain was agnostic, but certainly never hinted through word or tone that he doubted her.

Various sources, various literary critics always include Twain as America's best novelist with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" as best novel. Of course, others give the nod to other writers and name each one's "best" novel. The fact that Twain wrote this deeply profound and compassionately told novel confirms his reputation as America's Best Novelist. This is his best novel.

"Joan of Arc" is narrated by an 80-something-year-old childhood friend and constant companion of Joan, someone dear whom she appointed to be her secretary and recorder of history in the making. Being with her for the two years of her march through France and during the trial allowed him to record--accurately--all that happened to Joan and because of Joan.

The book itself is divided into three parts, not necessarily equally. The first deals with Joan, the Voices, and her gathering of an army. Frankly, despite my interest, I found this section tedious, albeit necessary for those details. One technique Twain included numerous times in Part I and Part II was narration of the amusing things various characters did. All chapters were short, thankfully, these, too. In actuality, usually each narration of these amusing characters was a brief distraction from the heaviness of plot development. I am reminded of both Silas Marner by George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans and by Twain's own Huckleberry Fin.

Part II details Joan's march through France to find the Dauphine in order to restore him to the throne of France and to narrate some of the battles they fought. As well, France is involved in the Hundred Years War, which Joan judiciously ends before her capture at the walls of Paris.

Part III is the most rousing. By this time--page 309--the reader has invested so much time and effort in reading this 452 page book in small print that discovering anything negative is heart-wrenching. Wisely, Twain does not describe the details of the actual burning, but he makes the reader feel those chills and recognize Joan's horror at the very thought of being burned at the stake. No descriptions were necessary.

Joan died this horrible death largely because of political/religious motivation by a bishop with powerful desire for higher office and because of loss of pride for being embarrassed in court by a "mere girl." Of actual evidence against Joan as a witch was her wearing of male clothing--battle armor, even though the Voices commanded it.

After her Rehabilitation, Joan was eventually named a martyr. She served her God well and knew how it would all end. Her behavior was always pure, full of integrity, honesty, patience, obedience, and endurance. Twain closes his book with this statement: "--[S]he is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced" (452). Comment

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A favorite souvenir

A favorite souvenir
These are my two girls from Ireland!

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Books on my very ambitious TBR list (*denotes read)

  • *Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox
  • The Odd Women by George Gissing
  • The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson
  • How to Get Your Child to Love Reading by Esme Raji Codell
  • The Cod Tale by Mark Kurlansky
  • In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
  • *Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
  • Dag Hammarskjold by Elizabeth Rider Montgomery
  • The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael L. Munk
  • Children of Strangers by Lyle Saxon
  • Spiritual Writings by Flannery O'Connor
  • Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque by Gilbert H. Muller
  • The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
  • Flannery O'Connor's South by Robert Coles
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
  • Sylvanus Now by Donna Morrissey
  • *Vincent de Paul by Margaret Ann Hubbard
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
  • A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
  • Readicide by Kelly Gallagher
  • *Ruined by Paula Morris
  • Say You're Not One of Them by Uwem Akpan
  • Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clezio
  • Silence by Shusaku Endo
  • *The Assault by Harry Mulisch
  • Kari's Saga by Robert Jansson
  • *The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal
  • Western Skies by Joseph Conrad
  • *The Giver by Lois Lowery
  • *Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski

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A semester course in one book about the Soviet Union. Click on image for my review.