Mauriac: The Knot of Vipers

October 24, 2016

The Knot of Vipers
François Mauriac
Translated from the French by Gerard Hopkins
(Capuchin Classics, 2010) [1932]
208 p.

By reputation one of the great Catholic novels of the twentieth century, this is a richly rewarding study of a man whose soul has, on his own testimony, become a “knot of vipers”, and an account of the slow process by which that knot is loosened.

The novel begins with Louis, an aged Frenchman approaching death, writing a last epistle to his family. Many years before, it seems, his pride had been wounded by a passing comment made by his wife, and for his whole life he has nursed a grudge which has caused his soul to fester with barely concealed hatred. Now, in a final act of revenge, he hopes to ruin his wife and children by bestowing his family’s considerable fortune on one of his illegitimate children whom he hardly knows.

Louis writes to explain himself to them — the entire book is the text of his long letter — but in the process he finds that he is explaining himself to himself as well, and, perhaps simply from relief of speaking about his grievances, or perhaps because he gradually sees his own motives more clearly, or perhaps for some deeper reason, hidden from view, he finds in the course of his writing his vengeful delight dissipating, replaced, to his great surprise, by something approaching its opposite.

It is tempting to see the novel as akin to Brideshead Revisited insofar as it traces the delicate action of grace in a soul, but this might be pushing too hard. Although it is sometimes called a “Catholic novel”, there is in fact relatively little Catholicism in it — Louis has little interest in religion apart from its value as a topic on which to taunt his devout wife — and his transformation is a moral conversion rather than an overtly religious one. Even just as such, it is a tricky thing to manage, and on this first reading my main concern about the novel is that Louis’ change of heart, when it comes, comes a little too hastily and without adequate preparation. But this is a provisional judgment, for the psychology of the main character is so subtle and richly developed that the apparent fault may well rest with me, the insensitive reader.

It is hazardous to venture comments on style when reading in translation, but I was impressed by the quality of the writing. I relished Mauriac’s ability to set me down in a particular time and place, giving the story enough space to settle into a moment: looking out a window at night, or awaiting the onset of an approaching rain storm. At times I felt I could almost breath the same air as Louis.

This novel, in the same (and only) English translation, is also sold under the title Vipers’ Tangle. I prefer that title, as being punchier and having more poetry in it, but it seems that the edition I read has given the original title (Le Nœud de vipères) more straightforwardly. Oddly, my edition nowhere gives the name of the translator, Gerard Hopkins (not to be confused with the poet).

8 Responses to “Mauriac: The Knot of Vipers”

  1. Janet Says:

    I read that in May of this year and thought it was wonderful–well, as wonderful as anything can be that’s so full of acrimony. I’m not sure that there is so little Catholicism in the book. There is the Catholicism of his wife’s family which is tepid but is always there on the edge stirring up something inside of Louis, and there is the priest who has some effect on him and there is the granddaughter. Is it his granddaughter? Anyway the young woman he lives with at the end.

    I guess you could say that St. Paul’s change of heart came too rapidly too, but then, that’s just the way it happens with some people. It reminded me of Orual who is writing a complaint to the gods, but then find all of a sudden that she is really writing an accusation of herself, and that she is writing to someone she had not hitherto known.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Near synchronicity! I read it in June (but it took a few months for me to write my notes).

    You’re right that there is some Catholicism around the edges, and maybe seeping up from underneath, and one couldn’t call it irrelevant, but all told I found it less pronounced than I had anticipated.

    Yes, sudden conversions happen, but I would argue that the conventions of the novel, especially one as psychologically astute as this one, don’t lend themselves well to St Paul-like experiences. My doubts about the novel have more to do with its artistic effect than with sudden conversions per se.

  3. Janet Says:

    But I saw hints of it all along. Like Brideshead really. Did you see that?


  4. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I would say that I did, but that’s the sort of thing I tend to notice. I’m not sure an “average reader” would pick up on it in a clear way. I found it more peripheral than in Brideshead, but this might be nit-picking.

  5. Major Styles Says:

    “Many years before, it seems, his pride had been wounded by a passing comment made by his wife, and for his whole life he has nursed a grudge which has caused his soul to fester with barely concealed hatred.”

    Good premise. I’ve known several men who battled with this. Married men who, due to an inability to deal with women, or being married to a problematic woman, are carrying a grudge. It’s like a cross to a certain regard, which is a appropriate connection to the Christian theme.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Yes, it is a good premise. In this book the offending comment is something about how the couple met, which Louis interprets in the worst possible light, as implying that his wife “settled” for him. Wounded pride.

  7. Mac Horton Says:

    It’s been many years since I read it, and all I remember is the broad outline of the story. But I do remember finding it pretty Catholic, especially the implications of “For Papa! For Papa!” Maybe that was less significant than I recall.

  8. cburrell Says:

    No, your memory is good, Mac. That is a very important moment. I’m having to reconsider my initial take on this aspect of the book.

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