Our Big Summer Readathon: Short Stories (2) by Truman Capote *****

Our Big Summer Readathon, co-hosted here at The Literary Sisters and at theselittlewords, encompasses the final six of Capote’s short stories: ‘Master Misery’, ‘Children on Their Birthdays’, ‘A Diamond Guitar’, ‘A House of Flowers’, ‘Among the Paths to Eden’ and ‘Mojave’.  These stories were written over a far longer period than those in the first half, and really show how Capote developed as a writer, and how different themes prevalent at the time affected his work.

1. ‘Master Misery’ (1949)
‘Master Misery’ follows a character named Sylvia, a typist at a New York underwear company.  She lives with her friends Henry and Estelle, who are ‘so excrutiatingly married… [that] everything had a name; the telephone was Tinkling Tillie, the sofas Our Nelle, the bed, Big Bear; yes, and what about those His-Her towels, those He-She pillows?  Enough to drive you loony!’.  Sylvia has taken the job merely to escape their apartment during the day.  The main thread of the story comes when Sylvia discovers that there is a man in the city whom it is possible to sell dreams to, and how this affects her in consequence.

The storyline is quite lovely, I think, despite the chilling aspects of it which begin to creep in as it goes on.  The tale is incredibly character focused, and the thing which I first noticed about it was that characterisation is most interesting, particularly from a psychological standpoint.  Mr Revercomb, the buyer of dreams, for example, is described as follows: ‘All mothers tell their kids about him: he lives in hollows of trees, he comes down chimneys late at night, he lurks in graveyards and you can hear his step in the attic.  The sonofabitch, he is a thief and a threat.  He will take everything you have, and end by leaving you nothing, not even a dream’.

2. ‘Children on Their Birthdays’ (1949)
The tale takes place in a small town, and its beginning is both strong and intriguing: ‘Yesterday afternoon the six o’clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit.  I’m not sure what there is to be said about it; after all, she was only ten years old, still I know no one of us in this town would ever forget her’.  The story focuses upon Miss Bobbit and those who make up the town, particularly with regard to the way in which she and her accident affect Capote’s younger creations.

I had read this before, but it was marvellous to immerse myself into the story once again.  The entirety is incredibly vivid.  I was struck once again by how beautifully Capote described both places and characters.  His protagonists are so lifelike in this story that they almost leap from the page.

3. ‘A Diamond Guitar’ (1950)
‘A Diamond Guitar’ takes place within a prison, and encompasses characters from many different races and backgrounds.  A guitar encrusted with diamonds is what ties them all together, so to speak.

This is another story which I had already read, but I found Capote’s initial description of the prison just as vivid and oppressive as I previously had.  He brings his scenes to life immediately, and has such a wonderful imagination.  His characters meld together so well, and the entire cast is memorable.  The ending of the story is sublime.

4. ‘A House of Flowers’ (1952)
‘A House of Flowers’ takes place in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  One of the cornerstones of the plot is friendship, telling as it does of the protagonist Ottilie and her two friends, Baby and Rosita, both of whom hail from the Dominican Republic.  They consider their origins ‘reason enough to feel themselves a little above the natives of this darker country’.  Ottilie has had to grow up before her time: ‘Her mother was dead, her father was a planter who had gone back to France, and she had been brought up in the mountains by a rough peasant family, the sons of whom had each at a young age lain with her in some green and shadowy place’.

Again, I had read this before, but it was another fabulous story to re-encounter.  Although Ottilie is a cunning and selfish creation who heavily focuses upon vanity, one cannot help but feel some shreds of sympathy for her.  In ‘A House of Flowers’, I particularly love the way in which Capote captures emotion; joy particularly is marvellously evoked.

5. ‘Among the Paths to Eden’ (1960)
Mr Ivor Belli, at the beginning of ‘Among the Paths to Eden’, is going to visit his wife’s grave: ‘One Saturday in March, an occasion of pleasant winds and sailing clouds, Mr. Ivor Belli bought from a Brooklyn florist a fine mass of jonquils and conveyed them, first by subway, then foot, to an immense cemetery in Queens, a site unvisited by him since he hd seen his wife buried there the previous autumn’.  He has decided to visit her, in part, to appease his eldest daughter, who ‘seemed resentful of Mr. Belli’s too comfortable acceptance of life as lived alone’.  Throughout, Capote demonstrates the relationship which Ivor had with his wife, Sarah: ‘Lord, what a relief to know the woman’s tongue was finally stilled’.  Through a chance encounter with a woman named Mary O’Meaghan by his wife’s gravestone, Ivor reflects upon her life, and the way in which they lived together.

The way in which Capote describes the cemetery fits perfectly with the story, sets the tone, and evokes the scene from the very first: ‘acres of fog-coloured stone spilled across a sparsely grassed and shadeless plateau’.  The story is surprising; one does not expect, with the opening of the story, for a plot of this sort to unfold.  The real strength of this story is the conversation which ensues between Ivor and Mary O’Meaghan.

6. ‘Mojave’ (1975)
‘Mojave’ tells of an affair which the protagonist is having with her former psychoanalyst: ‘He had not been of much help as an analyst, and as a lover – well, once she had watched him running to catch a bus, two hundred and twenty pounds of shortish, fiftyish, frizzly-haired, hip-heavy, myopic Manhattan Intellectual, and she had laughed: how was it possible that she could love a man so ill-humored, so ill-favored as Ezra Bentsen?  The answer was she didn’t: in fact, she disliked him.  But at least she didn’t associate him with resignation and despair.  She feared her husband; she was not afraid of Dr. Bentsen.  Still, it was her husband she loved’.

There are so many themes at work in ‘Mojave’, and an incredible amount of sympathy is built for the protagonist as she tells her story.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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