Category Archives: Mauriac François

Vipers’ Tangle: François Mauriac

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.

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The Frontenac Mystery: François Mauriac (1933)

“Every human being has his peculiar form of suffering, the laws of which take shape in earliest youth.”

The Frontenac Mystery from François Mauriac is the second title I’ve read from this author, and now I’m committed to reading more. Another edition of this book is titled The Frontenacs which after reading the book, IMO is more appropriate. This is the story of the family bonds, the ‘mystery’ of the title,’  between the members of a gentry family who live in the Bordeaux area during the decades leading up to WWI. 

frontenac mystery

The novel opens 8 years after the death of Michel Frontenac who left behind his wife, Blanche and 5 young children: Jean-Louis, José, Danièle, Marie and Yves. Since the death of Michel, his brother, lawyer Xavier has become more involved in the lives of his sister-in- law and her children. He “renounced all his holdings” in the family estate in Bordeaux  and subsequently Blanche moved there with her children. Xavier, a bachelor visits every other week, and while he’s devoted to her children and to the memory of his dead brother, there’s an insurmountable barrier between Xavier and Blanche. She finds his lectures “extolling the splendours of sacrifice” “exasperating.” She’s very religious and is all too aware what her life will be moving forward. And, perhaps the most annoying thing of all is that “it was only in terms of the young Frontenacs that she existed for him at all.” This is one of the book’s major themes: the bonds between family, but also how individuals, some just connected to the family in various ways, sacrifice to the Pyre of the Frontenac name and property. While some of the sacrifices are meaningful, others are meaningless and are lost in the passage of time. 

This is not a tightly woven novel, and there exists a sort of gentle, ephemeral quality to the tale–languid days of childhood spent on the wonderful family estate as the Frontenacs grow up amidst the worries of a lonely, aging mother. The children are also under the watchful eye of their Uncle Xavier who keeps his mistress, Josefa stashed in another town. He keeps her hidden and imagines that his secret is unknown to anyone while in reality he’s a laughing stock for being so cheap with the poor woman who is part cook/cleaner/nurse/mistress and is devoted, even from a distance, to the Idea of the Frontenacs. But there are hints of something darker ahead–the slaughter of WWI awaits for one of the more adventurous Frontenac sons who longs for adventure, and then Blanche has constant anxiety about her children and a nagging worry about cancer. 

But all of them felt obscurely that, as the result of some singular favour shown by the gods, Time had stood still. Power had been given them to leave the train which nothing halts. In the very process of growing up, they could stand in the shallows of childhood, could dawdle while childhood slipped away forever.

The story concentrates on the 3 Frontenac boys–Jean-Louis, José, and Yves; the two girls “brood mares” are barely mentioned. Yves is a sickly child who manages, in early adulthood, to escape the yoke of Frontenac responsibility by hightailing it to Paris where he pursues a literary career, and a lot of his determination is seeded by Jean-Louis’ early entrapment in the family business. Jean-Louis, abandons his dream of an education in Philosophy and assumes the Frontenac harness, joining the family business and marrying a childhood sweetheart–a marriage which will ensure he’s cemented in place. It’s not an exciting life–it’s been chosen for him, but he shoulders the family burdens, consciously  turning away from an alternate future, while living variously through Yves. Mauriac explores maturation through the characters’ choices and how childhood may be linked forever to a physical place, such as the Frontenac estate, but childhood is also locked in time and can never be revisited.  The novel has a significant ending–the arrival of a motor car and the slaughter of WWI. If you like novels with a philosophical angle, then this may be for you.

Translated by Gerard Hopkins

Thanks  to Emma turning me onto Mauriac in the first place.

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Thérèse Desqueroux by François Mauriac

Théresè Desqueroux by François Mauriac is one of two picks made by Emma for the virtual gift exchange. The book had been a topic of conversation before the exchange as there’s a new film version with Audrey Tatou in the role. I’m not sure if I’ll see it as I don’t think anything can be better than the 1962 version. But back to the book….

ThereseThérèse Desqueroux begins with the dismissal of a court case against a young married woman, and on the first page she exits the court house. A chilling reception awaits from Thérèse’s father, and a discussion between Monsieur Larroque and the barrister Duros reveal snippets of an extraordinary conversation; it becomes evident that a local doctor charged Thérèse with attempting to poison her husband, Bernard. Since this is a serious accusation, you might expect a celebratory period following the dismissal, but instead Duros and Larroque discuss the best line of attack; Duros favours aggressive newspaper coverage denying “A Scandalous Rumour,” while Larroque explains that “for the family’s sake we’ve got to hush the whole business up.”  And what of the young woman who’s the object of this horrible accusation? Her emotions don’t fit the moment; she’s cool and detached, and yet here in a conversation between Thérèse’s father and barrister, she reveals an underlying aggression:

“After my son-in-law’s evidence it was a foregone conclusion.”

“Hardly that-one can never be quite certain.”

“Once they’d got him to admit that he never counted his drops….

But in cases of this kind, you know, Larroque, the evidence of the victim…”

Thérèse spoke in a loud voice:

“There was no victim.”

End of conversation.

There’s a little bit of a squabble about what will happen next. Thérèse says she will spend a short time with her husband before returning to her father, but he’ll have none of that and tells her that she’s with her husband “till death do you part.” A grim statement in light of the recently dismissed court case.

On the journey back to Bernard’s and their home in Argelouse, Thérèse goes back into her past–through her childhood, adolescence and her marriage to Bernard, the brother of her best friend, Anne. The marriage is viewed as a “foregone conclusion” and yet Bernard’s mother, remarried and now called Madame Victor de la Trave isn’t 100% sold on the match. Thérèse is rich and attractive, but there’s a scandal involving her grandmother that’s been successfully swept under the rug, and Bernard’s mother is concerned that Thérèse might inherit her grandmother’s genes.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the honeymoon is an unmitigated disaster–undeniably so because Bernard is oblivious to his wife’s distress:

He remained imprisoned in his own pleasure like one of those charming little pigs whom it is so amusing to watch through the railings rooting around delightedly in their stye. (“And I was the stye,” thought Thérèse.) He always looked so much in a hurry, so busy, so serious. He was a man of method. “Do you think it’s altogether wise?”  Thérèse would sometimes ask, appalled by the extent of his virility. Laughingly he reassured her. Where had he learned to draw such fine shades of discrimination in all matters pertaining to the flesh, to distinguish between what a decent man may or may not permit himself in the matter of sadistic self-indulgence? He was never for a moment in doubt. Once, when they stopped for a night in Paris on their way back, he pointedly left a music-hall where the performance had shocked him. ‘To think the foreigners should see that! It’s a disgrace. that’s the sort of thing they judge us by!…” It amazed Thérèse to think that this Puritan should be one and the same as the man whose sensual ingenuities would be forced upon her in less than an hour.

Thérèse’s memories bring images of her unhappy marriage and the endless days which are coated with a suffocating boredom. Naturally the status quo cannot remain forever, and rather strangely Thérèse discovers the inkling of mental liberation through a platonic relationship with a young man who returns to the neighbourhood.

I saw undertones of lesbianism in the 1962 film version, but I didn’t pick that up in the book. I had a great deal more sympathy for Thérèse as depicted on the big screen, but there’s something repellent about the book’s Thérèse. I think I’m supposed to have sympathy for the fictional Thérèse’s dilemma–marrying a bombastic country bore before she really understands what she wants out of life. And, yes, while I do have sympathy, there are limits. There’s something rather cold and unpleasant about Thérèse. Here she is on the receiving end of one of Bernard’s lectures:

Thérèse was no longer frightened: she wanted to laugh. He was just comic– a figure of fun. It did not matter what he said in that awful accent of his which everywhere but in Saint-Claire made him a laughing stock–she was going away. Why all this fuss? It would not have made the slightest difference to anyone if this fool had disappeared from the face of the earth! The paper trembled in his hand, and she noticed his badly-kept finger-nails. He was wearing no cuffs. He was just a county oaf who looked merely comic anywhere but in his accustomed rut, the kind of man who, from any intellectual, or even personal, point of view, is completely null and void. Only habit makes us attach importance to the life of the individual. Robespierre had been right–and Napoleon and Lenin.

Don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to follow the examples of those three when considering the value of a human life.

Ultimately, are we supposed to have complete sympathy for Thérèse? Clearly her marriage to Bernard is a huge argument for ‘no-fault’ divorce, and while I have sympathy for anyone who married boring old Bernard, he never changed. He was totally himself, a creature of predictable, yawn-inducing habits from the start. Even though the marriage just fell into place, Thérèse wasn’t forced to marry him. After all, she was a wealthy young woman. For this reader, Thérèse has a few vital components missing–not everything can be explained away by the tedium of her daily existence, the suffocation of life with a boring spouse.

Translated by Gerard Hopkins

Anyway, thanks Emma. This was a great pick for me.

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