M. Louis is a pissy old bird: tight, mean, angry. Many years ago, his mother convinced him that the two of them were very poor; but then she died, and suddenly he had everything he could ever want or need. If he had only wanted it.
He was more interested in nursing his little hoard (which included the original bonds in the Suez canal). Over the years it grew in size as he grew into his "viperish" heart. Here now, at sixty-eight, he is writing his memoirs, his confession, a document to be left behind for wife Isa, to shock and humiliate her. He tells her that he hates her and their two children so that he wants to be sure they get nothing. His vituperation, he hopes, can reach them from the grave.
His misfortune, he believes, came from marrying and (briefly) loving her. He is a peasant, ugly; she is lovely and upper-class. On their honeymoon so many years ago, she confessed that she had another before he arrived on the scene. After hearing her words, he says nothing. "You were worried by my silence," he writes, in his Hate Book: "but you had not the least idea how deeply I had been wounded." Jealous? "I swore to you that I did not feel the least twinge of jealousy --- and it was true."
She sleeps; he gets up and goes to the mirror:
I stared at myself as though I had been a stranger or, rather, as though I had suddenly become myself again --- the man whom nobody loved, on whose account no one in the world had ever had a moment's suffering.
"I was filled with self-pity, thinking of my youth. I passed a great peasant hand across my unshaven cheeks, which were already showing dark beneath a harsh growth of beard with red lights in it." M. Louis is infuriated. Not by jealousy. Not by broken promises. Well, then: by what?
Let us say this about that: Mauriac, being Mauriac, and Mauriac being French, he is one of those writers who thrives on The Missing Point.
Like his contemporaries Camus, Sartre, Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute ---there comes the break-point, and then ... well, you can't really put your finger on it. Below all the words there is a fact or a feeling that is never quite explained, may not even exist, words won't do. Ever. Soap in the bathtub, under the suds somewhere: if you try to grab at it, it squirts right out of your hand, melts away.
§ § §
For the next forty years, M. Louis, his wife Isa, his three children, his fellow lawyers (he is a barrister, a master of cross-examination), the tradesmen, the neighbors, his mistress, his bastard son (and, too, the reader) get to live with an unloving, unkind, inscrutable, intolerant, intolerable master of the inchoate --- always scheming to pit one family member against the other, always scheming to be on top.
How much he loathes them! His writings are filled with spying, reading others' mail, words overheard behind doors, whispers near the window, just beyond. "Don't please think that I am painting too pretty a picture of myself," he says at one point, after confessing to there being one child he might have loved (she dies of typhus; it might have been his fault): "I know my heart --- it is a nest of vipers."
They have almost squeezed the life out of it. They have beslavered it with their poison, but, underneath their squirming, it still beats. Impossible now to loosen the knot. I can fight free only by cutting it with a knife, by slashing it with a sword. I am come to bring not peace but a sword.
As we reach the end of his diary, all know he is dying. His viper heart is giving out. His confession is to be delivered to his wife when he finally goes skulking into his grave. M. Louis wants to do something, anything, with his loot, so that no-one, but no-one, will enjoy it.
§ § §
Mauriac has painted an exquisitely smarmy portrait of the poison of money and non-forgiveness. He has also set for himself a near impossible task. After spending much of the book convincing us what a jerk M. Louis is --- suddenly, he has to turn him around, make him see that he has created his own miserable world, that there is, somewhere in that nest of vipers, a human, one who is capable of love. Just when the old pig is at his worst, a young priest that lives with the family, turns and: "You are," he said, "a very good man."
"You can't know, Monsieur l'Abbé, how comic that sounds. Ask those who know me whether I am good! Question my family, my professional colleagues! Why, malevolence is my leading characteristic!"
The priest replied, rather shyly, that those who are truly malevolent don't talk about it.
Bless his French Jansenistic heart, Mauriac almost pulls it off ... getting us to believe in Louis' holiness, there at the end. Not by direction, god knows, but by a touch, a hint. A raised eyebrow, a tear, a word ... in this case, an opinion given, very late in the game, to the daughter of his hated daughter: "The trouble was that human beings are never so base as we believe them to be."
Viper's Tangle ends up being very odd ... not just in story line of an embittered old man who may (you can't be sure), who may have seen the light towards the end. The real puzzler is that it comes to us via Loyola Books of Chicago, "Serving the Catholic community in education, faith formation, and spiritual growth."
At their site, the book is referred to as "One of the greatest Catholic novels of the twentieth century."
With subtlety and wisdom, Mauriac traces the transfor-ma-tion [sic] of this tortured soul by the light of God's grace.
Well, you could have knocked me over with a pin, or a pen. There may be "the light of God's grace" somewhere in this tortured volume, but where it lies, exactly, is a puzzle. Indeed, Viper's Tangle is a powerful justification for --- nay, a passionate pleading for --- the saving grace of a timely divorce.
Of all the twisted, carping, crabby, insecure, neurotic old bastards created by a novelist, M. Louis takes the cake; what wife Isa needs is what we call in America a "Reno-vation."
Any other society would have urged her to drop her scruples and protect her children from forty years of emotional abuse handed out by this ghoul --- to get a civil writ against the old goat for his singular heart-warping, soul-grinding, head-twisting spite.--- Jeannette d'Aquin