Facts of a Face: on Janet Lewis’s “The Wife of Martin Guerre”

A stylization of Martin Guerre, French peasant, depicted in Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre.

The more one looks back, the more time crowds, with history itself entrapped. Ages slant, personal becomes personnel, while facts flourish. A writer writing about the distant historical past may find such a subject liberating as, already packaged, the facts never blur the way they do in moving time. Yet, art is never about the facts. What the historical fiction writer wishes were true plays as much a role as the truth itself. And, to make great art, the facts must always be a canvas, upon which faces ambiguate.

While reading The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis I was struck by how comfortable she was with facts. In this novella, Lewis crafts, with alluring prose, the case of Martin Guerre: a well-known historical episode in 16th-century France where a peasant woman was fooled by an impostor playing her husband for three years, after the real one’s disappearance years back. In about a hundred pages Lewis creates a simulacra of French peasant life, reinventing their customs and livelihood amidst lush nature. The extent of her research shows on every page. She follows Bertrande, the aforementioned wife, first as a young girl marrying Martin in one of those underage peasant marriages, then her married life, the years of loneliness after the disappearance, the deluge of doubts after the impostor’s reunion, and the case that unfolds when she finally brings her doubts before the French courts. Neatly packaged, The Wife of Martin Guerre terminates where sufficient: the real Martin Guerre returns at the last moment and is revealed to be a cur; the imposter is executed, even though he may have been a better husband to Bertrande; and the omniscient narrator of the story adds a bit of historical ambiguity to the ending with the following paragraph: “Of Martin Guerre, nothing more is recorded, whether he returned to the wars or remained in Artigues, nor is there further record of Bertrande de Rols, his wife. But when hate and love have together exhausted the soul, the body seldom endures for long.” Life returns to facts, plunged in their mystery.

The Wife of Martin Guerre is thus a solid, yet banal, novella. It is about as conventionally literary as one gets, down to the lightly palatable prose style which attempts nothing more strenuous than to be sufficiently psychological and descriptive, the open ending to make one ponder, and the faux-formal historical dialogue where every peasant sounds more like Prince than Pauper. It is the textual equivalent of a documentary where, while technically sound, beautiful even, delivers nothing startlingly new about the subject, no slant of perspective to shift the narrative beyond plain history. Although, Janet Lewis does benefit from being able to sketch more internality than a camera permits. Upon finishing the novella I found it all a real shame, because the story of Martin Guerre does indeed have all the trappings and material for a great existential tale, a story about identity in a time when identities were looser and more fluid, as faces passed without photography. This is probably the reason why so many adaptations of the story have erupted long after the events: from film, to radio dramas, to operas, to musicals. One also feels Janet Lewis does have the talent and technical skill to make The Wife of Martin Guerre more than just the facts, as there are moments when the prose really shines. Only, she chose the laziest linear path to her destination, with none of those powerful leaps that characterize great and daring literature.

So what could Lewis have done? Let’s begin a more detailed critique by focusing on narrative structure. The novella’s linear tracking of Bertrande’s life is not, in itself, a bad approach, yet it also leaves a considerable length of time before one gets to the crux of the narrative. The impostor Martin Guerre only appears about a third of the way through the novella. Before that, the marriage itself and various scenes of married peasant life are shown. A greater writer would have found a way to make these scenes resonate with thematic plangency and symbolic foreshadowing, while Lewis is more content to spend paragraphs detailing beautiful French peasant fluff:

Afterwards, still to the music of the violins, which sounded thin and sharp in the cold air, she had returned to the house of her husband where a huge fire of oak logs garnished with vine-trimmings roared in the big fireplace, and where the kitchen, the principal room of the house, was set with improvised tables, long boards laid over trestles. The stone floor had been freshly strewn with broken boughs of evergreen. The sides and bottoms of the copper pans flashed redly with the reflection of the flames, and the air was rich with the good smell of roasting meat and of freshly poured wine. Underfoot the snow from the sabots melted and sank beneath the trodden evergreens. A smell of humanity and of steaming wool mingled with the odors of the food, and the room was incredibly noisy with conversation.

Lovely, but really quite irrelevant in the ultimate crux of the narrative. It’s unfortunate that I have to use an unpublished work as a point of comparison, but I was reminded of Jessica Schneider’s great novella That Which Dissolves, about the life and death of Joan of Arc. In this book, Jessica avoids the banal realist approach to description and recount, choosing a sparse yet poetic style where only the essentials are delivered, allowing symbols and themes to build with more forceful naturality. She also avoids structural linearity itself: her novella begins in media res with Joan’s capture and torture, before going back to the start of her life. And she never sticks to a third-person omniscient style either, sometimes switching voices when relevant. Chapters can begin unconventionally, with philosophical posits that tie back into narrative events. Compared to The Wife of Martin Guerre, That Which Dissolves leaps around the subject matter more freely, more consciously, and achieves far more page-by-page. And sure, one feels that Janet Lewis probably knew her historical subject much better than Jessica Schneider knew hers, but aren’t facts functionless when not placed into an arrangement that lives, and is not the function of the writer to imagine, forcefully, the holes between those facts? Far more content to deliver than design, Lewis’s novella, as a result, feels bloated. And in the narrower form of the novella itself, waste is a cardinal sin.

One wonders too, if it was necessary to follow the facts of the case as Lewis does, ending with the reveal that Bertrande’s husband was in fact an impostor all along. The most salient theme of the narrative is not the thrilling resolution of the case, but the Kafkaesque reality that Bertrande finds herself in: joined to a man with a familiar but stranger face, gaslit by his kindness, beset by doubts that those around her are keen to deny. One could imagine the story ending without any reveal of the fake Martin Guerre, a true open ending with more resonance than the vaguely soap-operatic ‘he might have been the better man for me‘ conclusion that the novella eventually reaches. And the prose could have reflected that as well.

To give Lewis credit, she does have pretty pleasant prose, and she does do a pretty good job of depicting the fluctuating emotions of Bertrande, from her loneliness when the real Martin leaves to the growing unease she feels with the impostor. An example from the period when Bertrande is bereft of Martin:

She did not expect him to appear magically. She made her own estimate of the time that it might take the news, traveling uncertainly about the countryside, to reach him, and how long it would take him to make the journey home. And hope flourished and wore greener branches than in many a long day. But as the year which she had allowed passed on and drew to a close, her hope again declined, and there were times when despair took its place entirely. She no longer had the fine sense of immortality which she had felt before the death of Martin’s parents. Death had now become an actuality rather than a possibility. Death was something that not only could happen but that did happen.

That inner estimation of distances beyond one’s peasant bounds, in a time without calculation but only estimation, does ring strongly. And hope ‘wearing greener branches’ is an interesting turn of phrase on a conventional idea. The rest is a rather passable, conventional realization of the possibility of mortality.

Sometimes, Lewis’s description also functions well to play off and symbolize interior states, as with this paragraph after Bertrande is rebuffed by a priest for doubting her husband’s identity:

The path, turning to follow the contours of the mountainside, brought her after a time to the crest of a slope above her farm. There it lay, house, grange and stable, set about with its own orchards, its chimney smoking gently, infinitely more familiar, more her own after all these years than the house in which she had been born; yet as she looked down toward it from the hillside she thought that it was no longer hers. An enemy had taken possession of it and had treacherously drawn to his party all those who most owed her loyalty and trust. Her eyes filled with tears, and when she drew her hands away from her face, a commotion had arisen in the courtyard below. People were running about with torches, gathering into a group from which excited cries, staccato and sonorous, rose toward the hillside, and presently three figures on horseback detached themselves from the group and rode away, the hoofs ringing on the stones. She remembered then that Martin had promised to make one of a cordon for a bear hunt from the parish of Sode, and knew that these must be his neighbors come for him.

Lewis avoids melodrama in this instance by shifting from Bertrande crying at the alienation she feels to the sudden rush of horses, petering out into a reminder of reality. But sometimes, her prose really takes off in moments such as this:

It was the time of year when the grapes were being harvested, and the odor of ripe muscats was in the air. When the wine was made and the leaves on the vine stocks had turned scarlet, Bertrande rode out among valleys that dipped in fire toward Luchon between the irregular advances of the woods, saw the conical haystacks burning with dull gold beside the stone walls of farm buildings, felt, as she rode in the sunshine, the cold invigorating sweep of wind from the higher mountains, lifted her eyes and saw how the white clouds piled high above the rich green of the pine woods and how the sky was intensely blue beyond, blue as a dream of the Mediterranean or of the Gulf of Gascony. And returning, toward evening to her own house, as the blue haze of evening began to intercept and transmute the shapes of things, she smelled the wood smoke from her own hearth fire and thought it as sweet as the incense which was burned in the church at Artigues. Or she saw at the far end of a field, a man wearing a scarlet jerkin working in a group of men uniformly clothed in brown, a small dot of scarlet moving about on long brown legs against the golden surface of the earth, and these things, intensely perceived as never before since she could remember, filled her with a piercing joy. The cold metallic gleam of halberds moving forward under a steely sky against the background of the russet woods, as a band of soldiers passed her by; the very feel and pattern of the frost upon the threshold early in the morning as the season advanced; the motion and songs of birds, until their numbers diminished; and then the iron sound of the church bell ringing in somber majesty across the cold valleys—all these she noticed and enjoyed as never before. And even, when winter had closed around them, one night from a far-off hillside, the crying of wolves had filled her with a pleasure enhanced with dread, for the doors were safely closed and all the animals safe within walls, and a good fire roared in the great fireplace, spreading shifting constellations of gold against the black throat of the chimney, so that the dread was a luxury, and her enjoyment of the strange distant voices all the greater. And all this vividness of feeling, this new awareness of the life around her, was because of her love for this new Martin Guerre, and because of the delight and health of her life-giving body. Yet even this love was intensified, like her pleasure in the cry of the wolves, by the persistent illusion, or suspicion, that this man was not Martin.

This paragraph might be a little over-modified, but the psychological and the descriptive are better balanced and play off one another well here. There’s the description of how “the blue haze of evening began to intercept and transmute the shapes of things” which reflects Bertrande’s malleable reality, as well as the interplay of lush nature and hints of danger which do well to characterize her situation.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, as these paragraphs are scarce amidst other paragraphs which function more as descriptive filler. And there are those where Janet Lewis indulges plainly in melodrama as well:

Then began for the woman a long game of waiting and scrutinizing. Some day, she told herself, he will be off his guard, some day, if I do not warn him too often, I shall catch him in his deception, and free myself of him. “Ah, Martin, Martin,” she cried in her loneliness, “where are you and why do you not return?” And as she observed the man whom she now called the impostor, considered the tranquillity of his demeanor and the ease with which he accomplished all his designs, confidently winning all people to him, the terrifying thought occurred to her that his great sense of security might lie in some certain knowledge, unshared by herself or by anyone else at Artigues. Perhaps the real Martin was indeed dead. Perhaps this man had seen his body on some distant battlefield, besmeared with blood and mutilated, the face turned downward to the bloody grass.

Now, given all these prose examples, I think Janet Lewis could have taken one of two stylistic approaches here. She could have either continued what she was doing, but better, cohering more of the lush natural imagery with psychology to play off the smaller human emotions with sweeping landscapes. Or she could have went more Kafkaesque and abstracted the historical setting down to essentials, creating an alienating and unnerving style. A cinematographic comparison would be between the films of Tarkovsky or Antonioni. But with both approaches she needed to be way leaner than even novella length, possibly condensing or excising altogether the marriage at the start and the unfolding of the case at the end, then channeling all of her skill into the middle, where Bertrande’s reality is in full flux and her psychology is ripest for exploration. Fewer facts, less historical descriptive fluff, more artistry, in other words.

Moving on to characterization, as much of The Wife of Martin Guerre is sieved through Bertrande’s perspective, she’s definitely fleshed out more thoroughly than the other characters. Despite that, there’s a feeling of passivity and wanness in how she’s depicted. She is more or less an average peasant woman. Once again, not a bad thing in itself, as a great artist can depict average lives powerfully, mainly through emphasis on minute or unorthodox character traits (as seen in Evan Connell’s Mr. Bridge & Mrs. Bridge duology) or through juxtaposition against vaster themes and events. With the case of Martin Guerre being the main inspiration, Lewis has that one big event to play with. Yet, as I’ve already established, her structure and prose doesn’t quite capitalize on the most salient point of the narrative. How does Lewis fare on the minute character traits, then? Rather miserably. Most of Bertrande’s characterization depends on Martin Guerre. She is little defined outside of it other than with conventional peasant woman traits: being a housewife and being religious. Some of the lush descriptions can play off her interiors, providing a view of life submerged in nature, experiencing the splendour of the earth, yet these feel insufficient. A good comparison I can think of is the character Mary Turner from Doris Lessing’s largely excellent (but flawed) novel The Grass Is Singing. Lessing’s novel focuses on the life and marriage of a woman living on a farm in Rhodesia. Mary is given far more breadth of characterization even from the earliest chapters, which carries on and develops throughout the novel, at least until the tepid last third where Lessing drops the ball. Either way, Mary has much more dimensions than Bertrande from the very start. Of course, one could argue that Bertrande, being a peasant in 16th century France, cannot really be treated with the same depth. That might be the case if one were writing a Wikipedia article on her, but artistry allows the freedom to shade faces in, give them a clarity unmatched, even by the facts.

And if Bertrande is given insufficient attention, it is even more so for the other characters. Martin Guerre, whose name takes up about half of the title, is given some attention at the start, as the reasons for his disappearance are intertwined with the patriarchal family relations of the period, which Lewis sketches with nice detail. We get some sense of his foolhardy nature before he vanishes. When the fake Martin Guerre, later revealed to be called Arnaud du Tilh, appears, he is necessarily treated more as a mystery Bertrande has to wrestle with, which is the point of the story, but also means he is more of a cipher than a full-fledged human. The rest of the characters, family, villagers, members of the church, members of the court, function as the general throng there to contend against Bertrande’s interminable doubts. All this means that the novella pretty much depends on Bertrande’s weak perspective. And, as any great narrative needs to be propelled by characterization, the stuff that sticks to the human, long after the milieu has fallen away, Lewis’s novel feels more on the side of the falling.

So, with its flawed prose, characterization, and structure, would I say The Wife of Martin Guerre is worth reading? Actually, I would, mainly because it’s short and its defects are quite educational. It is a good book to ponder: if given a subject with as much narrative potential as the case of Martin Guerre, how would I myself execute it? How should one lay out these facts to make them sing? As with Bertrande sliding through the contours of Martin’s face, to the man underneath, we only have those darker features as guide.

And if ever one of those dark intriguing faces deserved better flight, it would be Martin’s.

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