This is my review of The Knot of Vipers (Modern Classics) by Francois Mauriac.
An ageing and embittered miser, Louis is obsessed with his determination to ensure that not a single member of his family inherits a penny of his considerable wealth. Why does he hate his wife and offspring so much? Is he right to believe that he is loathed in return? To what extent is this situation his fault? As Louis’ plans begin to unravel combined with a sense of his mortality, he begins to see life a little differently. Questions arise as to whether people can really change, or is it a case of merely wishing to do so, or even self-delusion?
After a slow start to set the scene and explain Louis’ upbringing and early love for his wife Isa after a childhood and youth of loneliness and isolation, this becomes an intense and gripping psychological study in the context of the snobbish, self-satisfied, devoutly Catholic bourgeois families of the Bordeaux region whom Mauriac does not seem to have tired of dissecting. His flowing prose is a pleasure to read, with his sharp irony contrasting with almost poetical descriptions of the countryside – the smell of burning pines on the air and mists over the vines, timber and wine forming the basis of the economy.
Mauriac was content to be called “a Catholic writer” and the essence of this novel is that Louis, a freethinking atheist, is repelled by the smug hypocrisy of the Catholic family into which he has married and his children become absorbed against his wishes. Yet Mauriac would have us believe that, despite his flaws, Louis may be more truly spiritual than the rest of them. Even if like me, you are an atheist, it is possible to find the story moving and thought-provoking. Although most of the characters are unappealing, with a tendency to create their own unhappiness, this novel is not depressing by reason of its psychological insight and the quality of the prose. I prefer this novel to the other two famous works of Mauriac, his favourite “Thérèse Desqueyroux” and “Le Mystère Frontenac” which he wrote as an antidote to the intense emotional “knot of vipers” but which seems bland in comparison.