Read Pictures of Fidelman Online

Authors: Bernard Malamud

Pictures of Fidelman

For Victor and Iza
Not to understand.
Yes, that was my whole occupation during those years—I can assure you, it was not an easy one.
R. M. Rilke
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work …
W. B. Yeats
A. Fidelman
Fidelman, a self-confessed failure as a painter, came to Italy to prepare a critical study of Giotto, the opening chapter of which he had carried across the ocean in a new pigskin leather brief case, now gripped in his perspiring hand. Also new were his gum-soled oxblood shoes, a tweed suit he had on despite the late-September sun slanting hot in the Roman sky, although there was a lighter one in his bag; and a dacron shirt and set of cotton-dacron underwear, good for quick and easy washing for the traveler. His suitcase, a bulky two-strapped affair which embarrassed him slightly, he had borrowed from his sister Bessie. He planned, if he had any funds left at the end of the year, to buy a
new one in Florence. Although he had been in not much of a mood when he had left the U.S.A., Fidelman picked up in Naples, and at the moment, as he stood in front of the Rome railroad station, after twenty minutes still absorbed in his first sight of the Eternal City, he was conscious of a certain exaltation that devolved on him after he had discovered directly across the many-vehicled piazza the remains of the Baths of Diocletian. Fidelman remembered having read that Michelangelo had helped in converting the baths into a church and convent, the latter ultimately changed into the museum that presently was there. “Imagine,” he muttered. “Imagine all that history.”
In the midst of his imagining, Fidelman experienced the sensation of suddenly seeing himself as he was, to the pinpoint, outside and in, not without bittersweet pleasure; and as the well-known image of his face rose before him he was taken by the depth of pure feeling in his eyes, slightly magnified by glasses, and the sensitivity of his elongated nostrils and often tremulous lips, nose divided from lips by a mustache of recent vintage that looked, Fidelman thought, as if it had been sculptured there, adding to his dignified appearance although he was a little on the short side. Almost at the same moment, this unexpectedly intense sense of his being—it was more than appearance—faded, exaltation having gone where exaltation goes, and Fidelman became aware that there was an exterior source to the strange, almost tri-dimensional reflection of himself he
had felt as well as seen. Behind him, a short distance to the right, he had noticed a stranger—give a skeleton a couple of pounds—loitering near a bronze statue on a stone pedestal of the heavy-dugged Etruscan wolf suckling the infant Romulus and Remus, the man contemplating Fidelman already acquisitively so as to suggest to the traveler that he had been mirrored (lock, stock, barrel) in the other’s gaze for some time, perhaps since he had stepped off the train. Casually studying him though pretending no, Fidelman beheld a person of about his own height, oddly dressed in brown knickers and black knee-length woolen socks drawn up over slightly bowed, broomstick legs, these grounded in small porous pointed shoes. His yellowed shirt was open at the gaunt throat, both sleeves rolled up over skinny, hairy arms. The stranger’s high forehead was bronzed, his black hair thick behind small ears, the dark close-shaven beard tight on the face; his experienced nose was weighted at the tip, and the soft brown eyes, above all, wanted. Though his expression suggested humility he all but licked his lips as he approached the ex-painter.
“Shalom,” he greeted Fidelman.
“Shalom,” the other hesitantly replied, uttering the word—so far as he recalled—for the first time in his life. My God, he thought, a handout for sure. My first hello in Rome and it has to be a schnorrer.
The stranger extended a smiling hand. “Susskind,” he said, “Shimon Susskind.”
“Arthur Fidelman.” Transferring his brief case to under his left arm while standing astride the big suitcase he shook hands with Susskind. A blue-smocked porter came by, glanced at Fidelman’s bag, looked at him, then walked away.
Whether he knew it or not Susskind was rubbing his palms contemplatively together.
“Parla italiano?”
“Not with ease, although I read it fluently. You might say I need the practice.”
“I express myself best in English.”
“Let it be English then.” Susskind spoke with a slight British intonation. “I knew you were Jewish,” he said, “the minute my eyes saw you.”
Fidelman chose to ignore the remark. “Where did you pick up your knowledge of English?”
“In Israel.”
Israel interested Fidelman. “You live there?”
“Once, not now,” Susskind answered vaguely. He seemed suddenly bored.
“How so?”
Susskind twitched a shoulder. “Too much heavy labor for a man of my modest health. Also I couldn’t stand the suspense.”
Fidelman nodded.
“Furthermore, the desert air makes me constipated. In Rome I am lighthearted.”
“A Jewish refugee from Israel, no less,” Fidelman said with good humor.
“I’m always running,” Susskind answered mirthlessly. If he was lighthearted he had yet to show it.
“Where else from, if I may ask?”
“Where else but Germany, Hungary, Poland? Where not?”
“Ah, that’s so long ago.” Fidelman then noticed the gray in the man’s hair. “Well, I’d better be going.” He picked up his bag as two porters hovered uncertainly nearby.
But Susskind offered certain services. “You got a hotel?”
“All picked and reserved.”
“How long are you staying?”
What business is it of his? However, Fidelman courteously replied, “Two weeks in Rome, the rest of the year in Florence, with a few side trips to Siena, Assisi, Padua and maybe also Venice.”
“You wish a guide in Rome?”
“Are you a guide?”
“Why not?”
“No,” said Fidelman. “I’ll look as I go along to museums, libraries, et cetera.”
This caught Susskind’s attention. “What are you, a professor?”
Fidelman couldn’t help blushing. “Not exactly, really just a student.”
“From which institution?”
He coughed a little. “By that I mean professional student, you might say. Call me Trofimov, from Chekhov. If there’s something to learn I want to learn it.”
“You have some kind of a project?” the other persisted. “A grant?”
“No grant. My money is hard earned. I worked and saved a long time to take a year in Italy. I made certain sacrifices. As for a project, I’m writing on the painter Giotto. He was one of the most important—”
“You don’t have to tell me about Giotto,” Susskind interrupted with a little smile.
“You’ve studied his work?”
“Who doesn’t know Giotto?”
“That’s interesting to me,” said Fidelman, secretly irritated. “How do you happen to know him?”
“How do you?”
“I’ve given a good deal of time and study to his work.”
“So I know him too.”
I’d better get this over with before it begins to amount up to something, Fidelman thought. He set down his bag and fished with a finger in his leather coin purse. The two porters watched with interest, one taking a sandwich out of his pocket, unwrapping the newspaper and beginning to eat.
“This is for yourself,” Fidelman said.
Susskind hardly glanced at the coin as he let it drop into his pants pocket. The porters then left.
The refugee had an odd way of standing motionless,
like a cigar store Indian about to burst into flight. “In your luggage,” he said vaguely, “would you maybe have a suit you can’t use? I could use a suit.”
At last he comes to the point. Fidelman, though annoyed, controlled himself. “All I have is a change from the one you now see me wearing. Don’t get the wrong idea about me, Mr. Susskind. I’m not rich. In fact I’m poor. Don’t let a few new clothes deceive you. I owe my sister money for them.”
Susskind glanced down at his shabby baggy knickers. “I haven’t had a suit for years. The one I was wearing when I ran away from Germany, fell apart. One day I was walking around naked.”
“Isn’t there a welfare organization that could help you out—some group in the Jewish community, interested in refugees?”
“The Jewish organizations wish to give me what they wish, not what I wish,” Susskind replied bitterly. “The only thing they offer me is a ticket back to Israeli.”
“Why don’t you take it?”
“I told you already, here I feel free.”
“Freedom is a relative term.”
“Don’t tell me about freedom.”
He knows all about that too, Fidelman thought. “So you feel free,” he said, “but how do you live?”
Susskind coughed, a brutal cough.
Fidelman was about to say something more on the subject of freedom but left it unsaid. Jesus, I’ll be saddled with him all day if I don’t watch out.
“I’d better be getting off to the hotel.” He bent again for his bag.
Susskind touched him on the shoulder and when Fidelman exasperatedly straightened up, the half dollar he had given the man was staring him in the eye.
“On this we both lose money.”
“How do you mean?”
“Today the lira sells six twenty-three on the dollar, but for specie they only give you five hundred.”
“In that case give it here and I’ll let you have a dollar.” From his billfold Fidelman quickly extracted a crisp bill and handed it to the refugee.
“Not more?” Susskind sighed.
“Not more,” the student answered emphatically.
“Maybe you would like to see Diocletian’s bath? There are some enjoyable Roman coffins inside. I will guide you for another dollar.”
“No, thanks.” Fidelman said goodbye, and lifting the suitcase, lugged it to the curb. A porter appeared and the student, after some hesitation, let him carry it toward the line of small dark-green taxis on the piazza. The porter offered to carry the brief case too but Fidelman wouldn’t part with it. He gave the cab driver the address of the hotel, and the taxi took off with a lurch. Fidelman at last relaxed. Susskind, he noticed, had disappeared. Gone with his breeze, he thought. But on the way to the hotel he had an uneasy feeling that the refugee, crouched low, might be clinging to
the little tire on the back of the cab; however he didn’t look out to see.
Fidelman had reserved a room in an inexpensive hotel not far from the station with its very convenient bus terminal. Then, as was his habit, he got himself quickly and tightly organized. He was always concerned with not wasting time, as if it were his only wealth—not true, of course, though Fidelman admitted he was an ambitious person—and he soon arranged a schedule that made the most of his working hours. Mornings he usually visited the Italian libraries, searching their catalogues and archives, read in poor light, and made profuse notes. He napped for an hour after lunch, then at four, when the churches and museums were re-opening, hurried off to them with lists of frescoes and paintings he must see. He was anxious to get to Florence, at the same time a little unhappy at all he would not have time to take in in Rome. Fidelman promised himself to return if he could afford it, perhaps in the spring, and look at everything he pleased.
After dark he managed to unwind himself and relax. He ate as the Romans did, late, enjoyed a half liter of white wine and smoked a cigarette. Afterward he liked to wander—especially in the old sections near the Tiber. He had read that here, under his feet, were the ruins of Ancient Rome. It was an inspiring business, he, Arthur Fidelman, after all, born a Bronx boy, walking
around in all this history. History was mysterious, the remembrance of things unknown, in a way burdensome, in a way a sensuous experience. It uplifted and depressed, why he did not know except that it excited his thoughts more than he thought good for him. This kind of excitement was all right up to a point, perfect maybe for a creative artist, but less so for a critic. A critic ought to live on beans. He walked for miles along the winding Tiber, gazing at the star-strewn skies. Once, after a couple of days in the Vatican Museum, he saw flights of angels—gold, blue, white —intermingled in the sky. “My God, I got to stop using my eyes so much,” Fidelman said to himself. But back in his room he sometimes wrote till morning.
Late one night, about a week after his arrival in Rome, as Fidelman was writing a few notes on the Byzantine style mosaics he had seen during the day, there was a knock on the door, and though the student, immersed in his work, was not conscious he had said “Avanti,” he must have, for the door opened, and instead of an angel, in came Susskind in his shirt and baggy knickers.
Fidelman, who had all but forgotten the refugee, certainly never thought of him, half rose in astonishment. “Susskind,” he exclaimed, “how did you get in here?”
Susskind for a moment stood motionless, then answered with a weary smile, “I’ll tell you the truth, I know the clerk.”
“But how did you know where I live?”
“I saw you walking in the street so I followed you.”
“You mean you saw me accidentally?”
“How else? Did you leave me your address?”
Fidelman resumed his seat. “What can I do for you, Susskind?” He spoke grimly.

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