Pushcart XL: Frederic Tuten, “Winter, 1965” from Bomb #129

In the few months before his story was to appear, he was treated differently at work and at his usual hangouts. The bartender at the White Horse Tavern, himself a yet unpublished novelist, called out his name when he entered the bar and had twice bought him a double shot of rye with a beer backer. He had changed in everyone’s eyes: He was soon to be a published writer.
And soon a serious editor at a distinguished literary publishing house who had read the story would write him, asking if he had a novel in the works. Which he had. And another one, as well, in a cardboard box on his closet shelf that had made the tour of slush piles as far as Boston. Only twenty-three, and soon, with the publication of his story in Partisan Review, he would enter the inner circle of New York intellectual life and be invited to cocktail parties where he, the youngster, and Bellows and Mary McCarthy, Lowell and Delmore would huddle together, getting brilliantly drunk and arguing the future of American Literature.

~~ Complete story available online at BOMB.

I very much enjoy reading Tuten’s stories, but I have never felt qualified to comment on them. He writes icebergs: stories that are two or three layers deeper than the surface story, and the surface story – French Impressionists, eccentric philosophers – are resonant enough in themselves, usually in octaves I haven’t yet learned to hear. His stories intrigue me, make me want to understand the entire world so I can follow along.

But here, he writes about an unsuccessful writer, giving me half a chance. For, while I’ve never been a successful writer, I sure as hell have been an unsuccessful one, and the trauma of the inciting incident hits me like the ground at the bottom of a thousand-foot cliff:

On the day the magazine was supposed to be on the stands, he rushed, heart pounding, to the newspaper shop on 6th Avenue and 12th that carried most of the major American literary magazines, pulled the issue of PR from the rack, opened it to the table of contents and found his name was not there. Then turning the pages one by one, he found that not only was his story not there, but neither was there any breath of him.
Maybe he was mistaken; maybe he had come on the wrong day. Maybe the delivery truck had got stuck in New Jersey. Maybe he had picked up an old issue. He scrutinized the magazine again: Winter, 1965—the date was right….

Ouch.

Lest you think I’m spoiling the story, all of the above occurs within the first few paragraphs. The story is in the setting (the not-yet-successful writer’s view of the 1964 New York literary atmosphere) and the reveal of the character so briefly sketched in the opening, a character who, although he drops literary names everywhere he goes, does not have a name of his own. You don’t get a name until you’re published.

As I’m prone to do when I’m over my head, I go looking for those who are more likely to be able to see what is beyond me – successful writers, of course. Peter Trachtenberg compares the story to a Chaplin film. Then there was the commentary that, although very brief, tapped me on the shoulder: fellow Mainer (!) Joseph Tomaras notes the writer’s chronic overreaching and “his fantasies of other people, women especially, more satisfying than his actual interactions with them”. Though I didn’t consciously recognize that quality, it may be a large part of what drew me to the story. I’ve always said I preferred second-hand life: to read about a country rather than to travel, to analyze culinary ingredients and techniques rather than learn high-end cheffery, to read stories rather than write them.

The story ends with a dedication to Tom McCarthy, with whom I’m unfamiliar. I feel like I could create an entire curriculum just by Tuten’s stories. In any case, I’m curious why the dedication is at the end, rather than the beginning. I also wonder if the story is autobiographical: Tuten is about the right age to have been a writer struggling to break into New York lit in 1965. The story has been selected for the 2016 O Henry prize anthology; I’ll have to see what the contributor note looks like when that’s published, if any clues there sate my curiosity. But in the end there’s always the story, which is plenty.

Pushcart 2015: Frederic Tuten, “The Tower” from Conjunctions, #60

The Library in Michel de Montaigne's Tower

The Library in Michel de Montaigne’s Tower

Sometimes his urine was cloudy. Sometimes gritty with what he called “gravel.” Sometimes his piss flowed bloody and frightening. No matter how disturbing, Montaigne recorded his condition in his travel journal as coolly as he did the daily weather. He was always in various degrees of pain, and he noted that too, but dispassionately, like a scientist in a white lab coat.
Even before he suffered from kidney stones and the burning pain that came with them, Montaigne had long thought about death, and not only his own. He had thought about how to meet it and if doing so gracefully would change the encounter. His closest friend, the man he had loved more than anyone in the world, was to love more than anyone in the world, had died with calm dignity. In his last minutes, in his last words, his dear friends did not begrudge life or beg for more time or express regrets over what was left undone or make apologies to those he might have or had offended or injured. Montaigne thought that when death approached, he would neither wave him away nor welcome him, but say to death’s shadow on the wall, “Finally, no more pain.”
I put my book aside when she walked in.
“I’m leaving you,” she said. She had a red handbag on her arm.

I don’t know enough about Michel de Montaigne, or about Blaise Pascal, for that matter, to do full justice to this story. In fact, one of the ways I can tell how much I like this story, even though I don’t fully understand the nuances, is that it interests me greatly in finding out more about these two philosophers. However, for the moment, I will have to approach this at my current level. As it happens, it works there, too.

The observation of the red handbag, made after hearing his wife is leaving him, tells us a great deal about the narrator. But maybe too much: I can’t decide if he is someone so afraid of the prospect of losing his wife – in the context of Montaigne’s loss of his best friend – that he escapes to a kind of detached observation, or if he truly is the detached thinker, observer, analyst, who does not bother to immerse himself in the everyday experience to feel anything about her departure. Or, for that matter, if she’s a flake who pulls this every other week. Maybe it’s what she routinely says when she goes out for an afternoon.

The conversation that continues after the above opening doesn’t shed any light on the matter:

“For how long?”
“And what about Pascal, will you take him?”
“He’s always favored you.” I was very glad. I could see Pascal sitting in the dining-room doorway, pretending not to listen.
“Yes, that’s true.”
“Don’t you care to know why I’m leaving?” she asked, petulantly, I thought.
“I suppose you’ll tell me.”
“I will, but maybe another time.” She stared at me as if wondering who I was. Then she started to speak but was interrupted by a car-horn blast. I’ve looked out the window and saw a taxi with the man behind the wheel.
“May I help you with your bags?” I asked.
“I’ll send for them later, if you don’t mind.”
“Who will you send?”
“The person who comes.” She stared at me another moment and then left.

Now, this is clearly a literary conversation. It’s much too sly and studied to be the sort of thing people actually say to each other; it couldn’t be used in a movie script unless it was a high-concept piece. But I still loved it. Realism is great, but it’s also nice to sometimes read a more stylized discourse, one that is more of a fencing match than an exchange of information.

Montaigne went to his Tower for ten years to study and write, after his best friend died. Our narrator goes to his study, after his wife leaves.

It welcomed me as never before. My desk with its teetering piles of books and loose sheets of notes and a printer and computer at the Chinese lamp, little pots full of outdated stamps and rubber bands, and instant-coffee jar crammed with red pencils, green paperclips heaped in a chipped, blue teacup, a stapler, an old rotary phone, framed prints of Goya’s Puppet and Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus, Cézanne’s Bathers, and van Gogh’s Wheat Field in Rain greeted and accepted me without any conditions. I could sit at my desk all day and night and never again be presented with the obligation to clear or clean an inch of the disorder. Now, if I wished, I could even sweep away every single thing on the desk and leave it there and hungry. Or I could chop up and burn the desk in the fireplace. I would wait for a cold night. There was plenty of time now to make decisions.

I love this passage; I think we all know that feeling of returning “home” whether it be a family, a house, or a room. Our narrator expresses far more emotion, even sexuality – entering the room that welcomed him, feeling greeted and accepted – than when he’s talking about his wife. Again, I can’t decide if he really is this locked out from feeling, or if he is stanching the flow of blood from an inner wound, if he truly hates his wife (there are hints that she is awful, but I didn’t see enough of her to be sure; and perhaps she has her reasons for being awful at this point) – or if he know his wife will return shortly.

Which brings me back to the overarching question: what is up with this guy?

To answer that fully, I think I would need to study Montaigne a lot more. An hour of looking through the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which never fails, no matter what the article or how familiar I think I am with the topic, to go over my head by the third sentence) isn’t nearly enough. But apparently Montaigne had some contradictions going on as well: he believed in immersing oneself in everyday experience to learn, yet isolated himself, etching Latin and Greek quotes on the beams of his tower library, including the one shown here: “I am human; nothing human is strange to me.” I wonder if the irony is as applicable to Montaigne as it is to our narrator, who appears to be more attuned to his study, and his cat, Pascal, better than his wife.

Pascal – the cat – also serves as a point of introspection. He disappears, presumably run out of a window. There’s a connection between Pascal the cat and the philosopher Pascal’s observation, “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it,” since at the very end of the story, our narrator says, “You should have stayed home.” It’s not clear to whom he’s speaking, his wife, or the cat – or himself, longing for the study, or even Montaigne, who should’ve never entered the tower – or perhaps never should have left, since that was his intellectual and spiritual home. Which is the abyss, in the story – real life, or his study?

In my research, such as it is, on Montaigne, I discovered a book review in The Guardian, written by Colin Burrow, Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher by Anne Hartle, that seemed particularly appropriate to this story:

Consciousness for tower people is being partly a body, partly a pen, partly a voice, partly a half-memory of someone else’s voice, partly the thing that enables you to realise that you are all those things at once (although this bit of consciousness doesn’t always function very well and needs a lot of encouragement), and partly a set of uneasy attitudes, ranging from shame to self-satisfaction, towards what in yourself is received and what seems immediate. Thinking is done not by starting from the beginning, but by thinking onwards and backwards and hoping that some clarification will emerge.

~~Colin Burrow

I see a lot of the narrator in that. He has no idea what he’s doing, but he keeps doing it. Does he hope to figure it out some day? Does he care? Or is he so self-satisfied, he needs no confirmation from anyone other than himself?

I wonder if I’m just dense, or if this is how the story is written, to leave so much open, to have us watch this man and wonder about him. Forward/back, good/bad, partly this/partly that. Maybe all at once. Intriguing.

This is the second Tuten story I’ve read thanks to Pushcart; the first was more focused on art (particularly Cézanne’s Bathers, which also appears here in the study) but was likewise over my head, yet had the same mysterious, inescapable appeal.

Pushcart 2012: Frederic Tuten, “The Veranda” from Conjunctions Spring 2010

Paul Cezanne.  The Large Bathers, 1906.  Oil on canvas, 82 7/8" by 98 3/4".  Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Paul Cezanne. The Large Bathers, 1906. Oil on canvas, 82 7/8" by 98 3/4". Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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.