It isn’t often anymore I finish a book in a couple of days but today I was sick and the sickbed does have one advantage: you can’t do very much but sleep and lay around. In between sleeping, I read François Mauriac’s masterpiece, Viper’s Tangle. This is the fourth novel I’ve read from the Loyola Classics series, each one excellent, but this The Best by far. It opens with the quote by St. Teresa above.
Written in 1932, Viper’s Tangle is timeless and as relevant today as ever. It begins with a bitter, but wealthy, old man’s recriminating letter to his wife of forty years. His family is waiting on him to die; he wants to let them know a few things first. M. Louis has been writing this last ‘confession’ in his mind for much of his married life, almost from the beginning when his young bride told him of an indiscretion. In many ways, Mauriac is painting an Everyman who takes a wrong turn and then continues to compound his error with more bad choices all the while lost and estranged in the drama and tragedies of family life and allowing hate and greed to motivate him. As misunderstood by himself as by everyone else, he withdraws further, increasingly cynical, exacerbated by the pious practices of his Catholic wife and children whose religiosity doesn’t transcend and transform their lives.
The title of the book refers to M. Louis’s heart which he admits was a knot of vipers. Whether or not you ‘get’ Viper’s Tangle will depend on whether or not you believe in salvation and the power of God’s Grace to transform souls. Fortunately for us readers, Louis’s diatribe gets interrupted. Things happen which bring the plot of the story from past accusations to present actions.
It wouldn’t be a believable story if everyone just “lived happily ever after” and if this novel is anything (in my heart) it’s believable. So, no things don’t just get happy-happy all of sudden. But there is an awakening, transformation and redemption, for those willing to accept it.
There was so much insight in this book, I’d love to quote you all the beautiful passages I highlighted—especially those which made me cry—but that would make this post far too long. Instead I’ll just close with this:
‘Most men ape greatness or nobility. Though they do not know it, they conform to certain fixed types, literary or other. This the saints know, and they hate and despise themselves because they see themselves with unclouded eyes.’