Monthly Archives: June 2009

Vipers’ Tangle– François Mauriac

Viper's Tangle


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


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To Know a Woman– Amos Oz

Know a Woman


Amos Oz has written 18 books in Hebrew, and about 450 articles and essays. His works have been translated into some 30 languages. He was awarded his country’s most prestigious prize: the Israel Prize for Literature in 1998, and is often mentioned for consideration of the Nobel Prize for Literature…

His 1989 Harcourt Book published novel, To Know a Woman translated by Andrew De Lang, is about Yoel Ravid, an Israeli Secret Service agent, and his attempt to re-establish himself in a quotidian life in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. A standout in his profession as a guardian of a country, by his training he is a keen observer, a decoder of the give and take of human contact. He processes information unemotionally like a machine, his comrades at his section call him “the human lie detector”. After a personal disaster, which leads to a decision to take early retirement, his struggle is to now be a guardian in his own household. He finds he can not ‘decode’, the women in his own extended family he has settled in the city, especially his own wife and daughter. This is the central conceit, he also can not ‘awaken’ to connect, with the day to day humanity, to decipher a purpose in an existence whose meanings don’t lend themselves to his methods, he has not engaged emotionally. He has trouble “formulating the proper question”, of the how and the why a man stands up, is grounded on the other side of his former structured and demanding role as a nightwatchman for an entire country.

A recurring symbol is a figurine of a blind a leaping tiger that stands from its base by only one claw attached, he can not figure out what holds it up or how it is attached, and this seemingly little detail is foregrounded periodically. He finally hands the tiger to a young man who is seeing his daughter and is a mechanical wizard, and asks him what he makes of it. The boy responds by telling him, “you should not be asking how it is attached, but where is its center of gravity”. On one level the tiger is a referent of a form menace that is blind (chance for example), poised and is held in suspension, but also to Yoel himself. He has to ask himself where his center of gravity is. Any more detail than that would be a spoiler…

His is sterile existence, and he knows this, so ironically he makes it his mission to fill their small yard with every form of landscaping vegetation imaginable, in his attempt to awaken, to finally figure things out…There is some real nice scenes with exchanges with his daughter, and enough mystery of past incidents with his former operatives that beckons and haunts both Yoel and the narrative to keep the plot interesting. Upon more distance from reading this novel, it has resonated more deeply with me, tho I feel that the side story with the American neighbors clunked in several ways.


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Miss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the Locust– Nathanael West



If I were asked to submit a syllabus for a semester of Major American Fiction from 1900-WWII course, I would fearlessly have Nathanael West’s name beside the five or six usual suspects.

A life cut way too short in an auto accident the day after his friend Scott Fitzgerald died from a heart attack. His four novels were only appreciated really (as usual) posthumously.

Flannery O’Connor said that for her the two most important American 20th Century novels were As I Lay Dying and Miss Lonelyhearts…

Depending which side of the opinion fence you come down on regarding the illustrious Harold Bloom, he declares West canon worthy, but I differ in his reading ofMiss Lonelyhearts.

I had repeatedly seen his name come up as a marginalized writer mentioned by other writers, and of those who encountered him raved about. His themes and treatment probably were as shocking in there day as Marlyn Manson was in his…
I only decided to reach for the New Directions publication of Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust at the last minute. It was fateful that I almost put off reading this guy (again) again.

The bleak tragi-comedy farce of Miss Lonelyhearts is Dostoevsky with a wit and a narrative voice as subtle as a chainsaw…
Remove about four period slang terms (speakeasy for ex), and it could have been written tomorrow. Dense, but not demanding, its 56 pages begs an immediate re-read. Its a D-word novel: Disillusionment, depression, Drinking and Despair. A hero that slowly acquires a Christ-complex and has Mephistopheles for a boss.

The Day of the Locustis the longer work, and stands more as a traditional narrative, less farcical, but similar themes, but throw in a Hollywood setting perfect for West’s exploration of displaced people with misplaced dreams. West weaves the story of two rivals Tod Hacketand Homer Simpson, as they vie for the affection of the Hollywood dream queen wannabee, Fay Greener, along with an an entourage of grotesques (there is a dwarf, a cowboy, a clown, a Mexican and cock fighting) into a slow build up to its troubling and unexpected climax. The writing is just superb.
I chuckled to  discover that this is the birthplace of the Cartoon character for the Simpson’s, Homer Simpson: Groening (simpsons creator) has stated in several interviews that Homer is the namesake of a character in the 1939  novel The Day of the Locust.


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Closely Watched Trains– Bohumil Hrabal



Closely Watched Trains was my first introduction to this amazing Czech writer who was as at home in his favorite pub, as he was quoting Emanual Kant at the soccer matches…

In keeping with a semi-confessional nature here at Traces, I have to admit to having a copy of this and his Too Loud A Solitude sitting unread on my bookshelves for over three decades. After reading them, I have decided only at the last minute to stay my execution…

I started with this one on the advice that it may be his most conventional work, and maybe his most famous (it was made into an Academy Award Winning movie in 1966). On one level it is a pretty straight forward story with a flashback or two, of the timid, bumbling young railroad dispatcher apprentice Milos Hrma. The depot is a microcosm of Czech life in the madness that is the Nazi occupation of 1946. Hrma to me is not as ‘simple’ as he seems. I would say he’s been emotionally flayed and significantly tries to become a ‘man’ in the world. His impotency is figurative as well as real. Hrma’s as the narrator is the emotionally detached lens panning the scenes with little coloration, but given his distraction he renders it in the fashion of a daydream. Hrabal has simplified Hrma’s emotional constructs as Hrma’s lens plays on the cruel absurdities of life in his Nazi occupied country.

The novel is colonized in the story level by characters that are typecast: a clown, a Casanova, a slut, and the fumbling , naive young hero, but they are also more than caricatures by a wide margin, we are allowed to glimpse their fragile attempts to escape the imposed unreality, to at least visualize a semblance of a future, such as seen by Hublika’s “cloud writing”, projections of his fantasy reality as we gaze along with him at his created sky.  The bounds of what is ‘normal’ or real are constantly stretched,  as in the pigeon-encrusted station master who constantly tries to retain his sanity after conflicts with his staff by stomping upstairs in the depot and shouting tirades down the air vent shaft, as if he’s God shouting down from the heavens. Besides the ‘Polish’ Pigeons, which are pretty much the only form of life not subject to human atrocity, the domestic animals are abused, maimed and mistreated through out. All humanity is reduced to the level of fauna, at one point, the SS call the Czechs ‘bestial’ and later the Nazis are referred to by the station master as ‘beasts’..

The Pargeter translated prose borders on the poetic. Sadness and humor in almost every sentence. Do not be deceived by its length… there is a palpable density to it, and a powerful ending that will be moving for some, or possibly a bit over-reaching for others.

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