Some writers turn their work into a long meditation on the past, the vagaries of history and the nature of man. A few of them are formal historians, like Gibbon, who characterized all of history as “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” Others are poets or playwrights, like Homer or Shakespeare, and some are novelists, like Solzhenitsyn. Janet Lewis identifies this quality in the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar:
“She is as much a historian as a novelist. Elsewhere (in Les Yeux Ouverts) she speaks of the great dream of history, that is to say, the world of all the living people of the past, so that when one loves life one loves the past. She even uses the word vivants, which includes more than people -- animals, plants, the moving air.”
I happened on “The Historical Imagination,” ostensibly a review by Lewis of Yourcenar’s essay collection The Dark Brain of Piranesi, published in the Summer 1995 issue of The Threepenny Review. Lewis, born in 1899, would die at the age of ninety-nine three years after the review was published. She was a poet and author of three novels based on Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence with an Introduction of the Theory of Presumptive Guilt by S. M. Phillips (1873): The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), The Trial of Soren Qvist (1947) and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959). Lewis published two other novels not part of the Circumstantial Evidence series – The Invasion: A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St. Mary’s (1932) and Against a Darkening Sky (1943) -- and a collection of stories, Good-bye, Son, and Other Stories (1946).
All of Lewis’ work is essential but The Wife of Martin Guerre is one of the last century’s great novels, and ranks, in fact, with Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1954). Lewis devotes much of her review to the first essay in Yourcenar’s collection, “Faces of History in the Historia Augusta”:
“. . . she treats of the six historians of the last three hundred and fifty years of the Roman
Empire, and shows them in their incompetence, their mediocrity; remote in time often from their subjects -- the twenty-eight emperors -- and yet revealing in that they give unconsciously, unintentionally, each his contemporary view of his historical subject. The effect is like a scene superimposed upon a scene, because out of her own research she can give us the more true background. Hadrian appears here, as seen by the gossip of the times, a portrait corrected and extended by her own knowledge. The passages spent on Hadrian are few, but the whole essay gives us the milieu of research and of the living scene -- the past -- from which the Memoirs of Hadrian emerged. And the images which appear as if by magic in this prose, the anecdotes that are in themselves whole stories.”
If you have access to JSTOR, read Lewis' review here. For those who do not, I’ll reproduce another passage at length. Lewis might be writing of her own approach to writing much of her fiction:
“In this essay the sense of research is great: something of a private investigator, something of an archeologist, invigorating with a sense of perpetual discovery. But beyond this there is always the widening scene, the real scene as she comes to know it from these and other sources, and there is always the sense of all time. The decadence of Rome, unobserved, inconceivable by those who lived in their little segments of it, is it not comparable to our own recent history?”
Yourcenar closes “Faces of History” with a plain and simple sentence: “The modern reader is at home in the Historia Augusta.” Lewis picks up the theme and concludes her review:
“She speaks also of the curious fate of martyrs. `Nothing is more quickly outmoded than a martyr.’ As the causes for which they died are resolved, the plausibility for their suffering disappears. Why, say my contemporaries, did Thomas More let himself perish over so small a difference with the King? How fortunate that Galileo recanted, since all the world can see that he was right! I remember, or rather, I cannot remember all the names of the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement; there are too many. And yet I remember well, almost with a sense of envy, a white woman [Viola Liuzzo?] from the North who was shot and killed as she rode in a demonstration somewhere in the South -- envy of a life well-given for a great and urgent cause. `Each martyr drives out his predecessor; the deviations for which they were sacrificed are not reconciled, but discarded.’ The final page of this essay [“Agrippa d’Aubigné and Les Tragiques”] becomes a passionate declaration of the importance of paying due attention to such tragic -- and noble -- events. And yet this is an essay on the literary quality of a great poem. Well, perhaps there is no difference.”
The title of the final poetry collection published during Lewis’ lifetime, put out by R.L. Barth, was The Dear Past and Other Poems 1919-1994 (1994).