François Mauriac’s name has seemingly all but evaporated from the landscape of 20th century fiction. Pretty sad for the 1952 Nobel laureate, a member of the L’Académie française and Légion d’honneur.
One wonders if his former notoriety as a “Catholic writer” is also a reason for lack of current readership in our increasingly secular world.
I chose his 1932 novel in Gerard Hopkins translation as Viper’s Tangle (in another translation, a Knot of Vipers ) as my initial exploration of his five available translated novels.
One could simplify it and say it’s another piece of literature featuring a miser and his family..but that would do it a grave injustice. This miser is the protagonist and his life and its relation to the other characters is viewed soley through his eyes with the exception of two letters at the end.
Viper’s Tangle is a personal lesson to myself to not jump to early pre-judgements about a novel, to give the author the benefit of the doubt. I had real reservations for various reasons with this novel for at least the first third of it.
The narrative is in the form of a sort of Journal-confessional from the point of view of Louis, (the miser/paterfamilias), so as with all 1st person narratives, it begs the question of how much do I trust him/her?
The tale Louis, the now aged family head tells is a setting the record straight, his justification to himself and at first to his wife Isa, of his extreme behavior in his lifelong conflict with his family over beliefs (or lack of them), power and money (of course).
He comes to realize that the very act of writing his story is an expiating process for him, and as we go along we become involved more and more in his coming to terms with the acts of his life and how he plans to face his death. As more of the background and family history evolves (he is not just rich, he’s RICH) his acute psychological depiction of how he feels his wife and kids have always mis-judged his motives and mis-attributed the sources of his enmity toward them percolates and builds. His attitude toward his wife, his own examinations of his beliefs starts showing cracks in their hardened surfaces. There are gaps in time when he takes up and sets down his “confession”, as the events within his family in the fictive present affect his plans and are reflected upon, that must needs cause a re-examination of his first postulations when he first set pen to paper, and his (and the reader’s) attitudes toward Louis as well as the family starts getting tested. These instabilities in his story, became gradually more meaningful and help fill in the gaps for us to make a determination just how valid Louis’ claims are that he has never been justly seen as the “only one without a mask” in the family…Mauriac has the narrator and reader recognize the monstrosity of putting ‘mammon’ before the love of one’s family, the Vipers are at first seen as the clamoring and vile maneuvering of the extended family members for a share of the inheritance, later, the tangle of Vipers is seen as that knot of conflict tightening over the Louis heart. Mauriac forces us to see that all have had an equal share in the Vipers Tangle. This is just a surface-gloss, there is much more depth here than I have hinted at. The epiphanies are profound and are of the “big-picture” type. There are two sentences in two scenes that are generalizations about Man’s nature, that to me, were not out of the storyworld moralizing, but rather a logical deduction by the narrator, Louis in a moment of clarity, a crystalization of a what he had suspected yet had not grasped…
I have to mention a word about this translation into English. I am shocked at how a sub-par translation such as this is the only one available to english readers. In fact, Hopkins is the only translator for exsiting Mauriac novels in english. I understand Mauriac’s prose is said to be elegant in its original French. The english version is readable, for the most part, but every 2 or 3 pages there are just unfortunate renderings…”muchness” was actually used in a sentence. Despite the crappy translation, I highly recommend this and I will read the rest of his available novels at some point in the evil Hopkins translations…Like another novelist that bears the “Catholic Novelist” Label Graham Greene, imho it matters not your religious orientation or (non-orientation) to enjoy the book