The title of Francois Mauriac’s 1932 novel, Vipers’ Tangle (French, Le Nœud de vipères, The Knot of Vipers) evokes Jesus’ assault on the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers,” spawn of the serpent. It’s a fitting allusion, since the novel, mostly an autobiographical epistle written by the greedy, irreligious and vindictive lawyer, Monsieur Louis, to his wife, is about both a serpent and his poisonous children. From Louis’s perspective, it’s not clear where the knot is located, because the knot within him has produced a deadly knot outside.
Louis is fabulously wealthy and he is dying. The family he has long despised waits for him to pass away so they can seize their inheritance. Louis intends to surprise them. He has dispersed or hidden many of his assets, and promised the bulk of his wealth to his illegitimate son Robert. Once his body grows cold, once the will is read out, Louis will have his ultimate revenge.
He offers various reasons for his hostility to his family. His wife, Isabelle (Isa), is from the venerable Fondaudège family, while Louis is a child of peasants. At first, she gives him new life: “I saw my own reflection in another human being; and my image, thus reflected, had nothing repulsive about it. I stretched my petals with a delightful sense of relaxing. I remember the thawing of my whole personality under the warmth of your eyes, that gushing of emotions, that unbinding of springs. The most ordinary little expression of affection, a handshake, a flower pressed in a book—everything was new to me, everything enchanted me.” His early infatuation gives him an intimation—a certitude—“that another world existed.” It’s a brush with mysticism that he later covers with belligerent skepticism.
Given the social chasm between them, Louis feels unworthy of Isa’s love, and his in-laws reinforce his social inferiority. Louis and Isa are preset for a rocky marriage, and their love sours when Isa confesses to an earlier affair with a handsome Austro-French man named Rodolphe. For Louis, this changes everything: “the infinitesimal space between our outstretched bodies had become impassable.” It explains why the Fondaudèges were willing to give Isa to him in the first place: She was damaged. After her confession, he reads Isa’s moods through the lens of this confession; if she falls into reverie, he assumes she must be dreaming of Rodolphe; her sadness is regret at losing Rodolphe. Their love-making is haunted by Rodolphe’s shadow. Louis concludes that Isa doesn’t and never has loved him, and that she remains with him only for the sake of the children. Louis’s relationship with Isa and his children, his attitude toward money, his views on religion – his entire existence is infected by the resentment he nurtures. Eventually, that space between becomes literal, as Louis and Isa occupy separate rooms.
Louis’s interpretation of his life is so dominating that the reader doesn’t realize until much later that there might be another side to things. Isa seems complacent about her confession not because she still loves Rodolphe but because she is over him, and she is insincere in thanking “providence” for the way Rodolphe led her to Louis. Through most of book, Louis’s memoir projects his own inferiority, but the projection is so seamless that it appears to encompass all the facts. There are few cracks in the surface of appearance.
Louis sometimes acknowledges that his envy for Rodolphe, his greed, his vengefulness form a knot of vipers in his heart, but more often he thinks that the knot is outside, the tangle of wife, children, in-laws, and grandchildren. His most damning indictment of Isa is that, pious though she is, she doesn’t really live by the teachings of Jesus: “That charity is synonymous with love was something you had forgotten,” he charges, “if you ever knew it. Under this name you comprised a certain number of duties towards the poor, which you performed conscientiously, in the interests of your eternal life. . . . But at that time, once the poor—your poor—were relieved, you found yourself only the more at your ease to demand your due from the people who lived dependent upon you. You never compromised about the duty of a housewife, which is to obtain the utmost possible work for the least possible money. That poor old woman who came in the morning with her vegetable cart, and to whom you would have dispensed charity freely if she had been a beggar, never sold you a single head of salad without your making it a point of honour to beat her down a halfpenny or so on her modest prophets.” Late in the novel, when Louis has come to a religious awakening, he sees that his family’s formalist, cold Christianity—Christianity practiced as another twist in a tangle of vipers—was one of the things that kept him resolute in his unbelief. The only genuine Christian in the house was Abbé Ardouint, whom Isa hired to catechize the children. He lives among a brood of vipers in precisely Jesus’ sense of the phrase.
Conversion is not quite what Mauriac describes, though. More accurately, it is an exhumation of a Louis that even Louis has forgotten. He is stunned into doubt not only about Isa but about himself. The submerged Louis was evident in his love for his daughter Marie and his anguish over her early death, and his conversion is literally a coming to himself, a recognition that the tangle of vipers within is not his real soul: My crime, he writes, “did not consist entirely in that hideous nest of vipers—hatred of my children, desire for revenge, love of money; but also in my refusal to seek beyond those entangled vipers. I had held fast to that loathsome tangle as though it were my very heart—as though the beatings of that heart had merged into those writing reptiles.” He fell into the trap of seeing “nothing in myself except that which was not I.”
In recognizing his true self beneath the tangle of vipers, he learns to break through the superficial self-presentations of those around him – Isa and his children. And that makes him more genuinely Christian than the practicing Christians around him. Knowing that he is what he appears to be enables him to recognize the gap between reality and appearance in others, and that opens up the possibility of sympathy and pity. He didn’t know what he loved, and he learns that his children were equally ignorant. When Phili, the husband of his granddaughter Janine, leaves her, Louis gently asks “You have your faith?” Janine cannot grasp the point, and her mother (Louis’s daughter) Genevieve says that “she didn’t like mixing up religion with such things” as lost husbands and comfort in sorrow, things like life. Eventually, Janine moves in with Louis to care for him until his death and she insists, in the face of the family’s incredulity, that “Grandfather is the only religious man I have ever met.”
Mauriac knows that Louis is vile, nearly an underground man in his defiant spitefulness. But in a brief introduction to the novel Mauriac urges the reader to “hold him in pity.” As the epigram from Teresa of Avila has it, “we do not understand ourselves” and “go infinitely far astray from that which we desire.” What is truly vile in Mauriac’s eyes is the conduct of “the indifferent Christians who lie in wait for him,” the Christians who keep Louis from seeing past the tangle of vipers. This rich novel of bitterness, greed, and revenge is finally a cautionary tale: “How many of us thus throw the sinner back upon himself, turning him away from a truth which, through our medium, sheds its rays no more!” The title’s echo of Jesus’ denunciation is precise, for Mauriac too assaults serpentine Pharisees. It’s cleverly done, because the reader who despises Louis and “throws the sinner back upon himself” is exposed as a Pharisee, himself one of a brood of vipers.
(All quotations taken from the translation by Warre B. Wells, published by Sheed & Ward in 1953.)