François Mauriac’s superb book Vipers’ Tangle is the exploration of the inner life of a lawyer, Monsieur Louis, a bitter shriveled, miserable man who taints the lives of all those in his orbit. The novel is essentially a journal kept by Louis to be read after he dies. While he lives with his family, he is estranged from them all, and the journal, which he imagines will be read with shock upon his death, is an explanation of why he loathes them all. The journal will be a “single act of vengeance.” According to him he’s been goaded into this hate by the treatment he has endured from Isa, his wife, his children and his grandchildren.
All though my life I have made sacrifices, and the memory of them has poisoned my mind, nourishing and fattening the kind of rancorous resentment that grows worse with the passage of the years.
The journal begins when Louis is 68 year old. He has been married for over 40 years, “suffered side by side” with his wife is how he describes it. Louis is the narrator so that means he is in control of the narrative and gives us his poisonous versions of events. The journal is a litany of vicious spite against everyone in his family. According to Louis he has been wronged by everyone, and that started with his wife who made a confession of sorts about a innocent youthful passion. They married when he was 23 and she was 18. Perhaps she just wanted to clean the slate, or felt the need to confess, but Louis hid his true feelings regarding her confession and then began to hate and despise his wife. It could be said that bitterness entered his heart at that point, but no, he was an emotionally shriveled human being before that point. In despising himself, he must also despise his wife and children, and hence he plots a way to ensure his family will not get their expected inheritance.
Things obviously are bad with Louis and Isa but then when he sees her giving the children religious training, he tries to win them away from her. That’s when he decides she hates him (and not the other way around).He has many grievances, including that Isa turned the children against him, that she paid them more attention, and that she is religious.
Your first pregnancy, moreover, made any explanation idle, and little by little changed the relations between us. It was before the great gathering. We went back to town and you had a miscarriage and had to lie quiet for several weeks. In the spring, you became pregnant again. We had to take great care of you. So began those years of pregnancies, accidents and births that provided me with more pretext than I needed to draw away from you. I plunged into a life of secret debauchery. Very secret, for I was beginning to appear in court a good deal. I was at my business as Mamma said, and it was a question for me of being careful of my reputation. I had my hours and my habits. Life in a provincial town develops in the debauchee the wily instinct of hunted game. But don’t be afraid Isa. I shall spare you held in horror. You need not picture any of that hell into which I descended almost every day. You threw me back into it, you who had pulled me out of it. Even if I had been less prudent, you would have seen nothing but passion in it . From the moment of Hubert’s birth you revealed your true nature. You were a mother. Nothing but a mother. Your attention was turned away from me. You no longer saw me. It was absolutely true that you had no eyes except for the children.
Boo hoo. Had to love his statement that her pregnancies “provided me with more pretext than I needed to draw away from you.” So the ‘drawing away’ clearly was selective. He moans about missing ‘the joy of life’ (as if he had any clue what this is) and the way his family considers him “a machine for handing out 1000 franc notes.” True his family come to him for handouts, but then that relationship is all that remains. There is no affection, concern, love–no interaction except money. But hasn’t he crafted his life this way?
I imagine that psychologists would put a number of labels onto Louis’s behaviour. The novel is brilliantly written. It’s an unrelenting look at a miserable git who has to ensure that everyone else around him is as miserable as he is.
To me this is the story of a wasted life. Louis had a good life but he poisoned all of his relationships, and yes there’s a moral lesson there. There is a religious component/lesson to the novel. There’s the underlying idea that you can be a total prick your entire life but still find “divine grace” on your death bed. I am not a religious person, but this seems like cheating to me. Decades ago, when I used to take my pocket money and haunt used books shops, I came across an entire volume arguing against death bed repentance. It was written by a C of E vicar. Made sense, but then all that stuff is mostly Greek to me.
5 responses to “Vipers’ Tangle: François Mauriac”
I have read quite a lot of Francois Mauriac including ‘Vipers’ Tangle’. Mauriac’s works were great moral dramas between Good and Evil up until his religious conversion in 1933. After that, his work isn’t so intense. ‘Vipers’ Tangle’ is one of his great early books. Fortunately there are quite a few of these early novels.
I read The Frontenac Mystery and Théresè Desqueroux. Liked them both. So it’s a 3 book win so far.
*chuckle* In one of my morbid moods, I reckon I’d quite enjoy this…
I can see that it is sort of funny. He thinks he has it all worked out–how hard done by he is. But he’s clueless.
Isn’t he just a brilliant writer? I like this one and Thérèse Desqueyroux very much. Dark but such great psychology.