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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 3 chapter 9)

2006-08-22 20:21


  For twenty years he had seen his mother-a poor, weak creature who needed his protection-in his wife. This image was deeply rooted in him, and he could not rid himself of it in two dys. On the way home his conscience began to bother him: he was afraid that Marie-Claude had fallen apart after he left and that he would find her terribly sick at heart. Stealthily he unlocked the door and went into his room. He stood there for a moment and listened: Yes, she was at home. After a moment's hesitation he went into her room, ready to greet her as usual.

  What? she exclaimed, raising her eyebrows in mock surprise. You? Here?

  Where else can I go? he wanted to say (genuinely surprised), but said nothing.

  Let's set the record straight, shall we? I have nothing against your moving in with her at once.

  When he made his confession on the day he left for Rome, he had no precise plan of action. He expected to come home and talk it all out in a friendly atmosphere so as not to harm Marie-Claude any more than necessary. It never occurred to him that she would calmly and coolly urge him to leave.

  Even though it facilitated things, he could not help feeling disappointed. He had been afraid of wounding her all his life and voluntarily stuck to a stultifying discipline of monogamy, and now, after twenty years, he suddenly learned that it had all been superfluous and he had given up scores of women because of a misunderstanding!

  That afternoon, he gave his lecture, then went straight to Sabina's from the university. He had decided to ask her whether he could spend the night. He rang the doorbell, but no one answered. He went and sat at the cafe across the street and stared long and hard at the entrance to her building.

  Evening came, and he did not know where to turn. All his life he had shared his bed with Marie-Claude. If he went home to Marie-Claude, where should he sleep? He could, of course, make up a bed on the sofa in the next room. But wouldn't that be merely an eccentric gesture? Wouldn't it look like a sign of ill will? He wanted to remain friends with her, after all! Yet getting into bed with her was out of the question. He could just hear her asking him ironically why he didn't prefer Sabina's bed. He took a room in a hotel.

  The next day, he rang Sabina's doorbell morning, noon, and night.

  The day after, he paid a visit to the concierge, who had no information and referred him to the owner of the flat. He phoned her and found out that Sabina had given notice two days before.

  During the next few days, he returned at regular intervals, still hoping to find her in, but one day he found the door open and three men in overalls loading the furniture and paintings into a van parked outside.

  He asked them where they were taking the furniture.

  They replied that they were under strict instructions not to reveal the address.

  He was about to offer them a few francs for the secret address when suddenly he felt he lacked the strength to do it. His grief had broken him utterly. He understood nothing, had no idea what had happened; all he knew was that he had been waiting for it to happen ever since he met Sabina. What must be must be. Franz did not oppose it.

  He found a small flat for himself in the old part of town. When he knew his wife and daughter were away, he went back to his former home to fetch his clothes and most essential books. He was careful to remove nothing that Marie-Claude might miss.

  One day, he saw her through the window of a cafe. She was sitting with two women, and her face, long riddled with wrinkles from her unbridled gift for grimaces, was in a state of animation. The women were listening closely and laughing continually. Franz could not get over the feeling that she was telling them about him. Surely she knew that Sabina had disappeared from Geneva at the very time Franz decided to live with her. What a funny story it would make! He was not the least bit surprised at becoming a butt to his wife's friends.

  When he got home to his new flat, where every hour he could hear the bells of Saint-Pierre, he found that the department store had delivered his new desk. He promptly forgot about Marie-Claude and her friends. He even forgot about Sabina for the time being. He sat down at the desk. He was glad to have picked it out himself. For twenty years he had lived among furniture not of his own choosing. Marie-Claude had taken care of everything. At last he had ceased to be a little boy; for the first time in his life he was on his own. The next day he hired a carpenter to make a bookcase for him. He spent several days designing it and deciding where it should stand.

  And at some point, he realized to his great surprise that he was not particularly unhappy. Sabina's physical presence was much less important than he had suspected. What was important was the golden footprint, the magic footprint she had left on his life and no one could ever remove. Just before disappearing from his horizon, she had slipped him Hercules' broom, and he had used it to sweep everything he despised out of his life. A sudden happiness, a feeling of bliss, the joy that came of freedom and a new life-these were the gifts she had left him.

  Actually, he had always preferred the unreal to the real. Just as he felt better at demonstrations (which, as I have pointed out, are all playacting and dreams) than in a lecture hall full of students, so he was happier with Sabina the invisible goddess than the Sabina who had accompanied him throughout the world and whose love he constantly feared losing. By giving him the unexpected freedom of a man living on his own, she provided him with a halo of seductiveness. He became very attractive to women, and one of his students fell in love with him.

  And so within an amazingly short period the backdrop of his life had changed completely. Until recently he had lived in a large upper-middle-class flat with a servant, a daughter, and a wife; now he lived in a tiny flat in the old part of town, where almost every night he was joined by his young student-mistress. He did not need to squire her through the world from hotel to hotel; he could make love to her in his own flat, in his own bed, with his own books and ashtray on the bedside table!

  She was a modest girl and not particularly pretty, but she admired Franz in the way Franz had only recently admired Sabina. He did not find it unpleasant. And if he did perhaps feel that trading Sabina for a student with glasses was something for a comedown, his innate goodness saw to it that he cared for her and lavished on her the paternal love that had never had a true outlet before, given that Marie-Anne had always behaved less like his daughter than like a copy of Marie-Claude.

  One day, he paid a visit to his wife. He told her he would like to remarry.

  Marie-Claude shook her head.

  But a divorce won't make any difference to you! You won't lose a thing! I'll give you all the property!

  I don't care about property, she said.

  Then what do you care about?

  Love, she said with a smile.

  Love? Franz asked in amazement.

  Love is a battle, said Marie-Claude, still smiling. And I plan to go on fighting. To the end.

  Love is a battle? said Franz. Well, I don't feel at all like fighting. And he left.

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