Saturday, June 13, 2009

Truman Capote - Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood

It was the movie Capote that introduced the writer Truman Capote to me. It was a no-holds-barred view, showing the warts of the writer in full. I did a bit of research on the author and discovered that, besides the acclaimed In Cold Blood he had written the famous Breakfast at Tiffany's too. I was floored. I had no idea that the famous iconic movie was a book. Following my usual bug about reading the book and watching the movie (Atonement, Slumdog M, Love Story, Gone with the Wind and many others I can't remember now), I ordered the books right away.

Breakfast at Tiffany's:

Holly Golightly is a socialite, to put it politely. She tried her hand at a film career with little success, though the foray groomed her to behave like some pricey princess instead of poor trash that she really is. Now she does what she is best at, escorting rich and famous men. They provide her with some immediate social and financial security. Not for her the ruminations on what she will do when her looks fade. She is ridiculously young - just in her late teens, not an age when girls worry about what comes next. The sweep of her ambition is to marry someone rich so she can have what she wishes for.

Paul, the author who moves into the apartment above her discovers that she is a delightful person. She is sweet, caring and totally carefree. She lives in the moment and almost nothing shakes her.

I am not sure whether I can discuss the end where the book and movie make significant departures, but all I will say is that there is no romantic angle between the author and the girl in the book.

The Poet and the Prostitute is a common theme in literature. The assumption is that only the poet has the sensitivity to see beneath the surface and look at the woman in a prostitute (as in the movie Pyasa). Other men are merely consumers, who look at the goods on offer and take their pick. They will screw the prostitute and take home the pristine woman to be a wife. Rarely will they stop to ponder at the prostitute in the wife (who will marry only for material benefits) or the pristine in the prostitute (who has a soul that is untouched by the material).

Holly Golightly is so alive, so beautiful, so fragile, so lively that she captures our imagination. Luckily for us, she is played by the incomparable Audrey Hepburn in the movie. Despite the differing fates she has in the book and the movie, she is still the best girl ever!

In Cold Blood

This novel has interesting origins. Truman Capote, already an acclaimed author, looking for new subjects to write upon, chanced upon a 300 word article in The New York Times about the multiple murder of a farmer's family in Holcomb, Kansas. This prompted Capote to go to Holcomb for some ground research on the story. He had a feeling it would make good material for a book. He took along his childhood friend Harper Lee to help him out. Lee and Capote met everyone in Holcomb and took first person accounts of the murdered family, Clutter. Capote also closely followed the progress of case with by Alvin Dewey, who was investigating the crime. Subsequently, Dewey and his team nabbed the criminals, Smith and Hickock and trials began. The prosecution had the case neatly sewed up as they had formal confessions and all the evidence in place. As anticipated, the criminals were sentenced to hang till death.

Capote started speaking to the criminals and went into their backgrounds, talking to their family as well. He had material all ready for the book, but had not yet written a word.

However, this is just the background of the book. This is all revealed in the film Capote.

The novel states the details of the crime, traces the criminals, the work done by the KBI. Despite being a true story, it reads like a fictional thriller. It ends with a usual epilogue that tells what the surviving characters of the book (some of the citizens of Holcomb) did after the affair was over. What makes the book so effective is the fact that it is a true story. That feeling stays with you throughout the reading of the novel. Like a master craftsman, Capote keeps you engrossed in a story that you already know and on tenterhooks for an end that you already know. Its the facts that you don't know, the little things, about the characters that add to the basic story and make the book so readable. At the end of the reading, the cut-out characters of the drab newspaper reports, the Clutters, Dewey, Nancy's boyfriend Bobby Rupp, her best friend, Susan are turned into people with flesh and blood, people who you may know. Christ, Bobby Rupp and Susan could yet be alive.

Truman Capote :

It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.

Capote was an abandoned child, he grew up at the mercy of various relatives in Alabama. He was a childhood friend of Harper Lee and appeared in her novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" as Dill. Right from an early age, 11, he wrote stories and got them published too. He lived his life king size, he was a toast of the social scene in New York, a braggart (Dill was a braggart too and it seems he kept the habit as he grew up), not humble, enjoyed running others down, used people to further his own ends. All said and done, he was an amazing writer. He is extremely surefooted with his stories, telling us things at their proper place, not a minute later or sooner. It is almost as if he can visualize his story, map it mentally, and put things right where they belong. Writing is a craft as much as art, and requires blood and sweat. But you need talent for this craft to turn it into art. Some people just have it. Truman Capote was one.

Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can't generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

The above quote has been pulled out of Wikipedia, because it illustrates his writing so well. Only a true author can be dispassionate about his own experiences, and make it seem as if it happened to someone else. In Breakfast at Tiffany's, which is a compilation of some short stories, there is a very personal story about Truman Capote and a crazy aunt who he grew up with, called A Christmas Memory. At no point in the story do you feel it has anything to do with Capote. The story is like a portrait of a poor trash disadvantaged old lady who is determined to live life on her own terms. And, at the beginning of the collection, we have a similar story of a pretty young poor girl, Holly Golightly, who is determined to live life on her own terms. It is as if the writer can sense the spirit in people, whether they are beautiful and young or old and decrepit. In Cold Blood gives us the workings of the mind of criminals, how ordinary they seem, and the triggers that set them off that make them commit crimes on an impulse.

A magnificent writer, he should be on the shelf of all book aficionados.