Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo 2017)
Joan of Arc was one of the array of saints who populated my Catholic childhood. She did stand out from the crowd, but I don’t remember being much impressed that she was a cross-dressing, gender-bending, sword-wielding, authority-defying young woman – her armour was no odder than the flowing robes of many male saints, her defiance of authority was mild compared to Jesus’, and even her death was no more terrible than, say, St Laurence roasted on a spit or St Maria Goretti stabbed 14 times when she rejected a young man’s sexual advances.
I loved George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (first performed in 1923) which I read as an 11 year old in the Collected Plays I sneaked from the top shelf of the china cabinet. (I also loved Man and Superman, despite its disappointing lack of superheroes.) I was thrilled that a Big Name Writer was acknowledging someone from Our Team – Team Catholic. I probably read it again or saw a performance as a young adult, but I don’t remember any change to my sense of the play. Rereading it just now, I realise that Shaw was actually trying to poach Joan for Team Protestant (or at least Team Proto-Protestant).
In a Sydney University Film Group screening in about 1970 of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Maria Falconetti’s silent tears as the flames rose left an indelible imprint. The first (and only?) night of Dorothy Hewett’s musical Joan in Canberra in 1978 was a fabulous feminist event, complete with bonfire:
Mother, I’m rooted
spurred and booted,
fucked, and far from home.
When we visited Rouen in 2002 I insisted on being photographed at the Eglise Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc. I’m the tiny black-clad figure to the left of centre.
So, I’ve got lots of Joans. And I’m not the only one. An essay on the Overland site by Ramon Glazov, ‘The Maid of Orleans, sacred and profane‘, has a wide-ranging survey of Joans, including Shakespeare’s calumny in Henry VI Part I (news to me) and some bizarre French science fiction/fantasy.
When I heard that Ali Alizadeh, raised in a majority Muslim country and a formidable presence in Australia’s poetry scene, had written a Joan novel, my ears pricked up.
The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc gives us a Joan for the early 21st century.
For a start it acknowledges that it occupies a territory somewhere between known fact and informed invention. It insists on Joan’s historical reality, and her status as a great military leader who changed the history of Europe. A lively sixteen pages recount highlights of hostilities between England and France from 1329 to 1429, when the young peasant girl Jeannette Darc first visited the court of Charles VI and offered to drive the English out of France. At a number of points elsewhere, the narrator reminds us explicitly that historians have been arguing for a long time about aspects of Joan’s story.
Issues that were of little interest to Bernard Shaw – which might be summarised as sex and violence – loom large in our culture now, and Alizadeh’s novel attends to them. It engages with the tactics of war, and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of medieval European warfare: Jeanne has to face the hideous slaughter her idealistic mission unleashes. Her English prison guards are as predatory as the elite footballers who these days regularly make headlines. The book faces the now obvious question of Jeanne’s sexuality, and where lesser hands might have made something tacky or bandwagonish of this, Alizadeh makes something deeply affecting: at the heart of his story is Jeanne’s deep, troubled yearning for intimacy with another woman – sinful in the eyes of the Church, though less unambiguously so according to Jeanne’s Voices. The love story is complex, joyous, devastating, harshly cool-eyed and – in a brilliant final twist that takes us forward in time to the church in the photograph above – supported by evidence.
Another thing that makes the book very much of our time is the language. Here’s a typical passage from the early chapters outlining the back-story:
In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their new ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty that his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of Frances. Raises an army of ten thousand men and a fleet of 150 ships for the journey across the channel.
It would be hard to find a paragraph in the early part of the book that doesn’t disregard schoolroom rules of syntax in this way. The early pages that deal with Jeanne in her prison cell are similarly syntactically non-conforming (‘Two men enter. Agitated, brusque. Steel helmets and steel kneecaps.’). The effect is unsettling: who knows where the next full stop will fall, or whether there will be a verb in the next sentence? You just can’t skim these pages.
Later, during the love story, there’s a daring device where point of view changes frequently and without warning. There are at least two narrators in these chapters: Joan in her cell telling own story to Piéronne, her absent confidante; and an omniscient narrator who describes events in the present tense, as if creating them in his imagination as he writes. Here’s a taste, from a scene where Jeanne has just had an awkward encounter with a fanatical friar:
I knelt, ate, crossed myself and rose to my feet. She feels tipsy, giddy and a little disoriented. She nearly trips over a pew and falls against the chapel’s arched entrance. She pushes disorderly locks of hair off her face. My hair was getting too long. It almost reaches her shoulders. I wondered if you would cut it for me.
The voices alternate, sometimes just one short sentence each at a time. I found myself experiencing something like vertigo. There’s probably a better technical term for this, but Brechtian is the best I can do. (Perhaps it won’t be so disorientating in the audio book, where I expect there will be at least two readers.) Paradoxically, the effect is to underscore that Jeanne’s story is real, including and perhaps especially the parts that are explicitly invented.
There’s a new Jeanne in my head. None of the others have been damaged, but this one – at least for now – is more recognisable than any of the others as fully human.
Giramondo sent me a review copy of The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, and when I lost the bag it was in I spent my own money on a replacement.