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Lust for Life

VAN GOGH'S BAD CAFE: A Love Story.\o7 By Frederic Tuten\f7 .\o7 William Morrow: 166 pp., $20\f7

March 23, 1997|RICHARD EDER

Frederic Tuten has built a wall, brick but permeable, between history and the end of history. Because he is a lover of painting and literature, his history pertains specifically to the urge of men and women to make art and to prize themselves so much that when they consume themselves doing it, a lot has been paid and a lot achieved.

Up through Modernism, history was real trees used to make real and lasting tables and chairs. History's end, from Postmodernism on, is a polymer extrusion process used to make transient collectibles. Tuten, who lives on this side--Roy Lichtenstein, his friend, did the cover for his last book, "Tintin in the New World," and Eric Fischl, another friend, has done the cover and 10 drawings for this one--takes no sides. He does mourn, though, which may be different--or perhaps it would be more exact to say that he brings his readers to mourn.

The wall in Tuten's tiny but powerfully alluring "Van Gogh's Bad Cafe" appears suddenly in a scrubby vacant lot on the alphabet-city streets of New York's far East Side. The narrator, a desultory art photographer on a small trust fund, comes upon it on a ramble down to the East River. It is a fierce July day, one where "the blaze of sun bakes your brains unless you're wearing a straw hat with a high crown."

The hat is important. It links the two eras in which the story is played out. When the narrator (call him N for convenience) comes to the wall, and it blurs and opens, the figure that emerges--slender, ravishing, red-haired--is Ursula. Tuten invents her as the lover of Vincent Van Gogh during his last months at Auvers-sur-Oise. Van Gogh wears his straw hat on the 19th century side of the wall; N wears his on the late 20th century side. "Bad Cafe" brings the sun-threatened men together in their historic and post-historic contrast, though they never actually meet. It is Ursula, their muse and passion, who is the agent and medium of the encounter. The transformation she goes through in the book is the transformation of one century to the other: of art to the end of art. She lives in both centuries, on both sides of the wall. She is entrancing and terrible. She is time.

A morphine addict, she was looking in the back garden of the Auvers cafe for her supplier. Seeing the hole in the wall, she stepped through. Meeting N on the other side, she asks, in a French garbled by the only misprint in this finely produced book, if he is the one who has what she needs. A graceful and comical time-travel sequence follows. N takes her home; she strips off her long white dress and unusually abundant underwear. He assumes she has been to an antique clothing store. He is skeptical and not skeptical of who she claims to be: Tuten both distinguishes and blurs his characters, as he distinguishes and blurs time. N has his own limited knowledge and his author's expanded one. Bathing her, he observes: "I was washing off her past; the apricot patina of the 19th century."

The comedy gives way to something else, though it does not disappear. Tuten is a supremely elegant writer; his somber messages, some violent, come through without deranging his texture. Ursula is amusingly French; N's apartment, she pronounces, "has its negligent charm, a little like Vincent's." She looks at N's work, a disconnected anthology of arty photographs. Much of it is unexposed; his passion is for making the shot, not for developing or printing it. "They are not seasoned," Ursula says.

It is the formidable judgment of art's history upon its present. Art as total commitment and service to the work versus art as simply the reflection of the artist's personal energies and ambition.

The second part of the book takes us back through the wall, as Ursula tells Van Gogh's story and hers. It is an imaginatively brilliant rendering of the artist, whose passion was to become visible to God. He failed miserably to do it when preaching to the miners in the Borinage; he will do it painting. Tuten achieves a vivid, many-layered portrait of the torment and purposes of this awkward, loving figure. There are hallucinatory passages; one section, describing Van Gogh's first meeting with Ursula, who had invited him to tea, comes in two differing versions. The first is pure passion, the second a broader, sinuous mystery.

The two stories could be taken, in the current fashion of literary theory, as casting doubt on the reality of anything outside the narrative itself. Tuten goes beyond this. The life and struggles of Van Gogh and Ursula possess such magical intensity, as he writes them, that the message is quite the opposite. Narratives do not replace reality; rather, they are partial attempts to reach it, incomplete mountaineering assaults on an unscalable mountain.

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