by Frederic Tuten
I’m not going to lie — This book went a bit over my head. Though I did not feel dumb while reading it, I spent the entire time feeling as though I did not have the right points of reference. Filled with allusions to art and literature, Frederic Tuten’s Self Portraits: Fictions would likely be loved by a reader on the same mental trip, but that reader, despite some effort, was not me.
Still, Tuten’s interesting premise of representing himself through a series of short stories is worth praise. How often do writers say that, even though they deal mostly in fiction, so much of themselves is in that work? I do not know anything about Tuten apart from what his author bio tells me, but I concur with A.M. Holmes cover blurb that “experimental and deeply old-fashioned” is the best way to summarize these self-portraits. The writing is one long lucid dream where the characters talk like early twentieth century novels filled with upper class musings:
He was a fancy-talking waiter, who nursed us after we devoured the day devouring paintings. It was a strenuous life, if you were not built for it.
Am I supposed to laugh at that line? Because I did. It felt like a self-aware joke, but I’m not sure if it was. The ravenous couple wait for their dinner and have an equally amusing conversation:
We had been talking, before the waiter arrived, about beauty, its properties, its various manifestations in art. Before I could answer, she asked, “Is a slice of cheese beautiful, a work of art?”
“It depends,” I said, rather hastily, “on the color and texture and size, whether or not the surface is interrupted with perforations and, of course, there’s the factor of ‘whatnot.’”
“The ‘whatnot’ is crucial, of course,” she said.
Please tell me I am not the only one laughing. The ‘whatnot!’ It’s the grown-up version of undergraduates discussing the merits of Proust and their staunch localism while loitering in an all-night diner.
Back and forth I vacillated with my enjoyment of the book. While reading “Self Portrait with Bullfight,” I thought God, I hope the whole thing isn’t like this. Someone tell me whose style this is similar to so I’m sure never to read them. Harsh? Judge for yourself:
“We Spaniards all look alike,” he said, “especially in cloak-and-dagger darkness, when the flamenco shreds the sanity of night and renders it cuckoo.”
“Yes,” I said, “perhaps all Spaniards look alike in their brotherhood of despondent capes and sombreros blackened by the night, and with eyes of the same inky shade or related blackish hue, but you look especially familiar.”
“I am familiarity itself,” he said.
That cannot be written without tongue being firmly planted in cheek, right? See, this is where my creative reference points feel lacking — there’s an in-joke here I can sense, but I’m not sure what it is. I’m not sure I want to know what it is. That over-the-top literary conversation style is so rarely my bag, unless it comes wrapped thickly in farce.
However, Tuten would then bring me back around to appreciating the nostalgic wandering of the stories, the reflections of his past and what it means to be of the world. “The Park Near Marienbad” was one of the more affecting self-portraits for me, and it gave a greater sense of clarity to the stories surrounding it:
I would always remember the movies. [...] I would miss them all, but especially the film in which the mysterious woman the narrator pursues is bound to him by an immortal loop of repetitions and in which he is linked eternally to her by hopes endlessly unfulfilled and endlessly renewed.
During “The Park in Winter,” I did appreciate the conversation between the man and woman more, as they veered more into my territory of obsessive pondering. The woman says he misses everything “excessively,” including their old friend Henry. The first half of the story, while they are still in the restaurant, they were still a little too stiff and analytical with one another, but everything loosens once they head upstairs to their hotel room. The language even becomes more direct and less flowery — something I prefer — and they discuss the many forms of love.
“Shouldn’t the destination of human progress include the totality of pleasure of love? Shouldn’t we finally free ourselves of the tyranny of gender differences? What a loss of love, loving the opposite sex. Don’t you think? How much time is there to live, after all? And why pass it away in such constraints?”
Preach, Tuten. Preach. It’s a long way of saying, “love is a many splendored thing,” but these characters would not know brevity if it arrived on the tray of their ever present waiter.
For the right reader, I know Self Portraits: Fictions will be a good book. My under-enjoyment is not because of poor writing, poor execution or any other common attribute of a “bad” book, and I might be the wrong person to try and review it properly. One can probably tell from the excerpts I’ve quoted whether or not they are the reader for which the book aims, but please don’t be surprised when I say that I am glad to be starting something new.
Full disclosure: W.W. Norton sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the small marketing write-off towards my small site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.