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

One from the Archive: ‘The Vanishing Act’ by Mette Jakobsen *****

First published at Nudge in September 2012

Danish-born author Mette Jakobsen’s first book, The Vanishing Act, was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize. The novel is intriguing and powerful from the first sentence: ‘It was snowing the morning I found the dead boy’. With this, we are catapulted into the life of thirteen-year-old Minou, who lives with her father upon a secluded island.

At the outset of the novel, Minou tells us that it has been ‘a year since Mama walked out into the cold morning rain with a large black umbrella. A year since she disappeared…’ On the unnamed island on which the family live, there is little human life about, and it contains just ‘two houses and one church’. ‘The island,’ Minou tells us, ‘is still out there in the ocean; an island so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps’. Whilst everyone else seems to have given up hope of finding Minou’s mother, she herself is convinced that her Mama, ‘beautiful in a way I can’t quite explain’, is still alive and well, off finding adventure in the wider world.

Minou and her father take the dead boy back to their house, insisting that he should ‘stay’ with them until the boat comes from the mainland to pick him up. Minou is convinced that the boy is ‘the special thing’ she had been searching for, and both she and her father begin to use him as a kind of confidante, telling him their deepest secrets. ‘There was so much we could tell Mama about the dead boy’, she reasons. Only a handful of other characters people the novel – a former magician named Boxman and his dog No Name, and a priest.

Although we do not meet Minou’s mother in the present day narration, we learn much about her through a series of flashbacks. She is an exuberant character by all accounts, bringing with her just one suitcase to the island which contained ‘five dresses, eight jars of paint, two brushes and a white enamel clock that didn’t work’, as well as a live peacock with whom she had lived through the war.

Minou’s story occurs some time after an unnamed war, which made both her parents move to the island in the hope of enjoying a more quiet and peaceful existence: ‘Papa always said the war was inside him. Sometimes I thought I could feel it when I held his hand’. Jakobsen has included several details which seem to suggest that the Second World War is the one which is spoken of, but the historical period, along with the location of the tiny island, remains unspecified.

Minou’s first person perspective is used throughout. From the start, along with the other characters which people the novel, she seems incredibly realistic, stepping almost entirely from the page and vividly springing to life. She is a lovely character whom we as readers sympathise with immediately. We recognise her occasional bouts of loneliness and the way in which her unfailing hope remains despite the circumstances. Minou is not a run-of-the-mill protagonist, and some of her actions are wonderful and surprising. She begins to write everyday occurrences down in a notebook to show her mother when she returns, creeps out of her bedroom at night to sleep in a lighthouse, and collects raven bones, arranging them and ‘hoping to see something special that Mama might like’.

Jakobsen’s prose is truly breathtaking at times. Her descriptions, particularly those pertaining to the scenery around Minou, are at once beautiful and bleak: ‘the fading night rushed towards us, as if it had just one last chance to make itself felt’, and ‘snowflakes whirled through the window like uninvited guests’. Minou sees herself and her father as ‘two blind explorers’ as they walk ‘through seaweed and dark rocks, through ice and sea moss’. A sense of magic has been woven into the book throughout, and it seems to follow the same vein of novels as Eowyn Ivey’s delightful The Snow Child and Erin Morgenstern’s inventive The Night Circus. The writing style and the general premise of the novel have a wonderful sparkle about them, and are reminiscent of Tove Jansson’s books.

The Vanishing Act is well plotted and exquisitely well written, and is delightful and sad in equal measure. For a debut novel, it is remarkable. The story has been so well imagined and is balanced incredibly well. Minou comes to life before the eyes of the reader, lingering in the memory for a long while after the final pages have been read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

6

‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962’, edited by Karen V. Kukil *****

‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962’ (Faber & Faber)

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber.  In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College,  ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’.  She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty.  The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts.  They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013.  The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life.  Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one.  These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole.  Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages.  As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively.  The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Cantor, Cape Cod, 1952

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original.  In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people.  Everybody.  I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection.  Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.  I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.  But I am not omniscient.  I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers.  Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too.  When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’.  Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects.  Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each.  Some of the vignettes included are so very charming.  The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks.  “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful.  Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’.  Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world.  The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’.  Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals.  It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted.  At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries.  She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.  What a fool!’  There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too.  She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’.  Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-]

Sylvia Plath’s high school graduation photograph

Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone.  Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet.  Both books are sure to delight without a doubt.  In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes.  Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity.  Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

Purchase from the Book Depository