Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Wife of Martin Guerre

I've just read The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis - another gift of the blogosphere, for I doubt I would ever have heard of it if it wasn't for having come across admiring references to it on various American literary blogs.
Janet Lewis was the wife of the eminent critic Yvor Winters, and a considerable poet and novelist in her own right. The Wife of Martin Guerre is a novella published in 1941 that reimagines the intriguing case of a 16th-century Frenchman who disappeared for eight years, then reappeared and resumed his life (and his wife) - only this time, apparently, it was not the real Martin Guerre, but an impostor... It's the story told in the French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre and the American Civil War movie Sommersby, not to mention several musicals and stage shows. But nobody tells it like Janet Lewis. Her achievement, in a 90-page novella, is to create an entirely convincing medieval world - the world of a relatively wealthy Gascon peasant clan - and an entirely convincing medieval heroine in Martin Guerre's wife, Bertrande de Rols. Janet Lewis pulls off the great imaginative feat of making Bertrande at once wholly of her time, thoroughly alien in her medieval (essentially religious) way of thinking - into which no trace of modern sensibility obtrudes - and entirely sympathetic, so that by the time the story comes to its shattering conclusion we feel deeply for her, are fully involved in her impossible dilemma and her sad fate. This plain tale plainly told in spare, lucid prose - precisely the kind of short fiction that is so easily overlooked and undervalued - works a subtle, special magic on the reader. Or it did on me - I think The Wife of Martin Guerre will haunt me for a long long time.
 If it sounds like your kind of thing, hurry along to Amazon, where it is available for as little as 5p.

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