Good Reading : June 2007
JUNE 2007 ı goodreading 21 breakfast of a champion shelf life The great American writer Norman Mailer once described Truman Capote as ‘the most perfect writer of my generation’ and noted ‘I would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Others were not so kind. Gore Vidal, on learning of Capote’s death, tartly observed it was a ‘good career move’.There is consensus, however, on the excellence of his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s , which clocked in at a neat one hundred pages and first appeared half a century ago to universally war m reviews. It was seen as the maturation of a precocious, if unfocused talent, the Georgia Review noting that ‘Like good whiskey ... Capote seems to improve with age.’ Perhaps the best illustration of what Edmund White termed the ‘exquisite, fairy-tale quality’ of Capote’s writing, the story is a showcase for his most memo- rable dreamer-heroine, Holly Golightly. Despite the character’s iconic status, views on the origin of this ‘lopsided romantic’ differ. Different scholars have suggested a range of characters from earlier stories as likely prototypes, particularly the flighty DJ in The Headless Hawk and the narrator’s elderly friend in The Christmas Story. Small-town beauty Miss Bobbit from the crystalline Children on their Birthdays seems the most likely, however, her boy-killing charm, blunt- ness and off-kilter innocence a virtual dress rehearsal for Holly. If the doomed young writer in Jay McInerney’s Model Behaviour is to be believed, Holly also bears an unseemly resemblance to Sally in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. But as Pablo Picasso observed, great artists steal where good ones merely copy. If Holly was second-hand, then Capote well and truly made her his own.There is another, often overlooked, inspiration for Miss Golightly: her creator. Both were New York sophisticates who grew up in the Deep South, both social butterflies who nursed great darkness, capable of outrageous bitchiness and touching vulnerability. For Capote’s part, he maintained Holly was based heavily on a real, unidentified, girl he once knew. Capote referred to the publication of the novella as the start of his ‘second career’, a phase distinct from the Southern Gothic influences of his early work and marked by a detached narrator and a greater adherence to realism.When Holly dismisses the narrator’s stories as sounding ‘as though you’d written them without knowing the ending’, one can read her comments as a kiss-off to Capote’s earlier, more heavily descriptive stories and a move towards becoming what she describes as ‘a real writer’. Intriguingly, the unnamed writer/narrator in Breakfast pieces together the enig- matic Holly in the best journalistic fashion, learning about her from friends, acquaintances, tabloid newspaper articles and even by going through her garbage. If Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the start of Capote’s second career, it was also the beginning of the end. After the draining half-decade he spent working on the ground-breaking blend of journalism and literary storytelling that is In Cold Blood, he wrote little and was said to be haunted by his failure to complete he ambitious Answered Prayers, nother blurring of fact and fiction. Never a prolific writer, his later years aw him squander his talents com- letely as he lost the high-profile oterie of friends he had made, uccumbed to pills and alcohol (one iend recalling ‘episodes of inconti- nt squalor’) and saw the cherubic looks that once attracted as much atten- tion as his writing disappear, leaving in their place a pitiful, bloated caricature of his former self.The lengthy interview Conversations with Capote, despite the intentions of its sycophantic author, reveals its subject as a spiteful, narcissistic and jealous individual, rehashing tiresome anecdotes and sulking that he was never awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nine years after the book’s release, the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s appeared, enraging the author who felt Marilyn Monroe should have been cast as Holly.While an undoubted classic in its own right, the film is by no means a faithful adaptation, the changed ending and a sentimental streak erasing the bitter ache from Capote’s original. Hollywood polish also softens a work once described as a ‘deliberate affront to middle class respectability’: in the book, the only thing separating Holly from a gangster’s moll is her own whimsical self-image. Despite his critical reputation resting somewhat precariously on a handful of books and some brilliant short reportage, Capote’s star remains undimmed. In Cold Blood may be the work that cemented his place in the critical pantheon, and it has been the more influential work. But he never matched the sublime romantic melancholy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s . No one did. Mailer got it right when he assessed Capote as the most talented stylist of his era and almost right when he said he wouldn’t change two words of the novella. He needn’t have changed one. The image of Audrey Hepburn as HOLLY GOLIGHTLY, the young woman at the centre of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is an enduring symbol of Hollywood glamour. Where, DANIEL HERBORN wonders, did Holly come from? Different scholars have suggested a range of characters from earlier stories as likely prototypes.