Johanna; Joan (2006)

Johanna is a short campus novel with an intensely poetic style. The narrative sets up parallels between the life of Joan of Arc (circa 1412-1431) and the anonymous narrator, who is a young woman at a German university who is writing a postgraduate dissertation on medieval history. She is an expert on Karrenritter (‘knights of the cart’; the phrase comes from Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette, an Old French poem by Chrétien de Troyes). There is a comparison between the trial of Joan of Arc by the church authorities in Paris, and the university oral examination of the contemporary female narrator by a Professor and his assistants: in both cases, the woman is exposed to patriarchal discourses and male-dominated institutions which seek to condemn her. However the female narrator refuses to accept her subordination, and she elaborates her own discourse which involves a critique of history as a discipline, a critique of the university system as an institution.

Johanna also reflects on processes of canonisation and legitimation: we are reminded that the historical Joan of Arc was only canonised by the Catholic Church in 1920, almost five hundred years after she was burnt at the stake for witchcraft. At the same time, Joan of Arc has for centuries been an icon of female heroism (and of French nationalism). The novel contains a meditation on how and why a person becomes a legendary (or canonical) figure, pointing out that people can make history by telling stories (p. 47). After all, the historical Joan of Arc was a political leader and not a footsoldier; she won battles because of her inspired use of language, not her swordfighting. ‘Erkenne den König’; ‘Recognise the King’ is a key phrase here, because (according to tradition) Joan of Arc recognised King Charles VII by sight, without ever having met him before, and long before he was actually crowned. Arguably it was Joan’s act of proclaiming him ‘King’ which eventually led to his coronation in Reims in 1429.

The novel has an incantatory quality, as key phrases are repeated and transformed in ways which suggest musical counterpoint. Many of the phrases in the early sections of the novel are repeated elsewhere, but often with different inflections and permutations, whereby their signifance becomes radically changed. The novel also contains allusions to Schiller’s play Die Jungfrau von Orleans; The Maid of Orleans (1801) and to Anna Seghers’s radio play Der Prozeß der Jeanne d’Arc zu Rouen 1431; The Trial of Joan of Arc in Rouen in 1431 (1937).

This novel is a tour de force and highly recommended; unfortunately it has not yet been translated into English.

Further Reading in English

Craig Taylor (ed.), Joan of Arc, La Pucelle: Selected Sources, trans. and annotated by Craig Taylor (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006)

Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Further Reading in German

Waltraud Maierhofer, ‘Johanna von Orleans und das populäre Erzählen im Umkreis von Schiller und heute’, in Geschichten des Reisens – Reisen zur Geschichte. Studien zu Felicitas Hoppe, ed. by Thomas Homscheid and Esbjörn Nyström, Schwedische Studien zur deutschsprachigen Literatur (Uelvesbüll: Der Andere Verlag, 2012), pp. 83-107

Gerhard Scholz, Zeitgemäße Betrachtungen? Zur Wahrnehmung von Gegenwart und Geschichte in Felicitas Hoppes Johanna und Daniel Kehlmanns Die Vermessung der Welt (Innsbruck: Studien Verlag, 2012)

Ernest Schonfield, ‘“Wie krönt man richtig?”: Heiligsprechung und Kanonbildung in Hoppes Johanna (2006)’, in Ehrliche Erfindungen. Felicitas Hoppe als Erzählerin zwischen Tradition und Transmoderne, ed. by Svenja Frank and Julia Ilgner (Bielefeld: transcript, 2017), pp. 53-69

Anna Seghers, Der Prozeß der Jeanne d’Arc zu Rouen 1431 (Leipzig: Reclam, 1985)