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? Has his miserly, domineering behaviour brought out the worst in his children. As his tortuous plans begin to unravel combined with a sense of his mortality, Louis 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, his sharp irony contrasting with almost poetical descriptions of the countryside – the smell of burning pines on the air and mists over the vines, trees and wine forming the basis of the economy.
There is a double tragedy at the heart of this novel. Although it may be hard to credit, Louis’ love for his wife is destroyed by his devastation over the discovery that she had a previous lover, even though it was probably only the passing infatuation of a very young girl. His inflexible nature combined with a lack of experience prevent him from adopting a sense of proportion. His inability to “forgive” his wife drives a wedge between them, probably causing her a degree of unhappiness of which he is unaware, and blinding Louis to a love for him she may have had to suppress. Mauriac contrives to make us feel some sympathy for both these characters in due course, if the not for their son and their daughter’s husband.
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. He is further infuriated by what he sees as his wife’s indoctrination of their children against his wishes, poignantly perceiving this as a way of alienating them from him. Yet Mauriac would have us believe that, despite his flaws, Louis may be more truly spiritual than the rest of them, and if he really is the sinner they make him out to be, he is all the more deserving of “God’s grace”.
Even if the reader is also 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 I believe he wrote as an antidote to the intensely emotional “Knot of vipers” but which seems somewhat bland in comparison.