Signor Fuchs’ Enemies

(Eugenio Montale — I Nemici del Signor Fuchs)

For a long time, I was impressed by Signor Fuchs’ enemies. I didn’t know them, but he spoke to me about them often: highly placed, powerful enemies; shadowy enemies of the lowest standing; men and women; how could they hate such a monument of respectability, such a prodigy of erudition, such a disinterested high priest of snobbery as Signor Fuchs? Tall, skinny, shabbily dressed, with long yellow moustaches drooping onto a gluttonous mouth, Signor Fuchs, master of many languages, of an age and provenance impossible to verify, is well known in sophisticated and intellectual circles in Italy and elsewhere. Penniless, like all true poets (and he considers himself such, even though he doesn’t write verses), his principal profession is that of hospitality: as invited guest, that is, not as inviting host. He seeks wealthy and, if possible, noble families who place at his disposal a room and two meals a day in a chateau on the Loire, in a tower in the Vosges, in a villa at San Sebastian, and — at worst — in an apartment in Florence, Venice or Milan. He seeks and he finds, or, rather, he found; but after two great wars the rich have ceded their chateaux to the State, and the patronage of artists is practised ever more rarely. So it happens that Fuchs, a man sought after to the highest degree, sometimes has to take lodgings in fourth-rate boarding houses, obliging him to cook his own meals on a little spirit stove. A Fuchs meal is always a quatuor, a quartet (Fuchs usually expresses himself in French): for example, a little cutlet, two boiled red barbel, a tiny piece of cheese and a pear; a meal which to you and me would seem run of the mill to him becomes a music worthy of Mozart. And not a day passes that he doesn’t disclose to his friends the constituents of the quartet, one by one; since Fuchs, besides his enemies, has many friends too who, while not able to take him to their houses in the country, do however invite him to eat with them in town, and offer him better lunches than his own, even if failing to respect the rule of four. He is the master of the art of making believe that whoever invites him is doing himself, the host, a great, an enormous honour. Many fall into the trap, as did I. For some months I was his friend, seduced by his spirit and the liveliness of his conversation. Then one day our friendship ended in an almost tragic way, and I uncovered the mystery which had so intrigued me.

It was a cold winter, in Florence, a little after the liberation. Coal wasn’t to be found, or else (I don’t remember) the tenants in our building didn’t have the means to pay for it. The fact is that I was warming myself by means of an electric stove with four bars (four ‘elements’) which were switched on in pairs.

I was lunching with Fuchs when he indicated a degree of discomfort at the excessive heat. I rose and turned off the two bars which he judged surplus to requirements. A little later, Fuchs lifted his moustaches from the lamb cutlet into which he was sinking his teeth (miraculously provided by the black market), to tell me that he was freezing. I jumped to my feet with many apologies and turned on all four bars again. Less than a minute later, Signor Fuchs delivered himself of the opinion that three, and not two or four, bars would have created a climate more suitable for conversation.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I told him, ‘not to be able to oblige you in this, but my stove works on either two or four bars, and I own no other equipment.’

We carried on talking, I getting up from time to time to turn the two switches on or off, but it was clear that Signor Fuchs had taken offence, and had little faith in my qualities as a stoker. Eventually he too rose and bent over the stove, fiddling with it for a long time, twisting and re-twisting the switches in all directions, until the stove definitively expired with a long splutter.

‘It does rather appear that I’ve broken your stove,’ he said, lifting his moustaches from the bars, which were still hot.

‘I hope not,’ I said, ‘but in any case it’s a matter of no importance. Let’s finish our conversation in a better heated café.’

He seemed terribly angry. ‘There are two possibilities,’ he said. ‘Either I’ve broken it, or it’s not broken at all and you should ascertain this and get it to work again. Don’t you know how to do it?’ (I tried once or twice, without success.) ‘You see? This means that the stove is ruined and that I broke it.’

‘Don’t trouble yourself,’ I said. ‘A valve will have blown. It’s happened to me too a few times.’

‘What do you mean,’ said Signor Fuchs, ‘by saying “to you too”? So you’re asserting that this time I’ve broken it.’

‘I’m not asserting anything, Signor Fuchs,’ I said. ‘The stove no longer works. Let us agree that it is my fault, as it evidently is, given that I haven’t equipped myself with a better stove than this. The damage is minimal, and by tomorrow it will be repaired.’

‘You are complicating matters by laying claim to fault, but in reality asserting that I am the party at fault. You will admit that the word “fault” is excessive.’

‘I admit it and I apologise for it, but I was speaking of myself, not of you.’

‘Until the matter is cleared up, the word implicates me too. I have come in here as a guest and I leave as a guilty party. You will be so kind as to agree that the collapse of good manners is truly irreparable. When I broke the looking glass belonging to the princess of Thurn and Taxis, she dismissed her servant and the mirror was replaced immediately. Then I was guilty; now the question is sub judice. I shall never see you again.’

With a slight bow he made for the door. I tried to detain him, but in vain. No reconciliation was ever possible. Without my wish or knowledge, I too had been enlisted in the ever-increasing legion of his enemies. I consoled myself in thinking that perhaps, in that way, I was of more use to him.