Interviews


Here you'll find links to several of Frederic's interviews as well as the full text of an interview with Han Ulrich Obrist.



An Interview with Frederic Tuten
For New York Foundation for the Arts by John Haskell – May 2011



Frederic Tuten/Author
For DansHamptons.com by Joan Baum – April 2011



An Interview With Novelist Frederic Tuten
For The Huffington Post by Bettina Korek – October 2010




An Interview with Frederic Tuten
For Splice Today By Iris Smyles – October 2010




An Interview with Frederic Tuten
For Bookforum By Peter Trachtenberg – September 2010




Questioning Art: PW Talks with Frederic Tuten
A PW Web Exclusive Q & A By Amy Boaz – September 2010




John Reed interviews Frederic Tuten
For the Brooklyn Rail – September 2010



Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist


The interview below took place in a café on East 10th Street in New York in 2008 and can be found in print in Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews Volume 2.


HANS ULRICH OBRIST: I wanted to ask how it all started, your beginnings with literature.


FREDERIC TUTEN: I can be very specific. I don't want to get sentimental about it, but I came from a very poor family in the Bronx. My father abandoned us when I was ten. My mother supported me and my Sicilian grandmother, who didn't speak English, so our conversation stuck to the here and now. There was no television, nothing; so the entire sustenance of my life was books, even if I didn't understand them. I would go to the library or take them from the school and come home and read and read and read and then, I don't know where I got the idea, but when I was about eight years old, I took a notebook and I wrote on the cover "My Book." I told people I was a writer. I don't know what I was writing in that book. I don't know if I could even write at eight, but I was walking around with a notebook telling people that I was a writer.

When I was older, fourteen or fifteen, I wanted to be a painter. I dropped out of high school with romantic notions of going to Paris and living in a little studio above a cafe and having a beautiful girlfriend. Everything would be free because the French were so generous and loved art and artists. I went to work. I got different crazy jobs and I was trying to paint and was writing all the time. I was sending poems to New Directions. Just recently I told Barbara Epler, the present editor: "When I was fifteen I was sending you poems—not that you were there or even alive then—dreaming of publishing in the New Directions Annual." That was my dream. I don't know how it started; there was no one in the family to support it. I can't explain how the dream came to me but it was associated with a better life, with leaving the Bronx, living in Manhattan, painting in a romantic place like Paris, living among artists. I used to read books about artists: Irving Stone's Van Gogh novel, Lust/or Life [1934], [William Somerset] Maugham's A Moon and Sixpence [1919] about Gauguin. All that spoke for a marvelous world to me, the world of beauty and thinking and elegance, of intensity. So I painted and wrote.


HUO: It sounds like you were always meant to be a writer.


FT: I gave up the dream of being a painter because I was discouraged by not being able to draw or paint the things I saw before my eyes. That was a time when it was thought that if you could not draw the figure you could not be an artist. It broke my heart but I still console myself by making color pencil drawings. I wrote all through my school years. I wrote in college. I read, of course, all the time. Probably the only real hiatus was when I was in graduate school to do the PhD. But even then I was writing enough to publish my first novel the same month I got my doctorate, 1971.


Huo: That was TheAdventures of Mao in the Long March.


FT: Yes.


HUO: Before we talk about your first book, who were your heroes?


FT When I was very young, André Malraux. I loved La Condition Humaine [Man's Fate, 1933]. [Ernest] Hemingway, of course. Hemingway seemed the perfect writer: the perfect writer of sentences, the perfect writer of romance, the perfect writer of wisdom even, if you can imagine that now. And [Arthur] Rimbaud and [Walt] Whitman. Everything that had to do with the freedom of imagination and adventure in some way. But with Malraux it was also the political adventure, the notion of some kind of liberation through socialism that I started to think about very seriously when I was very young. At the height of the McCarthy period I was reading Marx. It's incongruous. But, yes, it was all associated with freedom and the notion of freedom for all of us. All those writers, the freedom of the body, the freedom of the spirit with Whitman, Rimbaud and the fantastic adventures of a young man. You have to realize I loved Rimbaud because he was very young, so I thought you could be a brilliant young writer if you just open your imagination. I read difficult books when I was fourteen. I thought they held the secret to living. Later when I was in college, I started a novel set in Mexico, where I briefly studied Mexican mural painting. Did you know about that?


HUO: Tell me.


FT: When I was nineteen years old I went to the University of Mexico and I studied with Justino Fernández, a scholar of [José Clemente] Orozco. I met many Mexican painters. A year later when I returned to Mexico, I met [David Alfaro] Siqueiros; I had tea at his house.


HUO: Was that was the beginning of your relationship to art? It has been a long relationship.


FT: My relationship to art started before I dropped out of high school. To come back, let me tell you about Taller de Gráfica Popular, a group of artists in Mexico City in the 1960s. One of them was Francisco Dosamantes, a graphic artist, a printmaker. His son was a student friend of mine at City College. When I was going to Mexico he said, "Go see my father." I did and all the doors opened. Siqueiros was still alive; he was the last of the great three. Orozco was dead, [Diego] Rivera was dead. Through Dosamantes, I met all the artists from Taller de Gráfica Popular and went to their workshop. They had a lithography press from the Paris Commune.


HUO: Did you speak to them in Spanish?


FT Spanish and English. Dosamantes was amazed that a young American in 1956 would come to Mexico, be interested in Mexican mural art and also be a leftist. He was amused, they all were. They had a lot of conspiracy theories that I was interested in. They said, for example, which proved later to be true, that the North Americans tried to subvert Mexican art by sending down Abstract Expressionist teachers. There are books about this now. I thought the artists were insane or joking. But the truth is that there was an attempt to undermine a native, nationalist, socialist art, realist art. Dosamantes believed that there was going to be a revolution in Mexico like there was in 1914–1916 and that there would be a socialist revolution. I remember saying, "How could that be? The Americans will never let this happen." "Oh, but the Soviet Union will stop them," he said.

Siqueiros was different. Siqueiros was very olympian and very touching and very gentle. When I visited him, he was entertaining a cultural editor of L'Humanité. The two were talking mostly about the horrible construction being done in the hospitals in Mexico City and how poor the building materials were, because a hospital had just collapsed and Siqueiros was irate. They turned to me, asking me what was America like, what was McCarthy doing? So I tried to supply all that information—as if I knew anything. In any case, I was just too in awe to even be coherent. I was twenty; it was hard for me to feel like an adult.

There was one other thing I wanted to tell you. I did something remarkable for a kid, even when I think about it now, because now taking a subway to Brooklyn takes me a month of preparation. There was this old artist, Francisco Goitia, the grandfather of all the Mexican artists. His famous painting is called Viejo en el muladar [Old Man of the Dung Hill, 1916] It is a painting of an old man sitting on a mountain of garbage; it's an early realist social painting, not a landscape. Goitia lived near Xochimilco in a hut in a cornfield. He had turned mystic He would go among the cornfields and sometimes lie in the earth for hours.


HUO: And you went to find him.


FT: I went to his hut. I took a little tram that went to the edge of the town; the conductor said, "He lives there." I walked some way and there were some chickens and there he was in the hut. Incredible!


HUO: The Mexican artists of that time had an idea of the social contract of art.


FT: Yes. Their aesthetic was very simple; they didn't want to make easel painting. They thought easel painting was for the bourgeoisie—for the rich. They thought that poor people have to see something of their own culture reflected in painting. They made their paintings on school walls, in post offices, murals telling the history of Mexico, the history of their oppression. We may think it is corny today, but it was revolutionary then. Don't forget that Rivera came as a Cubist from Paris to return home to Mexico and do this new kind of painting.

The other night I was talking to some young Mexican artists about mural painting, and they were very polite and very nice, but then they started to laugh. They said, "We hate that. We are against that."


HUO: Which leads us right to your first novel, The Adventures of Mao and the Long March.


FT: Yes.


HUO: What is interesting is there are many books on Mao but what is so different about your book is that it's not a linear story of the Long March. It takes the Long March, which is actually a very linear idea, and puts it into a nonlinearity. In the '50s and '60s there was the nouveau roman which worked a lot with the idea of nonlinearity, Was the nouveau roman an inspiration for The Adventures of Mao?


FT: The trigger for me wasn't the nouveau roman but fundamentally two major sources of thinking of how to break the narrative. One was [Jean-Luc] Godard. No one can understand today how important he was to our generation, how extraordinary he seemed, how fresh. He broke all the conventions of narrative cinema, to intrude material in the film, like a written text, and have his characters read it aloud, a whole story of Edgar Allan Poe or a part of a speech from Marx or Engels. That was extraordinary. The way he would break scenes just as they were getting exciting, just not to pander, so to speak, to the narrative. I thought that was brilliant. That was one of the most moving things. And the other part of my impetus for the Mao novel—the intrusion of quotations in the text from all sources, and parodies—really comes from TS. Eliot. For many reasons, Godard and Eliot are very strange sources but for me; looking back, I see that they stand for my love to break everything in pieces and then to put them back together.


HUO: Is that a collage idea?


FT: Quite right. The idea of quotations coming from various sources cutting into the surface of a text, even into the dialogue. I relished Godard's idea of the interrupted structure and his radical approach to telling the story. As Godard said, "Every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order." T.S. Eliot was also profoundly influential. Not his politics but his format. Through him I got the idea, for example, of weaving through my novel such improbable material as Mao Tse-tung reciting Walter Pater to his troops. Doing that was exciting to me. The novel was published in 1971, but I began it in 1968, 1969, and this was the high moment, I suppose, of Maoism in the West.


HUO: It was also the high moment of Pop Art in the West.


FT: Pop Art and Maoism. Pop absolutely. It was the strangest combination, Hans Ulrich. You would have loved the period; you would have been thrilled to be there.


HUO: Pop Maoism. It's an oxymoron.


FT: That's very funny. Don't forget there's a wonderful image by Salvador Dali called Mao-Marilyn—a head that blended Marilyn's face with Mao's face. Did you ever see it?


HUO: Was that before [Roy] Lichtenstein?


FT: After. Roy's Mao head was done in 1969 or 1970 and published as a print with a special edition of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March— and the image was also on the cover of the trade edition of the book, Dali's Mao-Marilyn was done in 1972. Mao was everywhere then, so to speak. It was a period when young people had completely finished with the idea of the Soviets as a revolutionary force because they seemed already what they were, a kind of left fascism. We were so naïve; we wanted to believe that maybe there was still some place left revolution could work and that this new wonderful force could happen. But the Cultural Revolution had already begun; one could see the signs of disintegration, it was already there. I hope that dialectic shows in my book.


HUO: The cover by Lichtenstein is interesting because his Mao happened—


FT: —before Warhol, by two years.


HUO: I had wanted to ask about your friendship with Lichtenstein, how it started, and if he had already been working on Mao or if he made the work of Mao because of you.


FT: Yes, absolutely.


HUO: With you.


FT: With me. What happened is this: the book was first a short story in a magazine called Artist Slain, published in 1968 or '69 in a box of objects by Ernest Trova, He made a special edition of forty or fifty copies of this box, Each shelf held different things: a wristwatch, a compass, a lithograph and a little magazine called Artist Slain. And it was there that began The Adventures of Mao on the Long March in a story of about forty pages. And then I started to expand it, I had an editor friend who always said to me, "When you have a book, give it to me." I gave him the book, he read it and invited me to lunch. His hand was shaking. "I want you to know before we go any further that I was shocked by this book because I know you and you are a very warm person. This is a very cold book. If I didn't know you better I would think this is an Andy Warhol put-on." That's what they were thinking then—Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein, Pop Art, it's just a joke, a masquerade for the public. And then the editor said, "But don't worry. We'll always be friends." He wouldn't come to the phone for a year. OK. Part two. I tried to get it published everywhere. Everywhere it was turned down. People said, "It's not a novel."

That's why I laugh when I talk about David Markson's novel called This Is Not a Novel [2001], which goes directly to the question of what is a novel. In any case, no one would take my book, nobody. I thought, I'll get some money together and publish Mao on the Long March in Gibraltar because you could do it there cheaply. I went to my friend Roy Lichtenstein and asked if he would make a cover for the book, I realize now it was a big thing to ask him, especially since there was no money involved. He read the book and said, "OK." After that a trade publisher said, "Well, if Roy does the cover for the book and makes a special lithograph and a special edition with a signed print, we'll publish the book." That's how it finally came into being.


HUO: You brought him [Lichtenstein] to Mao.


FT: Yes, Or Mao to him. It was very funny because we were very well aware of what we were doing. He said to me when the book came out, "Who is going to come after us first, the Left or the Right?" I said, "Both!" Mao became acceptable in America only after Nixon's visit to China, and it was after that and after Roy's Mao head that Andy Warhol did his Mao series. I really want to note that Andy had seen Roy's Mao before he did his—Andy even asked me to trade the print of Roy's Mao for something of his. But I was too lazy to ever get around to it. Now there is no getting around to it. I suppose I like to strike while the iron is cold.


HUO: With Lichtenstein did you ever discuss with him your time with Siqueiros and the muralists in Mexico and the idea of politics in art? What were Lichtenstein's politics?


FT: No, he was not a political artist but he was political; Roy had very good politics. He was against the war in Vietnam, for example, made posters and he donated his art to raise money for good causes. He was very political in that sense but not in the work. I believe he was dedicated to the notion of art as a continuum—and he was very aware of his work as part of a continuum, or if I may put it this way, aware of the canon. In a way Roy was very much for me like T.S. Eliot, very similar in one regard; awareness of all the continuity of everything that had come before.

Of course it's not popular to speak that way today. No one speaks of a continuum, of the canon; it seems so old-fashioned: and imperialistic, fascistic, etc. But in Roy's generation there was a line of thinking that somehow artists separated by time were in a conversation. You can see from his paintings that Roy had been having long talks with Picasso and Matisse as well as many other artists both modern and pre-Hellenic. Also what fascinated me about Roy was that he kept that conversation to himself, except in his work. Yes, he was aware of my being in Mexico and meeting those artists when I was very young. But that was interesting to him only as part of the biography of his friend.


HUO: The link with history leads us to your next novel, which is Tallien: A Brief Romance, where we go from the revolution of Mao to the French Revolution. What is so interesting about Tallien A Brief Romance is in some kind of way the narrative is again broken. You have interwoven your father's biography into the story of Tallien. Similarly to certain filmmakers or artists who take a long time from one film to the next film, you took your rime from the Mao to the Tallien book.


FT: Yes. A very long time.


HUO: So I was wondering what happened in between and also if you could talk a little bit about Tallien: A Brief Romance, how the idea evolved of weaving your father's biography. It is obviously an interesting kind of time journey.


FT: Yes, I like the idea of time journey. I am not a realist writer. Simple-minded realism is dull unless it is done by writers as good as or better than [Emile] Zola or [Georges] Gissing or [Theodore] Dreiser; it is already finished or at least waiting for another fresh incarnation. First question, what was or why the long wait? More than fourteen years passed between my first and second novel; 1971 and I think the other was 1985. In those years I lived in Paris and was teaching there, I wrote a film with Andrzej Zulawski, Possession [1981]. We worked on this film on and off for almost two years and with many adventures of the kind that anyone working in film may well understand. After Possession came out in 1981 we started on another film that was supposed to be for Nastassja Kinski, and we worked on that first draft for almost six months. Apart from the film work and teaching, there were things I was doing for Artforum, there was a series of pieces for RanXerox. Do you remember RanXerox, by Tanino Liberatore and Stefano Tamburini? I was fascinated by those comic book stories of theirs, so raw and beautifully anarchic.


HUO: And then Tallien: A Brief Romance?


FT: Tallien started as a short story dedicated to Raymond Queneau.


HUO: He was your friend.


FT: He was my friend in Paris and my editor at Gallimard and I loved him. That is a whole story. He was so wonderful. Brilliant and with a deep, earned merriment. Oulipo is like a great opening out from a black, stupid cave. Let me put it this way: I did not know Queneau's work when I met him. There was not much that was translated and he is very hard for me to read in French, but when I did I recognized why I was so crazy for him, even by instinct, because he has everything I love in writing and in art. He is comic and dark, every sentence is like your first dawn. He has a fresh way with narrative, at once tightly woven, plotted and wild, like crazy lawless particles in space. And with all that, he has humanity and wisdom; that's an incredible combination. He breaks, disjoins and reunites the narrative structure like some plaything, all the while racing us along his incredible story and making us love his improbable characters. That's the miracle of Queneau and the reason one still reads fiction—that faith he gives you in literature.

Tallien was my farewell to radical politics—finally; it was a rather long, sad farewell. A sadness for all the attempts in the name of good, all the attempts in the name of justice, in the name of liberty, a sadness that all those attempts end always the same corrupt way. Interwoven with the tale of the young revolutionary and regicide, Tallien is my father's story, as he was once a young radical during the Great Depression in the '30s. On his deathbed he said to me that he had never been a Marxist—just a communist. He wasn't joking. "They were throwing people out in the street then," he said, "I hope that young people today can change all this in the future." I was very moved by him and his deathbed hopes and I wanted to write Tallien in homage to him and as caution to those hopes.


HUO: This then leads me to a completely different book, Tintin in the New World, which is the first book of yours I read. It has to do also with appropriation because you appropriated the character.


FT: Mao and Tallien were appropriations, and of course Tintin. Tallien is rather obscure to Americans. We know Robespierre, we know Danton, Marat, but Tallien does not loom large. I found him by accident in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, a little entry about him that fascinated me.


HUO: Apersonnage pe'riphIrique?


FT: Yes, that's what he was—a marginal person, yet very key to the change that happened in getting rid of Robespierre. I was fascinated by this nineteen-year-old regicide, and I began to imagine him. So there was a precedent for my appropriating Tintin, whom I also came upon by accident because I had not read him in childhood. He was hardly known in America at that time. In 1970 or 1971, on a beach in Fire Island, I saw my English friends' two ten-year-oldish sons sitting and reading the same book. Since they were usually pounding away at each other, I was amazed to see them at peace. They were reading a Tintin book that they had brought over from London. I started reading a few pages with them and then that night I begged their parents to let me have the book when the kids were asleep. I was crazy for Tintin and all the other Hergé characters. I loved Tintin and his world in the way I loved Hans Castorp and his little universe in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain [1924], which I had been reading time and again since I was fifteen years old. Hans Castorp was my hero; he was me at fifteen. I'm in the Bronx and he's in the Alps but so what? We were both naïve boys trying to experience life and love and we were looking for mentors. Oh—I have to tell you about someone I never told you about, a very interesting man, John Resko, my mentor.


HUO: Is he still alive?


FT: He died He was a fascinating man. I'll tell you about him in a second. But back to Tintin; I wanted him to grow up as if he were my young friend—like Castorp. That's how it was. I wanted Tintin to experience love. It was as if I had a son and one day he comes to me and says, "Dad, I'm in love," and he wants me to talk with him about it. So I thought that Tintin should meet the characters in The Magic Mountain. I myself wanted to relive and extend the life of Mann's novel. I wanted to see what would happen to the characters if the novel had continued. Tintin would replace the dead Castorp, and like him fall in love with Clavdia Chauchat and have his heart broken and be transformed by the mad laws of love; I wanted all that. So the novel took me a long time. You asked me earlier what I was doing between books. Before Tallien I had been writing Tintin all the time but I stopped to write Tallien.


HUO: So one can say Tintin was a book that took you more than ten years.


FT: Fifteen years—and people who liked me, my friends, Susan Sontag, everyone I knew, thought that I would never finish another book. It's never going to happen. It's over. In truth, I just would not let go of Tintin. I was in love with the world I was living in and through the book. HUO: So it is quite an obsessive book.


FT: A book about obsessions, a book of love, of loss, of sadness, of politics beyond borders. I remember saying all of this to Georges Remi—Hergé—when he and his wife came to Paris to celebrate the French publication of Mao, in 1975. The book came out in French that June. Raymond Queneau, my editor for Mao at Gallimard, and his daughter-in-law, Anabel Herbout, Alain Resnais and Florence Malraux and Hergé and his wife Fanny all came at my invitation to the house of Sao Schlumberger, sadly now dead. We lunched in a little sunlit room covered with Impressionist paintings. Queneau said to Herge and Resnais, "We have all liked each other's work and have written to each other, but it took an American to bring us together."


HUO: Were Oulipo people there? Are you a member of Oulipo?


FT: Just Queneau from Oulipo was there. And no, I'm not a member but I'm proud that Queneau said to me, "Frederic, we want you." The only other American who is a member is Harry Mathews.


HUO: I know; I interviewed him.


FT: Queneau said, "We'd like to have you join us." But then he died. Queneau was droll and warm and funny. Have I told you the story of when I came to do the interview for the Mao novel with a journalist from Le Figaro in a room in Gallimard's office? It was ten o'clock in the morning and I had been drinking all night long, my mouth was parched and my head was splitting. I went to the office to say good morning to Queneau and his assistant, Monique Poublan, with whom I had been drinking. He looked at me and at her and knew right away what had happened. He said, "You've been a bad boy." I said, "Yes, I have." He said, "Well, they're waiting for you. Go inside right away, they're waiting." I said, "I'm dying of thirst." He says he'll take care of that. I go to speak with the journalist, my mouth a desert, my head blasting. Five minutes later Monique comes in with the bottle of Scotch that Queneau had sent me! To punish me, to make a joke. Anyway, I'm getting off the subject here—as always. HUO: What about John Resko, the man you mentioned earlier?


FT: When I dropped out of high school, all I wanted to be was a painter. But you have to understand I'm living in the Bronx, where there's nothing, not even a bookstore. Well, there was a greeting card shop that rented books, where my mother got her romances. But in my apartment building lived a beautiful woman, so much an intellectual that she one day left her husband and two children to live in Paris. She was my avant-garde. She said, "There is a someone here you might like to know. He is a painter and his name is John Resko." John Resko was a man who had been in prison for twenty-one years, Dannemora, the worst prison in the U.S. except for Alcatraz; it was a horror. Not far from here, in this neighborhood of the Lower East Side, when John was seventeen or eighteen years old, he already had a wife and a child and a little apartment. Christmas Eve, during the height of the Great Depression, he goes with a gun to hold up a grocery store. The owner comes at him with a bat, John shoots him, runs out of the store and is caught right away. He got the death sentence; he had three stays of execution from the electric chair, which was commuted to life. He wrote a book called Reprieve [1956] about his prison life that was later made into a movie. I met him when I was almost sixteen and he became my surrogate father.


HUO: He was out of prison then.


FT: He was out of prison, he was married again to Anita, a beautiful, sweet woman, and he was my father.


HUO: What was so important about him for you?


FT: Everything about thinking, everything about reading and learning about the amazing world across the river in Manhattan. Let me give you an example. I would read books and we would talk about them; no one in school ever talked about such books. No one talked about [Franz] Kafka in the Bronx when I was sixteen years old. I read [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky and James Joyce and Henry Miller in those green paperbacks that people brought back from Paris when Miller was banned in America. I would go to see John in his little apartment in Parkchester in the Bronx—a bus ride from my house—we three would have a simple dinner and talk about books until late in the night, even after Anita went to bed.


HUO: He was to you what Fischli/Weiss was to me.


FT: You had a mentor. More important than university, more than anything.


HUO: I should read his book.


FT: Read Reprieve. It's heartbreaking and beautiful, how he became an artist in prison. He used to make drawings and the prison guards would say, "Make a drawing of me." That kind of thing. And guys in prison would say, "Make a drawing of me. I want to send it to my wife." He became the art teacher in the prison. He reeducated himself, retrained himself. The fascinating part is the transformation.


HUO: Another fascinating book of yours we haven't spoken about is The Green Hour, and that's the most recent book that just came out in French.


FT: The Green Hour was two things for me: first it was my way of seeing if I could tell a story straight. You know, it's as if I would go to a life drawing class and see if I could actually draw a figure that looked like the model. I wanted to try that in fiction. Also I was in a cafe here one afternoon, a rainy afternoon, and I saw a woman sitting across the way, the kind of woman that was in the movies in the 1940s: trench coat, beautiful wide-brim felt hat, elegantly sitting by herself, maybe in her forties, smoking a cigarette. And I thought, "What an interesting woman. Who is this woman? What is this woman?"


HUO: She became the catalyst.


FT: The novel imagined who this woman was, though of course, she was all the women I had ever loved, even those in literature and film. The other novels are, as you say, appropriations: there's Mao, Tintin, Tallien, Van Gogh's Bad Café [1997], all characters historical or literary. But the characters in The Green Hour were wholly fresh, though I imagined my character, Dominique, as a version of Patricia Neal who played Dominique Francon in the film of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead [1949]. My Dominique was Rand's character living today, a brilliant art historian. In fact, she called Dominique in The Green Hour, so there's homage there, I also say hello to Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge [1944], the novel about a young man who's always at the edge, at the periphery.


HUO: These two stories are interwoven in the novel.


FT: Yes. In fact the man Dominique marries, the rich man, is given the same name as the man in The Fountainhead who sells his soul to stay king of the newspapers. It is a wholly imagined, romantic book.


HUO: We followed the chronology but keep jumping. We have spoken about your different books but we haven't spoken about your most recent text. One recent text you have sent me is this wonderful 2007 collage for Smyles & Fish. All your books are collages and this is another collage.


FT: Yes, strictly speaking.


HUO: This collage again has a link to art. This time its Max Ernst.


FT: Yes, I wanted to make a sort of homage to Donald Barthelme via Max Ernst. I'm not running away. I took five images from Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonte [A Week of Kindness, 1934]. And I used those images and lines from Barthelme stories and I intercut those lines with my own lines so they would form a little story in five panels, which I call "Self Portrait with Collage," although it's about Barthelme [http//www.smylesandfish.com/lounge/the_co1lagists.php]. It's interesting to use what is already there. There is an essay, "La mort de la littérature" ["The Death of Literature," 1971], by Jacques Ehrmann, who was a young professor of French literature at Yale. It was published about the time my Mao novel came out. He says we have enough writing in the world; the libraries are full of books, there are millions of books we will never read.


HUO: It's like the Abortion Library.


FT: Think of books being the fertilizer from which other books grow. We don't need to make new books; what we should do is use the books and texts we already have to make new books. For example, Ehrmann said, you can take anything you want. Take a recipe book, take a line from Shakespeare and make new texts from the old. I thought that was interesting and, of course, politically, in 1971, it was a way of destroying the canon; it was a way of saying everybody can be an artist; a way to bring democracy to art. Very subversive, for professors and philistines. To paraphrase [Albert] Camus, it's the intellectual who wants to get rid of Shakespeare, not the shoemaker. Ehrmann's idea was too radical for me and I didn't really believe in it. I want the artist's personality in the text; for all of Andy's joking about wanting to be a machine and Lichtenstein's neutrality, the hand is always there. I want the hand and the heart in the text, I want the person who burned and lived to be in the text, but I love the idea of interweaving older texts and images. In fact, I should really do a book with images. You've got to find a good artist for me to work with. I would love to. It would be beautiful to make a really interesting graphic novel, don't you think?


HUO: I was wondering what was your dialogue with Barthelme, as he is someone who is mentioned a lot now by young authors.


FT: I'm glad that there is renewed interest in him. What happened is this: there was a moment when he was god. Then after his death he seemed to fade somewhat, but it was not because of his work; it was the reaction to experimental or avant-garde writing in America. Many younger writers raised on Barthelme, on [Gilbert] Sorrentino, on [Robert] Coover, went against that current. They weren't going to continue with it and just be little versions of their elders, so they had to do something else. What did they do? Realist fiction.


HUO: Conservative stuff.


FT: Conservative stuff. The return of the repressed. Barthelme began to be seen by younger writers as "it's not for us, it's already a convention." But the last two years or so there has been a reawakening; another generation are beginning to read Barthelme again. There was an issue of McSweeney's [Quarterly Concern] that had twenty-five or thirty writers give tribute to him. I respected so much his finding a way to bring humor to literature. Some people think humor is not serious, but it is profoundly serious. Look at Don Quixote; humor is its key and its tragic bite. You can't have great literature without it, I'm sure. Humor and irony run though Mann's The Magic Mountain and nourish its humanity its wisdom. Take Hamlet—you can cry with laughter in places.

Fiction for Driving
Frederic Tuten reads "The Bar on Tompkins Square Park"
BOMB Magazine – Jun 25, 2009


Bernard Henri-Lévy and Frederic Tuten
BOMB Magazine – Issue 95 Spring 2006