Friday, September 10, 2010

Viper's Tangle, a Book Review

I remember being taught an important lesson when reading Catcher in the Rye in high school: a narrator is not necessarily honest. A writer may choose to make his main character a liar. He may try and get his reader to find the truths through the lies. I didn't learn the lesson then, I think I liked Holden Caufield as an adolescent because I too wasn't necessarily honest. Neither of us would have admitted as much to ourselves. We simply could not see the hypocrisy in our own lives. I saw Houldon as he saw himself. Neither of us could see how we did not live up to our ideals or even to the images we had of ourselves. I hated him as an adult. Perhaps because I then saw him, and myself, for what we were in those earlier days: Liars.

Vipers' Tangle by Francois Mauriac also has narrator that can not always be trusted. However, he is not the least bit dishonest about his own flaws. In this confession of Monsieur Louis, an old and dying lawyer at the turn of the century. we find a bitter, yet honest portrayal of how he sees himself. He is greedy, vindictive, proud. He is hated by all and returns the hatred with a feeling of justified revenge. He also has a keen eye for seeing the flaws in others. While he admits that his heart has become a tangle of vipers, he rightly sees in his children and wife a nest of vipers outside of himself as well.

What begins as a letter to his wife explaining how and why he has disinherited his children of millions becomes a confession to himself, a means of therapy for a man who has no friends and no one else with whom to talk. While he is accused by his wife of seeing only evil, and admits freely that he has rarely seen good, he is also honest in recognizing beauty in certain souls: the complete lack of hypocrisy and desire to live a life according to his creed of a young seminarian, the carefree spirit and innocent joy of his orphaned nephew, the sweetness of his youngest daughter.

We learn that he can not always be trusted from the narrator himself. As he reflects on his life he begins to question his own honesty. He begins to wonder if he was only seeing half of the people around him, only half of himself. He realizes he acted like a monster, but that he was not a monster. He begins to try and look and see if the things he hates in those around him might also be superficial, if humans can be more than even they themselves can imagine.

What has been the cause of his wasted and monstrous life was a lack of love. He, for only a few months after he was married, believed himself capable of being loved. He found nothing in himself to love and did not believe anyone could ever love him. The three good people in his life were the only three who saw good in him. Because he believed everyone else expected him to be hateful, he was in fact hateful. He molded himself to the image he believed the world had of him.

With this realization he becomes an honest narrator. He searches desperately for the answer. What was it that he missed? An atheist and ruthless critic of the Church during his life, he begins to wonder if he had judged Christianity by its failed members instead of looking deeper. To his mind comes the image of the humble walk of the young pious seminarian, the faraway look on the face of his beloved nephew as he sat on the steps after church, and most painfully, the death of his youngest daughter who offered her death for him:

"In her delirium that she kept on saying-'For Pappa!-For Pappa!'...Do you remember the sound of her voice when she suddenly cried out, "Please God, I am only a child..." and how she stopped, and went on, "No, I can stand it, I can..."

Who then can love those who do not deserve love? Who then can teach man to love after so many years of hate? Louis desperately wants to answer those questions before he dies. "...A few more months, a few more weeks..."

With a narrator that can not be trusted, not because he is a liar, but because he is a man, Mauriac portrays the story of a soul searching without even knowing it for Divine Grace. If we are honest readers, we can see ourselves honestly in him. At the end of the day, we don't deserve love. All of us are in many ways, unlovable. To deny this fact, as Houldon would say, makes us a phony. We can only be loved if we first know we are loved. Divine Grace is at its heart LOVE. Does he find it? (If you don't like to know the endings of books you want to read, stop here.)

No, he does not find it. It finds hIm.

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