Self Portraits: Fictions
by Frederic Tuten
A review by Dylan Hicks
Frederic Tuten has earned a reputation for uncommon erudition, formal invention, and loopy wit over five novels, beginning with 1971's collage-like The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, and including 1993's Tintin in the New World, a postmodern bildungsroman in which the Belgian comic-book hero travels to Machu Picchu and is transformed by a cast of fantastically articulate eccentrics, four of them imported from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Self Portraits: Fictions is his first collection of short pieces and aptly titled: its reflective, nostalgic, frequently confiding tone (Cynthia Ozick mentions Proust in her back-cover blurb) gives the reader a cubistic sense of Tuten, but we're always in a dreamscape (Ozick also mentions Borges), and rarely feel we're reading a coyly classified memoir.
The book's prologue is its most directly autobiographical, a remembrance of Tuten's Bronx boyhood and the Sicilian grandmother to whom he told his first stories, improvising new versions of movie plots and children's books (thus setting an early precedent for Tintin). The rest of the pieces are set in magic-dusted versions of New York or Madrid, say, or on the beach or at the circus, and are united most of all by passion for the world and its beauty undercut by constant awareness of death and decay. Usually the stories center on two lovers, sometimes young, sometimes old (or dead), often called Louie and Marie. They aren't necessarily fixed characters, though, as most things are fluid in these fictions, and they're usually joined by a third wheel -- a sly rival for Marie's love, or a forlorn yet still wide-eyed narrator, sometimes an older aesthete not unlike Tuten. The lovers spend a lot of time at restaurants, and, when not exchanging Pascal quotes, banter as if they've just emerged from an infectious screening of His Girl Friday or The Big Sleep. Or the banter is somewhere between Pascal and classic Hollywood:
"You only love me because you find me beautiful," she said, "and so when that's gone, I'm gone, too. Right?"
Those lines come from "Self Portrait with Beach," in which the narrator's lover considers buying a youth-restoring drink from a jinn-like vendor. It's not the only story here in which characters battle with each other and themselves over corporal beauty, aspiring to an ideal that "a human, like a work of art, increase[s] in desirability over time," while admitting the dumb fact that young people, as a rough-and-ready rule, are nicer to look at. All this thinking about physical decay, of course, can only lead in one direction; death is pervasive in these stories, and in "The Park in Winter," is personified -- as a young, gorgeous, slick-talking waiter (compelling the narrator's wife, naturally, to flirt with Death). Tuten weaves a lot of art criticism into the book, and it's perhaps unsurprising when, in the quietly funereal story "The Ship at Anchor," he brings up Poussin's Ego in Arcadia Sum, the Louvre favorite on the pervasion of death even among youth in a pastoral wonderland. In another story, "The Park on Fire," the narrator takes an apocalyptic stroll through a "forested park above the city" where people lounge in "tall wicker chairs like open black coffins," echoing a famous line from Last Year at Marienbad: "We live as in coffins frozen side by side in a garden." (Tuten is friends with the film's director, Alain Resnais, to whom his book is dedicated.) In this awful park thugs beat up a poet modeled on Federico García Lorca, planes fly ominously overhead, books are burned and eaten, and eventually almost everything is overwhelmed by fire, murder, and cannon blasts. It is, alas, a story in keeping with darkest moods of the present, though there's beauty in it too (if Death dwells even in Arcadia, perhaps life survives even in Hades).
"Of course not," I said, half lying.
"And if I were a real soulless bitch, you'd still love me because I was beautiful. Right?"
"Let's not go into metaphysics," I said as if I had meant it.
In addition to its recurring themes and motifs, Self Portraits throws in recurring scenery and extras -- quince trees, olives, elephants and other talking animals (the only element in these stories that verges on too cute) -- as well as some linking stylistic and syntactical modes, such as a fondness for clauses clarifying the initially withheld subject and verb: "Enriching, travel was," for instance, or "Did he try to explain that it was not fair, his dying... " These constructions happen again and again, but don't, somehow, seem like a tick. Here's another example, in a sentence about "herring clouds," quoted in full to demonstrate Tuten's sparky shifts of mood and reference: "Swimming, they were, in graceful little schools, unlike the cumulus clouds, which just drift along like stupid, puffy blimps, relying on their mass, as did the biographer of skies, Tiepolo, for dramatic effect."
Self Portraits is a melancholy book, but it's not, despite its concerns with death, an unduly grave one; it's filled with lust for life, and plain old lust, and a gently smiling acceptance of sorrow that's both calm and calming. Wisdom, that is.
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