“Bertrande stood in the sunlight and met, as in a dream, the long-anticipated moment, her breath stilled and her heart beating wildly.” – The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis
I vividly recall the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre. It was a stunning recreation of sixteenth century France, and at its heart dwelt a strange and compelling mystery. The stars were the beautiful Nathalie Baye and a youthful and charismatic Gerard Depardieu.
The film was based on a true incident. Natalie Zemon Davis’s book on the actual history of Martin Guerre came out at about the same time as the movie. I read it, but I don’t remember it. I’m currently waiting for my reserve to come in so I can have another look.
I was unaware of a novel entitled The Wife of Martin Guerre until I read about it several years ago on D.G. Myers’s intellectually rigorous and bracing Commonplace Blog. I acquired the book and immediately set about reading it. After a few pages, however, I put it down. The prose seemed curiously restrained, almost to the point of flatness. I was looking for something more rapturous. And so I put the novel aside. Somehow it managed to elude the periodic purges of my book collection, probably due to its diminutive size: a paperback of slight dimensions, 109 pages in length.
Then last month, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post wrote this lyrical praise of the novel. I sought it out in my overcrowded library and found it wedged between two five hundred plus page behemoths. I began reading. And it was as if I’d fallen under a spell. I could not stop; I was bewitched.
Young Bertrande de Rols has married the son and heir of the Guerre establishment. Her new mother-in-law is given the task of acquainting Bertrande with the vastness the family’s agricultural estate:
She showed Bertrande the farm in detail, the stables, the granary, low stone buildings roofed with tile, like the house, set to the right and left of the courtyard before the house; showed her the room used for the dairy, the storerooms with their pots of honey and baskets of fruit, baskets of chestnuts, stone crocks of goose and chicken preserved in oil, eggs buries in bran, cheeses of goat’s milk and of cow’s milk, wine, oil. In the Chamber she showed her wool and flax for the distaff, th loom on which the clothing for the household would be woven. She showed her the garden, now being set in order for the early frost, the straw-thatched beehives, the sheepfold of mud and wattles,and last of all, returning to the Chamber in which the marriage bed had been dressed, Madame Guerre opened certain chests filled with bran and showed the young girl the coats of mail of the ancestors, thus preserved from rust.
In time, Bertrande knows, all of this will be in her charge. That is the true purpose of this in depth survey.
The Guerre farm is a world unto itself, completely self-sufficient. All the men and women living there must play their parts, perform their assigned tasks, the men of the family and the laborers working side by side. In return, they derive security and a sense of belonging from the community which they themselves constitute.
Janet Lewis is an author new to me. She was primarily a poet and achieved considerable success during her long life. (She passed away in 1998, at the age of 99.) In addition to The Wife of Martin Guerre, she wrote three other historical novels: The Invasion: A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St Mary’s, The Trial of Soren Qvist, and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. I wonder if any of these are on a par with The Wife of Martin Guerre, a tale of cunning deception and profound love. In this novel, using prose that is pointillist in its precision and poetic in its beauty, Janet Lewis brings to light a lost world and makes it live again. Quel triomphe!
Click here to read the author’s obituary in the New York Times.
Here is a clip from the film The Return of Martin Guerre. This is the moment when Martin announces his return to his family’s vast establishment. There are no subtitles, but you can probably make out what’s happening anyway. And talk about a brilliant evocation of the past!