Friday, 14 November 2008

Book of the Month: Pictures of Fidelman (Bernard Malmud)

Bernard Malmud was one of America’s most important novelists and short-story writers. His metier was depiction of Jewish lives, which he described poignantly and with grand lugubriousness in novels such as The Assistant and The Fixer, which won the 1966 Pulitzer award.

Pictures of Fidelman was the first book Malmud published after the Pulitzer-winning The Fixer. In it he ventures away from his usual, inner-city Jewish element, and tries a different canvas. It is a picaresque tale of sometimes-comic escapades of Arthur Fidelman, a self-confessed failure as a painter, who arrives in Italy to prepare a critical study of Giotto. In six chapters, which function entirely independently from each other, and which are only tenuously linked thematically, the reader learns what befalls the hapless and, at times, witless protagonist as he moves from Rome to Milan, and, following a brief hiatus in Naples, ends up in Venice: he is pursued on the streets of Rome by an exiled Israeli; he flagellantly falls in love with a woman who refuses to sleep with him, indeed humiliates him at every turn, until he paints her as Maddona; he gets blackmailed by a couple of brothel-owners into purloining Titian’s Venous of Urbino; he shacks up with a whore and even acts as her pimp while at the same time struggling to complete a long-cherished picture of himself and his mother; and finally, in Venice, he sleeps, first, with a woman he meets there, and then with her homosexual husband, while learning the art of glass-blowing—a peculiar pun on Malmud’s part, this—before returning to America, presumably a wiser—or is he, really?— man.

All but one of the six chapters, or stories, of Pictures of Fidelman were published separately over a period of ten years—Malmud felt obliged to explain why he had chosen these apparently disparate stories to publish as a single work—and perhaps because of this the novel has a somewhat contrived feel to it; the situations described in the chapters do not appear to arise naturally. However the Malmudian theme of acquiring self-knowledge and attaining, epiphanetically, a higher, noble plane through suffering is apparent here, too, albeit less convincingly and lacking the moral breadth of Malmud’s other, some might say weightier, works.

Pictures of Fidelman, in many ways, is vintage Malmud: punning and wise-cracking and soul uplifting. It is also somewhat different, not just in respect of its setting, but also in respect of Malmud’s almost mischievous bedimming—the chapter titled Pictures of the Artist, for example, is a peculiar assemblage of quotations and maunderings about art, truth, and devil among other things. The novel echoes themes of violence, confusion and, occasionally, breathtaking imagination. Malmud, like other great authors, had his special way with words, using them subversively so as to yield a unique flavour to the narrative.

Much of Malmud’s fiction, at some level, reflects his immigrant Jewish background and mingles history and fantasy, and comedy and tragedy. The juxtaposition of the grotesque and sublime gives Pictures of Fidelman, despite its flaws, a unique ambience.

Saul Bellow said of Malmud: ‘The accent of a hard-won and individual emotional truth is always heard in Malmud’s words. He is a rich original of first rank.’ How true.