Stanford's 'Another Look' book club to spotlight Janet Lewis' 'Wife of Martin Guerre'
Stanford's book club for short, overlooked masterpieces considers the 1941 novel "The Wife of Martin Guerre," once called "one of the most significant short novels in English." It's laden with historical links to a suspicious death on the Stanford campus in 1933.
In May 1933, a Stanford University Press sales manager was arrested for the murder of his wife at their campus home on Salvatierra Street.
Was it murder or accident? Placid Palo Alto was embroiled in a sensationalized scandal that endured for more than three years. After conviction, appeals and retrials, David Lamson was finally free.
One of the unlikelier outcomes of the notorious case was a series of highly acclaimed novels by Stanford poet Janet Lewis, focusing on historical trials that had been swayed by circumstantial evidence. The most famous was The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), which eventually became the subject of an opera, a play, several musicals and a film. Atlantic Monthly called it "one of the most significant short novels in English."
The book will be the focus of the second "Another Look" book club event at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Stanford Humanities Center's Levinthal Room. The event will be moderated by English Professor Kenneth Fields, who was a friend of the late Janet Lewis (1899-1998) and her husband, renowned poet-critic and Stanford professor Yvor Winters (1900-68).
Fields will be joined by acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff and award-winning Irish poet Eavan Boland, both professors of English. An audience discussion will follow. The community event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and available on a first-come basis.
Winters' role in the Lamson case was legendary: Outraged at what he saw as injustice, he actively campaigned for Lamson's acquittal and helped prepare the defense brief. With a colleague, Winters provided a cogent 103-page pamphlet for public consumption, explaining why Lamson could not have killed his wife in the manner required by the prosecutor's case. His exposition illustrated the dangers of circumstantial evidence.
A prescient colleague gave the Winterses a 19th-century book, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, including real-life accounts of the failure of justice. Lewis was struck by the 16th-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols.
Guerre abandoned his family and returned eight years later a changed man – or did he? Was he Martin Guerre at all? The case of imposture wracked southwestern France, just as Palo Alto had been roiled by the Lamson case.
According to the New York Times, "Miss Lewis pursued a literary life in which the focus was on the life and the life was one of such placid equilibrium and domestic bliss that she had to reach deep down in her psyche – and far back in the annals of criminal law – to find the wellspring of tension that produced some of the 20th century's most vividly imagined and finely wrought literature."
But for Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre was also born of her love for France. Lewis had been a French major at the University of Chicago. According to her friend, poet Helen Pinkerton, Lewis' passion for the country began in 1920. For her graduation, her father gave her a round-trip ticket to Europe and $400. Lewis got a job with the passport office on Rue de Tilsitt, behind the Arc de Triomphe, and stayed for nine memorable months.
Her friends describe her later life with Yvor and their two children as one of pleasant domesticity. The Winterses were devoted to their Airedale terriers, their cooking and their gardening in the Los Altos house they'd assumed in 1934 and never left.
Lewis nevertheless made time for her writing – and perhaps her domestic tranquility contributed to the celebrated psychological poise. The British poet Dick Davis wrote in London's Independent: "Her books possess a quality of deep repose, a kind of distilled wisdom in the face of human disaster and pain, which is difficult to describe and impossible to imitate, but which, once encountered, is unforgettable."
Lewis has never been short of admirers: W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan and others praised her work. Yet writer Evan Connell observed, "I cannot think of another writer whose stature so far exceeds her public recognition."
In the years since her death, her reputation has been fostered by a circle of friends, including Los Angeles poet and Stanford alumnus Timothy Steele, who praised her poems for their "clear-sightedness" and "intelligent warmth."
"They're full of joy and sorrow. It's very directly stated. No evasiveness. She doesn't hide behind ironic postures or anything like that," he said. "She is someone who has both a sense of the permanent patterns of existence and the transitory beauty of living things, of people and animals and plants."
Steele recalled, in particular, a party on a summer day at the home of Helen Pinkerton and her then-husband, English Professor Wesley Trimpi. "Among the guests was [political philosopher] Eric Voegelin. He was brilliant, wearing a three-piece suit and discoursing very eloquently about Plato," remembered Steele. "Janet appeared and said happily, 'Does anyone want to go for a swim?'
"It seemed such a contrast – a rewarding experience in both cases. She was so vital and connected with physical activity and the warm summer afternoon."
In any case, Lewis didn't wait for a reply, but headed for the cabana and changed into her swimsuit for a quick dip. She was well into her 80s.
The "Another Look" book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. The inaugural event hosted by Tobias Wolff last October spotlighted William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow; it will be available soon from Stanford on iTunes U. The third event, in May, will be Anita Loos' comic masterpiece, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, hosted by Hilton Obenzinger.
Cynthia Haven, English Department: (650) 736-3435, firstname.lastname@example.org