Considered by many to be the best novel by France’s François Mauriac (1885–1970), A Knot of Vipers contains those recurring central themes of alienation, error, and delusion, or simply “sin,” seen in most of his stories. The work also reveals Mauriac at the height of his technical powers, with the novel’s curious structure of invective turned confession turned memoir. The story begins as a letter written by the narrator, Louis, to his wife, Isa, and their children. Louis envisions the letter being placed among his documents and securities in his safe, to be discovered when the family members dash for their inheritance once he is in the ground. The letter drips with hatred, spite, anger, resentment, accusation, and disappointment, all seasoned with enough rationalization and justification to make it that much more bitter for his family to hear. Beginning this way, the work soon changes to a confession, a diary of sorts, that Louis uses to explore his past to see why his present life repulses him so. Isa dies before he gets to finish this hateful apology, and in the end his exposition becomes part of Louis’ ultimate redemption.
Part one of the novel has Louis admitting that the letter is an act of vengeance that he has been brooding upon for decades. He tells his family that he could, if he wanted, deny them what they have been so anxiously awaiting, this fortune of his for which he has been sacrificing all of his life. These sacrifices, he admits, have “poisoned” his mind, “nourishing and fattening” the “vipers” in his heart. “I am by nature,” he coldly confesses, “Nature’s wet blanket,” though he moves on to describe a life that somehow suggests that his nature was in fact corrupted and turned over to what it is now.
The narrator, Louis, was an only child, with his father having died early in his life and his mother showing affection but no understanding. Louis envies those who have childhood memories that they cherish; all he has are memories of sacrifice and alienation. Education for him came at a high price, and he received no sense of guidance or enlightenment despite his hard work and success. Socially awkward and detached, he becomes a bit of a skirt chaser, seeking only to humiliate and dominate whenever he can. He was a brute, he says, and he has paid and continues to pay for his behavior, but at this point he regrets nothing. All that will soon change, however. Louis points out that he had cherished a hatred for religion, even taking to eating his “Good Friday cutlet” in front of his pious wife and family, as if to show that he will not yield nor will he be owned. An indifference to religion would have been more expected, but to throw such energy at blasphemy as Louis does reveals the deeper struggles and confusions at the heart of his dedication to anger.
Along with the focus on striking out at God is Louis’s lifelong cruelty to his wife. In the discussions of his wife and their early marriage, hatred gives way to regret, revision (“I shouldn’t say that, that’s not fair to you”), and short glimpses into his pain and disappointment. Louis did love his wife in those first years, he writes, ironically for her “spiritual elements.” However, Louis also reveals that what he loved about Isa was her love for him, how much her personality reflected his own worth. In his long invective he tells Ira that what fascinated him was that she found him “no longer repellent.” In a moment of misunderstanding, Isa soon after the wedding confesses to her husband that she had been involved with a man named Rodolphe. The reader realizes, as Louis does not, that Isa here is opening herself up, making sure that no mystery will come between them. Louis, however, thinks that Rodolphe now haunts their marriage, and that Isa is still secretly in love with the man.
After these miscommunications, Louis writes and begins what he calls the “era of the Great Silence,” ignoring Isa for the rest of their marriage. She, of course, turns to her children for affection, which causes further resentment from Louis. He enters a life of secret debauchery, indifferent to his children in their “grub stage,” as he calls it. The children for the rest of their lives take on the brunt of their father’s hatred and cold indifference. Louis becomes a great lawyer in Paris, revealing that his skills in the courtroom prompt others to offer him opportunities at being a writer for journals and newspapers, and others to suggest that he run for political offices. Dismissing them, Louis says that he stuck it out to keep getting the “big money.”
A few people in particular show Louis brief moments of love, possible connections to others, but they are taken away too soon for him to be truly redeemed. First there is his daughter, Maria, whom he loved, he says, because she never was afraid of him and did not “irritate” him. An affair with a schoolteacher, perhaps the mother of the illegitimate son in the second part of the novel, was to Louis the one time that he knew “real love,” but he also admits that the woman intrigued him because she so easily became his “property.” Isa’s sister, Marinette, catches the interest of Louis not out of lust but for the simple fact that she is not suspected of any plots or jealousies. Her son, Luc, becomes Louis’s emotional surrogate, most likely to spite his own family, but Luc goes off to war and never returns.
These disappointments and misreadings of others stand beside Louis’s revelation of the mess that he has made of his life. He tells Isa here that he is tormented by having “nothing out of life,” nothing to look forward to “but death,” and no sense of any world beyond this one, no hint of a solution, no response to his provocations to a silent God (this “nothingness” that he rages at will become important for his ultimate redemption). He confesses that he has chosen wrongly, that he never learned how to live. “I know my heart,” he writes, “it is a knot of vipers.”
Part two of the novel shows that this letter, now turned notebook, has been brought along unwittingly by Louis as he leaves to go to Paris in search of his illegitimate son, Robert, little realizing it is an attempt to find someone that he can love and with whom he can finally communicate. Completely broken off from his family, he admits that he is projecting onto Robert the qualities that he cherished from Luc and Phili, family members for whom he apparently has a certain affection. Louis initiates his search after overhearing them asking Isa to have their father committed. In retaliation, Louis looks to give Robert the entire fortune, robbing the family of yet one more thing.
Louis relates one scene in which Isa, prompted by her children, asks Louis about some stock shares that she had brought into the marriage. He assures Isa that they are safe, and she breaks down, asking why he hates his children. He screams back at her, “It is you who hate me, or rather, it’s my children. You merely ignore me.” Isa confesses to her husband that the entire time they were married, she never let the children come to sleep with her due to her hope that one day Louis may have possibly come to her bed to be with his wife. The true effect of their disappointed relationship on both Isa and Louis is realized, but far too late to prevent lasting damage.
Isa dies, and Louis laments that “she had died without knowing me, without knowing that there was more in me than the monster, the tormentor, that she thought me to be.” At the funeral, Louis and his children hurl their anger and rage at one another, they at him for his cruelty, he at them for lying about not knowing where he was to tell him about Isa’s death. Louis catches them in the lie because he had seen family members meeting with Robert to discuss what their father was plotting. His son, Hubert, exasperated at the intrigues, says that he only fought for his children, for their honor, but now they are all faced with “nothing.” The word nothing suddenly strikes at the knot of vipers that Louis has been cultivating all these years, echoing the “nothingness” in his life and the “nothingness” that is Isa’s death. Immediately, Louis feels his hatred die, his “desire for reprisals” dissipate, and his fortune simply no longer of interest to him. He hands everything over to them, unburdening himself of his fortune and, symbolically, his torments. The reader is apt to suspect that Louis had unconsciously kept his children away from the very thing that caused his life to become so odious. “Fancy waking up at sixty-eight,” says Louis, adding, “I must never stop telling myself that it is too late.” At one point he remembers what he had always loved about Isa—her piety—recalling her nightly prayers, “I thank Thee that Thou hast given me a heart to know and love Thee.”
Louis’s final act is one of compassion and understanding, as Phili has left his wife, Louis’s granddaughter Janine. Recognizing both the family’s mistreatment of Phili and the affection that Janine still clings to, Louis comforts his granddaughter, asking her finally if she really thinks Phili is worth all of her “pain and torment.” The question never gets answered, as Louis dies, ironically, while writing in his notebook.
The novel ends with two letters, the first from Hubert to his wife, Genevieve, addressing the discovery of the notebook and the curious confessions of his inscrutable father. He tells his wife of the blasphemy and hatred therein, admitting that his father now seems noble and more human. Still, he suspects Louis of actually turning a defeat into a moral victory. The second letter is from Janine to her uncle Hubert, defending her grandfather, saying that he was the most religious man she has ever known. She says that the rest of the family acts piously but never lets principle interfere with their lives, and she praises Louis for living his according to principles he felt to be true to his heart. She asks at the end of this assessment of Louis’s life if it can be said that for him, “where his treasure was, there his heart was not?”
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