I first heard about The Wife of Martin Guerre when I was looking for novellas by women, and ran across a comment that Vikram Seth (one of my favorite novelists and the author of A Suitable Boy) re-reads The Wife of Martin Guerre every year. In a recent article in the Washington Post, book reviewer Michael Dirda praised it as one of the most perfect examples of the novella form.
The story concerns a young woman, Bertrande, living in the French countryside in the 1500’s, who marries a difficult husband, Martin. After she has a child, he disappears suddenly, and reappears eight years later, a kinder man. Yet Bertrande begins to suspect that this returned man is not actually her husband. She is a deeply religious person, and is tormented by the idea that she is living with a man who is not truly her husband. Will she accuse him of being an imposter, despite the fact that everyone in the family adores him and assures her that this is really Martin? The story starts calmly, but gradually becomes more and more gripping, building to an astonishing ending.
The writing style is spare but precise, imagistic, and emotionally evocative. Here is a section towards the beginning of the book, during the wedding celebration of Bertrande and Martin, both eleven years old. After the wedding feast, Bertrande is wandering around the dining area:
In the middle of the wall to the right, however, she spied a door, and toward that she gradually made her way. It proved to be the entrance to a long cold corridor, from which the doors opened into storerooms, rooms for the shepherds, and lighted only by a small window of which the wooden shutters were closed. Another person had taken refuge from the festivities in this corridor, and was intent upon undoing the bolts of the shutters. The half of the shutter folded back, a flood of sharp snowy sunlight fell into the corridor, and in its brightness she recognized Martin. She made a step forward, uncertainly, and Martin, hearing it, turned and advanced upon her, his hands outstretched and a fearsome expression on his long, young face. (p. 12)
First published in 1941, The Wife of Martin Guerre has inspired two movies and a nonfiction history book. Yet now it can be difficult to find. Seek it out—it is a gem. This slim volume (109 pages), based on an actual legal trial, is quietly and beautifully compelling.