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A Lyrical Biography

Joan of Arc, by Joseph Delteil. Translated from the French by Malcolm Cowley. New York: Minton, Batch and Company. 268 pages. $3.

There are many kinds of biography in these days of its vogue: one might almost say that Joan of Arc has been subjected to them all. There is the factual volume of Michelet from whose “excellent formula there is lacking the obscure part of God”; there is the sturdy attack of Anatole France and the glowing defense of Andrew Lang. There is Mark Twain’s imaginative romance based on twelve years’ accumulation of facts; there is Mr. Paine’s careful and scrupulous Travel Diary; there is the epic slander of Voltaire, once the delight of kings and roues; there is the ironical drama of Bernard Shaw, with its reverently cleared centre where the virginal purity of the maid holds the satirist at arm’s length; and there was, of course, the biographical onslaught of the official devil’s advocate at her canonization. It has remained for Joseph Delteil to write, or rather sketch “in crayon and charcoal,” a fascinating and consistent figure of his sovereign imagination whom he labels with her name.

The book is a flower of French genius, presented in amazingly satisfying English by M r . Cowley. It carries the skill of Bazalgette and Maurois over the line from history to fiction. Bazalgette’s Thoreau is, it is true, an imaginary monologue, but it is so rooted in Thoreau’s actual words that we unconsciously add the quotation marks which the author’s conscience refused to supply. But M. Delteil despises history. “As for documents and local color, may the devil carry them off.” You can hear him saying with Paul, “If I have known Joan after the flesh, now know 1 her so no more.” Yet there’s a difference. Paul omits history in favor of a risen spirit. M. Delteil reconstructs history and portrays Joan as he wishes she had acted on earth: “Neither the dust of history nor desiccating breath of time can steal her living colors and her smile of flesh.” “T he love of Christ constraineth me,” says Paul. “I love Joan of Arc ,” writes M. Delteil. “This is my principal reason for writing her life and there is none other required. Probably I am the only man who can understand this child today.” “Joan of Arc was an eighteen-year-old girl in silk stockings, wearing a cloche. We must imagine her under our eyes, touch her with our hands. To imagine means to rejuvenate (1). She is a stenographer, or perhaps a shop girl at the Galeries Lafayette. She leaves her home, she commands the French armies, she conquers Europe and Asia. This is the true Joan of Arc.” But M. Delteil’s love for Joan is a genuine one and so has the right to make her over. It is not true to say with Mr. Cowley that “sometimes he is false to facts, but he is true to history.” He is almost always false to facts, but he is true to the vision which sprang out of “the desert of archaeology and stood fresh and splendid before [his] eyes.” It is not Joan that shines resplendent in this short volume—it is, as M. Delteil knows, a new creation which his love and insight have called forth. There is a touch of Whitman as well as of Paul in these lines, “I know and acknowledge you, O woman, O sister, from the first of your dawns even to the last. And these flames and this black-hearted bishop (things created for each other) and all the rest—these soldiers the color of carrots, these horses of Satan, this dirty, unshaven hangman, even death—what do they matter, little sister, since you live in me and I in you, and since the pages of this book shall preserve us both eternally in one ink and one body.”

The book presents to us a consistent if not an historical Joan. It could not have been created without the historic figure and one feels her spirit glowing in the new body she inhabits. Delteil’s Joan is more flesh of our flesh than Joan of Domremy and Rheims. She is less of a Catholic, more of a modernist. She spells her divinity with a capital, but the background of her Voices is rather the Universe than God. She falls from her tower to melt into It rather than to escape from the English. The Rheims Cathedral is filled with the strains of the Marseillaise and “the carbonic acid of respiration.” She swoons after the coronation. She starts for Domremy. She breaks her sword on the back of a vulgar wench. “The dark indecision of her flesh was washed clean in blood.” The “wide sensual mouth across her sanguine cheeks” does not quite leave space enough for her fearless eyes.

Yet France has recognized in this creation her ideal. It has rallied to the author’s unexpected volte face. Mr. Cowley tells us that M. Delteil had been supposed to be of the left before this book appeared. Now he tears himself away from the company of Anatole France and “the dry agnostics who smile with all their teeth.” “T he rationalistic attitude seems infinitely petty and mean before a Joan of Arc.” And the nation rejoices. The “prix femina” goes to him. Some thirty or forty editions are struck off, and a great “lyrical novel” has sung itself into the wistful heart of a people.

It is too thrilling a book to miss, but it falls short of greatness. It flies too obviously in the face of history. It cheapens martyrdom with sentimentality and coarsens it with fleshliness. But it fits with accuracy our impatience, our delight in strong sensation. There are always those who prefer “Christ” to Jesus, a figure of the brain to the holy mystery hidden forever at the depth of another’s eyes.

This article originally ran in the July 7, 1926 issue of the magazine.