François Mauriac (1865-1970)
[Le Neoud de Vipères: The novel is based on the hero’s record of the social and psychological forces which have shaped his solitude. The first part of Louis’ account is prompted by an explosion of hatred and vengeance resulting from his wife’s forty-five years of silence and separation. His need to probe the sources of his feelings and to be understood as more than a miser set upon disinheriting his children launches him upon a spiritual adventure of discovery and change. What Louis begins as a letter to his wife, Isa, to be read after his death, subsequently becomes a diary and, more important, a defense, a confession, and a self-revelation to be passed on as a part of the family inheritance.]
Mauriac came from a wealthy family. The bourgeois dynasty of the Fondaulège in Le Noeud de Vipères recalls his own family. The grand bourgeoisie of Bordeaux formed a closed class which put up an imposing façade of respectability. As Mauriac portrays it, it was very conservative and religious. He himself was basically a bon bourgeois, content with life and with great literary pride.
Mauriac wrote ferociously critical political pamphlets. Barrès published Mauriac’s earliest writings which situated him at first on the nationalistic, reactionary Catholic side of French literature. He remained a Catholic, but he revolted against the Catholicism of his background. For example, he was for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. In the novel, Louis’ wife came from a conservative and Catholic upper bourgeois family that would have probably been collaborators, supporters of Franco and of Petain during the German occupation.
Jansenism was a strong influence in Mauriac’s world. The Jansenists emphasized the importance of evil in human life and the total weakness of man before divine grace. They believed that grace could be withdrawn at any time, a view not so very different from the Protestant notion of predestination. Jansenist Catholicism was a sombre and austere religion. The Jansenists were accused of discouraging the unhappy sinner and leaving him with the feeling that nothing he could do could save him. Jansenism was even accused of destroying moral life as in Manon Lescaut. A Jansenist spirit, an attitude of negation of life, still remains an influence in Catholicism in some places.
The Bourgeois Family
Mauriac's essential problem is not too different from that of Bernanos. Both are mainly concerned with evil. In Bernanos sin is not individual but collective, the sin of the parish. In Mauriac it is familial and it is impossible to escape it within the family.
Mauriac is at his best in his studies of bourgeois families of the type found in Le Noeud de Vipères. These very cohesive families seem stable but are fraught with great tensions. Mauriac’s best characters are the worst for having been subjected to the evil of this environment. They attempt to free themselves by dominating each other intellectually or sexually. The great sin for Mauriac is pride both in his characters and in himself.
The novel depicts the drama of the conflict of two families. Their complicity in lying and hate is what ties them in a “noeud.” The wife’s family, the Fondaulège, are depicted in a terrible caricature of Catholicism. Like all Mauriac's personages, the husband, Louis, is trapped by his prejudices which drag him into a vicious circle. He comes from the petty bourgeoisie, a class which is hostile to the big bourgeoisie. He is a profoundly antibourgeois bourgeois, anticlerical and a Radical Socialist at a time when that party was still somewhat leftist, democratic and reformist. He revolts against the duties of paternity and tries to disinherit his family, but by the end he has learned much and begins to understand his family. The novel is his confession.
There are a number of intimations of Christianity in Louis which could be the basis of a conversion under the right circumstances. In fact he is the only real Christian in the family, but it offers him a terrible, sordid image of Christianity that repulses him.
Mauriac's world is basically matriarchal. Typical of the French bourgeoisie, the men are pawns. The children are weak because they are spoiled by their mother in the course of the conflict between her and their father, Louis. Louis’ dependence on his mother is greater than he knows. She has no intellectual, spiritual or social life beyond her association with her son. Louis, completely dominated by her, sides with his mother against his wife.
At first it seems as though husband and wife will find a compromise, but this fails. The story of Rodolphe is the mythic expression of the profound disagreement between them. Louis was already hostile to his wife for personal and social reasons at this time and this explains why his reaction is so strong. The story is a kind of catalyst shattering the obstacles to understanding.
For Mauriac art is always confession. The war of the husband and wife is carried out in silences and by meaningful glances until Louis writes everything down. He writes for the people he hates most and who are closest to him. This frees him from his hate in the end. His case could be seen as an archetype of the relation between the modern French writer and his much hated public.
Mauriac’s novels are in the classical tradition exhibiting unity of action in time and almost of place. The writing is limited to essentials with no description for its own sake. The natural background of the important human events is just indicated rather than carefully described. There is an elegant rapidity about the writing which is typical of the classical récit. Le Noeud de Vipères is a good book, but there is something unnatural about its style which is excessively literary and artificial.
The story told in Le Noeud de Vipères is essentially intersubjective. Although the novel gives us only one point of view it allows us to guess at that of the others. This technique, similar to that of the Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, is not entirely appropriate to this highly intersubjective story.