I met Frederic Tuten at the diner we only managed to identify as, “that place a block down from the Strand,” where we talked about his essays, his short stories, and his five novels—The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (1971), Tallien: A Brief Romance (1988), Tintin in the New World (1993), Van Gogh’s Bad Café (1997), and The Green Hour (2002)—and his interest in the visual arts.
Tuten’s writing has a painterly character—composed, visual, and very often with cartoonish, or cubist, or surreal elements. In a moment of the big, formulaic book, Tuten’s Self Portraits (Norton, 2010) is a deftly delivered group of highly crafted inter-related stories. The “Fictions,” as Tuten subtitles them, are diamond-faceted adventures, glistening with love and death, friends and strangers.
We spoke by phone, several times, while working on the interview—an email correspondence that spanned several days at the height of a New York City summer.
John Reed (Rail): So, where are you now?
Frederic Tuten: Finishing up the summer in Southampton and writing a new novel.
Rail: What’s it about?
Tuten: People vanishing and huge ships evaporating in Brazil’s Tocantins River in the middle of the day. It’s a detective story, a love story, and a story about a man who has found a secret way to change the world. And, finally, like the character of Tintin in my novel, I’m working on my memoir. The Self Portraits is part one of an ongoing autobiography, the stories being transformations of me and of people in my life. That’s why I have dedicated each story individually.
Rail: Since we met at the Bon Vivant Diner, any exciting new developments?
Tuten: It’s a season of blessings. One of my stories in this book, “Self Portrait with Sicily,” is coming out this fall in a little book in Italian and English and with illustrations by the artist Mimmo Paladino. Another story from my book, “Self Portrait with Sicily” is appearing as a book in Spanish and English published in Madrid by the Residencia de Estudiantes, where the poet Garcia Lorca stayed as a young man.
I have started on a project for the young Mexican artist, Pedro Reyes, creating the characters for the puppets of figures such as Mao and Lenin for an internet show called “Baby Marx.” And in October (12) at the Getty in L.A., Steve Martin and I are having a conversation about our new books and about the role of art in our work.
Rail: I have a great story about Steve Martin—I wish I could remember who told it to me. An art dealer, I think. He had gone to a party thrown by Steve Martin, who as you know collects contemporary art, and he needed a break, and took respite in a kind of dark kiddie-structure in Martin’s backyard. My memory is that it was a miniature train tunnel. Another man was sitting in there, also taking refuge, and he and the art dealer had a long conversation about art, and then exited the tunnel together. Of course, the mystery man was Steve Martin.
Tuten: There’s a wonderful playfulness in all that Steve does. In his books, films, standup, and banjo playing, there is always at the heart this childlike innocence and openness, which I admire and is essential in any art. Lichtenstein, Hergé, Queneau, and Resnais all have it. I hope that this spirit shows itself in my book of self-portraits. Anyway, it will be a lot of fun to appear at the Getty with Steve, to talk as we so often do, informally, about art and what it has meant to both our lives, but this time with back-up dancers, a few seals, and a finale involving a fountain.
Rail: Where do you make camp in the city?
Tuten: I’m more of a nester than a camper. I like being in one place that I love and staying there. I get attached in the same way to people. In 1962 I moved into a 6th floor walkup on 8th street between C and D, and when I left two years later, the rent had gone up to 26 dollars a month. The building was a warren for young artists and writers from all over America—and at that rent, they did not have to have roommates and three jobs. The heating was good and the water ran hot and everyone kept their hall clean. I would have stayed there until I died but then I got married, and after a year or so my wife thought we should have a bathtub that was not in the kitchen.
In 1964, I moved into an apartment where I still live. It overlooks Tompkins Square Park on the north side, so I have been blessed with an open sky and a window filled with old sycamores. The park often finds its way into my stories.
Rail: In Self Portraits, have you done away with neighborhoods? Or born witness to their being done away with? Or none of the above?
Tuten: I guess none of the above. Parks and gardens and orchards are my neighborhoods, are my bull rings, my battlefields, my Edens. In Self Portraits, one setting is a park with roving bands of murderous children and a murdered poet, another is a hotel garden bordering the Prado, where rivals toss a coin for their life, and there is also an orchard in the Bronx, under which runs the gold stream that Pissarro went to find in Mexico. The Bronx Park of my childhood is my paradigm of the Golden Age and of all civil wars.
Rail: How so?
Tuten: When I was a kid, we had terrible fights in the parks. Rock fights. I have a scar over my left eye from one of them. The sides kept shifting so that your best friend may be on the other side and throwing rocks at you. You might say that sometimes we were a neighborhood divided. And sometimes gangs came from another neighborhood and wanted to fight with bats. So I see the park as a great field of battle. But it was also a place of great calm and beauty.
My grandmother and I would sit on the same bench in Spring looking over the famous rose beds of the Bronx Botanical Garden. She knitted, I read. I have never felt exactly such peace again. Maybe I’m looking to return to that tranquility in those stories set in parks and gardens. But I can’t detach from the other, violent, side. I brought those twin elements into the story, “The Park on Fire.”
Rail: In Self Portraits, there’s a sense that all the characters are either on a journey, or about to embark on one.
Tuten: In many of these stories, the same two lovers meet at different places, in different guises, sometimes even as different people and at different times—even before and after death. Sometimes they are strangers. They are eternally in flight from and to each other. The narrator also sometimes enters the stories, and the narrator, like the characters, is subject to similar transformations.
Rail: Are we strangers everywhere?
Tuten: Everywhere but in fiction.
Rail: Even to our children?
Tuten: I have no children but I have a godson I’ve known from his infancy. I understood for the first time in my life the feeling that I know parents have, that they would jump in front of a bus to protect their child. I dedicated a story to him, “The Ship at Anchor,” for his seventh birthday and he is a character in my last novel, The Green Hour. He is almost a teenager now, and like most teenagers, a mystery. I suspect that we are all mysteries to each other, and mysteries to ourselves—for all our attempts at self-knowledge. I think that is why characters in fiction are so comforting; we know them better than our friends and lovers; they are fixed and they will not change on us. And let us hope that they are interesting.
Rail: “The Ship at Anchor” is a story about strangers, a father and a son. And a journey as well. There’s some sense of the two having at least sat together at a café. No?
Tuten: “The Ship at Anchor” is a story about a father, son, and grandmother, a distant echo of my own. No café this time, but an exotic banquet in the bowels of a pirate ship, where the boy trades his drawing of Death for his dead grandmother’s soul, which the pirates have stolen. Growing up, I used to tell my grandmother adventure stories from the books I was reading and I think “The Ship at Anchor” is something like our own adventure story.
Rail: I see that Self Portraits: Fictions is dedicated to the film director, Alain Resnais.
Tuten: He my oldest of older friends. The others—Queneau, Hergé, Lichtenstein—are all gone. And deep parts of my life with them. Resnais is in his late 80s and still making beautiful, fresh films. I loved his work before I met him in 1971 or 72 and above all I love Last Year at Marienbad. One of the stories, “The Park Near Marienbad” is a homage to that film. The recurring motifs and the gardens and park settings in my book are in some ways echoes of that film. Books, films, paintings—people—vanish from your mind after the long haul. Some stay forever. This film stays for me in its perfection and beauty and a kind of example of what to reach for in art.
Rail: To reach for what?
Tuten: For something engaging, mysterious, a glimpse of the ineffable.
Rail: And Roy Lichtenstein? His painting is on the cover of your book. Of, if I’m not mistaken, many of your books.
Tuten: He’s an artist I revered and he was my oldest and closest friend. He changed what we all thought was valid imagery, for art while keeping and furthering the tradition from Poussin to Picasso. He taught me that we go to make a work, a painting or a story, with a preconception of what a painting or story should be like. That’s one of the reasons why we have endless repetitions of the same stories and novels.
Roy made original art for the covers my Adventures of Mao on the Long March and Tintin in the New World novels. This one of Roy’s is called “Self Portrait with Cheese,” which tells you a lot about his wit and his debunking of self importance. He also did one called “Self Portrait with Mirror”—the head is a mirror. I used these images in a story I dedicated to him. Roy inspired me. And he was a reminder to approach my work with questions.
Rail: There are some works that are very visual—they somehow appeal to the memory of sight. Self Portraits is that way for me—I remember scenes, conversations, almost in tableau. Does that reflect your intent, your interest?
Tuten: I appreciate that the stories left that impression and memory with you. It’s everything I work toward. To have you see is the life of fiction.
Rail: In Self Portraits, your narrators are always on the brink or periphery of a quest. Thinking of your novel, Tintin in the New World, is eternal youth a journey?
Tuten: The thing about Hergé’s Tintin is that he is always young and innocent in a shrewd way. He also goes from one adventure to another, responsible to no one, except maybe to his dog, Snowy. I like his immortality and how his soul is untainted by the world. In my novel, I have him transformed by love and crime. A kind of fall into the human. The characters in my stories are not seeking youth, but life. And even in death, their souls continue to search. The concept of eternity, of continual growth, of transformations, interests me more than youth. In my novel, Tintin in the New World, the New World into which Tintin embarks is Time, and by accessing time, he falls subject to all its joys and curses. He grows up, but he also grows old. In my new book, Self Portraits, the world of death figures into the landscape as an extension of life, as perhaps its shadow. The living and the dead exist together, echo each other even if unknowingly. Moreover, in one story, Death actually appears. He is a young, handsome waiter in an elegant New York bar facing the Metropolitan Museum where, what else, a couple in deep flirtation are dining. The service is excellent.