In “Lives of the Artists,” a short story in Frederic Tuten’s engrossing new collection, a couple goes to see Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande à Part,” which features a dance sequence that breaks in unexpectedly, “like a flowerpot tossed from a cloud.”
“A flowerpot tossed from a cloud” would be a good way to describe the pleasures of “The Bar at Twilight,” which includes appearances by artists and writers such as Delacroix, Montaigne, Hawthorne, Melville, Monet, Gauguin, Cézanne, and van Gogh.
This is not surprising coming from Tuten, who, at 85, has had a long and distinguished career not just as a fiction writer but as an art and film critic. Many of the stories are set in Europe, and there’s a strong vein of Francophilia that runs through these pages. Characters who have never learned French suddenly start to speak “that sex-soaked language where a noun sounds like a flirtation.” Even horses break into it, as well as gorillas, who “beat their chests and cursed in gutter French.”
Readers looking for the consolations of more traditional narrative will find a couple of gems. “Winter, 1965” is a lovely ode to a lost New York City and to a literary world where short stories were mailed in manila envelopes and a story plucked from the slush pile at a small journal could set a writer on the path to fame. The protagonist, a young writer who has had a story accepted by Partisan Review, imagines himself about to be ushered into the company of Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, and Robert Lowell, only to discover that his story isn’t in the issue it was supposed to be in and is unlikely to be published at all.
“The Restaurant. The Concert. The Bar. The Bed. Le Petit Déjeuner” takes place in more contemporary times (someone has a cellphone), but it, too, evokes an older, lost New York, where the bartenders at the Carlyle scolded you for necking and muggers on Fifth Avenue called you “sir” as they relieved you of your cash. There are hints of Cheever in this story, and though the dialogue can be snappy and arch (“You have a new perfume?” “Yes, do you like it?” “Love it. Like rags soaked in a dying man’s urine.” “That good?” “Like a sewer overflow in Fez.” “Don’t flatter”), what emerges is a bittersweet portrait of a marriage and a city that have survived physical and psychic ravages.
The other stories are less traditional, both narratively and domestically. There are husbands and wives, but whether they live with each other seems immaterial to them. What drives them is the wish for solitude (many of the characters have cats — company, as one character puts it, that’s “the same as being alone”) and a love of art. One character praises Cézanne for having skipped his mother’s funeral in order to paint, and another loves gardens because of Proust but feels no need to visit them because Proust has already taken him there. Like the centaurs who feature in one of the stories and whose “heads and thoughts are high up to the dreamy stars” while their rears keep them on the ground, Tuten’s humans are half on earth, half in the ether, and often the ether wins out.
This can lead to a certain emotional abstraction, but these stories’ virtues more than compensate. Tuten’s prose is always vital, often dazzling: “A helicopter hung, like a mosquito, in the icy membrane of the sky.” A woman’s head emerges from her housecoat “like a white bean squeezed from its pod.” Paintings are turned to the wall “like punished students.” Sparrows sing “their besotted serenade.” Fire hoses quiver “like flattened pythons.” A woman’s shopping bags, covered in snow, are “baby igloos.”
The last entry in the collection is a short essay, part paean to books and to a life of reading, part aesthetic manifesto. In it, Tuten has some choice words for “likable” or “relatable” protagonists, “the expected staples of standard-issue fiction,” and he holds up Djuna Barnes’s “Nightwood” as a model for the way it “sidesteps the rules of normative — and predictable — fiction.”
Tuten could easily be talking about his own work. “The Bar at Twilight” is neither normative nor predictable, and it bears the firm impress of the soul—Joshua Henkin
THE BAR AT TWILIGHT: Stories | By Frederic Tuten | 282 pp. | Bellevue Literary Press | Paper, $17.99