At the end of Evan S. Connell's best-known novel, Mrs. Bridge (1959), the title character finds herself stuck in her Lincoln--a car in which "she had grown to feel secure" (ch. 117)--because the car's engine stops working when she is "[h]alf inside and half outside" the garage. This moment neatly sums up the novel as a whole, in which Mrs. Bridge keeps herself swaddled within the mid-twentieth century pieties and conventions that frequently make it impossible for her to see beyond the narrowness of her existence. It certainly seems rather a large jump from Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge (1969) to Deus lo Volt! (2000)...which is about the Crusades. But despite being a novel of considerably different scope (both temporally and geographically), Deus Lo Volt! shares the Bridge novels' interest in the limitations of subjectivity. Its narrator is a fictionalized version of Jean de Joinville, author of The Life of Saint Louis (King Louis IX), and the novel is, in effect, Joinville's imaginary full chronicle of the Crusades, stretching from the beginning to Joinville's own participation alongside Louis IX. It is thus part an overt patchwork from other texts (e.g., Anna Comnena's The Alexiad), part an eye-witness account; the narrative that results necessarily foregrounds how Joinville interprets, and is frequently baffled by, his source material, on which he seeks to impose a coherent Christian plot about divine grace and retribution. A full-blown scholarly article would have to deal extensively with Connell's appropriations of the source texts, which I'm not equipped to do here. But I do want to talk a bit about how Deus lo Volt! thinks more generally about history and identity, especially in the context of such violence--and ultimately failed violence, at that.
The chronicle form is difficult for historical novelists to emulate, because strictly speaking, a chronicle usually has no direction other than the flow of time itself. For example, Sylvia Townsend Warner's fine chronicle novel, The Corner that Held Them, about a medieval convent, simply stops, as if the narrator had just run out of actions to record. Connell's Joinville begins with Peter the Hermit's call for Christians to take control of Jerusalem and ends with their defeat during the reign of Henry II of Jerusalem. Its structure thus turns out to be cyclical, beginning and ending with Christians in disarray--a form likely derived from the wheel of fortune. As Joinville explains, "men, like events, rise and fall, waves of an inland sea" (116). The Crusades are one more instance of history's eternally repetitive motion, so that the action turns out to be a cycle within the larger cycle: the Christians show up, they win a major battle, they collapse into various forms of debauchery, and then they frequently lose everything they gain. Debauchery tends to be varied by doses of terrible disease and/or starvation; thus, "those who besieged Antioch and took it through force of arms were themselves encircled and menaced," reduced to eating "[r]otting carcasses of dogs," among other things (47). The glories of military might rapidly devolve into abject miseries. What ascends in the wheel just as quickly descends, as territories are captured, retaken, captured again, retaken again, and so on, and so forth. There is no notion of linear progress here, in other words, other than the chronological: the novel ends, by and large, where it begins, with the brutal mutual violence only coming to a halt when the Christians flee to Cyprus.
And violent this novel is, an overwhelming cornucopia of missing body parts, detached heads, wandering entrails, and rampant gore. Characters are tortured, dissected, impaled, drowned, exploded, and otherwise torn apart. The Franks capture a spy and catapult him back to Jerusalem, only for him to "c[o]me apart, feet, legs, arms flying all directions" (79); knights climbing a wall fall off when their ladder "broke and tumbled them in a ditch, bruising some to death while others lay hapless, groaning and bleeding" (229); Pierre de Castelnau is speared from behind and winds up gracelessly "tumbling from his mule" (319) before dying. These are purely random examples. Joinville's narrative repeatedly recounts the literal fragmentation of both sides, with many of the participants entering the text only to immediately exit it as dismembered corpses. This spectacle of ruined flesh poses one of the greatest problems for Joinville, for it repeatedly forces him to face the disjunction between his chaotic material and his desire to plot the text in terms of God's will. Edward Adams has argued that the Victorian historian W. F. Napier oscillates "between a heroic, glorified appreciation for how war brings out the best in men (and women), and an apprehensive withdrawal from the horror and death that are the necessary conditions of that glory"; for Connell's Joinville, the terrors of military violence signify not so much human heroism but God's providence, and the chronicler's job is to unpack the Christian lessons underlying each demise.1 Joinville takes it as a given that death always has a greater purpose and meaning, but frequently finds himself stumbling over deaths that seem needlessly cruel or purposeless. This is especially the case with the disastrous end of the Children's Crusade, which prompts Joinville to wonder if "[c]loyed by the blood of martyred men, did Satan in his blackness desire a cordial of childish blood to slake his thirst?" (336). Similarly, he has to reassure himself when things do not go wrong for the Muslim characters or others who act against the Crusaders, insisting that God "keep[s] count" of those whom he will eventually "punish for malicious inventions of the heart" (200) and, later, that "we know how the Lord God cannot be mistaken since He foresees all things" (313). Such events never lead Joinville to religious skepticism, even if they leave him flailing in momentary despair. Instead, his moments of unknowing are always a reminder to himself that man's knowledge of the divine will is necessarily imperfect, and that all comes right in heaven (or hell, for that matter). There is, in other words, a fully coherent plot; it's just that Joinville knows all too well that he has no access to it. At best, Joinville can only see as through a glass, darkly.
Joinville's doubts about the veracity of some of his sources, as well as his frequent unwillingness to adjudicate between competing accounts, does not add up to postmodern playfulness, either on his part or Connell's. Connell invites us to read Joinville's attitudes against the grain, but not his actual account of events. While Connell makes it clear that Joinville is incapable of regarding both peaceful and hostile non-Christians with anything other than fierce, damning denunciations, even when he admires them (Saladin being a case in point), he does not break out the dramatic irony to represent Joinville as unreliable about anything except in his moral judgments. (The narrative's most brutal irony is arguably reserved for Joinville's anti-Semitism, as the Jews are the only figures in the novel actually trying to mind their own business.) This is especially clear in the final section, in which Joinville becomes an active and eventually disaffected participant, glumly observing as Louis succumbs to "madness" (447) in his refusal to give up; his mood is not improved by memories of what happened immediately after Louis' death, when everything he had accomplished "began to lapse and sink, eroding like a sand castle" (450). Joinville's own experience thus recapitulates the earlier turns of fortune's wheel, as Christian conquest simply implodes under the debilitating weight of moral corruption. The result is a deliberately anti-climactic novel (something that may frustrate readers, given its length), in which the Crusades deflate in a series of final splutters and wheezes. Like Warner's The Corner that Held Them, the novel halts instead of ends, with no divine affirmation in sight. "The sense of it," Joinville remarks, wearily, "I, Jean de Joinvile, do not presume to know" (462).
1 Edward Adams, Liberal Epic: The Victorian Practice of History from Gibbon to Churchill (Virginia, 2011), 132.