The Wife of Martin Guerre:  Famous story, little-known book

A calculated lie is at the center of Janet Lewis’ The Wife of Martin Guerre, and the lie explodes the life of everyone around it.  The novel is a brutal tour de force, defying reader expectations.

“Another Look” seeks out short masterpieces forgotten, neglected or overlooked.  In the case of The Wife of Martin Guerre, we didn’t have to look farther than home.  The 1941 book was born at Stanford, and the author taught in its English Department.  Hailed as one of the top books of the last century, it’s too little-known today. The story has become famous, but the book has not.

The short novel, about a 16th-century case of imposture in southwestern France, has been made into a play, an opera, several musicals, and most notably The Return of Martin Guerre, a 1982 movie with Gérard Depardieu in the title role.

The story is a tragedy, and like all great tragedies, has a lie at its core.  Oedipus is not a stranger who rolled into town; he’s the son of the city’s murdered king.  Claudius is not the unexpected beneficiary of a throne and wife, he’s guilty of regicide and fratricide.  King Lear’s eldest daughters do not love him, despite their protestations.  But these lies are quickly overwhelmed by their effects; in Lewis’s novel, the lie is the hard, unbudgeable kernel of destruction that no one wants to examine.

Like Agamemnon, Macbeth, and so many tragic heroes, the “new Martin” resolves, “If only I can keep this, all will be well, I’ll make everything else right in the end.” But the lie he wishes to keep eventually damns any possibility of a future or peace.

The heroine, Bertrande de Rols, is initially the passive prisoner of the thing she most wishes to be true, but doubts in her heart.  In the world Lewis creates, the greatest enemy is not a person or a judicial decision: it is in the thing we do not wish to be fact – the unbearable truth just around the corner, the truth seen with peripheral vision, just by the tail as it goes down a hole.  The lie at the core of the book gives rise to a welter of smaller daily lies, which, in turn, buttresses the great one.

The characters move seamlessly from victim to perp, from perp to victim, and back again. As poet Tim Steele, a friend of Lewis, writes in Numbers (1989-90), the book is a psychological study of “people who betray others or who are themselves betrayed in the course of the interpretation of evidence.”  When Bertrande finally turns to the truth, it turns her to stone; Lewis hints it may even lead to her death.

In her 90s (Photo: Brigitte Carnochan)

Larry McMurtry, writing in an influential and moving 1998 appraisal in the New York Review of Books, views the book as “legal brief brought to life.”  Lewis “comes back again and again to the fate of honesty in a violent world.”  Lewis’s great theme is “the limitations of human judgment, not merely between judge and accused but between husband and wife, father and son, king and counselor…”

In all her major fiction, “the fate of honest people depends on their ability or inability to correctly evaluate the confusing body of evidence that life presents us as we go rushing through it.” It is “human, not the judicial, misevaluation that makes the books so powerful.”  And in each novel, he writes, “the ruin of an honest person is complete.”

But it’s more than that:  As in life, the terrible ruin and cruelty takes place in an indifferent and beautiful world that turns relentlessly through the seasons – at times crisp with sunshine, the air mellow with autumn, as vines twine and melons ripen:

It was the time of year when the grapes were being harvested, and the odor of ripe muscats was in the air. When the wine was made and the leaves on the vine stocks had turned scarlet, Bertrande rode out among valleys that dipped in fire toward Luchon between the irregular advances of the woods, saw the conical haystacks burning with dull gold beside the stone walls of farm buildings…

In one of her other books, Against a Darkening Sky (1943), a character comments that “life [is] created by tenderness and patience in a world of mindless destruction.”  But sometimes tenderness is foredoomed.  In The Wife of Martin Guerre, the child-groom cuffs his pre-wife on the night of their wedding – just as his father routinely breaks his teeth or splits his lip with a blow.  The friendly housekeeper discusses the fate of Martin Guerre as she pitilessly cuts the throat of a helpless dove above a bowl of blood, and the dove makes no cry.

The Wife of Martin Guerre conjures a world without mercy.  The returned Martin becomes a better man than Martin Guerre ever was or could be.  But the lie destroys the good as well as the bad in its inexorable, expanding circle of cause and effect.  Bertrande becomes the ruthless embodiment of truth in a world that doesn’t want it – one of the colder faces of justice.  Unlike other tragedies, revelation brings no new order or personal redemption, but only more chaos.

Betrande de Rols says, “For when I look at you it seems to me that I see the flesh and bone of Martin Guerre, but in them I see dwelling the spirit of another man.”

“When I was in Brittany,” said her husband, “I heard a strange story of a man who was also a wolf, and there may also have been times when the soul of one man inhabited the body of another.  But it is also notorious that men who have been great sinners have become saints.  What would become of us all if we had no power to turn from evil toward good?”

What indeed?  His question becomes a riddle without resolution in the novel.  The plot moves inexorably and without mercy to a denouement that consumes them all.  No one gets a happy ending.   There is no peace, not even in death.

– Cynthia Haven

One thought on “

  1. Cynthia Haven’ s discussion leaves me wondering why reposeful, blessed Janet Lewis would pursue such a vision of “no new order or personal redemption, but only more chaos” and then honor and disseminate it with high art.

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