The right word

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In Writing classes I like to quote the opening of Capote’s novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s: ‘I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods, For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment.’  Each time I quote this I ask the class why it is so compelling an opening. Everyone agrees it is good, but no student can say why, nor can I. ‘I am always drawn back to the places where I have lived…’ They were the first words I read of Capote. (I had not seen the film, which, Audrey Hepburn apart, proved such a disappointment.) As they said long ago in  The New Yorker office, ‘ The kid can write.’


Capote understood the importance of memory, the shifting of time, the power of chance, and the dilemmas of choice. In Kansas two young drifters who thought they were James Dean could have left the remote farmhouse, and driven away far from the likelihood of capture.  But they murdered the family without real motive, and without real feeling. They could not imagine consequences.


Jeanette Winterson once suggested that situations we have known have an afterlife when the events themselves are no more. Somehow the events continue to happen, and the people are there as they were when we knew them. They have not grown a day older. It’s a common feeling to imagine oneself going back to school to find that nothing has changed; everyone is as they were when you left. I have that feeling, although when I returned it was as a ghost. No-one knew me. Recently I went back to a place I knew. I remember well the house where I lived with the woman I did not marry. But when we, my wife and I, came to the corner of the road, I gestured vaguely, saying, ‘That’s where I lived.’ In active feeling I was indifferent to the life I had lived, although the memory was strong. My life lies elsewhere, but, the moment is frozen, like a photograph.


Do photographs change? Do they have a life? Sometimes they may do. In Kubrick’s The Shining there is an old photograph on the wall. At the close of the film the crazed writer, played by Jack Nicholson, dies. Then we see the old photograph again. Impossibly, he is now a face in that photograph.  He has an afterlife where time itself is reversed, and reality changes. The image is deeply disturbing. The implication is that the realities that we believe act as foundations of our lives are soluble and metamorphic.


Once on a hot summer’s afternoon I was writing about winter, and I shivered. We like to think imagination is distinct from reality. We believe reality is of a higher order. Too much imagination is madness. Shivering with cold in summer when not physically sick is symptomatic of delusion. I prefer to think of the doors in old houses when I was a child. They were real doors, some of them locked, which surely would lead into other worlds. ‘If the notion is good enough,’ Capote said, ‘if it truly belongs to you, then you can’t forget it – it will haunt you till it’s written.’


Perhaps memory should be used only to a purpose, as in Capote’s recollection of the East Seventies where he can introduce us to Miss Holly Golightly, the exquisite spirit of wayward, but generous, ambition. Holly has no memory: she is self-created, and thereby symbolic of the American Century. Isherwood’s Sally Bowles (to whom Holly owes something of her style) is representative of a class and a culture that is threatened by barbaric power. She is a cultivated bourgeois of liberal inclination. She is Europe before the cataclysm. Holly Golightly is eternal Manhattan. When Paul Elmer More remarked that New York is a railroad station surely he had someone like Holly Golightly in mind.


Her card does not give an address (can she admit to a one-room apartment in a brownstone?). It simply says Travelling. Her true home is Grand Central. Her destination is undecided. She disappears in search of material dreams, and we know we shall not hear of her again. One day perhaps she returns to Manhattan. But her glamour has faded, and she melts into the anonymity of the city.


People who want to escape move to a city. This is especially true of the young, for they have no money. With money you can escape to the country. That is often the hope of city-dwellers. But, poor and alone, you can find somewhere to live. There you can hope to come alive. It is likely to be forlorn because it takes enormous courage and luck to re-assemble the fragments of a shattered life. People escape to the city to forget, and, sometimes, to be forgotten.


None of us would want to remember everything that happened to us. But to abandon memory is to forego the capacity for imagination by which we can make sense of, and create hope for, our lives. Mnemosyne, the titaness of memory, was the mother of the Muses. The ability to remember enables human beings to learn from experience, and thereby to develop a ‘memory of the future’. By thinking ahead humanity could construct better ways of living. Instinct taught survival. Memory created higher forms of living. Intellect enables humanity to plan, rather than to leave everything to chance.

A purely spontaneous literature is, as Capote remarked, ‘not writing but typing.’


Writing, therefore, is written for the future. At the same time it is conscious of the past. Holly Golightly owes something to Sally Bowles. She may owe something to the spirited heroines of Henry James. These are male creations of women, with threads of fantasy woven into the admiration. Tracing the source of creative impulses in these instances may be problematic, given the essential nature of these male creators. But the springs of creation must go deeply into the measureless caverns of the psyche.


We have no reliable plans of the topography. The purpose of poetry may not be to map the psyche, but to record its conscious effects on our conduct. Psychology aims to rationalize our impulses, but it can make only intelligent suppositions. What is reliable is the record we have of our imagination. Tellingly Capote closes the collection which contains Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a memoir. It reads like a story, but we are given to understand it is true. Later he would write other memories at counterpoint to the fiction. A Beautiful Child (about his close friendship with Marilyn Monroe) looks back to Manhattan in the Fifties. It is not a brownstone in Spanish Harlem, and it is not about young dreamers, but the connections can be made. It is almost too obvious to say that Holly is Marilyn had she not been successful.


It is less obvious, perhaps, to note Marilyn Monroe’s success did not depend entirely on luck. Her dedication to the craft of acting (a major theme of Capote’s recollections) contrasts markedly with Holly’s restless yearnings. She is not drawn back to the places where she has lived. The anonymous narrator returns to the bar on the corner where Joe the bartender remembers her some years later. I can envision an unwritten postscript where the narrator sees someone, older but undoubtedly her, on a subway train, or seen on a sidewalk before vanishing into Macy’s. It happens; you catch sight for a moment of someone you knew. The incident is over in seconds. That is all you are given. There is no opportunity to speak and so learn what happened, and to tell your story.


In fiction a narrative is complete in itself.  Sequels, with few exceptions, tend not to work. They say too much. They are like someone who explains the joke he has told, ruining the comic effect with a heavy hand. Who now reads the sequels  to Tom Sawyer?  Surely Mark Twain knew better?  Evidently he did not. Perhaps he needed money. Commerce compromises art. Or it may be that the audience will not leave the theatre.


There is an early story of Capote’s, Master Misery, about a rich man who pays people to tell him stories. The task seems simple to a resourceful imagination, and the reward is at least adequate. But the story-tellers come to understand that their lives are changing. They are withering in spirit. They are dying. Master Misery is draining the life out of them. He wants not their art but their souls. As a predicator of Capote’s life and eventual decline it reads chillingly apposite. Never prolific, in the last two decades he produced only a collection of articles and the unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, which was to be his masterpiece, although it was not. He confessed to being stagestruck in youth. He was in success something of a performer, the writer as celebrity, to the detriment of his art.


Conversations with Capote is not a recommended read; a relentlessly embittered series of spiteful remarks about other writers. There was a time when he could give to the New Yorker a long, serious interview wherein he spoke of his craft with charm and perception. It may be that the years he spent researching those murders in Kansas, were written up as In Cold Blood, left him exhausted and despairing. George Plimpton’s sympathetic biography suggests this was the case.


Success, especially at so young an age, made a monster of a charming talent. The subtle, rhapsodic narrative of his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, contrasts markedly with the outrageous camp, high and low, of Answered Prayers. In that first book we read a sensitive study of the frailty of human emotions and their wayward nature. The background of the lazy heat of the American South recalls Tennessee Williams. Capote’s narrative is one of hints and probabilities so lightly and delicately textured that the events recounted become metaphors. This was the case also with subsequent work with more realist conventions. One of Capote’s most achieved works is the brief account of his day with a woman whose job was to clean Manhattan apartments. A Day’s Work tells of a mundane, anonymous worker. Beneath the seemingly matter-of-fact detail, however, is a life revealed that, humble and banal, is rich in character – honest, caring, generous and spirited. Capote has no purpose in mind, no axe to grind: he records what he sees. The art is in the telling detail, the honing of experience into a few words.


Hollywood has yet to film A Day’s Work. This thought brings me to my reasons for disliking the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I had heard so much about it years before I saw it. I knew that Mickey Rooney was in the cast. So I guessed which part he would play – Joe the bartender. It would have been perfect casting. Joe, however, does not appear in the film, although he is crucial to the structure of the original novella. Rooney is miscast as the Japanese neighbour. He looks silly. Audrey Hepburn is miscast. She looks ravishing, but she is not the sassy goodtime girl of Capote’s fiction. George Peppard is, correctly, not the least Capote-like. He looks about right, although a little too old for the narrator who is very young and inexperienced. His innocence contrasts with the adventuress he meets, and is bemused by. Then there is that syrupy song which has nothing to do with anything else.


Manhattan’s cityscape is redolent of many films. It feels, especially to the first-time visitor, like entering a movie. New York knows it is special. New York films that fail to convey that are dull about the most exciting of cities. If in London I become irritated by the crowds I remember that for many this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience what they have seen. But I know that the London of Israel Zangwill, say, can be visited only in print. The same may be true of Truman Capote’s Manhattan.


He used few words. The words were always well-chosen. I always find appreciative laughter in writing classes when I tell the story of Capote on a talk show. The host remarked that Norman Mailer could write thousands of words a day, whereas Capote could spend a whole day on a single word. ‘Yes,’ came the retort, ‘but mine is the right word.’

◄ The Interview: Max Wallis

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