François Mauriac: Le noeud de vipères (Vipers’ Tangle; later: The Knot of Vipers)
The novel starts with Louis, a retired lawyer, writing a bitter letter to his wife, which he expects her to find after his death. He plans on disinheriting her and their two children, Hubert and Geneviève. His hatred for the three of them is intense. In his letter, he tells his story. His father died when he was very young and he was brought up, a only child, by his mother. Thanks to some wise investments by both parents and his father, Louis and his mother are very comfortably off, so much so that, when he is a teenager, she is able to buy a fine house, of which he is given an entire floor to himself. Despite this, he is not very happy as he does not seem to fit in with other people.
One day, while out to dinner with his mother, they see the Fondaudège family. Louis is struck by the daughter, Isabelle, while his mother is concerned that Mr. Fondaudège, who is not there, owes her money. Louis is soon taken by Isabelle but his mother warns him off, saying that she and her family are only after his money. Nevertheless, Louis is flattered by the first person to show an interest in him and they end up getting married, though he lets his mother draw up the marriage contract, protecting his assets, something he will later be grateful for. Their first problem is when she tells him that she had, in fact, been engaged previously. She had not told him before the marriage. It is clear that she still retains s strong affection for this man, who was called Rodolphe. It is clearly no coincidence that he bears the same name as Emma Bovary’s first lover. He is bitter about this confession and will remain bitter for the rest of the marriage. Despite the fact that they manage to have three children and continue to live together, they remain estranged. He has a very successful career as a lawyer (he blames her for being unaware of his success); he also has affairs.
While he is lying ill in his bed (he has a heart condition), he is able to listen to his family discussing him, unknown to them. The family – his wife, children, their spouses, their children and the children’s spouses – is aware, as are we, that he plans to disinherit them, though they are unsure of the details. They speculate and argue endlessly on what he is worth (far more than they think), what he is going to do with his money and how they can get hold of it. Of course, hearing this spurs him on to find an alternative to his immediate heirs. And that is the problem for him. There are two candidates but one is killed in World War I and one turns out to be less than impressive. When events conspire against him, things take a dramatic change.
Mauriac is not one to paint a picture of a happy marriage. His characters have two desires in life – land ownership and honour. These two are both quite important for Louis’ heirs, though their definition of honour might not be the same as yours or mine. However, what makes this book so good – and it is considered, rightly so, one of Mauriac’s finest – is the portrait of Louis, a man whose one glimpse of happiness, in the form of a loving wife, was shattered very early on and left him embittered for the rest of his life. The book actually finishes soon after his death and it is clear that he will not be mourned by his nearest and dearest, despite his adult granddaughter, Janine, making some effort to appeared saddened by his death. Louis is lost, as are his family, as they do not have a true belief in God. Janine, for example, when Louis asks her if she is religious, responds that, of course, she is, as she goes to mass every week. That is not enough for Mauriac. Nevertheless, Mauriac cannot help but have an admiration for Louis, in his meticulous planning and calculations to get revenge on his family for what he sees as their betrayal. It is this portrait of Louis that makes this one of Mauriac’s finest.
First published in French 1932 by Bernard Grasset
First English translation 1933 by Sheed & Ward