Author: Hervé Bazin (1911-1996)
Title: Vipère au poing
Genre: Novel (fiction/reality) – the line between is very thin…
Contents: 25 chapters, 237 pages
Trivia: It is the first and best known of a trilogy (La Mort du Petit Cheval-1950) and (Le Cri de la Chouette -1972). These three novels are largely autobiographical.
Trivia: When published in 1948, Vipère au Poing was an immense success and also the cause of a considerable scandal. Bazin did not even take the trouble to change the first names of his parents in the book!
1. Explain the title. In what way is it suitable to the story?
Vipère au poing: is a description of Jean’s mother as a venomous cruel reptile. It also indicates the suffering Jean is about to describe in the story.
2. What is the predominant element in the story? character…it’s all about the mother!
3. Who is the single main character about. whom the story centres?
Paule ‘Folcoche’ Rézeau – This is the mother who corrupts her son boy into being as slyly evil as she is. She oozes seething resentment and ripening rage. In 1971 a TV film was made about this book. The actress Alice Sapritch (1916-1990) played Marthe Rézeau. It is an ironic role that followed her throughout her life.
4. What sort of conflict confronts the leading character or characters?
a. External – Rebellious child vs unloving parent
b. Internal – Child must discover why he was treated so unfairly. After “brasse bouillon” stirring up the past he realizes that his maternal grandparents were the monsters…..not his mother.
5. How is the conflict resolved?
Bazin uses ironic humour and a sardonic view of his world to express the truth behind his emotions. He neither asked for nor supported this strict catholic upbringing.
He feels the pressure of his parents for so long that he decides to rebel and find his own identity and way of living.
6. How does the author handle characterization?
There are several amazing characters in this book: deaf/mute cook who sides with the children, a father whose moustache reveals his moods and seven eccentric abbots who try to teach the children. Bazin used a very subtle gesture to mark the difference between the father and mother when they gave a little sign of the cross on the boy’s foreheads:
a. gestures: “father traced the cross with his fat thumb, mother with her sharp pointed fingernail.” (pg 86)
7. Who tells the story?
a. first person – Jean Rezeau nicknamed ‘Brasse-Bouillon’.
8. Where does the primary action take place?
French provincial village Caron in Loire Valley.
The family home is called ‘La Belle Angerie’.
9. What is the timeline? (1922…1927…1931…1933) Jean 6-17 yrs
In 1922 after the death of the paternal grandmother who cared for Jean, Ferdinand and Marcel their parents have just come back from French Indochina.
10. How does the story get started? What is the initial incident?
The story opens with the ‘Brasse-Bouillon’ (Jean) killing a snake.
11. Briefly describe the rising action of the story.
In the course of the story we discover who really is the snake in the family!
Life in a bourgeoise family between WWI and WWII is intolerable. Mme Marthe detests her husband and transfers her hate onto her children, especially Jean. (= Hervé Bazin).
Mother is nicknamed ‘Folcoche’ (folle, cochonne, insane pig).
12. What is the high point, or climax, of the story?
The children are home schooled by a series of 7 abbots (religious brothers). They are all nicknamed BI,BII,BIII,BIV…… But finally ‘Folcoche’ finds BVII. He is the perfect mean, vicious, cruel Father Traquet who can’ tame’ the children once and for all.
13. Discuss the falling action or close of the story.
These first few pages are dripping with foreshadowing. Jean gloriously shows his trophy to his uncle and grandmother…”Rien n’est si bien mort qu’un un serpent mort.” (pg 9) Nothing is so good dead as a dead serpent. (mother). On the last page Jean repeats his motto: “Cette vipère, ta vipère, je la brandis, je la secoue, je m’avance dan la vie avec de trophée….” This snake, your snake I burnt it, I shook it, I move on in my life with the trophy…(pg 237)
14. Does this story create any special mood?
Children are living in a nightmare! This is a dysfunctional family that Bazin manages to soften with his engaging humour. He uses comical expressions as a means of communication that is startling, intriguing, and profound. I had to laugh when Bazin describes himself as a saint between the ages of 4 – 8 yrs. He had a patron saint (Baptist, for first name Jean) who was a valet to his guardian angel Rézeau. He was not expected to carry all the little packages of Jean’s sins without some assistance! (pg 21)
15. Is this story realistic or true to life?
Hervé Bazin was in conflict with his own parents (mother) all during his childhood and adolescence. This was the basic inspiration for this book. His family was staunch catholic traditional haute-bourgeoise. They insisted Hervé study law and enrolled in against his will in faculté catholique d’Angers. After six months he refused to study any further, packed his bags and left. Encouraged by Paul Valéry after Bazin won the prix Apollinaire for his collection of poetry….he turned to prose.
16. How are the events presented?
Chronological: Chapters 1-3 give the reader an impression of Jean’s childhood and surroundings. Then Bazin announces: “Grand-mère mourut. Ma mère parut. Et ce récit decent drame.” (Grandmother died. My mother appeared. And this story became a drama)
17. What is the general theme of the story?
Jean Rézeau searches in his past to find his identity.
18. Does this story contain any of the following elements?
Symbol – in the form of nicknames are used to give the book a ‘familar family feeling’. Jean is ‘brasse-bouillon’. Brasser means to move or agitate and bouillon is a hot soup. This sobriquet represents Jean. When the atmosphere at home begins to heat up…he moves, rebels, is emotional and is insolent. He tries to cool things down as one would by stirring in a hot bouillon.
Ferdinand is ‘chiffe’. This means a milquetoast, unassertive. He follows Jean and without his brother he would never dare confront ‘Folcoche’.
Marcel is ‘cropette’. In patois this means little brother.
19. Does the story contain a single effect or impression for me?
The book was a good ‘follow-up’ read after Jean Barois by Du Gard and Le Noeud de Vipères by Mauriac.These books were filled with family feuds and church dogma. Hervé Bazin describes ‘iron-fisted grip’ that the catholic church had on his family from a child’s perspective… with a light and humorous touch.
20. Name one major personality trait of the leading character.
Will to survive: Jean has declared war, civil war. From the outside his behavior looks bizarre. But from the inside he is acting so he can survive. It is the only thing that will help him get the snake (mother) in his fist “vipère au poing”.
- I can understand why this book is so popular with high-school students.
- Bazin describes mother’s authority with biting irreverence.
- We meet many family members….Grand uncle René: ..”he was the brush that made the family gleam and shine” (la brosse à reluire de la famillie)
- Strong point: book is riddled with clever ‘eccelesiastical’ satire:
- History: Petrograd “You are my rock and upon this rock I will build…” (pg 139)
- Vacation: ‘swimming dips’ considered immoral (fear of naked); family is afraid of water…until it has been blessed.” (pg 134)
- Last thoughts: I put off reading this book because the cover irritated me.
- Never judge a book by its cover!
- Mme Rézard is scary looking but Hervé Bazin’s story is enchanting!
- Epoustouflant….histoire rocambolesque!
Score: 5 +++