Friday, 26 October 2018

Book Review: Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac

Exclusion happens every day and even in the family as the most intimate social group. Often it results from misunderstandings that nobody cared to clear up out of pride, shame or simply lack of concern and that were thus allowed to grow without measure. As time passes, the excluded may try to compensate the estrangement from the group or/and develop bitter feelings towards the others. It’s how the protagonist of Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac, who was awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature, became a rancorous miser expecting the worst from his surrounding. Feeling death approach, he decides to put into writing all the exasperation at his family’s indifference and selfishness that he bottled up for decades. He sets out to write a pungent letter to his wife, but as he advances he gradually understands that he added his own to getting estranged from his family and everybody else.

François Mauriac was born in Bordeaux, France, in October 1881. After literature studies at university, he brought out the poetry collection Les mains jointes (Clasped Hands) in 1909. His first novels Young Man in Chains (L'Enfant chargé de chaînes) and The Robe of Youth (La Robe prétexte) appeared in 1913 and 1914. During World War I he served as medical aid in the French army until he was discharged for health reasons and resumed writing novels, poetry, plays, memoirs and biographies along with journalistic work. After the novels Flesh and Blood (La Chair et le Sang: 1920) and Questions of Precedence (Préséances: 1921), A Kiss for the Leper (Le Baiser au lépreux: 1922) earned him fame. His best remembered novels are The Desert of Love (Le Désert de l'amour: 1925), Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927), Vipers’ Tangle (Le nœud de vipères: 1932; also translated as The Knot of Vipers), The Frontenacs (Le Mystère Frontenac: 1933; also translated as The Frontenac Mystery), Mask of Innocence (Les Anges noirs: 1936; also translated as The Dark Angels), and The Woman of the Pharisees (La Pharisienne: 1941). In 1952, the author received the Nobel Prize in Literature. François Mauriac died in Paris, France, in September 1970.

It’s the early 1930s on a vineyard in the area of Bordeaux in Southern France that Louis inherited from his mother. After having passed most of his sixty-eighth birthday in his room undisturbed by the Vipers’ Tangle of his family, he begins to write a bitter letter to his wife to be read after his death. The successful lawyer is a sick man whom angina pectoris forced into retirement early and who expects to draw his final breath rather sooner than later. In his letter he shows himself convinced that everybody around, including his wife, will be happy to see him gone and his earthly belongings, notably the money amassed over decades, finally free to be distributed and used. Moreover, he reveals that except for the short period of his engagement and early marriage, he felt unloved by his surroundings all his life, even worse, he considered himself unlovable for lack of natural charms. According to him, it was his desperate craving for being seen and respected if not loved that made him focus his energy on work and money instead of the family. He acknowledges, however, that his efforts were in vain because his wife continued to ignore him and his achievements concentrating completely on her children and grandchildren and estranging them from him even further. Being treated like an unfeeling miser hurts him so much that he can’t bear the idea of leaving to wife and children the riches that he refuses them now and he is determined to give everything away to his illegitimate son in Paris whom he doesn’t even know. Despite his poor health, he travels to Paris and finds his son and son-in-law trying everything to thwart his plan. Then the unthinkable happens: a telegram informs Louis of the sudden death of his wife…

The epistolary novel Vipers’ Tangle shows a man who in the face of death unburdens his heart putting the blame for his life-long rancour and unhappiness on his unloving and hypocritical family. The author, however, makes the protagonist undergo transformation as he expresses and explains himself over months, especially after his wife’s death. Analysing the past and seeing it from a new angle, gradually enables him to let go of the bitterness behind his greed for money, if not to find peace of mind and some kind of natural spirituality that juxtaposes the only nominal Catholicism of his proud bourgeois family. He is a remarkably realistic protagonist who is true to himself and to his own (high) values, but his utterly negative world view makes him an unreliable first-person narrator with regard to people surrounding him. Consequently, the latter appear rather one-dimensional beings by comparison and lack vigour as well as authenticity although the final two letter written by son and granddaughter after his death show that his judgement hasn’t been entirely unfounded after all. Together with the protagonist’s attitude towards his family the tone of the novel changes from rude to soft. The language is unpretentious, and yet, poetic.

By and large, Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac has been a marvellously deep and thought-provoking read about how we all tend to misunderstand and judge others, including the people closest to us, with the result that either we or they feel excluded and turn bitter if we don’t take care. In this light it seems wrong to call it an enjoyable novel, but reading the letters of a man who realises that he could have seen things differently and who manages to shake off much of his emotional burden was engaging to be sure. As a time piece the book allows a very private look into the world of the French bourgeoisie, notably its Catholic circles, from the fin-de-siècle through the early years of the Great Depression that didn’t spare France. All things considered, it’s a novel that deserves being read more widely for which reason I gladly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your review of this novel. I have it on my Nobel winners list and am happy to know it deserves reading.


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