I finally read Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things [which subsequently won the 2016 Stella Prize for “Writing by Australian women”].
I liked the opening sequences and the final section; some of the middle sagged a bit. It’s not an easy novel to like – stylistically sometimes too gothic for my palate (the Ransom doll) and ideologically hardline. Even as an unabashed feminist I found myself squeaking “But I like men!”. Which is beside the point in a schematically rigorous parable like this.
It was very similar, thematically, to the novella I wrote mid-2012: women forcibly interred in a kind of prison camp run by men, subjected to humiliations intended to enforce the “natural way of things”, with femaleness seen as abject and subject to male controls. I liked my opening sequences, too, but my draft backed my heroine into a muddy pit and I could not devise a way to extract her. Eventually I edited it into a short story, which worked better.
Charlotte Wood has set hers in a distinctively Australian environment, anchored by Australian references (notorious true crimes perpetrated against individual women and generic misogynist scenarios), whereas mine was set in a land of fable with lots of east Asian elements. Also mine was as much a lashing out at corporate culture… oops, so is Charlotte’s.
Charlotte’s novel stayed in my mind and I remember it now, precisely two years later (to the day), with more appreciation than I felt at the time. Also, I thank her for this:
I’m thinking I might reactivate one or both of my blogs, Elly McDonald Writer and Telling Tales. Maybe I’ll import the content of one into the other and just retain one [which is what I did]. Last time I was writing memoir pieces that sent me into a tailspin of depression. Enough of that. Not sure what I’d write about at this point.
Turns out I write about gender politics and violence, for now.
Ivor Indyk at Giramondo Publishing was one of my lecturers at Sydney Uni 30 years ago, and I see he helped birth Ali Alizadeh’s novel The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc, which I read last night.
Declaration: When I read Thomas Keneally’s Joan of Arc novel Blood Red, Sister Rose at age 14 in 1975 it made an indelible impression on me. It was always, perhaps, an uphill task for Alizadeh’s novel to surmount that.
It’s not that the Alizadeh novel isn’t interesting. It’s simply that for me it’s not compelling. And partly it’s not compelling, for me, because of how he’s chosen to expound his narrative, in ways that might be described as unconventional, might be described as experimental, might be described (my description) as pompous.
Alizadeh has chosen to write mostly in very short sentences. Sentences grammatically incomplete. Missing subject pronoun or verb. Repetitive. Yeah, he’s a poet. He wrote his PhD on Jeanne D’Arc in verse. Very clever. Not compelling.
The authorial voice switches between what I think of as Pompous Academic; first person; second person; and Voices. The first person and second person pronouns interchange across much of the novel’s central sequences. Sometimes together within the same paragraph. Sometimes they are linked immediately together, hand in hand. I’ll take that as a metaphor for the lesbian relationship which forms one plot strand. The Voices are Jeanne’s saints, or angels, and they speak in free-form verse, italicized.
Confession: I skipped quite a bit of the italicized sacred voices. I also skipped a lot of the lesbian relationship, but I did go back and read those sections afterwards. I skipped the lesbian relationship not because I have any aversion to lesbian relationships – contemporary, historical, speculative or fictional – but because I was interested (not compelled) by Alizadeh’s recounting of the historical narrative, and initially I chose to follow that more closely. I’ll come back to that lesbian relationship.
Joan of Arc as imagined by John Everett Millais
Let’s address the historical record, and that Pompous Academic voice.
In her review for Readings Online, Freya Howarth states “Alizadeh’s authorial interjections in the midst of battle scenes (about what future films will get wrong or debates historians will have) are jarring, in a good way; they remind the reader that what we know of Jeanne D’Arc is an amalgamation of stories told and retold over centuries”.
We are indeed frequently reminded that Jeanne D’Arc – that history – is an amalgamation of stories told and retold over centuries. And those reminders, that frequency, does jar. I agree with Howarth that this is intentional, intended to provoke readers to re-examine their assumptions, their received wisdoms.
Is Henry V of England a hero, as late medieval English people saw him, the very model of a king and warrior? Here’s how Alizadeh introduces Henry:
“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 [Henry IV Part 1]. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath. Probably a war criminal.”
“The Treaty of Troyes between the king of England, the Duke of Burgundy and the terrified, bullied queen of France. French Princess Catherine given to the English king. It is agreed that their child will be the joint ruler of the kingdoms of England and France. Celebrations in London. Shame in Paris. King Henry burps, rubs his hands after an ale, then fucks the beautiful Catherine without interest. Without any of the courtship of Shakespeare’s Henry V.”
How to respond to these passages?
Let’s compare them to Peter Ackroyd’s account in The History of England, Vol I: Foundations:
“There can be no doubt that Henry V was driven by a sense of divine right as well as of duty. He abandoned his youthful pursuits and almost overnight, according to chroniclers, became a grave and serious king. He acquired a reputation for piety and for the solemn observance of ceremonies; until his marriage, seven years later, he remained chaste. He established several monastic foundations of an ascetic nature, where the daily exhalation of prayer was meant to support the Lancastrian dynasty. His devotion also had an aesthetic cast. The annalist, John Stowe, recorded that ‘he delighted in songs, metres and musical instruments, insomuch that in his chapel, among his private prayers, he used our Lord’s prayer, certain psalms of David, with diverse hymns and canticles’. When he went to war in France, he took with him organists and singers.”
Ackroyd summarises Henry as follows:
“No king won such plaudits from his contemporaries as Henry V. The [financial] misgivings about his wars in France were forgotten for the sake of celebrating his martial valour. He was devout as well as magnificent, chaste as well as earnest. He was as generous to his friends as he was stern to his enemies; he was prudent and magnanimous, modest of temperament. He was the very model of a medieval king.”
“Yet there are some who have doubted that verdict. Shakespeare’s play Henry V can be interpreted in quite a different spirit as an account of a military tyrant who staked all on vain-glorious conquest of France. What did he finally achieve? Once his French conquests were dissipated, and the dream of a dual monarchy dissolved, very little was left to celebrate. All was done for the pride of princes.”
Which tells us nothing about Henry’s personal relations with the beautiful Catherine. Or the state of his soul (“soulless”?).
I am inclined to suspect Alizadeh’s descriptions of Henry burping, rubbing his hands after an ale and fucking the French princess without interest are speculative (fictional). And this inclines me to suspect other embellishments where the Pompous Academic voice does not make clear what is on the historical record as against what is speculative, or where the Pompous Academic voice omits details on the historical record, creating a different impression of events.
For example, on Edward III:
“His father, another Edward, murdered in captivity so that the boy could claim the throne. Murdered by having a red-hot blade forced into his anus, apparently. So the towering young ruler has reason to be consumed with shame, self-loathing, brutality, hatred.”
These alleged feelings, are, according to Alizadeh, Edward III’s motive for starting the Hundred Years’ War with France.
Alizadeh is not, to my knowledge, a psychiatrist or psychotherapist. (He’s a poet.) Henry V was probably not, in my opinion, a psychopath (although being a psychopath was a handy requisite for being a successful medieval warlord). Edward III may have had many strong feelings but there is nothing on the historic record, to my awareness, to suggest shame and self-loathing were among them.
Let’s try the Battle of Crecy:
“The French king’s Genoese [mercenary] crossbowmen advance upon the English longbowmen. The crossbows’ range is very short – no more than seventy metres at the most – compared to the longbows’ 400-metre range. Corpses of Genoese shooters pile up. Haughty French knights, angered by the crossbowmen’s failure, charge the English positions.”
Yes, and no. What Alizadeh fails to mention is that it is raining, raining so that the Genoese crossbows are damp. The crossbows cannot operate when wet. The Genoese mercenaries’ captain explains this to the French commanders, pleads not to be deployed. The French force the Genoese forwards. When the Genoese crossbows misfire, the French heavy cavalry trample over the top of them.
Henry V is a “psychopath”, “Probably a war criminal”? Well yes. Henry V did order the execution of French prisoners taken for ransom during the Battle of Agincourt (Azincourt). The numbers of French prisoners overwhelmed the numbers of men available to guard them. But the order was stayed and most of the French knights and nobles taken captive survived to be ransomed.
Henry lays siege to Rouen: “the city’s trade routes, food supplies, water conduits, blocked by the English. Hunger forces out the city’s poorest, about twelve thousand. The English open fire: filled with arrows, thousands of civilians fall and fester. The surviving die of starvation and cold during the winter – one of the worst atrocities of the European Middle Ages.”
But hold up. “Hunger” forces out the city’s poorest? I think not. I believe the records show the good burghers of Rouen force out the city’s poor and sick, so the wealthier and healthier can live longer, sharing food and water between many fewer. Should the English army have taken in the outcasts, given them free passage? The English had camp followers enough of their own. Given men in medieval besieging armies die from contagious illnesses as much or more as they die in military assaults, the frail and sick of Rouen were potentially a biological weapon. The refugees might have included assassins, terrorists, fifth columnists. The debate has contemporary resonance.
Not long after his marriage and the Treaty of Troyes, Henry V of England dies of dysentery, at the siege of Meaux.
Henry presided over a scorched earth policy, where English raiding parties burnt all habitations and all food sources that might provide shelter and sustenance to French troops. Henry didn’t invent that strategy; it was standard modus operandi for the English in France and their allies. Meanwhile, at the French court, the Burgundian and Orleans factions engage in massacres and assassinations. The French king believes he is made of glass. No one here has clean hands, no one is wholly sane.
But I digress. I promised to come back to the lesbian love story. Was Joan of Arc raped in imprisonment, prior to execution? That’s plausible. Was she raped by the Earl of Warwick? Speculative. Highly. Was she lesbian? Who knows. Did she engage in lesbian sexual relations? Speculative. Highly.
I am touched to learn from Ali Alizadeh that after Jeanne/Joan’s capture by Burgundian forces, not a voice in all of France, from all her erstwhile martial and political fellows, spoke up in Jeanne’s defence save one: a novice nun told a University of Paris theologian and judge something along the lines of “She’s not evil, sire. You must believe me. Joan is a good woman.”
Or maybe she said, “Jeanne’s a good woman, sire. All that she’d done has been good and according to God. She’s innocent.”
I wish I knew the precise words this Breton nun actually said, but I don’t, because Ali Alizadeh quotes all those words, yet he also writes, “What is known of Pieronne the Breton and her trial comes from a minor entry, one paragraph, in Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris, an account of events of that time written by an anonymous Parisian.”
One paragraph? Did that one paragraph quote all those words verbatim? Or are they speculative? Or, does this Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris exist at all, or is it a postmodern fictional insertion?
I wish I knew. Because I can’t trust the author, the Pompous Academic, and his “authorial interjections”.