Too Brief By Far

Tim O'Neil

'More than any other writer of the modern era, Capote is obsessed by the notion of cruelty: cruelty as both the active infliction of pain and, perhaps more insidiously, the passive withholding of kindness.' Tim O'Neil looks at Vintage's recent releases celebrating the life and work of Truman Capote.

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"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." difference between good writing and bad and, even more terrifying, the difference between it and true art. And after that, the whip came down."
-- Truman Capote, Vogue, December 1979

. . . [Am] totally concentrated on In Cold Blood. My enthusiasm is as high as ever. No, higher. It is going to be a masterpiece: I mean that. Because if it isn't, then it's nothing, and I shall have wasted two or three years. But -- I have great confidence; and that is not always the case."
-- Capote, to Bennett Cerf, 27 June 1960

For his entire life, Truman Capote was driven by the twin forces of ambition and anxiety: the ambition to be a great writer, and the anxiety that he would never achieve his goal. He was perpetually a writer in search of a masterpiece, and having found one, was left perpetually unsatisfied.

Referenced books:

The Complete Stories of Truman Capote
by Truman Capote
September 2005, 320 pages, $14.00

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote
by Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke
September 2005, 512 pages, $16.00

Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons on 30 September 1924. Born to contentious parents who soon divorced (and later re-christening himself in honor of his Cuban-born stepfather), he was remanded to the custody of his mother's family in Alabama, a poor but lively upbringing that is recounted in the autobiographical holiday stories "A Christmas Memory" (1956), "The Thanksgiving Visitor" (1967) and "One Christmas" (1982). Despite the potential for mawkishness, these stories are among the best in Capote's oeuvre, recalling sensory details with a crisp precision that enables the reader to inhabit the stories with vivid clarity.

This talent for recreating the real, for stimulating emotional response through seemingly dry exposition, would serve as the hallmark of his style throughout the majority of his career. Despite his reputation as a flighty, mercurial gossip (a reputation he upholds throughout the bulk of his letters, the majority of which are of little interest on these same grounds), the best of his prose is almost methodical in its precision. Certainly, there can be no dispute -- factual quibbles aside -- that In Cold Blood was a work of forensic discipline.

His best stories maintain a similar distance. More than any other writer of the modern era, Capote is obsessed by the notion of cruelty: cruelty as both the active infliction of pain and, perhaps more insidiously, the passive withholding of kindness. Capote was keyed, from a striated childhood defined by the benevolent neglect of his absent parents, to respond to cruelty as he made his way through life and defined his career.

The passive, inescapable cruelty represented by grinding poverty was present in many of his stories, not merely the autobiographical holiday tales. "Jug of Silver" (1945), "Preacher's Legend" (1945) and "House of Flowers" (1951) all deal specifically with rural poverty. "Silver" and "Flowers", more specifically, deal with the burden of hope represented by opulent imagery in the mind of the poor.

"A Mink of One's Own" and "The Bargain" represent two similar approaches to another kind of cruelty. Both stories replicate the same simple scenario: a woman receives a visitor, attempting to sell a used fur coat. The visitor is selling the coat out of dire need, having been on the receiving end of ill fortune. The ensuing dramas both cast a light on Capote's life-long fascination with the hypocrisy of the wealthy -- or even simply well off.

"A Mink of One's Own", published in 1944, places the scenario in a relatively straightforward light. Mrs. Munson is visited by an old friend, Vini Rondo, who has just returned to the States after a span in Europe, interrupted by the war. Miss Rondo presents the coat to Mrs. Munson, for which Mrs. Munson happily pays $400. Finally, when Miss Rondo leaves and Mrs. Munson is left alone with the coat, she realizes that it was rotten, nothing more than a pile of rags sown together to look presentable.

"The Bargain", written six years later but unpublished until 2004 (perhaps because of uncanny similarities to "A Mink of One's Own"), is far more ambiguous. In this iteration, Alice Severn pays a visit to Mrs. Chase. Mrs. Chase has been, up to this moment, totally oblivious of the changes in Alice's life -- including her divorce from her husband, her penury and her isolation. Alice presents the coat to Mrs. Chase as a family heirloom -- but it's obvious to both of them that it's useless, covered in "lusterless, balding fur", and smelling "moldy, sour, as though it had lain in an attic by the seashore". Mrs. Chase relents and gives Alive $50 for the coat:

"Still trailing the clumsy coat, she went to a corner of the room where there was a desk and, writing with resentful jabs, made a check on her private account: she did not intend that her husband should know. More than most, Mrs. Chase despised the sense of loss; a misplaced key, a dropped coin, quickened her awareness of theft and the cheats of life. Some similar sensation was with her as she handed the check to Alice Severn . . . (Pg. 183)

Considering Capote's humble origins, it should be no surprise that had such a keen awareness of class, and the pity of social "betters", and the mutually demeaning obligations of class, were obviously pains he remembered throughout his entire life. "A Mink of One's One", only Capote's second story, is inchoate and plainly undeveloped: by the time he wrote "The Bargain" in 1950, he had been elevated from the status of a lowly copyboy at The New Yorker and into the realms of high society and the literary elite. The success and acclaim which met the 1948 publication of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms enabled him to join the ranks of the international elite, and he would spend much of the following decade traveling the globe.

Unfortunately, this jet set lifestyle (years before there even was such a thing as a "jet-set") combined with other literary activity, nearly brought an end to his rising talent as a short story writer. Of the contents of the Complete Stories, 15 were published between the years of 1943 and 1951, whereas the remaining five stories were produced over the course of 33 years. Considering that for much of this time Capote was -- if not prolific -- then at least continually working, the dearth of stories from the second half of his life represents a puzzling and regrettable absence.

"I'm happy to be writing stories again -- they are my great love."
-- Capote, to Andrew Lyndon, 15 May 1950.

One of the very last stories he wrote, "Mojave" (1975), is all the more compelling for the fact that it is arguably the best short story he ever wrote. Despite the immense toll, which his high living inflicted, he still possessed every bit of the talent, which had initially propelled him to stardom. The adult alienation, the pain of betrayal and the living hell of sexual estrangement between lovers is rendered as vividly as anything else in Capote's entire career. His ability to capture the intangible elements of character with such gripping immediacy had never wavered, and the long years had granted him an enviable insight into human cruelty:

"That is the reason I have to kill him. He could never have loved me, not if he could ignore my enduring such hell. He says, 'Yes, I love you Jaime; but Angelita, this is different'. There is no difference. You love or you do not. You destroy or you do not. But Carlos will never understand that. Nothing reaches him, nothing can -- only a bullet or a razor."

She wanted to laugh, at the same time she couldn't because she realized he was serious and also because she well knew how true it was that certain persons could only be made to recognize the truth, be made to understand, by subjecting them to extreme punishment.

Nevertheless she did laugh, but in a manner that Jaime would not interpret as genuine laughter. It was something comparable to a sympathetic shrug. "You could never kill anyone, Jaime."

He began to comb her hair; the tugs were not gentle, but she knew the anger implied was against himself, not her. "Shit!" Then: "No. And that's the reason for most suicides. Someone is torturing you. You want to kill them but you can't. All that pain is because you love them, and you can't kill them because you love them. So you kill yourself instead." (Pg. 269-270)

It was perhaps inevitable that Capote's talent would reach such a frustrating end. Dead at 59, he had amassed a small but potent body of work, all the more tragic because it could have been so much bigger. He died with his final masterpiece incomplete -- Answered Prayers, first mentioned in his letter in 1958 and left unfinished at the time of his death. He referred to it as his "magnum opus" (in a letter to Bennett Cerf, 29 September 1958), and compared it to Proust's Brobdingnagian Remembrances of Things Past.

Answered Prayers, like The Love of the Last Tycoon and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, will remain unfinished. Some have surmised that the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the first chapter, "La Cote Basque 1965", printed in the November 1975 issue of Esquire, proved fatal to the book's forward momentum. It should have come as no surprise that the subject of his proposed masterpiece -- the hypocrisy and pitiable intransigence of the wealthy and famous -- would have alienated his wealthy and famous friends, many of whom found themselves indirectly pilloried. In his introduction to the Collected Stories, Reynolds Price offers a hint as to hint as to why Capote's final years were so unproductive:

" . . . [One] consideration that Capote never seemed to discuss, or even be questioned about in public, was crucial to the eventual collapse of his vision (if he ever had one). Proust's society was one of blood, unshakably founded on positions of French social eminence that were reared upon centuries-old money, property and actual power over the lives of other human beings. Capote's society merely teetered upon the unsubstantial and finally inconsequential grounds of financial wealth; fashionable clothes, houses and yachts and occasional physical beauty (the women were frequently beautiful, the men very seldom so). Any long fictional study of such a world was likely to implode upon the ultimate triviality of its subject."

Although Capote was an avid reader and throughout his letters never hesitates to recommend favored books, it is telling that he never once mentions the work of Theodore Dreiser. Considering the similarities between Dreiser's thematic preoccupations and Capote's stated goals, the overlap is unmissable. While Dreiser may not have possessed a tenth of the facility with words that Capote did, he seems to have understood the nature of American classism and economic hypocrisy far more intuitively. Perhaps there was simply no way for Capote's vision to be realized -- the first-hand acquaintance with cruelty and privation that inspired his dark intolerance for hypocrisy was at war with his unwavering fondness for the high life and all it represented. He couldn't totally condemn the same culture of celebrity of which he was a prime beneficiary, not in the same manner that Dreiser had inveighed against the rigid social hypocrisy of the early 20th century in An American Tragedy. The fascination with cruelty could only propel him so far without becoming a double-edged sword. Could he have delivered the deathblow against such a fanatical, insensibly trivial world and emerged unscathed himself?

Although Capote casts a long shadow over 20th-century letters, his career will continue to be outstripped by the singular and continuing influence of his one uncontested masterpiece, In Cold Blood. What we have left over in the form of his Collected Stories are the remnants of an occasionally visionary but maddeningly sparse output. Compared to peers such as Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Updike, not to mention more recent masters of the short form such as David Foster Wallace and Stephen King, this is a spindly, tentative volume, which craps out at the precise moment when, the reader suspects, Capote is just beginning to come into his own.

" . . . I've been working on my book Answered Prayers.

"The other day, a man stopped me on the street and asked if I knew how to get to Chinatown. I said: 'It's downtown. Just keep walking downtown.'

"Then I remembered a childhood neighbor, a husky boy who spent one whole summer digging a huge deep hole in his backyard. At last I asked him what was the purpose of his labor.

"'To get to China. See, the other side of the hole, that's China.'

"Well, he never got to China; and maybe I'll never finished Answered Prayers; but I keep on digging!"

— Capote, to the Readers of Interview Magazine, May 1980.

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