4

Our Big Summer Readathon: ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ by Truman Capote *****

I first watched the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s some years ago, and whilst I liked it, I was not immediately captivated by it.  I was still so keen to read the novella, however, and was so pleased to find a beautiful Penguin edition in a secondhand bookshop in Coventry a couple of years ago.  I read it almost immediately, and was thrilled to learn that the novella is so much better than the book that a comparison in the favour of the original is barely necessary.  (A quick synopsis of the reasons why, for me, the book is far better than the film, however, are as follows: the entirety of the novella is lively and compelling, and to me, the characters are far more realistic on the page than on the screen.  I do not feel that the film characters were made of the same stuff, as it were, as the novella’s protagonists).  I was not planning to re-read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as the story was still so vivid in my mind, but once I began to look at it once again, I could not help myself but become immersed in Capote’s words and plot.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, probably Capote’s most famous work, was published in 1958, and has remained popular ever since.  It focuses upon the character Holly Golightly, whom I remembered as being such an intriguing being; feisty and unusual in her characteristics, decisions and mannerisms.  The novella is told from the first person perspective of a male narrator who lives in the same apartment building as her, and is set (as I am sure everyone already knows) in New York City.  A chance likeness of Holly spotted in a photograph is what prompts the narrator to tell her story.

Holly is first introduced when she has forgotten – or lost – the key to her apartment, and consequently wakes the Japanese man, Mr Yunioshi, who lives on the top floor.  I absolutely adore Capote’s initial description of his heroine: ‘… the ragbag colours of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light.  It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool-black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker.  For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks’.  She is ‘shy two months of her nineteenth birthday’.  The narrator goes on to say: ‘One might have thought her a photographer’s model, perhaps a young actress, except that it was obvious, judging from her hours, she hadn’t time to be either’.

At first, she seems oblivious to the existence of the narrator, only making him the focus of her frequent entrances into the apartment block without her key.  He, however, learns more and more about her as the story goes on.  They meet each other properly when one evening, Holly climbs up the fire escape to the narrator’s apartment on the floor above hers, in order to escape an odious man who is in her room.

The characterisation in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is incredibly strong; Holly is quirky, vivacious and not afraid to speak her mind, and it is impossible to forget her in a hurry.  One trusts the kindly narrator immediately.  The dialogue between the two, and which encompasses some of the more minor characters in the novella too, is exemplary.  Capote’s prose and the tone which he sets is utterly perfect.  He brilliantly demonstrates the power of friendship in his memorable and stunning novella.

This is the last post of mine and Lizzi’s Big Summer Readathon, and I have had such a fun time working on our little project.  Thanks so much, Lizzi, for co-hosting this, and I hope we can focus on another author soon!

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

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

3

Our Big Summer Readathon: ‘The Grass Harp’ by Truman Capote *****

The Grass Harp, one of Truman Capote’s novellas, was first published in 1951, and uses a limited first person narrative perspective throughout.  The narrator of the piece, eleven-year-old Collin Fenwick, is an orphan; both of his parents lay beneath a ‘hill of barewhite slabs and brown burnt flowers’.  The novella takes its name from one of the most vivid and beautiful quotes in the story: ‘Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass which changes color with the seasons; go see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices’.

Following the death of his father, Collin is sent to live with two of his father’s cousins, kindly Dolly and formidable Verena.  Dolly takes him under her wing from the first, telling him all about the natural magic which surrounds his new home.  She focuses particularly on the ‘harp of voices’ below the graveyard: ‘Do you hear? that is the grass harp, always telling a story – it knows the story of all the people on the hill, of all who ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours, too.’  When Dolly falls out with her sister, she takes Collin and her best friend Catherine to live in what they believe to be their secret treehouse.  They are soon joined by feared and revered local teen, Riley, and the widowed Judge Cool.

As I mentioned yesterday in the first of my Capote short story reviews, the focus upon different types of relationships between the characters is one of the real strengths of the novella, and has been wrought with such precision.  The way in which he details how his characters act with one another, and the small kindnesses which they perform, has been thought out with such care.  I am always struck by how well Capote knows his characters, and how they are able to spring to life before the very eyes of the reader in consequence.  As in the short stories too, the imagery which Capote creates is gorgeous, particularly when it relates to the protagonists: ‘The snowflake of Dolly’s face’, and a voice ‘crinkling as tissue paper’.

The Grass Harp is a stunning novella, which throws up surprises at each and every turn.  Even the minor characters who people the town dance to life upon the page, giving the whole an incredibly vivid feel.  Capote has crafted yet another wonderful piece of fiction within its pages, and not a single word has been wasted.

Purchase from The Book Depository

6

Our Big Summer Readathon: Short Stories (1) by Truman Capote *****

Our Big Summer Readathon, co-hosted here at The Literary Sisters and at theselittlewords, kicks off with six of Truman Capote’s stunning short stories: ‘Miriam’, ‘My Side of the Matter’, ‘A Tree of Night’, ‘Jug of Silver’, ‘The Headless Hawk’ and ‘Shut a Final Door’.  I have decided that the best way to approach such a review is to write a little about each tale – the general details, and my thoughts upon each as a whole.

1. ‘Miriam’ (1945)
‘Miriam’ focuses upon Mrs H.T. Miller a widow, who is living alone ‘in a pleasant apartment (two rooms with kitchenette, in a remodeled brownstone near the East River’.  Mrs Miller is sixty one years old, with ‘plain and inconspicuous features’, seemingly invisible to most of those around her.  One snowy evening, which has been beautifully depicted by Capote – ‘In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city’ – Mrs Miller decides to go along to a movie theatre.  Here, she meets an odd young girl with long ‘silvery-white’ hair.  It turns out that Mrs Miller and the girl share a first name – Miriam.  A strange relationship ensues between the two.

Capote has filled ‘Miriam’ with such unusual and surprising behaviour on the parts of both protagonists, and quite an unsettling story is built in consequence.  ‘Miriam’ has been written in such a way that it is almost impossible to know where its plot is likely to go.

2. ‘My Side of the Matter’ (1945)
‘My Side of the Matter’ is a testimony of sorts, a one-sided argument as to what happened in an altercation between the principal character and two others.  The narrator is adamant that, ‘on Sunday, August 12, this year of our Lord, Eunice tried to kill me with her papa’s Civil War sword and Olivia-Ann cut up all over the place with a fourteen-inch hog knife’.

In ‘My Side of the Matter’, Capote has crafted such an interesting narrative voice, and an incredibly tight story.  The characters and sense of place, as well as the descriptions of Alabama, are so very strong, and the whole is immensely thought-provoking.

3. ‘A Tree of Night’ (1945)
In ‘A Tree of Night’, a young, neat and rather amused young woman named Kay boards a train after attending her uncle’s funeral.  The only unoccupied seat is opposite a couple, and the woman of this couple soon takes a shine to her, much to Kay’s disdain.

Throughout, Capote’s descriptions shine: ‘Now icicles hung along the station-house eaves like some crystal monster’s vicious teeth’.  ‘A Tree of Night’ is fascinating in terms of the relationships which Capote builds, and how quickly they alter.  The tone of the tale makes the whole rather oppressive at times, and the foreboding is built up brilliantly.

4. ‘Jug of Silver’ (1945)
A young boy who works in his uncle’s drugstore sees a fall in business when a brand new drugstore, owned by the ‘villain’ Rufus McPherson, is opened across the street.  His uncle soon comes up with quite a clever plan to lure his business back in – filling a jug with coins and getting each customer – provided they have spent a certain amount beforehand, mind – to guess how much it holds.

The first person perspective in ‘Jug of Silver’ works marvellously alongside the unfolding story, and the protagonist is really quite endearing.  Such interesting and realistic characters people the tale, and it intrigues right until the very last word.

5. ‘The Headless Hawk’ (1946)
Our male protagonist is a man named Vincent, who spots a girl wearing a green raincoat in New York.  Intrigued, and swept away by her, he starts to follow her – an act which frightens her at first, and causes her to bolt into a nearby antique shop.  The interesting twist comes when she tracks Vincent down in the city and wants to get to know him.

Capote is so very perceptive of his creations, and notices such touching and unusual details about them – for example, an elderly lady with ‘gardenia-colored hair’ and a ‘fairy colored’ boy.  Psychologically, this story is fascinating, and Capote’s skill for perfectly capturing scenes and movement is at its best here.  The magical realism in the tale is so very sensory and intentive, and I have never read anything quite like it before.

6. ‘Shut a Final Door’ (1947)
‘Shut a Final Door’ is about one man and an episode in his life which does not quite turn out as he expected it would: ‘But why he [Walter] was here in this stifling hotel in this faraway town he could not say’.

From the building of the scenes to the growth of the protagonist, this is a sublimely crafted tale.  Capote is a master at getting his readers to stand on the side of a particular character, and then ripping everything away so that an opinion one has already formed alters completely.

 

These first six tales are true perfection; each is wonderfully built and so well tied together.  The characters who people each story, whether at the forefront or on the sidelines, are so vivid and memorable, and Capote’s writing is unfailingly beautiful.

Stay tuned for further Capote reviews over the next month!

Purchase from The Book Depository