Vipers' Tangle

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Category: Classic
Date Published: September 1, 2005 (originally published in 1932)
Number of Pages: 312
Print Price: $10.54
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François Mauriac, winner of the Nobel Prize and recipient of France’s Legion d’honneur, was among the last century’s most pre-eminent men of letters, and a devout Roman Catholic.Vipers’ Tangle is one of Mauriac’s most famous works, a book of bruising beauty that explores man’s capacity for love and hate, bitterness and forgiveness, sin and redemption, and his crippling dependency on God’s amazing grace to save a wretch like Monsieur Louis.

Vipers’ Tangle is structured as a lengthy confession—sometimes a confession, sometimes a polemic, sometimes an invective—from Monsieur Louis, a wealthy retired lawyer of declining health who feels surrounded by a nest of vipers, his family. Yet the vipers’ tangle is within as well as without.

The story bears a passing resemblance to Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol: a rich, “covetous old sinner” struggles against God’s grace to find redemption. But where Dickens’ tale had its author’s infectious good-humor and largeness of spirit, Vipers’ Tangle is an often disturbing journey to the heart of an odious man’s mystery. In both stories, however, the ultimate point is that God’s grace is accessible to anyone, even the most miserly old sinner.

Monsieur Louis writes, “True to my character of an old barrister, I want to get my brief sorted out, to docket and arrange the various exhibits in that lost cause—my life.” But who is the embittered lawyer building his case against—his wife, his children, or himself?

Standing at the edge of the abyss, Louis strips himself of all his old illusions as he prepares for his inevitable end. Taking a cold, hard look at his life, and at the consequences of his pettiness and solipsism, Louis begins to understand how a deliberate self-deception has shaped his life for ill, not for good. “Is it possible that a man can live for nearly half a century noticing one side only of the person who shares his life? Can it be that, from long habit, he picks and chooses from amongst her gestures and her words, keeping for use only those that feed his grievances and perpetuate his resentment?” These questions are reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s observation that “the second half of a man's life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.”

Louis has accustomed himself to despising those around him, to closing himself off from affection, to becoming the “monster” so many take him to be, almost as a duty rather than a compulsion. He confesses that “my passion for possession, and for using and abusing what I possess, extends to human beings.” The reader, perhaps sooner than Louis, comes to understand that his cruelty owes partially to his desire to be noticed, if not loved. He cannot imagine that anyone would love him. He feels his wife is indifferent to him, that she lavishes all her love on their children, and he resents her religious piety. The only child for whom he ever felt true love, Marie, died young—a symbolic death, the reader comes to learn, like Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.

Through his barrister narrator, Mauriac is making a case of his own. By presenting the reader with a malevolent old man on his deathbed, the author’s case is simply this: no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Without romanticizing Louis, Mauriac expresses the tragedy of a wasted life, the tragedy of a man who has closed himself off from a community of love to wallow in his own despair. Louis is sinned against as well as sinning, but he reserves many of his harshest judgments for himself. He is honest, not hypocritical, and he often turns his cruelty inwards. There is a telling moment when someone asks the local priest if it is permissible to hate the Jews. He replies that “each of us has the right to hate one of Christ’s butchers, and one only—himself, but no one else.”

Vipers’ Tangle is an eschatological meditation on the final things, the moment of death.“Apocalypse” is a popular subject for many sensationalistic religious thrillers, but the fact remains that every person’s death is his or her own apocalypse—the end of the world. Though unsentimental, Mauriac’s vision of one lonely man’s last days is hopeful. As Death approaches Louis, the material universe begins to slough away, to diminish in importance as it recedes behind him. The essential drama of Catholic fiction (and why so many great writers are Catholic or have catholic sensibilities) is not whether a character dies—we all die—but whether a character dies in a state of grace. High stakes make for compelling stories, and no stake is higher than the condition of one’s eternal soul. Choices in this life have repercussions in the next.

Mauriac asks the reader to bear with his bitter, cruel narrator. He even implicates the reader in Louis’ sin-ridden life by suggesting that love requires patience and understanding—a willingness to reach out to souls in torment. “Even the genuinely good cannot, unaided, learn to love. To penetrate beyond the absurdities, the vices, and above, the stupidities of human creatures, one must possess the secret of a love that the world has now forgotten.”

This sounds similar to Mauriac in his own note to the text:


“The man here depicted was the enemy of his own flesh and blood. His heart was eaten up by hatred and by avarice. Yet, I would have you, in spite of his baseness, feel pity and be moved by his predicament. All through his dreary life, squalid passions stood between him and that radiance that was so close that an occasional ray could still break through to touch and burn him: not only his own passions, but, primarily, those of the lukewarm Christians who spied upon his actions, and whom he himself tormented. Too many of us are similarly at fault, driving the sinner to despair and blinding his eyes to the light of truth.”

ISBN-13: 978-0829422115
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5 x 0.8 x 7 inches

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John is the in-house illustrator and cover designer for Idylls Press in Ashland, Oregon. He grew up in Wisconsin, however, where the harsh winters allowed for plenty of indoor leisure time to read and draw. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Oregon’s Clark Honors College in 2006 with a B.A. in Art History and received the 2005-2006 U of O Undergraduate Library Research Award for his paper, Pozzo’s Perspective: Visual Hagiography in the Church of St. Ignatius, Rome. In 2007 John taught Art History courses at Western Oregon University, and is now in the Ph.D. program in Art History at Northwestern University. View samples of John’s book covers and illustrations: The Picture of Dorian Gray Wolfproof Travelers Market The Man Who Was Thursday Many of John’s famous author art prints are available on clothing and gifts at Idylls Press’ Cafepress store. You can also see more of John’s art at Besides his reviews for and GodSpy, John is also a frequent contributor of Shakespeare-on-film reviews for bardolatry, and film reviews for Catholic Movies Online. His favorite Catholic novel is Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.

1 Comment

Sep 4, 2014 Julianne McCullagh

Thank you for this review. I read The Viper's Tangle in freshman Philosophy class in college. I recently reviewed Therese Desqueyroux by Mauriac, on this site. Mauriac stands with Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor in portraying his characters who struggle with deep, thus, real, spiritual battles. Their struggle is not lit by soft pastel lighting, but rather by vigorous and desperate wrangling, that only God can redeem.

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