Francois Mauriac: The Threshold Of The Soul

The soul, writes Francois Mauriac, “is the essence of reality,” and consequently his novels are marked by a special kind of psychological realism. They are explorations of the estranged soul, the soul that feeds upon itself, cut off from grace and from other human beings. One character can describe himself as malevolent and deformed while his family, in turn, also sees him as a monster, even in death—this is the ambiance of The Knot of Vipers. The unloveliness of Mauriac’s characters is essentially an illustration of the Pascalian misery of the soul without God.

Born in 1885 in Bordeaux, France, François Mauriac eventually transposed the provincial milieu of his childhood into his novels. His fictional world is narrow in scope—his characters represent the middle class of the Bordeaux region, and if they escape to Paris, they are lost and ill at ease. These people are tied to their families by bonds of mistrust and hatred and to their land and possessions by a deeper bond of greed and materialism.

The land itself is an extension of the spiritual state of these souls. Thérèse, the protagonist of Thérèse Desqueyroux, comes from Argelouse, literally, “ ‘a land’s end,’ a place beyond which it is impossible to go”—“a remote and arid corner.” Her personal aridity and isolation are echoed by the silence of the pine forests of this desolate countryside. The bond between Mauriac’s characters and their material world of money and the land also counters the metaphysical lack of their souls. Louis, the old narrator of The Knot of Vipers, describes himself with a money belt of gold coins that he had been hoarding around his neck: “I plunged my hand into all that gold which represented for me what ...

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