When I was in eighth grade, our English class read a squat, almost square-shaped Dell paperback titled “Six Great Modern Short Novels.” It contained Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” James Joyce’s “The Dead,” William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Glenway Wescott’s “The Pilgrim Hawk” and Katherine Anne Porter’s “Noon Wine.” Each of these masterpieces, and they are all that, could be read in an evening, and each of them packed an intense emotional wallop. To this day I remember the loathsomely evil Mr. Hatch and marvel at how Porter could bring him to hated life in just a few pages. It was in this paperback, too, that I first discovered how prose could rise to poetry as Joyce described the snow falling on the grave of Michael Furey and “all the living and the dead.”
Ever since then I have been a fan of the short novel. Long enough to develop complex characters, yet concise enough for unity of effect, the “beautiful and blessed nouvelle” — as Henry James called it — seems capable of rare artistic perfection. And one of its most perfect examples is Janet Lewis’s “The Wife of Martin Guerre.”
Since it was first published in 1941, Lewis’s book has garnered praise from writers as various as Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stegner, Evan S. Connell, Ron Hansen and Larry McMurtry. The short novel has inspired two movies — the 1982 French film “Le Retour de Martin Guerre,” with Gerard Depardieu, and, translated to our own Civil War era, “Sommersby” (1993), starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. Lewis’s plot, simple but harrowing, derives from an actual court case in early Renaissance France, one to which the historian Natalie Zemon Davis has devoted an entire book, “The Return of Martin Guerre” (1983).
Lewis opens her novel with the 1539 marriage of Bertrande de Rols and Martin Guerre, the children of two rich peasant families in the isolated village of Artigues. Bertrande, the viewpoint character throughout, is sensitive, devout and passionate, while her husband, we soon discover, is choleric, imperious and taciturn. One day, having offended his stern, authoritarian father, Martin decides to disappear for a week until tempers cool down. That week goes by and another. Months, then years pass. Martin’s parents die. Meanwhile, his lonely wife rears their infant son, grows in beauty and yearns desperately to feel her husband’s rough hands on her body. Eventually, though, Martin’s actual features fade from Bertrande’s memory, and she begins to resign herself to having been abandoned.
And then: “Eight years after the departure of Martin Guerre, Bertrande his wife was seated in the Chamber instructing her son in the catechism.” Suddenly, she hears a clamor at the door. Surrounded by much of the Guerre clan stands a battle-worn soldier. “The figure in leather and steel advanced with even tread, a stockier figure than that of the man who had gone away eight years before, broader in the shoulder, developed, mature. The beard was strange, being rough and thick, but above it the eyes were like those of Martin, the forehead, the whole cast of the countenance, like and unlike to Bertrande’s startled recognition, and as he advanced from the shadow he seemed to Bertrande a stranger . . . then her loved husband, then a man who might have been Martin’s ancestor but not young Martin Guerre.”
Everyone in the village, from an old nurse to the local priest, is joyful at the prodigal’s return. Bertrande’s little boy almost immediately bonds with this easygoing soldier. The farm once more begins to prosper. Happiness pervades the household.
And yet Bertrande feels increasingly troubled. The man she now sleeps with looks like her husband, but he acts so differently. Not only kind and thoughtful, he speaks with a natural eloquence and never loses his temper. How is so dramatic a change possible? The priest reassures her, explaining that Martin has simply grown up. Bertrande soon finds herself pregnant and then the mother of a second son.
Yet her doubts remain: Is this really the man that she married? Is this really Martin Guerre? Bertrande gradually loses all her usual gaiety. “As time went on she found herself more and more surely faced with the obligation of admitting herself to be hopelessly insane or of confessing that she was consciously accepting as her husband a man whom she believed to be an impostor.” What should she do?
Consider, for a moment, the multiple complexities that Lewis has generated in just a few dozen pages. On one level, “The Wife of Martin Guerre” calls to mind a paranoid Cornell Woolrich thriller: Everyone Bertrande talks to, including her sisters-in-law, assures her that this new Martin Guerre is her husband. On still another level, it could be a psychological horror story a la Shirley Jackson: Is Bertrande a trustworthy observer, or is she, in fact, deluded? Give the plot a science fictional spin, and one finds a recurrent Philip K. Dick theme: How can we tell the facsimile from the genuine, a replicant from a human being? Fundamentally, these are all the same question: Can we ever know the truth about anyone, even those we love?
From early on, it’s clear that Bertrande has been forced into a lose-lose situation. When the poet and novelist Vikram Seth read “The Wife of Martin Guerre,” he wrote that he found himself weeping. “The calm detail, the observation of things that continue in nature despite our own vicissitudes, the underspoken humanity of the writing, it was a combination of these, and something magically beautiful in the choice of words besides — for Janet Lewis was a fine poet as well as a novelist.”
While “The Wife of Martin Guerre” is Janet Lewis’s most famous book, she based two other exceptional novels on similar cases of circumstantial evidence: “The Trial of Soren Qvist” (1947), set in the 17th century, in which a saintly minister is accused of murder; and “The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron” (1959) about the fate of a French bookbinder whose wife commits adultery with his apprentice. The first of these is also available from Ohio University/Swallow Press, and the third will soon be.
For which we must be grateful. In the eyes of traditional publishers, the short novel is the least marketable form of fiction, although a few presses, such as Hesperus and Melville House, have established series devoted to works of not more than 125 pages or so. Ebook technology may also be encouraging people to sample shorter books. Still, I would recommend you read Janet Lewis’s classic in this new edition, with a biographical introduction by publisher Kevin Haworth and an afterword appreciation by McMurtry. While Bertrande may have her doubts, readers won’t: “The Wife of Martin Guerre” is a book you will want to return to.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
THE WIFE OF MARTIN GUERRE
By Janet Lewis
Ohio Univ./Swallow. 116 pp. Paperback, $9.95