Short Story: Art for art’s sake

In this tale about love and literature, painful truths are revealed – all too late.

By AMNON RUBINSTEIN
October 8, 2010 16:39
Bookcase

Bookcase 311. (photo credit: MCT)

I saw the notice about the death of Prof. Arthur Shmulevitz only on the evening of his funeral. Had I known about this on time, I would have left my lab to pay my last respects to the man who was such a central figure in my life.

The notice was signed by Clara, his widow, and when I saw her name, the pale visage whisked through my mind and left a trail of sweetness mixed with bitterness.

Clara and Arthur became very famous only after I was pushed out of their lives. After their authorized biography, The Literary Couple, was published, I planned to visit them and ask them why this much-lauded biography omitted any mention of me. Did they not tell the author of my suffering at that turning point in my life when Clara and I were students in the literature department of Tel Aviv University?

Arthur – Art to us students – was our professor of literature. At his introductory lecture, we expected to hear the same old, tired, yawn-causing words. Into the hall stepped a heavy, bald 40-ish man. He stared at us through his thick-lensed glasses and started talking in an unstable, cracked voice. But within minutes, the whispers, accompanying his strange appearance, died out.

“You hear the names – Tolstoy, Dickens, Balzac,” he began, “and you see their old tomes; you hate the professors who force you to read these books – Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, Father Goriot – which are all dated and boring, and you forget one thing: All these novels began in the same way. One solitary man faces an empty notebook. He is alone. No one can assist him. He stares at the blank paper and does not know how to begin, and when he finally begins writing he doesn’t know how to continue, and when he does continue he does not know how to end the novel. And when he finishes it, he does not know how the book will be received. And when the book is published and he reads words of praise or rebuke, he does not know whether these are truthful words or whether they are nothing but flattery or, on the contrary, a settling of personal accounts. And even when he is convinced that these are truthful words, he doesn’t know whether they will survive into future generations.

“And worst of all – soon everything begins afresh: He once again faces the blank paper and struggles against his loneliness. He attaches one word to another and these draw, at first hesitatingly, and later, with growing assurance, his characters. In the beginning these are hastily drawn; but then, as in a Polaroid photo, they acquire their own dimension and turn into clearly defined flesh-and-blood protagonists. “And this is really the whole story: In the beginning of any piece of literature stands a lonely man, but at its end the author is surrounded by new friends – creatures of his imagination. And these are his best friends. And these friends – André, Natasha, Oliver and Eugenie – will be the friends of thousands of readers, including those born after the author is long dead and buried. And for these readers – or at least for some of them – these characters that had not existed before the blank pages were filled will be more real than their living friends. This is the miracle of fiction: What begins with one person living in total isolation ends up with one who has acquired many new friends.”

We were hypnotized.

And then Art added in a barely audible hoarse whisper, “And my task is merely to introduce you to these new friends.”

Were I not timid, I would have applauded. Thus began my admiration for Art, which alas ended so sadly.

At the next lecture, the hall was packed and students were standing in the aisles. Art’s cracked voice hovered over the riveted audience:

“I ended my last lecture by saying that I’d like to introduce you to the new imagined friends, but literature is not merely a dating service. No, literature is much more than that. No, literature has another task. It does not describe ordinary reality. It tells us about a refined reality, a pure reality, a reality from which all minor details and worries of daily life have been removed. Today we admire the great authors of yesteryear, not because they tell us about the routine of their daily lives but because the story of their protagonists, their dilemmas, their struggles, defeats and victories mean something to us today. They speak to us across the years because the reality they depict is not every day’s reality – it is a superior reality which separates the main things from the marginal.”

And then he added in his whispering voice: “And during this course you will learn about all the gifts granted by literature to its lovers. I promise you that by the end of term, you will have acquired a new perception of the world around you; there will be no need for hallucinogenic drugs. Books will do a better job.”

In that class I not only got to know the subject of my admiration – the charismatic Art – but I also got to love Clara. It was easy to identify Clara among the multitude of students packing the halls and corridors of the university. Her skin was very fair, her face almost blanched. Everything about her was roundish: her moon-shaped face, her pouting mouth, her gray-blue eyes. And everything about her was different: Her soft, quiet voice contrasted with the loud commotion of the students. When she entered the cafeteria, usually dressed in white, she seemed to sail across it.

It was because of this strangeness, as well as because of our common admiration of Art, that I immediately fell in love with her. We used to accompany Art on his way out of class so that we could receive more gems from his treasured wisdom. Clara and I were thirsty for his sometimes enigmatic words, and we discussed them endlessly. It was this admiration of an older sage which bound us together; and when Art invited us both to have coffee at Café Allenby, this triple meeting sealed our bond, and Clara and I moved in to live together. It is because of this that I still feel nowadays the pain of the blow that was about to hit me.

Art lived in the old Bauhaus quarter of Tel Aviv, which still retains the flavor of an old, idyllic quarter. I became very excited when I entered the old building that I remembered from my student days: Memories wafted into my consciousness – memories of my first encounter with that shortsighted, heavy-set man in his book-filled apartment, where he lived with his first wife and children.

I walked into a room full of mourners. I had not seen Clara for over 40 years! Yes, I did see her on television when both of them received the Israel Prize for their monumental monograph on the influence of Pushkin on the fledgling Hebrew poetry in the 1920s. And now, in 2007, she was 68 – the strange girl I had fallen in love with, only to be trounced by her treason.

The mourners were quietly listening to someone reading from the writings of the great man. Clara was not to be seen. And what if she would not appear? I brought her a letter I kept from the past. What should I do with it? All of a sudden, she materialized: an old woman, leaning on her cane, bent, dried out, her skin parched.

She recognized me instantly, weakly shook my hand and muttered, “I’m so happy that you came. Art never forgot you. Always insisted that you were his best student; he was so sorry that you gave up on your literature studies.”

Is this Clara? Nothing even remotely reminded me of the young woman I was infatuated with. And why does she talk about Art remembering me? What about her? Doesn’t she remember our happiness? True, so much has happened since then. I myself left the groves of the humanities and moved to chemistry. I have my own extended family. Clara is a mere figment of a faded memory. And yet I am hurt that she sees me through the eyes of her late husband. And how old she looks! After all, she is my age. Art died an old 87-year-old man, but she was 19 years his junior. Who knows this better than me? Who else suffered like me?

"Clara, instead of words of condolence, I brought you a letter Art wrote to me then – during our days at the university.”

“Art always told me these were the most beautiful days of his life. And how he loved you.”

Art again. And how can she say he loved me? After what he had perpetrated? And doesn’t she have anything to say to me except through his personality?

Clara promised to read the letter. Having read this letter time and time again, I remember its words by heart:

My dear friend,
Is it too pretentious to address you, my student, as my friend? The world of literature is the most egalitarian of all worlds. It has no age differences.
Only talent and loyalty to the literary mission count. Age is irrelevant. I can tell you tales about youngsters who wrote masterpieces. Arthur Rimbaud started writing his earth-shaking poetry when he was 16 and gave it up when he was 21. Raymond Radiguet died when he was 20 after having written two amazing novels. Literature is about super-reality, and all differences – age, gender, nationality – are erased. I find in you, my friend, that specific spark, that special quality, which defines you as distinct from the plebeian crowd, as a man of literature. You are endowed with that unique combination of heart and brain, without which there is no literature, and no study of literature. And please do come and visit me whenever you feel like it. Talking to you is a source of inspiration for me. No, I’m not exaggerating. I am a source of knowledge and you have intuition – together we can work miracles.
Arthur.

The truth is that I hesitated to give this letter to Clara, as I did not know how she would react to this reminder of the bond between me and her late husband, before she left me. Finally, I decided that “When there are conflicting considerations, the search for truth should always prevail!” Who said that? Art, of course.

A week later, Clara phoned and whispered, “I read the letter and found in it one sentence which is extremely instructive. Do come and see me.”

I opened the secure drawer and took out another old crumbling letter – a 47-year-old letter – which I shall keep until my dying day. The letter begins and ends with stunning brevity:

I know that what I’m going to write will come to you as a bolt out of the blue. Since our first meeting with Art which you initiated, I was slowly falling in love with the charismatic personality of this magician. We met surreptitiously at Café Allenby, and these meetings flattered me to no end. The bond between us, despite the difference in our ages, or perhaps because of it, became stronger and stronger. And when he told me that he kept dreaming about being with me, I was in heaven. Finally, when he proposed leaving his wife and marrying me, I thought I was daydreaming and said yes without any hesitation and, quite frankly, without thinking of you.

You will get over the shock that this letter causes you and will find solace in your talent. The study of literature will continue to be a bridge between the three of us.

I truly am sorry for the pain I’m causing you, but we are dealing here with superior forces, with a superior reality that defies reason.
Yours,
Clara

When I received this letter, I kept reading it again and again to decipher the riddle: How could Clara prefer this old professor over me? How could both of them betray me?

It’s hard to describe now my state of mind then. My world came apart, and I had no foothold to keep me steady. I did not know whose betrayal was more painful – his or hers. It was not only pain that unhinged me. It was also the humiliation of being deserted by my lover and my idol.

Gradually, I adjusted to my new situation. I left the literature department – after all, I could not listen to the man who snatched my love from me or meet his wife, my expartner. I moved to science and majored in chemistry – where laboratory experiments showed truisms instead of the speculation of literary research. I slowly reached the conclusion that Clara did not deserve me. “There are people who should be judged according to their actions, even if their intent is pure.” Who said that? Art, of course.

I survived the hell of the double betrayal and began a new life. I married and had a family of my own. Art and Clara faded into an ever-receding nightmarish memory. Only the letters in the drawers were witnesses to the upheaval.

When I entered Art’s now-silent apartment, I asked myself what was the sentence in Art’s old letter that Clara found so intriguing. When she appeared, she looked less crumpled by age, and she walked without the cane, but she wore the same nondescript dress which clung to her withered body that she wore last time. She thanked me for the letter:

“You were right to keep this letter; it gave rise within me to conflicting feelings. Art,” she paused, “Art, blessed be his memory, praised the combination of his knowledge and your intuitive talents and claimed that this combination could work miracles.”

Again, a strange pause.

“I found this intriguing, as he seduced me with the very same words, whispering in my ear: ‘You are endowed with feminine intuition; I have infinite knowledge. Together – miracles will happen.’ And I, the fool that I was, believed him.”

I could not believe my ears. A crack in the wall of solidarity opened up. Was the iconic image of the famous literary couple a mere façade? Was it possible that behind their much-touted super-reality hid a sub-reality of misery and disappointment?

I asked Clara to explain her utterance, but she refused:

“Don’t pay any attention to the mutterings of an old woman. I just noticed the similarity between what he wrote you and what he said to me.”

I insisted that she tell me what lay behind those words, and she finally relented: “Not now; perhaps after the 30-day period of mourning. Perhaps.”

I came out groggy with unexpected emotion. When I first came to see her, she and Art were a distant memory of stormy youth. But now that she cracked open her bitterness, memory waves of those days ebbed and flowed inside me: nostalgia for the university days; the distant but aroused pain; the pleasure of remembering our halcyon days of lovemaking.

I waited until the 30 days were over – the event was mentioned in the literary sections of the daily press – and proposed that we meet at a café on the beach. The Café Allenby has been gone for a long time now.

She hobbled into the café with her cane, wearing a whiter-than-white dress. Is this a memento of our days together? Is it some sort of gesture toward me? And in the sunlight, she looked much older. But her grayish eyes retained a hint of that blue, that soft look, with which I had fallen so deeply in love.

“This is the first time since Art’s death that I leave home on my own. In fact, this is the first time in many years that I walk alone.” And after another one of her pauses: “You know, of course, that I was his shadow.”

Another crack.

“Clara, we are both old and the 30 days of mourning have elapsed. I am a grandfather of six and, to use Art’s expression, ‘both of us are in our sunset years.’ Remember what Art used to say in class? ‘When an author reaches his sunset years, he is ripe for the superreality of literature because he has no more regrets, no more embarrassments, no fear of melting his private life into the literary mold!’ Do tell me and relieve yourself of the secret burden.”

And Clara did unburden herself. She talked to me, but her eyes looked through me into the sea behind.

“I was not surprised at what Art wrote you. Before we got married, he made one condition – that we have no children. He said, ‘I have wasted enough years on raising my children.’ I should have realized then that only he counted, that only his time mattered. It didn’t even dawn on him that without children my womanhood would be wasted.”

Her eyes became moist, and now for a few seconds I felt how, under my skin, my love for that strange girl blossomed and what an almost-mortal blow her departing letter was. She felt the turmoil inside me, and we both sat speechless for a while. Now she spoke with a rustling voice. I had to lean closer to hear her, through the noise of the waves and the passers-by.

“Actually, I did love you; but with him I fell in love, I was infatuated. And there is a world of difference between love and falling in love. Who said that? The know-all professor, of course.”

“‘Infatuation,’ he lectured, ‘is like lightning: short-lived, electrifying, illuminating the universe with its ephemeral glow. Love pales away before infatuation because love is like the moon – not inconstant as Shakespeare claimed – but on the contrary, its moonlight is weak but constant; the moon never disappears; it’s always there, waiting for the right time to relieve the darkness!’

“Thus spoke Art, but I did not really listen. I fell for him, hurting not only you but also my mother, who thought I was mad. She would not speak to Art for the rest of her days. By contrast, Art was not in love with me. Nor did he fall in love with me. He fell in love with the literary idea that a young girl prefers him to her young and handsome boy, and you were so handsome that all the girls envied me. For the sake of this idea, he was ready to ditch his wife and children. This was a literary motif. And he became infatuated with this motif. Not with me. This was part of the super-reality which he preferred to the physical every-day reality. Our marriage was a case in which this superreality was victorious.”

I realized that I was listening to a mental dam being ruptured.

“Art, like many of his colleagues, was unremittingly selfish – and proud of it. He believed the whole world should serve him. ‘Art and altruism don’t go hand in hand.’ You can guess who said that. He always used to mention Tolstoy and the way he treated his wife as an example. ‘Creativeness, in every sphere, requires that the creator be addicted only to himself.’ Another bon mot of his. Thus began the conflict between us. This book about Pushkin was my creation, mine alone! It was my idea, my research, my writing. He made some pusillanimous comments which I reluctantly included in the final version of the book. But he insisted that both our names would appear as co-authors, ‘otherwise the sense of equality between us will be demolished!’ Thus we became famous as the ‘literary couple.’"

 How is it that I didn’t think of that? How could I be fooled by the public façade?

“A number of times I thought of seeking your help. Once I even waited near your house on Rothschild Boulevard, but when I saw you pushing a baby carriage, I withdrew. Art’s super-reality became for me a routine of suffering. He objected that the two of us receive the Israel Prize and gave in only when friends convinced him that the candidacy of a married couple would get preference over other candidates. But even when the prize was awarded, he kept complaining that he had to share a prize that should have been his and his alone. He kept blaming our friends for convincing him to share the prize with me! I had to put up with such manifestations of egoism on a daily basis – and all in the name of the damned super-reality!”

She now stared into my eyes. A remnant of her former beauty was still there.

“When I finally discovered his true nature, I was too old to leave him. And what could a childless, lonely woman do? And when he fell ill with cancer, I was cured of the idea of deserting him. Many times, I thought about you and me and how I ruined your life – and mine – without any reason because of a foolish whim. Why do I tell you all this? All of this is water under the bridge. I just wanted to tell you an earthly story, totally unconnected with literature or with super-reality. I wanted you, the victim of Art and me, to know the truth. And I wanted you to realize that the mere accident of my meeting Art was one of these events that make no sense, and that without this accident your grandchildren would have been ours.”

She stands up and walks away. Despite the cane, she walks lightly, and there is a hint of the days when she glided, sail-like, all white, into the lecture hall. She does not want me to accompany her: “For me, walking independently is utter joy.”

I walk away groggily along Allenby Road when I reach the point where Café Allenby used to be. In its place now is a bar called Hot Town.

My jittering knees oblige me to go inside and down a few beers to fortify myself. Around me are youngsters in T-shirts, tank tops and ripped jeans. On one shirt I read the slogan “This Body Is For Sale.” A shrill loudspeaker emits disco music. As the music becomes more syncopated, the youngsters around me shake and move to its rhythm. As the beer flows, they begin slapping each others’ backs, hugging, humming and shouting the disco tune. A full-bosomed girl screams, “I’m mad about this tune! Absolutely mad! It knocks me down real cold.”

Almost 50 years ago I parted ways with Art. Now I part with his teachings.

“There is no reality except for reality. And literature is only its copy. The copy can be good or bad, authentic or false, but it is always a copy.”

Who said that? Not Art. I am saying that.


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