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Romancing the soul

The Green Hour, A Novel, Frederic Tuten, W.W. Norton: 256 pp., $24.95

November 03, 2002|Richard Howard | Richard Howard, a poet and translator, teaches literature in Columbia University's School of the Arts (writing division).

The title of Frederic Tuten's fifth work of fiction identifies that wonder working interval when Parisians, according to their notoriously symbolic program, resort to cafes to seek a heightened or at least an altered state of being wrought by the verdant transformations of "Lethe's livid absinthe." Thus the reader is alerted to the probable nature of the present elegant fable, its desperate readiness to discard the conventions of realism, although this author's previous books, in their different ways (Tuten is eager, and equipped, to try anything), had served similar notice from the start, which was "The Adventures of Mao on the Long March" 20 years back, praised by Updike as "an intelligent, taut and entertaining change from conventional novels." Then came "Tallien: A Brief Romance," which disposed of the French Revolution in 150 pages of mordant frivolity; then Tuten's masterpiece to date, "Tintin in the New World," which persists in the analysis and futility of revolution in terms of figures from the old French comic strip; and six years ago, "Van Gogh's Bad Cafe," whose romantic personnel steps out of those sun-baked oils, foreshadowing some of the cultural and academic altercations of this new book.

"The Green Hour" is also a romance, although our heroine, red-haired Dominique, is not so much a person as a soul, the Soul of Modern Woman, who emblematically enough has survived cancer (although the disease remains a constant menace) and has obtained a similarly oppressive doctorate in art history, her loyalties divided between elusive red-haired (get it?) Rex, a manipulative yet irresistible womanizer, and patiently loving (and Fabulously Wealthy Older Man) Eric, an echo of Dominique's thesis advisor -- sage and kindly Professor Morin, who opens the book with a blast of rueful sagesse.

It is Eric who wins the last round after decades of time out for Rex, who constitutes an ongoing sexual threat whenever he allows Dominique to get at him -- the lure of the evasive. Even in such summary (and unfair) delineations, it should be apparent that the reader is not presented with "characters" in the Cliffs Notes sense of the affair, but once again with "figures," iconic energies with which to take sides as they divvy up the narrative. For example, here on the last page:

"Dominique went to her computer, opening her journal of fragments. Freud had said that the individual as well as the world was in conflict between its wish for love and its wish for death. She wrote that death, Thanatos, not love, Eros, had won the century's last round. She had come to grandiose conclusions, but there were others closer to home which she could more easily justify. For her, Eros and Thanatos were not distinct forces but were one.... Like Cupid in Poussin's painting, who had caused Narcissus to drown and Echo to transmute into stone, Love had been her Death. But she was not dead yet."

I suspect that the readers this exceptional writer deserves (he is frequently elegant and always intelligent in his spiritual accounting; his arguments for and against the course of passion and the life of the mind, no less) will be startled and perhaps daunted by the strange elisions of naturalism for the sake of philosophical position, and then by the even stranger forsaking of Goya versus Poussin (the running academic argument throughout the timeless "Green Hour") for the sake of what directors call stage business. As Browning says, "What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?"

Yet Hawthorne would have abounded in the sense of this grim little romance, with all its exotic filler (scenes of Parisian extravagance and Manhattan prodigality), for the sake of its spooky radiance, for its intensities of conduct in the war between life and art, and love and death, and between knowing and believing. Once again, Tuten reaches for another kind of fiction -- a lyric condition of the downward spirit, in its mysterious connivance with its own wreck.

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