Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Knot of Vipers – Francois Mauriac

Very kindly sent to me by Capuchin, I blew hot and cold on this book - until I started reading it from which point onwards I stayed hot (if that doesn’t sound wrong). The thing that first drew me to Mauriac was his Catholicism specifically the idea of him being a catholic writer. The combined forces of Alice Thomas Ellis and Muriel Spark have converted me, if not to the church, at least to the possibilities of its literature, and Mauriac has not let them (or me) down.

The quality they all have in common, and which I find so appealing, is that all of these authors are prepared to make their narrator if not actually downright unpleasant, at least realistically humanly unpleasant. I find it reassuring to read, not about evil, but about weakness, paranoia, less charitable thoughts – all the things we think but don’t always want to give voice to. You normally have to know someone very well to know these kinds of flaws in them, so the effect of meeting it on the page can be very disarming.

Monsieur Louis, the narrator and hero of ‘The Knot of Vipers’ is an unloved, unloving, and nearly unlovable man. He’s cut off from his family by a web of suspicion and antipathy. They are determined to get their inheritance; he is equally intent on disinheriting them. Louis is convinced that he is at the base of it an unpleasant even hateful man, he’s put everything into building a fortune, and into trying to enact emotional retribution from those he feels have hurt him – mostly his wife.

The book takes the form first of a letter and then of a confession, Monsieur Louis goes over his life from disappointment to disappointment never withholding his own misdeeds. There is also no doubt that this is a biased account seen from a single perspective, which I also think is where the story is at its strongest. As a young man Louis finds himself marrying a girl far above his social sphere – as he tells it he becomes engaged by accident and without actually meaning to, but initially it’s a happy union; that is until his wife confesses to a previous affair one night. It brings all Louis’ insecurities to the fore – including the belief that Isa married him only for his money. The marriage falls apart from that moment, and the next forty years are a slow burning war of attrition between the couple. Isa annexes the children, Louis engages in a series of sordid liaisons, and ostentatiously turns his back on Isa’s beloved church, losing no opportunity to expose the religious hypocrisy he sees around him.

The other half of the book deals with the battle for Louis’ soul. Is he redeemable? Can he let go of the hatred and desire for vengeance, of the knot of vipers that has taken the place of his heart. Well I’ll leave you to guess the ending for yourselves, but will say that there’s a heartbreaking moment when he realises that he might have misjudged his wife.

To my modern and atheist eye the spiritual message feels a little clumsy, and something’s feel like a coincidence to far, but there’s a lot to be said for the reminder that we are the sum of what we do and not what we pay lip service too, and everything else about the story telling is terrific. The Bordeaux countryside is bought vividly to life, the slow unravelling of a life is equally moving and gripping, and however imperfect Louis is I could not help but sympathise with him. I can confirm that this is indeed a classic to keep alive!

Do by the way check out Capuchin's website. They're having a launch party for Nancy Mitford's Highland fling at Heywood Hill's bookshop on the 15th of July and it looks like tickets can be applied for...


  1. This is a really interesting review. I guess that the point of the flawed narrator is that he becomes a way of discussing human frailties and religious ideas of sin and redemption etc - that is certainly the case in other overtly catholic novels such as Brideshead Revisited and some of the Graham Greenes. This souds like a classic of the genre.

    Thanks indeed for posting

  2. Hannah, I need to read Graham Greene, I've got a couple but never really got round to him. Waugh I love, and I adored Brideshead revisited when I read it in my early twenties, just like Waugh I fell for the glamour of the Flytes. The strength of the Mauriac is that there's no glamour just grubby and very recognisable humanity.