Self Portraits: Fictions

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"A Year in Reading" at The Millions

TORO, TORERO Y AFICIÓN – February 2011


Steve Martin and Frederick Tuten on Writing and Art
For The Los Angeles Times By Carolyn Kellogg – October 2010




From Powell's Books...

Self Portraits is a melancholy book, but it's not, despite its concerns with death, an unduly grave one; it's filled with lust for life, and plain old lust, and a gently smiling acceptance of sorrow that's both calm and calming. Wisdom, that is.
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From The Nation...

Self Portraits is a rich, gorgeous, almost perfect collection. It is a book about endings, published at a moment when we appear to have reached the end of something.
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From New Statesman...

[L]ike all the best writers—modernist or conventional—Tuten is first and foremost a pleasure to read.
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From The Short Review...

This is a writer unafraid of large emotion, and unapologetic about expressing it.
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From Critical Mob...

Tuten dexterously transitions between disappointment and hope, love and loneliness.
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From Publishers Weekly...

Self Portraits: Fictions is selected as a Best Book of 2010.
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From The East Hampton Star...

With these visually transporting, witty, melancholy, and gorgeous stories, he has triumphed over that old unfulfilled desire and painted a verbal canvas of a rich and creative life.
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From The New Republic...

Self Portraits is itself a search for the faraway, with language serving as the conveyor. [...] Tuten’s language and structure are new because his books see the world newly.
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From BOMB Magazine...

These are painterly stories, in execution as well as in inspiration, and the writing—for all its expansive beauty, gravity, and intelligence—is done with a light touch that endows the reader with extra sensitivity.
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Ashes in Love: Frederic Tuten’s “Self Portrait with Beach” by Forsyth Harmon Smith

December 11, 2010

“I like to pretend that my art has nothing to do with me,” said Roy Lichtenstein. Tuten takes Lichtenstein’s 1977 “Portrait” as the cover of his 2010 short story collection Self Portraits: Fictions and as the inspiration for “Self Portrait with Cheese,” one of the twelve stories in the book. In Self Portraits, Tuten does not pretend his art has nothing to do with him. These interrelated stories create a vivid portrait—part real, part fantastic—of Tuten’s life as a writer, a traveler, a bon vivant.


Self Portraits: Fictions follows the lovers Louis and Marie as they meet, part and meet again in mundane and surreal vistas, in youth, old age and death. In “Self Portrait with Circus” they are jealous performers. In “Self Portrait with Icebergs” they are planning to set sail on a great voyage while their apartment fills with ice cubes. In “Self Portrait with Bullfight” they are at a restaurant, waited on by death.


In September I saw Tuten read “Self Portrait with Beach” at 192 Books in Chelsea. He joked that he chose to read “Beach” because we were a sophisticated audience, and also because it was the shortest story in the book. In “Self Portrait with Beach” Louis is nearing the end of his life while Marie is at “the golden age of twenty-eight.” They are approached by a vendor of magical potions, who offers one elixir for fidelity, which piques Louis’ jealousy, and another for youth, which Louis eventually drinks hoping “To have my life back from the start, when I was young enough to believe I would never grow old, never die.”


Tuten’s mindfulness of death stirs philosophical meditation throughout Self Portraits. In “Beach” Marie asks: “Is the body the house for the soul or are body and soul one and inseparable?” Tuten doesn’t take himself too seriously, though. Just as the lovers’ plight starts to read entitled he introduces humor. Marie pulls off her bikini top. "Your body is my soul," Louis tells her. At 192 Books, Tuten laughed as he read that line.


Tuten is not self-serious, but he is also unapologetic. In his seventies, he has accomplished much. He delights in the right he’s earned to write what he wants, to bring us what he likes: painting, film, literature. He explores the New York art world and the life of the eponymous painter in his novel Van Gogh’s Bad Café. In The Green Hour the protagonist is obsessed with Poussin. Tuten dedicates Self Portraits to his friend and collaborator Alain Resnais. He uses a Resnais film as the inspiration for one of his stories, “The Park Near Marienbad.”


“Self Portrait with Beach” is a collage of still and moving images, a testament to Tuten’s work in art and film. In her swimsuit, Marie is Lichtenstein’s cartoonish “Girl with Ball”; the potions vendor is “Gas Station Attendant.” At one point, a group of teenagers walk past the couple. When they pass again later, they are “middle aged, with soft bellies and drooping chins,” dripping images on a surrealistic canvas.


The scenery is cinematic. Tuten sets the stage with “The beach, the sea, the blue umbrellas. A sail. Then another…” As the mood of the story changes, so does the sky, first filling with clouds like “swollen grey bags,” then “darkening in an unfriendly way” before bearing rain. Hearing Tuten read aloud was something like watching a film. At the reading, Tuten joked that he liked to make friends with visual artists rather than writers. He said friends always want you to look at and respond to their work, and it’s much easier to glance at a painting than it is to read a novel. While his own drawings have appeared in Donald Friedman’s The Writer’s Brush, Tuten calls himself a failed visual artist. Throughout Self Portraits, Louis assumes a similar role. In “Self Portrait with Beach” he sketches Marie while she sleeps. While Courbet, Renoir and Gauguin would have rendered her perfectly, Louis bemoans his “inability to draw a line that hinted at her soul, her true immortal form.”


In “Self Portrait with Beach,” Tuten references Tristan and Isolde, Ariadne auf Naxos and Puccini. The reference that perhaps means the most to the story is Francisco de Quevedo’s poem “Love that Endures Beyond Death.” Throughout the book Louis and Marie connect the mundane with the metaphysical. In discussing her potential infidelities, Marie says, “What would it have mattered once I’m in the grave?…What comfort to my ashes?” Louis replies, “Ashes they shall become, but ashes in love.” In reading Quevedo’s poem, one might even assume it served as the story’s inspiration: “But though (the soul) leaves the shore where it has burned / It will not leave behind love’s memory … Dust they shall be, but dust in love with her.”


“Self Portrait with Beach” examines the fleetingness of beauty, the precariousness of love, the disappointment of age, the loneliness of death. Toward the end of the story Louis is alone and sees “nothing but a darkening space in retreat.” He is “the only soul on the beach, the only soul on the earth.” If we are only going to die, why create art? Why love? Why do anything? I believe both Quevedo and Tuten would respond that it is precisely because we are going to die that we must enjoy beauty, create art, fall in love, delight in life.