He wrote about the Bathers, how he loved the awkwardness of the nude figures, the almost childish painting of their forms. As if Cezanne had set out to fail. As if he had sought through that failure a great visual truth at once obvious and occult. He quoted from a letter of Cezanne’s, in which he spoke about his unfinished paintings – paintings he had deliberately left unfinished, patches here and there of raw canvas as if left to be later painted. Cezanne had found truth in their incompleteness. That empty spaces invited color, leaving he viewer to imagine that color, leaving the viewer his exciting share in the completing of the visual narrative; blank spaces suggesting also that art, like life, does not contain all the information and that it is a lie when it pretends so.
We start and end with Her – only the artists and writers in this story have names, other than an initialed butler – and in between learn about Him, and Them. But only enough about both of them to understand how the empty space left by his death has affected her. Besides the Cezanne painting, also unfinished was His life, of course, but so is Her life, and, having known the love of Her life after two false starts, She just waits for it to be over instead of completing the narrative. In this way, She betrays Him.
I think. What do I know, anyway. When I look at the painting, I see the face of a smiling woman, her long hair parted in the middle, looking slightly to the left. But only if I squint.
In a Conjunctions reading at Montauk Bookshop on August 28, 2010 (you can read the transcript or listen), Dr. Tuten (an artist as well as a Professor of Literature) described his story this way:
It’s about a very serious, unfashionable artist. How can I say it? I mean it’s so corny to say it—a man of integrity, of character. He has a vision, it’s not current, it’s not trendy, and he does it all his life; he’s very quiet, very unassuming, and very shy. Except with women. And with women he dares everything. So his feeling about life is, to lose an opportunity to meet a new woman that you’re attracted to is to lose a part of your life. So he takes chances.
He “did not have friends in the full sense of the word, though he believed in the idea of friendship as found in the essays of Montaigne. He liked the idea so much that he did not attempt to injure it through experience” but He is willing to take risks with women, in particular, women “who read books he honored….You could be fooled or betrayed by friends but never by books.” I love this distinction between women and friends. He goes to great lengths to enjoy art (similar, perhaps, to the risks he takes for women), travelling to Europe or, as it happens, Philadelphia, where his favorite work, Cezanne’s Large Bathers, is exhibited.
They meet through His art, after She sees his work in a gallery She frequents, where the owner displays His art. The gallery owner notices His art soon explodes with “new vigor and insight…a kind of generosity lacking earlier but still keeping the work within its usual reserved boundaries.” This dealer becomes concerned when he learns She is building a house in Montauk: he has known other artists and “…sometimes, their flame went out because the hungry fuel that had fed it was no longer there, and the rich life took its place.” This leads to an interesting exchange between the dealer and Her:
He knew artists who, when they reached the pinnacle of their art and reputation and had earned vast sums, turned out facsimiles of their earlier, hard-earned work and were more concerned with their homes, trips, social calendars, their placement at dinner parties than with anything that might have nourished their art, which coasted on its laurels.
And for that last reason the dealer said to her, “Go slow and keep the life contained, for his sake and yours.”
She laughed. “Don’t worry, no one will come to our dinner parties, should we ever give them, and we shall not go if ever asked.”
“This is not a moralistic issue,” he said. “And I’m not against money. You know it’s not about you. I love you,” he said, turning red.
“And I love you for how you were in his life and in his work from the start.”
He made an exaggeratedly alarmed face and said, “Were?”
“Were, are, and always will be,” she said, then repeated it.
They left on good terms…
So we also have an echo of boundaries, which in the case of this particular artist’s work, seem to be a good thing. I’m not sure I understand that.
Maybe that’s why it’s a story that grabs me by the neurons instead of the heart; I’m interested by the choices Tuten made, rather than captivated or moved by any emotion he evokes. To paraphrase my favorite writing book, writing is all about choices. I’m intrigued by Tuten’s choices in this piece, because, though I don’t really understand them, I feel a mind at work behind them. If I understood the choices, I might be grabbed by the heart as well. I can always hope.
For example, he uses some interesting (and I’m not using that word casually – it isinteresting) sentence construction, such as:
His picture had never appeared in any of the art magazines she subscribed to, which, with the exception of the bulletin from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was a trustee, were none.
There must be a reason for the roundabout phrasing there.
And then, we have the third person omniscient narration. Mostly it swaps between the two principles, and dabbling with the gallery owner, but we get a brief glimpse into the thoughts of a bit player, on the first night She spends with Him: “She gave her driver the day off. He was glad and made his escape across the bridge to Astoria, Queens, where his wife and children watched TV until they went blind.” It’s here that I wish this story had been included in BASS or PEN/O.Henry, because I’d really like to know why the writer uses this little flicker into a character who is, really, unimportant to the story. I wonder if it has something to do with the painting, with some shift of focus between figures, including a tiny bit of interest in one of the most minor ones. But I don’t know much about art.
Time also has an, dare I say it, interesting way of not making itself known. Immediately after Her conversation with the art dealer about moving to Montauk, we read:
Now he was dissolved in the sea, vanished in a soup of bones and brine. And now she was alone until the sea took her away, too, if it were the sea who one day would be her executioner.
Did they live there for years? Weeks? Did they even move in? Did he drown himself, perhaps in despair over losing his artistic fire, as his dealer feared? Or did he simply drown by accident? Tuten chooses to let us surmise, to let the reader imagine the colors that should be painted in those empty spots.
The story ends with Her reading His comments on the Cezanne, quoted above. That shift to the unfinished, along with a woman somewhere in her middle years, considering Her life to be over, waiting for the end, leaves a sense of sadness. But it’s not really a sad story; it’s more that She is a sad character, unwilling to finish Her life without Him, He whose live was unfinished.
Maybe she’ll change her mind some day.