The Books I Read

The Bar at Twilight by Frederic Tuten. New York: Bellevue Literary Press. 288 pages. $18.
The cover of The Bar at Twilight

The austerity of painting stripped down to reveal the threadbare lives of the artists; domestic strife heighted to the point of sublimity; personal memoir caressed by the ancient lunacy of myth; comic-book characters trespassing at the gates of high modernism; the love of books and cats. Frederic Tuten’s trajectory through letters has been uncategorizable, heteroclite, and consistently at odds with the prevailing fashion—so much so that he comes across less as a member of any extant school of literature and more as a Dada or Pop artist who happens to work primarily with words. His new story collection, The Bar at Twilight, is his showcase, revisiting every strand of his bibliography with the benefit of hindsight and at the peak of his powers.

Whatever else it is, New York is a succession of tiny rooms where lonely people dream of being anywhere, or anyone, else. Tuten grew up poor in the Bronx, so infatuated with the art life and the promise of Paris that he dropped out of school at fifteen and roughed it as a would-be painter, would-be writer, and unsuccessful playwright—provoking a scandal with a racy one-act show, “Tea Party,” that got him kicked out of City College. By the time his first novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, appeared in 1971, he had a degree (in nineteenth-century American literature) and enough experience to fill out his bohemian fantasies of Paris. They would come to pass in time. So would friendships with Susan Sontag and Donald Barthelme, both of whom were on the faculty of the creative writing program he cofounded at City College. And, of course, all Tuten’s prose incorporates the ideas about art he articulated as a critic for the New York Times and Artforum, in essays on Roy Lichtenstein and Sam Francis, among others.

Despite his long engagement with the art world, each story in the new collection is glossed by literature, juxtaposed with real life, or cannily rejiggered with an eye toward spectacle. “L’Odyssée,” retells the story of Odysseus’s return to his manor in disguise, except here he happens to be Popeye seeking rejuvenation as Penelope (or Olive Oyl) reunites him with the instigating can of spinach. This rendition is far from frivolous. In Tuten’s hands, it reconciles the recursion of epic storytelling with the stain of newsprint, managing to be both down-to-earth and soaring. It also happens to personalize the story, since it is somehow more possible to identify with a cartoon than aspire to the infallibility of a Greek superhero. It gets life in through the back door; Tuten is clearly more infatuated with the act of reading—the remembered or reimagined story, particular to each individual audience—than spontaneous creation. It is also a really smart way to write, once you think about it—a matter of finding the fun already tucked into the world of ideas rather than improvising a facsimile for existence whole-cloth.

Though Tuten’s autobiographical mood of the last few years has produced a memoir, My Young Life (Tuten is eighty-five, so he has a lot of life to work with), his novels seem, at cursory glance, to be anything but autobiographical. They are worth reading in order. The Adventures of Mao on the Long March collages a dumb-show of revolutionary politics with parodies of William Faulkner and John Dos Passos into a deeply cool high/low behemoth with an original cover by Tuten’s friend Roy Lichtenstein. Tallien (1988) is a historical romance set during the French Revolution, in which an agent of Robespierre is ruined by his passion for a member of the aristocracy. Tintin in the New World (1993) follows Hergé’s boy-reporter into the sanitarium of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (reallocated from the Swiss Alps to Machu Picchu), where he is transfigured by sex and philosophy. Tuten’s next two books, Van Gogh’s Bad Café (1997) and The Green Hour (2002), were more outwardly concerned with art. The former is a metaphysical reclamation of Vincent van Gogh as eternal outsider and the latter a sort of campus novel about idealism run afoul of the bourgeoisie. Tuten also cowrote the screenplay for Possession, Andrzej Żuławski’s bananas cult film from 1981, featuring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani absolutely losing their shit in West Berlin, the rare film credit that deserves equal billing with its author’s literary output.

To write a book is also to argue aesthetics, and what might sound like kneejerk McSweeneyism—random, retrograde, or coy—is always saved by the imprimatur with which Tuten stamps his manuscripts: namely, elegance, a charitable prescription for humanity, and serious play. The Bar at Twilight begins with “Winter, 1965” a larky portrait of the artist as a hapless young regular, waiting in vain for his first story to appear in the Partisan Review with the refrain “Life is real, life is earnest” ringing in his brain like a sea shanty. That this pairs so well with a piece like “Allegory: A Parable”—a story about a painter musing on Christ and King Arthur that is stacked so high with symbolism that it practically leans—speaks volumes about how art turns real life into an afterthought, even as influence and ambition inhabit the artist like parasites. It also very nearly gives the metafictional game away, spelling out Tuten’s aesthetic credo:

Little existed without extension and multiplicity, while much of her art, her painting, had held to the idea of art’s autonomy—to refer to nothing, to speak with the voice of no discernible person or time or place. (Though she also knew that even in their concealment, all art spoke for those things.)

After decades of puckish Max Ernst­–style cut ups, now Tuten is revealed as what he was all along, the most confessional and unpretentious of writers, conjuring figures from his own history and making bold statements of artistic intent even in the midst of literary pastiches and enchanted hideaways. Certain memorable encounters reappear, particularly in a helpful appendix to the current book titled “Coda: Some Episodes in the History of My Reading”: the mysterious woman reading Nightwood in Paris, temporary transfiguration into a narcissist courtesy of The Fountainhead, flirtation with dipsomania under the spell of Hemingway, a teaching gig with Paul Bowles in Tangier, and the crucial books in Tuten’s life:  Journey to the End of the Night, Under the Volcano, and The Sheltering Sky. None of these appears in The Bar at Twilight for the first time; in fact, each forms a kind of motif running through Tuten’s corpus, making it possible to see his long dalliance with metafiction enhanced by the germ of (disguised) autobiography.

The stories here are pleasingly twinned. “Winter, 1965” is followed by “The Veranda,” which returns to the theme of the hopeful artist, this one in the winter of his life and career but still smitten with women “who read books he honored.” “The Snow on Tompkins Square Park” is the adventure of a young man who is the sole biped in what turns out to be a bar that only serves horses; by the title story, the bar has gentrified and now is frequented by centaurs. “The Tower” and “In the Borghese Gardens” are both narrated by diffident protagonists more involved in the lives of great authors (in this case Montaigne and Hawthorne) than their own, while “The Café, the Sea, Deauville, 1966” and “Lives of the Artists” are reverse love stories where the deep affection between the mains is only partially masked by the appearance of domesticity (the latter with copious reference to Rousseau, Monet, and Gauguin). “Allegory: A Parable” is answered with “The Phantom Tower,” in which a mercurial father leaves behind his dreamy son to scale the titular citadel. The remaining stories are about a painter abruptly blessed with fluent French (“Delacroix in Love”), a personal history in petals (“Nine Flowers”), a party adjacent to a blazing inferno (“The Garden Party,” which also opens on the thrilling line “What I like most in art is disquietude”), an elegant slice-of-New-York-City-life with both Proust and late, married love on its mind (“The Restaurant. The Concert. The Bar. The Bed. Le Petit Déjeuner”) and the aforementioned “L’Odyssée” and coda. Tuten’s signature kitty cat, Nicolino, appears throughout.   

For all its concern with the life of the mind, The Bar at Twilight is outgoing, lived-in, and gregarious. The word for this is generous. In particular, Tuten’s dialogue rescues him from any charge of solipsism. He can go bitter (“Lights on or off? . . . It’s been so long, maybe lights off is better. I don’t want to shock you with the changes”), do Wildean drawing-room (“Rooms always know when someone has left”), or erupt into telling grandiloquence (“I praise the unkempt and the irrelevant, the loose ends and the unresolved, the untidy and imperfect, the ragged edges and pieces that don’t fit—the incomplete, even. I praise art that sweats life and life that sweats art”). Not for nothing are most of these stories populated by (frequently blocked or doomed) painters, but I hesitate to say they’re standing in for the profession of writer, since Tuten’s work is nothing if not painterly, their composition carefully etched even when it’s so multifarious as to verge on pandemonium. Either way, the concern with couples— not necessarily romantic ones—means that his characters are not just well-spoken, but well-heard. A history unfurls in a phrase and we pick up on more characterization than we would in a page of fussy internal dialogue. Everything stays light but, again and again, a stray comment has enough density to take us to the bottom of the ocean.

It is rare to find such erudition spiked with sweetness, but books for Tuten expand outward, into life, love, and other people. This brings us to the question of whether writing fantastic stories is just another way of speaking for oneself, for reporting the contents of one head to solicit those of others, and whether this is what we mean when we make art. A passage in “The Snow on Tompkins Square Park,” the drunk horse story, doesn’t arrive at any easy answers but at least confirms that it is a question worth asking:

 They wanted to know—as he had lived below and had visited among them—his thoughts of the world. Was the visible world the terminal end or the edge of another, invisible world? they asked. He did not know, he said. They laughed in a friendly way. And then asked: Was his body the edge of his world or just a perishable form of an invisible self that had no boundaries in time and space, that had no beginning and no end? He said he did not know, but he added that he was indifferent to the answer, happy as he now was among them in the glade. He was wise, they said. He was not sure if they were just being polite. A great golden horse with golden wings circled them, saying nothing. But then he came close, and, bending low for Louis to mount, he said, “Come, join me, if you will.”

J. W. McCormack is the literary editor of The Baffler.