13 thoughts on “The Knot of Vipers – François Mauriac

    I – II

    “Why should I have felt the itch to scribble on my birthday? I am entering on my sixty-eighth year,…”

    I hope this coincidence of age is the only similarity that I have with this narrator!
    I say ‘narrator’, but, in fact, this book so far, and probably all of it, is a letter written in real-time (how appropriate I am due to review it in real-time alongside him) by a man to his wife (and his children and grandchildren?) that he intends to be read by her after his death. It is incredibly obsessive, relentless, bitter, densely packed with over-brimming resentment with a prose to match – evidently seeking revenge for a loveless marriage and life. He wants this to be a rounded portrayal of himself so that she can bear the brunt of the whole context of his life within hers and she within his, and he starts off with his relationship with his mother, the affluence of his childhood, eventual hatred of the Jesuits and all religion. It is both searing and pitiful. I can’t bear to predict where this letter may lead him… And how certain he can be that one day it will be read. His death having more power than his life upon her, as a result.
    He talks, inter alia, of his ‘blood-spitting’ ailment as a child, the choice of ties and the tying of them.

    “When, as a child, I used to pass priests in the street, I always thought of them as of people wearing a disguise, as a species of maskers.”

  2. III

    “I started this as a letter, but it’s a letter no longer. It has become a diary, now and then broken off, now and then resumed . . .”

    What are those whispers he hears whispered about him by his family downstairs as he writes this? Paranoia, as well as bitterness, as he resumes by addressing ‘you’ — you, his wife, in the near future when you read this search as a real-time review of the past, this partial dreamcatching, this Proustian remembrance of lost time – a text with an intermittent Proustian style to match. Bitterness does not preclude poetry or a talent with words, it seems.
    He also recounts, more baldly, the time when he first met you, the merceneray context or your family’s debt with interest, and how marriages are either a pay-off or a moment of additional loan, loan as money as well as false emotion.
    A telling comparison of the two mothers. Also he recounts the brief glimpse of there seeming to be more to this world than material matters, an epiphany that barely brushes against a sense of faith or religion, having previously found nothing metaphysical in the Mass…

  3. IV – VI

    “What is it that I dread about death? – physical pain? the awful struggle at the end? – no, not that, but the feeling that to die is to become nothing, that our state in the grave can only be expressed by the symbol – ”

    That’s sicnificant (sic)? Chapter VI indeed ends with an en dash.
    These three chapters trace his real-time confessional ‘diary’ as ‘letter to his wife to be forwarded into the future’ like leaving centuries later a bomb on a blog, with its URL and password secreted about his dead body? We learn now, and she WILL eventually learn, how he has incubated a lethal seed of recrimination upon his explicit tides of anger when, after a few reasonable years of marriage, she lets slip that he was second best, because of her true love Rodolphe resisting marriage with her because of rumours of there being a health weakness in her family line… We also learn of the letter-writer’s disappointments with his own mercenary children and grandchildren, despite his own mercenary attitude to money. And that he is tantamount to a nobody to his wife ever since she had children by him, his sole purpose having been as stud or sire, I infer. He had a legal case that gave him fame as a lawyer, but that meant nothing to her. He now rather resents that they now have no sympathy with the true nature of his old age. Old? 68!
    Another of his wife’s bombshells was a simple statement but a loaded one in view of his erstwhile scorn for religion, when she once said: “I fell in love with you from the moment we met. We had said many, many prayers at Lourdes before going to Luchon, and as soon as I set eyes on you I knew they had been answered.”
    I may leave a bomb on THIS blog, having now been given the idea… “But if I go on mixing present and past like this, I shall never get to the end of my confession.” And me, of this review.

  4. VII

    “You took root in my soil, but our roots never met.”

    The deepest comment upon his marriage witnessed by his ‘letter-confession-diary’ in hindsight but spoken into the future, as Louis looks back at the the Dreyfus era of late 19th century France, at his own OCD and ownership of people almost like a slave owner, he says of himself. The death of Marie, one of his daughters, a moment of touching memory in his case but maudlin remembrance in his wife’s case. The young priest who liked music too much. Something Stendhal going on there, I ask myself. Louis taunting Isa with her own literal religious beliefs, tying her in Socratic knots.
    The tension between his non-belief and an envy of a belief beyond his ability to acknowledge needing? A relationship with his children that belied his unspoken wish that they had never been born, or so I infer.
    I have never read anything before that so embitters a kindred spirit or a reader like me or anyone else it touches. I must bear in mind that I am effectively reading it in real-time before Isa his wife has had a chance to read it. Something feels wrong about that.

    “It was on lines strung to the apple trees that Marie’s tiny dresses were hung out to dry, and a long sequence of innocent garments.”

  5. VIII – IX

    “Your faith was useless to you. You had thoughts for nothing but that flesh of your flesh which was going to be laid in the earth and would soon know corruption. It was I, the unbeliever, who realised, as I looked at what remained of Marie, the full meaning of ‘remains’. I was overwhelmed by a sense of departure, of absence.”

    From the earlier roots we now have the the branches of the trees interlacing as Louis talks of himself and Isa’s sister, Marinette….
    Life as a ‘mortgage on expectations’? – as we read cinematic scenes about his encounters with Marinette, and the death of Marie. Importantly a death to be seen as if by typhoid not by consumption, for the sake of the bloodline.
    A mercenary morass, mulching the family tree?

    “‘Oh, nothing,’ I said. It was a kind of private language of our own.”
    Always, ‘0 nothing.’

  6. X – XI

    “And yet, how different they were! She [Marie], you will remember could never bear to see an insect crushed, and loved to line a hollow tree with moss, and set in it a statue to the Virgin. All the same, in Marinette’s son [Luc], in the boy you used to call ‘a little animal,’ I seemed to see Marie again:…”

    Threaded through Louis’s pessimism and resignation, was this sense of Marie and Luc, both cut short, the first by illness, the second by the entrammels of the Great War. Life itself seems to be a Great War for Louis, and this text is its dark testament, a grappling with a promise now not to succumb to wanting a priest at his last rites and with a dread that that is exactly to what he will succumb. This section of text, I sense, embraces the Ligottian NOEUD itself, now out in the open and expressed upon the page, the prayer or ‘prie’ not to need to pray at all.
    To pray to the Virgin or a Viper for some kind of retrocausal reprieve?

    (Just because this is a translation, doesn’t mean to say that it wasn’t meant to be translated. A filter can work both ways.)

  7. XII

    “- if you read of it in a novel you wouldn’t believe it!”

    I’ll have to be careful I don’t give away plot spoilers as we reach a watershed in the letter-confession-diary’s narrator’s real-time about his own past retrocausal (literally!) real-time – over-hearing in the second half of this chapter the various members of his estranged family plotting against him and conniving to get his money, resulting in his later visit to Paris (to ensure his advance revenge on them) but told at the beginning of this chapter!

    “For the first time in my life I felt the satisfaction of being outdone in malevolence.”

  8. XIII – XV

    “Their slime was still visible on the ground.”

    Revenge and treachery of treachery as a suppurating mass or Mass, one now wonders whether the NOEUD is inside or outside oneself, and who crawls their way to a nightmare vision of one’s offspring as an excessive caricature of oneself or as a miraculous vision of the Blessed Virgin ‘Marie’ within the church where earlier others of (or close to) one’s own flesh had crawled to dip within a holy water stoup…
    Only the palimpsest of time can solve? To solve the polarisation or the symbiosis between (a) a literary hoax (treachery) and (b) a fiction vision as religious truth (whether it be a vision of effulgent miracle or of deathly nightmare – or more probably both of them at once).
    My personal thoughts.

  9. XVI – XVII

    “Probably, in the whole course of their lives, they had never seen me cry. The old surly, terrifying face, the Medusa’s head at which they had none of them been able to look, had undergone a metamorphosis, had become simply that of a human being.”

    For your own real-time appreciation of events, given the nature of non-received telegrams in the preterite of the preinternet, I cannot tell you how events have turned out, plot and counterplot, here recorded within this once intended cruelty of a diary, still apparently being written, even as I talk about it, but now written for whom, if not you? A Möbius strip of recriminations and misintention, as the narrator becomes onlooker with detached indifference, having “squat down on a ‘prie-Dieu'”, but still busily scribbling angry words into this meticulous crafting of something else – something already due to be turned into this book, a book to earn money? Father and children – a knot of mercenary machinations for this book to be written at all? Their fortune expressed in words.

    “‘All right then, open it,’ I said, ‘open it and read what’s inside.'”

    “We do not know what we desire: we do not love those whom we think we love.”

  10. XVIII – XX

    “Fancy waking up at sixty-eight. Fancy being reborn at the very moment of my death.”

    “I thought of my life and saw what it had been. No one could swim against such a current of mud. I had been a man so horrible that he could have no friend.”

    I can’t believe I am myself 68 in about a month’s time, as I finish reading this momentous book. While looking back proudly at my own creative life (creative latterly with these real-time reviews I have been conducting) – my three ages – but what happened before 1986? I proudly look to my business and family life. My loving wife and unmercenary children. My prevailing love for them. My need for a faith in literature, if not in some ostensible fiction called God.
    But Louis in this HIS book is torn between several other polarities, too, while producing this literature almost in spite of himself. His bitterly mercenary children (“They would prefer to see everything spoiled than get unequal shares.”)
    When we see other points-of-view (his son’s and granddaughter’s) on his book but paradoxically seen from within the same book, we the readers wonder at his partial reporting, his thoughts here and there of ‘scratching out a sentence.’ Real-time reviewing of his own life with a changeling audience, amid dust as ‘that last remains of utter nothingness.’ The nest of ‘swarming reptiles.’ His wandering through vines, vine-shoots that later provide burning fuel for his fire. Finally, cutting through that knot of vipers, finding himself – but finding God? A ‘monster of solitude and indifference.’ The impulse that might have been another form of prayer? Or a ‘sheer love of mischief.’
    We readers meld into a swarm of points-of-view from within and without like the snakes themselves, like that earlier medusa, pre-echoing a horror that is psycho-spiritual, pitting showman hoax against faith-healing. Perhaps predicting those Ligottian Doctors who in turn botch up rather than heal the ‘lump of humanity’, treating them with the trappings of the ultimate nonsense?
    Publishing this text as a temporary obeisance to mercenary goods, to earn a living or a death. Is it any coincidence that LOUIS is a name of a coin and ISA a very well-known modern British acronym for an untaxed savings scheme? Is it a surprise that synchronicity is thus translated? A hybrid Ligotti-Mauriac as despair versus legacy, deep thought versus smug pretence, catholic versus narrow, Catholic versus CATHRian…those melting oxymorons of a ‘vague and morbid religiosity’. In the words of Louis’ own son as written by the freehold author if not by Louis himself:-

    “If he indulged in a murky mysticism, it was only that he might use it as a stick to beat that rational and moderate faith which has always held a place of honour in our family. Truth is poise … but I will not plunge deeper into those regions of abstract thought where you would have difficulty in following me. I have said enough. Read the document for yourself.”


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s