Books
4:47 pm
Mon June 23, 2008

Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote

Many of these pieces are ironic, somewhat scornful, but many are not. Capote has sympathetic words for Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and absolute encomia for Isak Dinesen and Capote's favorite American author, Willa Cather.

When Truman Capote died in the home of Joanna Carson, Johnny Carson's ex-wife, in Los Angeles, on August 25, 1984, he was world-famous and rich. Capote had homes in Manhattan, the Hamptons, Switzerland, the Caribbean and Palm Springs. He had published 17 volumes of work and had achieved a celebrity status only reached by Samuel Clemens in the nineteenth century and Ernest Hemingway in the first half of the twentieth. That is, he could not walk down the street or eat lunch in a restaurant undisturbed.

Unfortunately, Capote was, personally, a mess. He was addicted to pills and alcohol to the point that his death could be considered a kind of suicide. Once the witty darling of late night talk T.V., he had disgraced himself with drunken babbling and had often drifted away or even passed out at his public readings.

His miserable personal life, I believe, affected his literary reputation, and readers for many years knew only the poignant, sentimental Christmas Memory or the masterpiece In Cold Blood. Twenty years passed before Random House put out the Letters and the Complete Stories in 2004. Now we have the nonfiction, The Essays of Truman Capote, 507 pages, 42 pieces of work, and they are brilliant.

The longest of these, at 105 pages, "The Muses Are Heard," is the journalistic account of the black stage company of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Capote went along on their tour of Russia, and nothing was lost on him: the landscape, the train, the food (they expected caviar and vodka but got yogurt and raspberry soda, every meal), the pompous and sometimes bewildered actors and staff. The Russians found the sensuous writhings of Bess both shocking and immoral. Even so, this cultural exchange represented a brief thaw in the Cold War, and Capote writes, "When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent; when the cannons are silent, the muses are heard."

As reporting, this is a masterpiece. As language, it is brilliant. Every sentence is elegant and obviously the result of heaps of work, and yet the prose never seems labored or overwrought.

Capote had, it seems, always been interested in the potential of reportage. In his preface to Music for Chameleons, he writes of having wanted to "produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry." The result was, of course, In Cold Blood. Capote always knew exactly what he was trying to do.

In his most famous "profile," "The Duke in His Domain," Capote interviews Marlon Brando, in Japan, during the filming of Sayonara. In these 32 pages, Brando's innards are exposed as coolly as in an autopsy. The reader feels he has come to know Brando. It is detailed. It is merciless. Capote later insinuated he had also seduced Brando. That may not be true, but we see Brando naked in at least a metaphoric sense.

In the Brando piece, Capote demonstrated his belief that any genre, in the right hands, could be elevated into art. "The 'movie star interview,' Silver Screen stuff?surely nothing could be less elevated than that!" But Capote takes the challenge and succeeds.

Many of these pieces are ironic, somewhat scornful, but many are not. Capote has sympathetic words for Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and absolute encomia for Isak Dinesen and Capote's favorite American author, Willa Cather.

There is also another attempt at something like In Cold Blood, the 60-page "Handcarved Coffins," about a murder in Montana. It lacked the closure of a pair of hangings, but he published anyway, because for Capote writing was followed by publishing. Whatever else he was, and he was a lot, he was the consummate professional.

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