|Detail of a portrait of Mery Laurent by Edouard Manet, 1876. Laurent was a model for Proust’s character, Odette|
In this excerpt, Charles Swann is in love with Odette de Crecy. She’s a courtesan, a complicated term meaning a female companion or escort, one of whose duties was sexual. Swann visits her but she doesn’t seem to be at home. Later he returns and she says she was there, but she was asleep, yet she heard him knocking… and Swann realizes she’s telling him a lie.
One day when Swann had gone out early in the afternoon to pay a call, and had failed to find the person at home whom he wished to see, it occurred to him to go, instead, to Odette, at an hour when, although he never went to her house then as a rule, he knew that she was always at home, resting or writing letters until tea-time, and would enjoy seeing her for a moment, if it did not disturb her.
The porter told him that he believed Odette to be in; Swann rang the bell, thought that he heard a sound, that he heard footsteps, but no one came to the door.
Anxious and annoyed, he went round to the other little street, at the back of her house, and stood beneath her bedroom window; the curtains were drawn and he could see nothing; he knocked loudly upon the pane, he shouted; still no one came.
He could see that the neighbours were staring at him.
He turned away, thinking that, after all, he had perhaps been mistaken in believing that he heard footsteps; but he remained so preoccupied with the suspicion that he could turn his mind to nothing else.
After waiting for an hour, he returned.
He found her at home; she told him that she had been in the house when he rang, but had been asleep; the bell had awakened her; she had guessed that it must be Swann, and had run out to meet him, but he had already gone.
She had, of course, heard him knocking at the window.
Swann could at once detect in this story one of those fragments of literal truth which liars, when taken by surprise, console themselves by introducing into the composition of the falsehood which they have to invent, thinking that it can be safely incorporated, and will lend the whole story an air of verisimilitude.
It was true that, when Odette had just done something which she did not wish to disclose, she would take pains to conceal it in a secret place in her heart.
But as soon as she found herself face to face with the man to whom she was obliged to lie, she became uneasy, all her ideas melted like wax before a flame, her inventive and her reasoning faculties were paralysed, she might ransack her brain but would find only a void; still, she must say something, and there lay within her reach precisely the fact which she had wished to conceal, which, being the truth, was the one thing that had remained.
She broke off from it a tiny fragment, of no importance in itself, assuring herself that, after all, it was the best thing to do, since it was a detail of the truth, and less dangerous, therefore, than a falsehood.
"At any rate, this is true," she said to herself; "that’s always something to the good; he may make inquiries; he will see that this is true; it won’t be this, anyhow, that will give me away."
But she was wrong; it was what gave her away; she had not taken into account that this fragmentary detail of the truth had sharp edges which could not be made to fit in, except to those contiguous fragments of the truth from which she had arbitrarily detached it, edges which, whatever the fictitious details in which she might embed it, would continue to show, by their overlapping angles and by the gaps which she had forgotten to fill, that its proper place was elsewhere.
"She admits that she heard me ring, and then knock, that she knew it was myself, that she wanted to see me," Swann thought to himself.
"But that doesn’t correspond with the fact that she did not let me in."
He did not, however, draw her attention to this inconsistency, for he thought that, if left to herself, Odette might perhaps produce some falsehood which would give him a faint indication of the truth; she spoke; he did not interrupt her, he gathered up, with an eager and sorrowful piety, the words that fell from her lips, feeling (and rightly feeling, since she was hiding the truth behind them as she spoke) that, like the veil of a sanctuary, they kept a vague imprint, traced a faint outline of that infinitely precious and, alas, undiscoverable truth; – what she had been doing, that afternoon, at three o’clock, when he had called, – a truth of which he would never possess any more than these falsifications, illegible and divine traces, a truth which would exist henceforward only in the secretive memory of this creature, who would contemplate it in utter ignorance of its value, but would never yield it up to him.
|Mery Laurent by Edouard Manet|
Proust’s writing is notorious for rewarding a reader who reads it again. I found this is true even with this short passage, and because it’s short, it’s easy to reread.
We know that Swann is a skillful lie detector, but he realizes that Odette’s secret of what she was doing at three o’clock is going to remain an "undiscoverable truth."
From Swann’s Way, Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time), Volume One, 1913. by Marcel Proust
(A note to any Proust purists – yes, I added spaces between all the sentences for ease in reading large blocks of text. It makes the novel seem more modern, too.)