Archive for February 13th, 2013

Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre and the cold, cold face of justice

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013
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He got around.

The second event in the “Another Look” book club (I’ve written about it here and here and here) is drawing nigh:  The event will take place next Wednesday, on the 20th of February.  The book is Janet Lewis‘s The Wife of Martin Guerre – well, I’ve written about that here.  (And did you know that Michel de Montaigne attended Martin Guerre‘s trial?)

I’d welcome some of your thoughts on the book before the event – or even afterward.  Meanwhile, here are a few of my own about the calculated lie that sets the plot in motion and the cold, cold face of justice.  The rest is on the “Another Look” website here.

The movie version

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.

The judge’s version

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. … Read the rest here