I just finished reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s bound with other short works by the prestigious Truman Capote. His writing is luscious. I was left emotional after A Christmas Memory. I have to say, now that I have finally read something by the master, I can attest to why he’s given that title.
My first introduction to Capote was in the film Murder By Death (1976). I am a fan of ensemble comedies from the 1960s-1980s. Something about them is just so fun. The impression he left me with, ironically, is the description he gave to Rusty Trawler. So, of course, judging a book by it’s cover (hey, I was just a kid when I first saw this), I had no confidence in him as a writer. And, I assume, when I asked about him, being that he was openly gay, such questions were met with subconscious homophobia. No one came out and said to me, don’t read that man’s work because he’s gay, but they flippantly dismissed him for fear I would somehow absorb the gay. I’m guessing here. I’m sure it was all an unconscious move, and my interpretation to their sighs and widened eyes was one of “don’t bother with that one.” That is how pervasive institutionalized prejudice is and how it functions.
Now, as an adult and fan of the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), I was set to make my own opinions about Mr. Capote and other authors in the literary world of which I felt robbed of their work. This summer has been a reading summer for me, and I had purchased a copy of the book some years prior. It is true that we book hoarders hoard books. I simply did not have the time to enjoy leisure reading while in graduate school. Just before I enrolled, I had read a slew of classics which were never taught in my courses. I am restarting my efforts, and will do so each summer.
Compared to the film, there isn’t much of the story that isn’t changed. We retain character names, setting and over all mood. However, the main character, which is the narrator in the book has no name but Fred, which Holly gives him. The book fleshes out the characters far more than the film does, of course. We learn a great deal more about Lulamae (Holiday) Golightly, and a great deal of it things we don’t want to know. The sublime and endearing character that Audrey Hepburn made iconic is in reality a racist, childish alcoholic with a penchant for lying and doing criminal things. I’m never certain of what Miss (or Mrs.) Golightly wants. The thrust of the story is more about ‘Fred‘s’ experience of her and how it affected him. In the book, there is no happy ending as Hollywood created. Cat is saved, but not by Fred or Golightly. No one rides off in the rainstorm. Fred simply ends his tale at the end of his experience, left wondering what the point was, as much as we the reader wonder what the point is.
A number of things are brassily exposed to the reader: child brides, racism, alcoholism, sex in the city, just to name a few. Holly is a young woman, about 19 in the book, and it is World War II in New York. I did not clearly get that feeling, try as I might, the description wasn’t there, I was simply told this was where and when by the narrator. I think I have the film to blame for that more than anything.
Holly’s trials and travails are the focus of the narrative, and the story teller regards them with a biting remorse for her and his having to endure her. He both loathes and loves her. Because Holly behaves with a sexuality more modern to 2015 than 1940, she is called a number of names. We’re witness to the infighting between the women, who compete for the wealthy stags that populate the parties and restaurants they frequent. It is implied but never explicit that they are prostitutes. Holly drinks and smokes to excess, she may even indulge harder substances in an effort to get by. Later we find out she was the child bride of a man who took her in, saving her from starvation. This man who was four times her age, then made a proposition of marriage. Perhaps Holly is dearly fucked up because of sexual abuse? Again, this is implied and never explicit. She uses her body to get the things she wants and controls situations and men with the use of her body–something poignant to the feminist movement, as well as speaking to the abuses of young girls. At one point, she is bitten by a suitor in bed, to which she runs to Fred for help, simultaneously insulting him and seeking assistance. That’s a window into her distrust and need of men, a trap most women well understand.
Clues to Holly’s origins can be found in her liberal use of racist thoughts and terms. Though she’s a child of her time, she’s a child of a specific place and time. The use of these terms are more akin to what we would hear in the South and from certain economic strata. Try as she might, the mask of Holiday doesn’t completely eclipse Lulamae. The racist, white trash of Texas has a way of sneaking through. Yet, no one is surprised by her turns of phrases. They expect it of her. The narrator does make a note that it bolsters Berman’s explanation of her origins in the Oklahoma region. An Okie, he calls her, another prejudicial term used to marginalize working class and poor people in the Midwest.
Despite the alterations made to the story, and the disappointment one might feel at the bold ugliness of the characters, it is extremely well written. It doesn’t take long to read the story at all. You’ll spend an afternoon at best.
I don’t think there is much I can add in the way of praise for Capote, which has not already been said. I enjoy his style immensely. I am extremely saddened that I wasn’t able to pick up his work sooner. The included short stories are also worth your perusal (4 in the linked edition). Read him. He’s worth every moment. Don’t let others steer you away from reading a story because they don’t care for the person who wrote it, subconscious or conscious prejudice.