THE WIFE OF MARTIN GUERRE
Literary & General
Ohio University Press/Swallow Press
A true woman of letters, Janet Lewis (1899–1998) braved and handily mastered five literary genres. Primarily a poet, she also wrote novels, short stories, children’s stories, and opera libretti. It was a testament to her intellectual vivacity that the subjects of her work were able to artfully carry the preoccupations of her heart and mind. While her poetry was her first, last, and most significant literary love, it was her three historical novels set in Europe, all centered on philosophical con...
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Rights sold: French, Italian
Bertrande and Martin are 11 years old as their families tie the knot for them in holy marriage. This union is meant to finally bring peace between the newlyweds’ families and to please Martin’s father, the head of Guerre family. But Martin finds himself suffocated by his father’s despotic temperament. So, as Martin reaches his twenties, he leaves the family mansion and disappears – in spite of having just become a father.
When Martin Guerre returns from a quest after eight years, the family embraces him, and Bertrande is swept up in relief. But she soon finds that Martin has changed, to the point of questioning his identity.
Once the accusation is laid out formally and the trial begins, many witnesses are called to testify. Bertrande is pressured to withdraw, and she herself is reluctant to see "Martin" executed: for the impostor is a good man, who – in contrast to the man she married – treats her kindly, and whom she develops feelings for. Thus, Bertrande has to make a choice: tell the truth in front of God and the jury and lose the man she came to love, or lie, and spend the rest of her life with him?
As she chooses the truth, the real, battle-weary Martin stumbles into the courtroom and is instantly recognized. He shows no mercy to Bertrande for allowing herself to be deceived:
"Dry your tears, Madame. They cannot, and they ought not, move my pity. The example of my sisters and my uncle can be no excuse for you, Madame, who knew me better than any living soul. The error into which you plunged could only have been caused by willful blindness. You, and you only, Madame, are answerable for the dishonor which has befallen me".
This compelling story is a rich novella with the timeless power of a fable. It is based on a famous story of a court case in mid-16th century France. Janet Lewis depicts a distant time and a traditional rural culture based on a highly ordered patriarchal structure.
Swallow Press executive editor Kevin Haworth writes that Lewis’s story 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.” Originally published in 1941, a calculated lie at its center, The Wife of Martin Guerre is a brutal tour de force, defying reader expectations. It has earned the respect and admiration of critics and readers for over eighty years.
“When the literary history of the second millennium is written at the end of the third, in the category of dazzling American short fiction [Janet Lewis’s] Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century’s Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville.” —New York Times “One of the most significant short novels in English.” —Atlantic Monthly “Flaubertian in the elegance of its form and the gravity of its style.” —New Yorker “Janet Lewis brings the haunting qualities of fable to this novella, based on a legal case that attracted wide attention in 16th-century France and has continued to fascinate down through the years.” —Ron Hansen, Wall Street Journal “I found myself weeping. The calm detail, the observation of things that continue in nature despite our own...