Breakfast at Tiffany's
Capote, that is.
Perhaps it is memories of Music for Chameleons, lingering traces of story and prose, moments that come back every now and then that convince me that Capote was a writer of enormous potential and great power. Unfortunately, for the most part, that power and potential were wasted in work that rarely surpasses the level of gossip in an apartment stairwell.
Take Breakfast at Tiffany's, one of the works he is most well-known for, in large part due to the movie based upon the book. I've never been able to sit through the movie despite the enormous talents of Ms. Hepburn, and I find that the reason lay not in the film itself, but in the source. Perhaps there are layers and layers of meaning and character and idea all imbedded in this tale of Ms. Holly Golightly who is, for lack of a better term, a prostitute. Although Capote is not so crude as to call her that in the course of the work, and his job is to get us to sympathize and collaborate with Holly in her goings-on, for this reader he failed utterly. And he didn't fail simply because the matter is immoral--so are the basics of the plots of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. The difference is the prurience and the gossip that seem to pervade Breakfast at Tiffany's. As you read the story you are told about Holly by many different characters, each whispering in the hallway, wondering what has happened to her.
In Cold Blood the real masterwork that made his name, is much of the same tone. A "non-fiction novel," which, as one commenter has pointed out was more a marketing ploy than an innovation--(witness John Hersey's Hiroshima and Walter Lord's A Night to Remember as examples in Capote's recent past that did much the same thing. In Cold Blood takes on the same persona of endlessly unwinding tales out of school and rumor and gossip. Of course, that is how a murder story would evolve in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, so in some sense the tone is justified. But the work still suffers from the pervasiveness.
Reading Summer Crossing a recently discovered "unfinished" novel from very early in Capote's career, I realized what flaw linked them all together. Or perhaps what flaw made many of them charming and interesting. In his writing, Capote could never leave Capote at home. He's always there, always commenting, always churning, always getting things moving, always starting the conversation, always seeking information, always sharing half-truths--or perhaps more correctly Truman's version of the truth. This flaw enters all of the works. You cannot read Capote without hearing him talk in that strange mixture of hoarseness and lisp. And while that could be all very find, Capote himself is such a conflicted person that you can't trust his narrative or his voice.
The movie, to my great disappointment, was about the writing of In Cold Blood. I'm told that Philip Seymour Hoffman delivered a superb performance. And on one level that seems true. He seemed very much like Capote. But the movie failed for me and it failed precisely at Capote himself, and perhaps its failure is inevitable given its subject. Capote, even at this point is an empty shell of a human being, casting about endlessly for support, love, and meaning. This new book is to make is meaning and his mark, and he sets about its creation with a firm purpose and resolve that would have done the founding fathers proud.
But the endless need weighs on one as the film progresses until, finally, one is bogged down under the weight of it and turns the film off. There are too many great things in the world of books and cinema, and its no sin to say, "I've given this the time to engage me and it has failed to do so." I gave Capote an hour of my life and it was far too much.
It's a shame, because Capote is charming in his own way. He has to be because he isn't seeking so much fame and glory through his writing, although that too is part of his ambition; he is seeking acceptance as a broken and not particularly likable man who was too firmly made in the image of the women who brought him up. Flamboyantly gay, he came of age at a time when being gay might make you a character, but still earned social opprobrium and disdain. To some extent the same is true today, and will always be true, because there is some streak in those who are not gay that resists the charms and allures and recognizes the transgression of natural law and, unwarrantedly, uses that as a bludgeon, sometimes literally. While one must not endorse the gay "lifestyle" or "way of being," the person who is gay is a person first and must have the respect, love, and acceptance that any person needs to survive. Truman attempted to get this through ingratiating himself to others with his gossipy ways, and with his attempts at being the modern-day Oscar Wilde. This attempt ultimately undermined him and deprived him of nearly all associations until is long, slow, suicide culminated in his early death at the age of the age of 59.
He was iconic and he was provocative, and he was in his time important. Whether that will continue to be true after the generation that knew him personally is gone, remains to be seen. The difficulty is that he did write marvelously well. The prose he composed was such that one is almost compelled through the unreadable by sheer force of his voice and storytelling. Almost, but not quite--as it was in his real life, so it remains in much of his extant writing. And that really is a shame.