Bookforum talks with Frederic Tuten

Frederich Tuten

Since dropping out of high school at the age of sixteen with dreams of becoming a painter, Frederic Tuten has lived in Paris; traveled through Mexico and South America; earned a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century American literature; acted in a short film by Alain Resnais; conducted summer writing workshops in Tangiers with Paul Bowles; and written fictions and essays for the artist’s catalogues of Eric Fischl, David Salle, John Baldessari, Jeff Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein. He has also written some of the slyest and most beguiling fiction ever to be described as experimental. His five novels include The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (1971), Tallien: A Brief Romance (1988), Tintin in the New World: A Romance (1993), Van Gogh’s Bad Café (1997), and The Green Hour (2002). Recently Bookforum contacted him to ask about his latest book, Self Portraits: Fictions (Norton), a collection of mysterious, funny, sexy, and ineffably melancholy short stories.—Peter Trachtenberg

BOOKFORUM: Your new book has a recurring narrator named Louie who’s in love with a woman named Marie. Do you think of these as separate stories or as episodes in the unfolding story of a single character or set of characters?

FREDERIC TUTEN: The stories seem to revolve around a single love story that recurs eternally; the two lovers appear in different guises, in different places, at different times, before and after death even, and sometimes as different people. It’s perhaps more accurate to describe the book as having principal souls than principal characters, as they are not literally the same persons in each. My characters are transformations of the people I’ve known in my own life—that’s why each story is separately dedicated—and in each story there are traces of these people, including and especially me, in fact and in fantasy. That’s why I began the book with an essay about storytelling and going to the movies with my grandmother. In a sense, all my novels are self-portraits. I am now engaged in an ongoing memoir project and think of this book of interrelated stories as part one in my autobiography.

My recollection is that your early work—and that of your contemporaries like Harry Mathews and Donald Barthelme—tended to be quite cool, une ecriture blanche. Do you think some kind of shift has occurred within your own writing and maybe within literature as a whole?

Let’s just say that in the late sixties and seventies, many of us shunned adjectives and liked our sentences trim. I wanted to be sure that in my first novel nothing of the autobiographical surfaced, but now I see it is everywhere rising to the surface. In any case, there are many ways and many different voices with which to tell a story. I’m still exploring, but I’m glad to be mentioned in the company of Harry Mathews and Donald Barthelme. Some people mistake Realism with emotion and the writing of the writers you cite as “cool” or without fire. Barthelme is a passionate writer. He just doesn’t announce it. I think of Poussin and Roy Lichtenstein in the same way. They burn with a cool flame and a lasting one.

The cover of Self Portraits has a painting by Roy Lichtenstein, who also did original covers for The Adventures of Mao on the Long March and Tintin in the New World. He was your best friend.

I have never enjoyed a friend’s company or learned as much as I did with Roy. Our friendship covered more than thirty years. It was a friendship of mutual esteem and good will and humor. Roy once said to me, when an artist goes to make a painting, he or she already has in mind what a work of art should look like. And that, he said was the problem. It is the same problem for writers when they start a novel or a story. Hence, we produce the same novels and stories. Roy was a seeker, an original, and his work inspired me to approach my writing with questions.

I’m struck by how painterly these stories are. They seem to take place before a series of vivid backdrops: the corrida in Madrid, a circus trailer, a cafe across from the Metropolitan. Can you talk about the influence painting has had on your writing?

I was in love with painting and when I was sixteen I dropped out of high school. I wanted to go to Paris and become a painter, though I did not know French and neither my family nor I had acentime. This was in the Bronx, in the early fifties, when mostly delinquents dropped out of school. I guess in some sense, I, too, was a delinquent. Most of all, I think I wanted to escape the Bronx and live in a bohemian paradise. I worked and read and wrote in my free time and tried to paint on the kitchen table. Then by some wild luck I was introduced to John Resko, an artist who had been in Dannemora prison for twenty years and who had transformed his life there. He became the father I never had, and he tried to help me with my painting, but he ended up being more of a help by introducing me to books I had never heard of, like The Sheltering Sky and Kafka’s The Trial.

Slowly the desire to be a painter disappeared and the passion for writing took over, but all of my life I have always had artist friends like Roy, and I have written essays and reviews about artists. My idea of a great adventure is to check into a hotel close to a museum I love—like the Prado—and spend days in the galleries, revisiting the Poussins, mainly. In this sense, I take after some of the characters in my fiction.

Many of these stories are exquisitely sad. Yet they’re also often very funny, and even the saddest ones are suffused with what I can only call gaiety. Do you see yourself as a tragic writer? A comic one?

I love your question, but I can only answer it with great difficulty because it is obvious that I feel, as I show through my characters, that life is at once sad and comical. For example, I found it very funny and sad that when my character in “Self Portrait with Sicily” visits the spirit of a girl he loved, who tells him it is chilly in the other world, he thinks of returning home and coming back to bring her a sweater. The one he used to give her when as teenagers they went to freezing-cold movie theaters.

Counterpoised against the exotic and romantic locales of many of these stories are evocations of the Bronx—not the squalid, torched wasteland of the seventies and eighties, but a place that seems almost as exotic as the other settings. What role does the Bronx play in your work? In your memory and imagination?

The Bronx is the grim and golden, sad and magical place of my childhood. It haunts two stories in this book, appearing as a place of sanctuary and sexual heaven. But also as a mirage and twin of Sicily, from whose poverty and danger my mother’s parents fled. My grandmother lived with us when I was growing up and we all kept the poverty as a souvenir.

I know you’ve lived in Mexico, Brazil, France, Italy and Morocco. Your work seems to belong to what I think of as the continental or European tradition. Yet I know you wrote your doctoral dissertation on the ur-American writer James Fenimore Cooper. Do you see yourself as working in the American literary tradition? Or in the European one?

I don’t know what you mean by the two different traditions. Is it that I write about artists and revolutionaries and intellectuals, and that most of the books have been set in France or China and South America? Cooper, by the way, lived in Europe for seven years and wrote three novels located there. My thesis was on his novel, The Bravo, set in eighteenth-century Venice. A great dark book, an allegory for the oligarchy Cooper feared America would become. Hemingway’s books are set in Spain, France, Africa, and Cuba, and he is an American writer. In any case, it’s a good question. I really think its underpinnings are about literature that is either cooked or raw. For myself, I go toward the cooked but without the sauces.

I really wonder what the question means, finally. The French have Naturalism and Realism and so do we—we got it from them. They have experimental writers, and so do we. But maybe only we could have a Cooper, a Melville, a Faulkner and a Whitman here. Something in our soil and our space. But maybe only the French could have created Proust and Queneau, maybe something about Paris, the steamy cafes in winter. I love all engaging writers, wherever the source.

The stories also have a cinematic character. I’m thinking of the gallant, snappy patter of your men and women, the dramatic settings and the sly or blustering villainy of the antagonists. It’s not realistic cinema. I’m thinking of Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Renoir and even of Georges Meliés. I know you’ve written screenplays and were friendly with Godard.

Godard and I were not friends, but I had dinner with him a few times when he came to New York. I had written a praising review of his film Weekend for Vogue magazine, so we met on agreeable grounds. I thought him the master of the interrupted narrative, and I loved his interjecting texts and quotes into his films—everything I tried to do in my first novel The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. He thought Mao should be made into a movie. I said only he could do it. The idea, as so many in the film world, went nowhere.

The snappy patter, as you call the dialogue in some of these stories, is influenced by noir, likeThe Big Sleep, where men and women get to the point of each other with verve and bite and wit. I love the total beauty of Renoir’s Rules of the Game. But for me, Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad is a perfect work of art, not one superfluous line of dialogue or a second of wasted time. A great impervious and mysterious film. The recurring motifs in my book are in some ways an echo of that film, whose sculpture of the man, woman, and the dog was modeled after a Poussin painting. By the way, I’ve dedicated my book of stories to Alain Resnais, my dear friend for forty years.

While we’re on the subject of friendships, what about your relationships with Hergé? Raymond Queneau?

We were friends. Hergé and Raymond Queneau were both kind, witty, and with charm and grace and without an ounce of self-importance. I was crazy for their art. They had admired each other’s work but had never met until I brought them together, along with Resnais, for a lunch in Paris in 1975, for the publication of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, in French.

Queneau had chosen my book for Gallimard, where he was an editor. After he died, his family let me live in his apartment in Neuilly for a few years. I thought of him every day in that large empty apartment and I missed his warmth and his hectoring me—to be a “good boy.” As a prank and to teach me a lesson for drinking all night and showing up a bit late with a hangover and a tongue so dry I could hardly speak, he sent in a bottle of scotch instead of the water I had asked for when I was being interviewed at the Gallimard office a few doors from his.

I met Hergé—Georges Remi—in 1972 or maybe '73. I was late in coming to know his Tintin books, but when I did I could not get enough of them. Not all were easily available in New York in English, and the French versions were also hard to find. One day in Paris, I bought every [volume] in the shop and sat in my hotel room devouring them. The second thing Hergé asked me when we first met was why I liked his books. There were so many reasons, his wondrous, compelling characters and the swift, economical editing of the images so that the story moves with a sense of inevitability—everything I myself wished to accomplish. But in a kind of confusion at so direct a question, I merely said: “I love the blue of your night sky.” He gave me a big smile: “My wife was the colorist for that,” he said. He loved his wife.

The world, my world, has shrunk without Georges, Raymond and Roy. I miss them. I love them.

Of course, we know the dismal state of publishing today—not just literary publishing but all publishing—and it often seems that reading itself has a tenuous, embattled status. What do you see as the future of literature in a world cluttered with new electronic media?

Literature has survived plagues, wars, state and religious censorship, the loathing of moralists, and general ignorance. Its value is as deep as life. Without literature, how airless and diminished our world would be. I can’t breathe without it and would not wish to. Forgive the piety, but I’m sure that literature will survive and even flourish, maybe in ways we cannot yet foresee.