My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One of the things that always struck me about C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is how effectively Lewis wrote in a demon’s voice. The character of Screwtape was believable, because Lewis understood how young Christians thought, the beliefs and desires that motivated them. He understood temptation enough to compellingly examine it from a unique and “alien” point of view that was at the same time disturbingly familiar. As strange a connection as that may be, I couldn’t help but compare the first portions of Mauriac’s Viper’s Tangle to Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.
In Viper’s Tangle we’re given a surprisingly compelling and (for me, at least) an uncomfortably familiar view into the mind of a bitter man nearing death and reflecting on his life. Mauriac’s character, Louis, lives in a state of quiet warfare with his family, whom he sees as hovering around him waiting for his death so they can claim his fortune. He knew love once– or thought he did– early in his marriage, but has for the past forty years lived in symbolic silence with a wife he believes neither understands nor appreciates him. He is embittered and hateful, and we as readers quickly become suspicious of his view of the world around him because it’s so colored by his own perceptions and beliefs. Are things really as bleak and tangled as he represents them? Is he correctly interpreting the present and past actions of his wife and children?
I certainly don’t believe I’m in a similar situation as Mauriac’s protagonist, who begins writing his account as an explanatory letter to his wife to be read upon his death. Yet the power of the account is what I felt years ago reading Lewis’s Screwtape: a certain amount of recognition. If I’m not as hateful and vindictive as Louis, I can see the seeds of such fruit in some of my own attitudes, in my own petty feelings of injury that can easily be nursed into a deep resentment, similar to those Louis uses to justify his attitudes and outlook. As embittered as Louis is, Mauriac effectively outlines how he became this way, and it’s a mirror to some of my own worst days.
This is the second novel we have read in the course I’m auditing on the Catholic imagination in twentieth-century literature. Mauriac’s Louis has nothing but contempt for the lukewarm religiosity of his family members (nominal Catholics) and takes a great deal of pleasure in antagonizing them. He sees them as hypocritical, unable to admit they care only for the same thing that drive him: their wealth. Yet whereas they are unaware of the misery obsession with money brings, he lives and breathes within the center of the web it has cast across his life. He sees clearly how little happiness it brings, and he doesn’t cloak his pursuit of it in any sort of noble or selfless terms, does not justify it with the trappings of middle class Catholicism as do the members of his family.
It’s compelling watching Louis in his own net of vindictiveness and self-destruction. Yet the book is ultimately about Louis’s transformation. This is not a simple Dickensian transformation. Louis does not wake up one morning, like Scrooge, a new man. There is instead one final plot of Louis’s to disinherit his conniving children as he realizes the tangle of vipers is not simply within his own heart but has extended to the actions of those around him. Louis’s final endeavor is concluded by an unexpected death, and then comes– near the end of the novel– the transformation in which his hatred abruptly drains away. Mauriac depicts Louis as paradoxically, finally, realizing the true object of his love in his own loathing for his fortune and his desire to become free of it.
What makes this more than a straightforward conversion tale is the skill Mauriac uses in detailing the weaving of Louis’s tangle of hate and weak, tired avarice. It’s a picture of the furious futility of a selfish life, of hatred that is simply an emptiness. It is believable. Yet there is also, all around Louis, the glimmer of a greater reality breaking in that reminds– like a brilliance glimpse around the edges of cloud– of the wonder of Chesterton’s world. Louis is aware of this, fleetingly, in the world he sees and in a few of the characters who love him unselfishly, uninterested in what they can take from him. This is a story of someone trapped in the wonder of a Chestertonian world and unable to perceive it from the prison of self-loathing until almost too late.
There is a final plot twist near the end of the novel, which enhances the narrative of Louis attempting to reconcile himself– or allow himself to be reconciled– to his children. The question of the unreliable narrator again emerges as we get a glimpse of the ways in which his children perceive his sudden transformation. Indeed, I thought the way Mauriac ended the novel, with letters by Louis’s son and his granddaughter, was especially effective. Each of them present a perception of who Louis ultimately became, and trying to work out which aspects of which were correct or at least understandable adds a final layer of intricacy to the tangle from which Louis attempted to extricate himself at his life’s end.