Archive for October 7th, 2013

A new look for Janet Lewis’s Cases of Circumstantial Evidence

Monday, October 7th, 2013
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lewis_wife-of-martin-guerre-fcDuring last winter’s Janet Lewis celebration with the “Another Look” book club at Stanford, I didn’t have an opportunity to write about this enticing bit of news: Ohio University Press/Swallow Press is reissuing all three novels in Lewis’s Cases of Circumstantial Evidence series in new editions with fancy new covers.  They’re gorgeous.

The publisher (full disclosure: who is also my publisher) sent me the advance review copy of The Wife of Martin Guerre, her best-known work (I wrote about it here and here) about a now-famous case of mistaken identity.  The jacket cites praise I had not included in my earlier writing. The New Yorker said it was “Flaubertian in the elegance of its form and the gravity of its style.” Larry McMurtry, writing in the New York Review of Books, called it “a masterpiece … a short novel that can run with Billy Budd, The Spoils of Poynton, Seize the Day, or any other.” This from novelist Ron Hansen in the Wall Street Journal:  “Janet Lewis brings the haunting qualities of fable to this novella …”  Michael Dirda of the Washington Post wrote: “One of (the short novel’s) most perfect examples is Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre.” Heady praise indeed.

In a new introduction to the 1941 work, Swallow Press’ Kevin Haworth writes that the book is “a short novel of astonishing depth and resonance, a sharply drawn historical tale that asks contemporary questions about identity and belonging, about men and women, and about an individual’s capacity to act within an inflexible system.”  Maybe, but it’s a relentless and draining novel sans merci, all the way to its ruthless end.  I admit I didn’t have as much sympathy for Bertrande de Rols as I should have – and I developed instead a sneaking affection for the rakish Arnaud du Tilh, the baddy who comes on the scene to run a scam, but winds up falling in love, reforming his life, and effectively running an extended household. He is the only one who finds any kind of redemption in the novel – and naturally is destroyed. (How did such a nice woman write such a hard-hearted book?)

lewis_fc-trial-of-sören-qvistMore from Haworth: “This close attention to an individual’s moral choices in the face of strange circumstances links The Wife of Martin Guerre with the two novels that follow in the Cases of Circumstantial Evidence series. Though each of the novels stands on its own, they remain united by their shared origins in the history of law, discovered by Lewis in the same legal casebook where she first found the story of Bertrande de Rols and Martin Guerre.  The setting shifts to seventeenth-century Denmark in The Trial of Sören Qvist, which focuses on a devoted parson, albeit one with a harsh temper, who is accused of killing one of his workers. Again the law closes in on a man who may or may not be guilty, and again the characters struggle as much with their own consciences and the changing times as they do with the ambiguous legal facts in front of them. In The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron, Lewis returns to France, this time during the reign of Louis XIV. In this longest and in some ways most complex of the three novels, a bookbinder becomes enmeshed in a political drama that spirals out of control – the king is denounced in a pamphlet, leading to criminal charges – but the real crime is domestic, an adulterous affair that contributes to the tragedy as much as the public trial that follows. …

“To European critics, Lewis seems quintessentially American. To American critics, her fondness for European settings leads to comparisons as expected as Flaubert and as unusual as the Provençal writer Jean Giono. The New York Times compared her to Melville and to Stendhal. Another critic sees her, based on The Invasion and some of her short stories, as a definitive voice in Western regional writing. In some ways, Lewis’s writing remains elastic, allowing other writers to see in her a powerful reflection of their own interest. In short, as with all the best writers, her work and her decades-long career defy simple categorization or comparisons.”

As for Lewis herself, she hardly thought of herself at all. Hence, her refreshing sanity amid a world of egos. When asked if she deserved a bigger audience, she responded, “I think I’ve had as much recognition as I need and probably as much as I deserve.”