The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis
Swallow Press, 109 pp., $9.95
The Trial of Soren Qvist by Janet Lewis
Swallow Press, 256 pp., $14.95
The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron by Janet Lewis
Swallow Press, 378 pp., $11.95
Janet Lewis, who died in 1998 at the age of 99, enjoyed decades of renown as a poet, novelist, and librettist, without ever achieving the blockbuster fame of some of her contemporaries, like Ernest Hemingway and William Carlos Williams. But her star hasn’t completely faded—her obituary in the New York Times compared her favorably to Melville and Stendhal. Lewis is currently about as famous, or non-famous, as she ever was.
Her reputation might always simmer rather than boil because she was so consistently a few degrees out of alignment with her time. She was both a poet and indifferent to politics during what may have been the least poetical and most political century in history. A famously serene and domestic personality, Lewis suspended her literary career, apparently happily, while she raised her two children.
Her three best-known books, though usually categorized as historical fiction, arguably anticipated by a generation or more the “invention” of the nonfiction novel by Truman Capote. The subjects of The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), The Trial of Soren Qvist (1947), and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959), were all drawn from one slender law book published in 1873: Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence with an Introduction on the Theory of Presumptive Proof by Samuel M. Phillipps. Famous Cases is fascinating in its own right. The stories in the book all concern how we arrive at and know the truth, with a particular focus on circumstantial evidence. Lewis once said, “I have this affinity for the circumstantial case. I like to get at the intimate obliquely.” Her interest in the law was likely stoked when a family friend was convicted of murder.
The Wife of Martin Guerre concerns a prosperous 16th-century French peasant girl, Bertrande de Rols, who was married very young (11 years old) to Martin, just a boy himself. After stealing grain from his father, a steely man, Martin runs off, abandoning Bertrande and their joint family holdings. After eight years of soldiering and adventuring, he returns, like Odysseus to Penelope, to reclaim his position in the life of Bertrande, and in the life of the village. He is gentler and kinder as a man than he was as a boy, and the marriage flourishes for a time. But Bertrande eventually begins to suspect that Martin is not Martin. Her suspicions are reinforced when he doesn’t recognize a vagrant soldier who claims to be an old comrade in arms. Bertrande denounces Martin and a trial ensues. Then another. In the course of the legal proceedings, the emotional complexities of the case—the loneliness, hope, desire, and doubt at its core—are exposed.
To go further would spoil the story, but it is not for nothing that it still captivates in the 21st century. Martin Guerre is Lewis’ most famous work, having inspired a number of subsequent treatments, including the 1982 French film Le retour de Martin Guerre, directed by Daniel Vigne and starring Gerard Depardieu, and 1993’s Sommersby, starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster and set in post-Civil War America. (Vigne also participated in Sommersby, this time as a writer.)
Despite all the legal action, Martin Guerre is really the story of Bertrande. The Trial of Soren Qvist inverts the focus: it is first the story of a crime and its aftermath, and only secondly about Soren, who is less compelling than his predicament. He is a good man afflicted with a violent temper. After being accused of killing one of his workers, Qvist is convicted, even in his own mind, by circumstantial evidence. He believes he must have committed the crime while sleepwalking. To contemporary readers, the tale might recall incidents from the recovered-memory hysteria of the 1990s. In addition to its appearance in Famous Cases, Qvist’s story was told somewhat more elaborately in the 1829 novella The Rector of Veilbye by Steen Steensen Blicher, which had been adapted for the screen twice (both times in Danish) by the time Lewis took up the subject. The novella was included in Twelve Stories, a collection of Blicher’s work translated into English by Hanna Astrup Larsen and published in 1945, just two years before Lewis’ version appeared.
Whereas Martin Guerre is short, more of a novella itself, and The Trial of Soren Qvist is a modest 256 pages, The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron stretches to a dense 378 pages, bigger than the other two books combined. The crime in this case is the publication of a pamphlet denouncing Louis XIV, which results in a wrongful execution and the destruction of an innocent family. Monsieur Scarron blends history, intense analysis of personalities, and artful structuring of the complex events that inexorably bring a man and a family to ruin, and there’s little doubt that this work in particular is what garnered Lewis comparisons to Stendhal.
Lewis’ novels also have something in common with the analytical precision and stylistic economy of both A. S. Byatt and Shirley Hazzard, but they possess greater warmth than one associates with either of those younger authors. There is an evident love of her characters that gives Lewis’ fiction the flavor of an older literary tradition, a timeless quality that even great writers don’t always achieve. The superb short stories of Cheever, for instance, many of which were written at the same time as Lewis’ work, feel of their time. Even passages of his without period references seem somehow last-century in a way that Lewis’ strikingly do not.
Along with her husband, the poet and critic Yvor Winters, Lewis privileged poetry over prose, and she wrote poems well into her nineties. The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis is a thoughtful summary, drawing material from every stage of her long life. Though most of her quiet, lyrical verse was inspired directly by her own experience, there are exceptions that reflect her interest in the personal side of history, the grief and memory of its players. “Trophy, WW1” is a meditation on a small tin Cross of Lorraine found in a junk shop. It was once carried by a soldier of the 7th Zouaves Regiment at Verdun, the longest and most terrible battle in French history. The poem is not about the war, but about the small empty space this young man left behind.
Peter Coates is an artist, programmer, and writer living in Brooklyn.
Mentioned in this review:
The Wife Of Martin Guerre
The Trial Of Soren Qvist
The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron
The Selected Poems Of Janet Lewis
Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence with an Introduction on the Theory of Presumptive Proof