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The Review: The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis

From Brick 98

Recently, a friend loaned me two of Janet Lewis’s novels, The Wife of Martin Guerre and The Trial of Sören Qvist, published in 1941 and 1947 respectively. The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron, published in 1959, completes a trilogy reissued by Swallow Press in 2013. Lewis was new to me, and in the midst of enjoying the luxury of discovery, I was already envying those who haven’t yet read her. Not that Lewis is exactly a day at the beach, walk in the park, or whatever one’s analogy for fiction-as-escape might be. Reading her is an encounter with essential, difficult, and mostly irresolvable questions in a state of wonder at their articulation. It roughs you up.

Introductions to the new editions by Kevin Haworth and an afterword to Martin Guerre by Larry McMurtry, one of Lewis’s most ardent champions, supply a bit of Lewis’s biography and the trilogy’s backstory. In a later work, Literary Life, McMurtry elaborates: following the publication of her first book of poems, The Indians in the Woods (1922), and her first novel, The Invasion (1932), Lewis, he says, “had been trying to write formula fiction for Redbook, to bring in a little money, and was having trouble with plots.” Lewis, at ninety-eight, in an interview concluded seven or so months before her death, says with characteristic forthrightness, “Somebody had lent my husband a book called Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence (1873) and my husband said to me, ‘you might want to look at it and see if there are any good plots’ and there was the story of Martin Guerre and I took notes on it. That’s all—it started from there.”

Lewis’s husband was the poet and critic Yvor Winters. I knew about and read Winters during my graduate work in English in the nineties and early aughts. But I’d never heard of Janet Lewis. Having now read two of her novels and a number of poems, this shocks me. I mean, it does and it doesn’t.

Lewis wasn’t exactly toiling away in obscurity, even though she was primarily, as her critics and admirers attest, a poet. The Indians in the Woods was the first of three booklets published by MoMA’s Monroe Wheeler, along with Go Go by William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore’s Marriage. “It’s very hard to make a very good poem,” Lewis says. “Probably my poetry was better than my prose because poetry itself is better than prose, usually.” Opinions on this point aside, it’s the novel trilogy that has earned her, as McMurtry notes, “a steady and loyal readership.” In his Poet’s Choice column in memory of Lewis, Robert Hass writes: “I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard writers, making their lists of great neglected books of the twentieth century, begin talking with excitement about The Wife of Martin Guerre. . . . She has, in that way, always gotten her due.” The trilogy has inspired comparisons in The New Yorker, New York Times, and Atlantic Monthly with Melville, Flaubert, and Stendhal. Lewis wrote the libretto for the opera based on Martin Guerre in 1956. A film starring Gérard Depardieu, Le Retour de Martin Guerre, was released in 1982, and the by-most-accounts-dreadful Hollywood remake, Sommersby, in 1993. I haven’t seen either, and now will only ever do so by accident. (Though, yes, I’ve been told the Depardieu film is very good. We’ll see.)

I was all in, reading Martin Guerre, to a degree that reminded me of reading as a child, of those first adventures that hook you on physical as well as intellectual responses—sensory recognitions, nervous flutterings of premonition, of hope, frustration, or anxiety rising from the diaphragm at characters’ actions, or twists of fate. The emotional and philosophical atmosphere of the novel persists and is of rare complexity. Though the plot is extraordinary, there’s a lot more to it than that.

It’s 1539, in Gascony, outside the village of Artigues, and the families Guerre and de Rols are celebrating the marriage of their eleven-year-old children, Martin and Bertrande, betrothed in the cradle.

She had not known until the evening before that a marriage had been arranged. That morning she had knelt with Martin before his father and then had walked with him across the snow, dressed bravely in a new red cape and attended by many friends and relatives and by the sound of violins, to the church of Artigues where the marriage ceremony had been completed. She had found it quite as serious an affair as first communion.

The perfection of that “bravely,” the new red cape, the telling discretion of the final sentence—how acutely our empathy for the girl is elicited by Lewis’s restraint. The wedding party scene following is remarkably warm and vivid. For the party’s adult guests, a substantial pleasure of conviviality is its ritual function. Martin’s violent outburst against Bertrande in a dark corridor “to express the power of his newly acquired sovereignty” is a first cold current undercutting the joys and securities of tradition.

Though they depend on unquestioned authority, these joys and securities are considerable, for the most part, for everyone in the novel. (When people nostalgically recall “a simpler time,” it’s often this security they mean.) But soon, very soon, we learn that the marriage is not the guarantor of stability the families had hoped: “So began for the wife of Martin Guerre the estate which was to bring her so much joy and also such strange and unpredictable suffering.” This sentence, only seven pages in, seems almost cruel to us, gentle spoiler-sensitive souls that we are. And indeed, when Bertrande assumes her role at the Guerre household at fourteen, after her mother’s death, things seem to go so well. She is accepted and grows to love the beauty, peace, and safety of the farm. Her mother-in-law is kind, her father-in-law stern but kind, and Martin “sufficiently kind.” After Martin incurs violent physical punishment by his father for a disobedience, he and Bertrande grow close, “a camp within a camp.” Pregnant, her “affection for her husband became a deep and joyous passion.” He returns her devotion, even as resentment at his father’s authority, and his own harsh temperament, smoulder in him. Their child, Sanxi, is born, and adored. But here we go again:

People so reasonable, so devoted, so strongly loving and hard working should have been exempt, one feels, from the vagaries of a malicious fate. Nevertheless, the very virtues of their way of life gave rise to a small incident, and from that incident developed the whole train of misfortune which singled out Bertrande de Rols from the peace and obscurity of her tradition.

Strangely, these passages do little, if anything, to ameliorate one’s emotional responses to events or dampen hope that things will be otherwise. The novel, in this way, is pitiless.

If this all sounds rather austere, it isn’t. Uncompromising, yes; but not at all rigid. McMurtry, writing on The Invasion, notes in Lewis’s prose “rich shadings and long cadences,” and this applies to Martin Guerre as well. A lushness thrives in its economy. But Lewis, fully in control, does not allow us to linger where our narrative sensibilities might desire to or be accustomed to. When we are granted abundance in an extravagance of meditation or description, transitions—turns of events, changes of heart, revelations—happen before we’re ready. Lewis’s hypnotic mastery of pacing impels us through what is, frankly, an emotional shitkicking. Here are Bertrande and Martin at the happiest time in their marriage. She brings lunch to the field, watching him “with tender, happy eyes”:

Across the valley and on the higher slopes, the beech and oak woods were tinged with gold and russet, and higher still a blue haze seemed to be gathering, like threads of smoke. Leaf, earth, and wine in the still sunlight gave forth the odors of their substances; the air was full of autumn fragrance. Martin, when he had finished his lunch, wrapped the fragments of bread and cheese and put them in his wallet. He returned the earthen wine jug to the hands of his wife and said:

“I am going away for a little while.”

Bertrande’s “exclamation of surprise” echoes our own. Martin has once again disobeyed his father, a relatively small matter for the good of the farm; but knowing the wrath this challenge to traditional authority will bring down on him, he’s decided (the selfish git) to make himself scarce for a week until things cool down. Ten pages later, he’s been gone for eight years. Sorrow. Upheaval. Death. The very afternoon the anguished Bertrande suspects, with Sanxi, she has finally begun “to be at peace,” a commotion in the yard—the sisters Guerre crying in chorus, “here is our brother Martin!”

Lewis says that “in writing as in materials, strength is not unyielding.” It’s defined, rather, “in its ability to accommodate the unexpected, absorb tremor, movement.” This aptly describes her prose, which uses techniques of compression and expansion to sustain our attention while—again, I want to say somewhat ruthlessly—distributing the emotional pressure. I wasn’t thinking much about technique on my first read, though, caught up as I was as a companion to the novel’s fated “misfortune.” As Lewis reveals this fate as a system of choices, readers’ engagement becomes more participatory. Wary and self-reflexive, even self-protective, we bystanders find ourselves implicated. Our investment exceeds curiosity. Things get personal.

Bertrande is not convinced this Martin is the man he says he is. He’s too nice, too patient, too kind, not the impulsive hothead she married. In fact, he’s better in every way—good to his family, the farm workers, neighbours, a wonderful husband to Bertrande and father to Sanxi. Acknowledging this, Bertrande lays her suspicions aside for a while and allows herself passion and happiness. She and the new Martin have a child. But there is more at stake for Bertrande than her own happiness, more even than the happiness of her children, the family, the community. There is the truth, and the coterminous health of her immortal Catholic soul. Although this Martin bears the scars of the old, possesses secrets and knowledge only Martin owns, and is therefore compelling in his arguments of authenticity, Bertrande sickens with resentment and guilt. The village priest, who loves and trusts the returned Martin, will not acknowledge she has committed the mortal sin of adultery, much less absolve her. She declines further and is thought mad.

The woman deemed mad for insisting things are not as they seem is a time-honoured theme. Often, she’s proven right, though by that time has become a sacrifice, in one way or another, to truth. In Lewis’s novel, a reader might wonder if Bertrande really has been made crazy by grief. The only reason to suspect the returned man is not Martin Guerre is that he is vastly improved. People can change. Can’t they? It’s been eight years since Bertrande was abandoned. Readers might also wonder if she’s crazy to not let sleeping dogs lie, gamble on the benefit of the doubt for the sake of happiness. If this man is not Martin, however, he is a criminal, an imposter, a liar. Are we crazy to even think about letting this slide? Who knows what else he’s capable of? But is happiness based on a lie not still happiness? Does a choice even exist for Bertrande in her time and place? Lewis herself, as quoted in Haworth’s introduction, suggests not. What determines Bertrande’s course of action isn’t that she’s committed adultery, but that she believes she has.

As much as it is about the identity of the returned man, Martin Guerre is also about the value of truth and its categories. Are there truths more valuable than facts? Is the value of a truth independent of the harm it does? Is it independent of changing beliefs and codes of behaviour? As readers judge Bertrande’s choices, they may evaluate their own impulses and beliefs, finding, perhaps, less-than-stable ground. Part of the anxiety of our response to the novel is recognizing what we might be willing to sacrifice were we in Bertrande’s place. The imperatives of a Catholic woman in sixteenth-century France are not those of today’s reader. Though we may not believe there is an immortal soul to be damned or that stability subject to a tradition of unchallenged authority is worth preserving, Bertrande de Rols would have felt these things as truths. The perspective of dramatic irony does not offer a clear view.

The first act isn’t quite done with us yet. New evidence appears in the unlikeable form of a soldier from Rochefort, who hopes to cadge some room and board from his war buddy, Martin Guerre. But when the master of the house doesn’t recognize him, he investigates to discover a real leg where the real Martin’s fake leg should be. The soldier from Rochefort disappears into the countryside, having left Bertrande fuel for her fire. She gains support from Martin’s uncle Pierre, and the returned man is arrested.

The novel ups the ante in the second and third acts with the lure of the true-crime procedural. They don’t get much more dramatic: multiple conflicting witnesses, outbursts, fainting, second thoughts, and surprise appearances. Readers feeling their allegiances form and shift might question, and not idly, what predisposes their ideas of a best outcome. The mind encounters this monster everywhere it turns. In the historical facts of the plot, Lewis discovered a tragedy, “the ruin of an honest person,” as Haworth puts it. Lewis’s genius is to animate a complex philosophical question by implicating readers in her narrative’s high emotional stakes.

Bertrande’s dilemma recalls for me Richard Rorty’s writing on realist versus pragmatic approaches to truth. The realist, says Rorty, adopts an objective view, while the pragmatist’s concern is solidarity. I won’t get very far into this, but let me offer a quote:

Insofar as a person is seeking solidarity, she does not ask about the relation between the practices of the chosen community and something outside that community. Insofar as she seeks objectivity, she distances herself from the actual persons around her not by thinking of herself as a member of some other real or imaginary group, but rather by attaching herself to something which can be described without reference to any particular human beings.

Bertrande is caught between the solidarity of the farm, family, and community—her felt responsibility for their well-being, a pragmatism represented not in the least in her year of happiness with the man returned—and an objective appeal to an authority above any actual person subject to it. Tradition, law, God. “How can I deny the truth?” she pleads to Martin’s youngest sister, who replies, “It is only the truth for you, not for us. . . . For the truth, that none of us believe, you would destroy us all. We shall never be happy again.” Seeds of Rorty’s work exist in the Pyrrhonian skeptics, who argued for suspended judgment in favour of peace of mind, which is the closest many of us get to happiness. Essentially, as Rorty says, the decision—or, more likely, series of choices—between realism and pragmatism is about finding “a sense in one’s existence.”

There are few novels with an ending as hard and bitter as this one. As in the trilogy’s second novel, The Trial of Sören Qvist (equally fabulous, by the way), the notion of a catalyst burns at the heart of Martin Guerre, a fatal human flaw charging the system. In Sören Qvist, it’s anger. In Martin Guerre, pride. Pride instigates the generations-long feud that betroths Bertrande and Martin, and it’s what divides them. Riding into town for another instalment of the trial, Bertrande considers her sole ally, her uncle Pierre, “the one remaining defender of the old authority of her husband’s house . . . which before the coming of the stranger had kept them all in a secure and wholesome peace. He was for her that day a tradition more potent than the church.” Pride in tradition provides the sense in Bertrande’s existence. And also destroys it.

I’ve yet to read The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (it’s proving a bit hard to find); but Lewis’s poems demonstrate some familiar concerns: uncertainties haunting concepts of permanence, principles that enable and undermine systems, design strengths that are also flaws. Here is a short poem called “Days,” included in her Selected Poems:

Swift and subtle
The flying shuttle
Crosses the web
And fills the loom,
Leaving for range
Of choice or change
No room, no room.

Her language here, as in her prose, is practical and capacious. David Yezzi calls her poems “memorable, pellucid, gravid,” and however obstetrical this sounds, it’s also true. It can be difficult (for me, anyway) to describe qualities of language without sounding like a parody of a sommelier. And this is perhaps especially true of language that doesn’t correspond to what we think of now as “innovative,” that does not lend itself to volatile descriptors. Lewis is innovative, though, in light of the word’s Latin origins, “to renew” and “restore.” One feels renewed as a reader by her work.

It’s great to find a new literary hero. And one so confidently cool, besides. As a poet, Lewis is often categorized as an imagist. In the interview cited earlier, she describes imagism as “a fashion for a while.” Asked if she’s comfortable being called an imagist, she responds, “Oh sure. Why not? What does it matter?” Be still, my heart. Haworth quotes another interview in which she’s asked to comment on the fact that, though critically praised, she is “not widely known.” “I think I’ve had as much recognition as I need,” she says, “and probably as much as I deserve.” The former was probably true, even if the latter isn’t.

Karen Solie’s most recent collection of poems is The Caiplie Caves. She teaches poetry and writing in Canada and for the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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