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Rereading Capote

posted on 06 Dec 2016

Rereading Capote

 

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about,

but the inner music that words make.

– Truman Capote

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I suppose Breakfast at Tiffany’s must have been the first Truman Capote I read. It is certainly Capote’s most famous work and it is marvellously crafted.

But even so, it may not be his best. For my money, A Christmas Memory, one of the other short pieces in that volume, is even better. It’s short, concentrated, flawlessly constructed, and treads a narrow path between nostalgia, sentiment and deeply-felt emotion in a way that Capote managed to make look effortless.

But rereading Tiffany’s made me realise just how long it had been since I read any Capote. In his final years and following his death his stock went down somewhat. He started to be seen as a drug addled ‘society’ writer, his final unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, little more than a ragbag of gossip.

Unfortunately, this tended to obscure the fact that Capote was a tremendous innovator – and before drink and drugs eroded his talent an immensely dedicated and disciplined writer.

Thinking about this sent me back to his 1981 collection Music for Chameleons. I remember reading some if not all of this when it came out and thinking that it was a rounding-up of fugitive pieces that his publisher didn’t really know what to do with – but felt compelled to publish in the absence of anything more substantial. This view does the book a grave injustice. While it’s true that Chameleons is made up of short pieces, read in its entirety it is nonetheless evident that Capote is still trying out new ideas, new techniques, and new ways of approaching the art of creating fiction and what he called ‘non-fiction novels’.

His most famous ‘non-fiction novel’ is, of course, In Cold Blood, the chilling story of a multiple murder in the small prairie hamlet of Holcomb, Kansas.

Hand-Carved Coffins, the longest piece in Chameleons, was seen by some almost as a follow-up to In Cold Blood. While it explores similar territory – a series of macabre murders in a small unnamed town in the American mid-west – it significantly extends the methods Capote had previously pioneered and elevates reportage into a strange hybrid writing that mixes lyrical description, play-like dialogue, and brilliantly realised characters. How much of it is actually true now seems open to question, but a long piece which appeared in The Sunday Times Magazine seems to suggest that while quite heavily embroidered by Capote, the story did have its basis in fact.

Other pieces in Chameleons further illustrate Capote’s exceptional talent for character writing – the more louche and outré the better. Few of these pieces are short stories, as such. What Capote seemed to do was mine his own colourful life for episodes and characters and use these as the basis for hugely skillful observational pieces in which the reader is suddenly sandbagged by much bigger emotions. In fact, the more Capote one reads, the harder it becomes to distinguish between his ‘short stories’ and his ‘non-fiction fiction’. He seems to be mining a common seam.

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In this, he reminds me of Colette – a writer whom Capote revered – and his writing has a similar warmth and humanity. This may seem an odd thing to say of a man with such self-evident flaws, indeed such an obnoxious man, but it does seem that the more Capote came to revel in his own notoriety and excess, the more understanding and forgiving he was of others, especially if, like him, they were outsiders.

At times Capote was far more famous for his scandalous lifestyle than his published work, and it is easy to mistake him for a dilettante, an also-ran. But he is much more than this. He was a driven and dedicated writer who spent decades learning his craft and in later years did not flinch from dismantling most of what he knew in search of new and more original approaches. He was a restless experimentalist with an obsessive desire to improve. He once wrote: “Writing stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad and, even more terrifying, the difference between it and true art. And after that, the whip came down.”

Yes, he could be slackly sentimental here and there, and not everything is of the same high standard, but his best work is funny, moving, immensely enjoyable and superbly written – and with ageing it has developed additional depth and complexity, not least the rich evocation of a vanished demi-monde that was uniquely Capote’s own.

Compared with some literary greats his output is not huge. But it offers much to explore and there is very little of it that won’t offer repeated enjoyment. Truman Capote died aged 59 on the 25th August 1984.

 

Alun Severn

December 2016