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Breakfast at Tiffany's Movie; Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly
Breakfast at Tiffany's Movie; Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly

When a young man asked Ernest Hemingway to teach him how to become a writer, Hemingway gave him a long list of books to read and suggested if he still can’t write after reading all those books, he should shoot himself. If anyone ever asks me to teach them to write, I will advise them to read just one writer – Truman Capote. And no, if they still can’t master the craft of writing after reading all of Capote’s books (his canon is very small), I will not ask them to shoot themselves. I will tell them to read Capote again, and again and again.

It is my luck Capote died fifty years before I happened to drive past Brooklyn Heights where he lived in a big yellow house with a large bulldog called Bunky. Going by what Patti Hill wrote for the Paris Review in 1957, if I had knocked on Capote’s door and introduced myself he would probably have invited me into his Victorian parlour and showed me his art collection and personal treasures, arranged on polished tables and bamboo bookcases. Hill says Capote was good-looking; small and blond with a forelock that persisted in falling down into his eyes, and his smile was sudden and sunny. “His approach to anyone new was one of open curiosity and friendliness. He might be taken in by anything and, in fact, seemed only too ready to be. There was something about him, though, that made you feel that for all his willingness it would be hard to pull any wool over his eyes and maybe better not to try.”

If I had met Capote that day, I would have asked him the same question the young man asked Hemingway. “Are there devices one can use to improve one’s technique as a writer?” Here’s what Capote would have told me: “Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme ‘disregarder,’ was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.”

Anyone who has read Capote’s work would know he himself had mastered the art of writing to perfection. Especially with regard to his Yuletide classic “A Christmas Memory” and the coming-of age

story for young, restless souls, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Capote wrote ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1958 and chose Manhattan as the setting for his book. The story is narrated by an unnamed writer who recounts the small amount of time he spent living in the same block of apartments as nineteen-year-old Holly Golightly, a young actress turned society girl who hosts parties in her small apartment as well as receiving a string of wealthy if rather unappealing men. Miss Golightly’s past is a mystery to the narrator, who she names Fred in reference to her brother who she left in her old life, wherever and whatever that might be.

Fred, (as readers begin to call the narrator for the lack of any other name), is one among many who likes to be in the company of Holly. Holly is not the most beautiful girl, you see in Manhattan. But she is still able to attract people to her by using her charm and cheerful temperament. She calls herself crazy, but her type of craziness only makes people stick to her and love her more. She sums her whole life into a sentence when she says, “Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell,[…] If you let yourself love a wild thing, you’ll end up looking at the sky.”

“The wild thing” is a metaphor for Holly, a person who listens only to her heart, breaks the rules and doesn’t really care about the future. Like most of us, she is in a continual search for the place which she calls “home”. Like cotton upon the wind, she captivates the readers and her fellow characters alike and as the simple plot burns out, we find it is the experience of being in Miss Golightly’s company that keeps us turning the pages more than the story that she inhabits.

As critic Maria Kozhuhar writes in the ‘Guardian,’ “Framing Holly’s story within Fred’s narrative is a clever trick. Like Nick Carraway’s recounting of his time with Jay Gatsby, the narrator looks on with jaws slightly agape at a character who possesses a life force far exceeding their own. Fred’s narrative of the brief time that his life connected with the vivacity of his glamourous neighbour cannot be the first or last time a man has sat in a bar telling stories of the enigmatic Miss Golightly, a spectre who had passed through their life and then disappeared into the unknown world. As with Carraway’s ambiguous idolisation of Gatsby, it is far easier to be swept up in the romance of a character when their story is told by another who ignites sparkles about their adored protagonist.”

But like Gatsby, there is much to Holly that is hidden beneath the surface of her lifestyle. Indeed, the more Fred learns of Holly and her past, the more he sees not a sophisticated young woman who is in control of her own destiny but rather a girl who is hiding in plain sight, hoping that eventually the glare from all that shines around her will be blinding enough to completely obscure her past.

Many critics believe this is one of the elements the film based on Capote’s book, gets right. The iconic image of Audrey Hepburn peering into the window of Tiffany’s in the film adaptation is a perfect portrait of a soul gazing in at the world of decadence and wishing desperately that all the fine things she might one day accrue will be the ultimate aim of her real life. In this way, Holly is a perfect analogy for the dangers of consumerism.

Tiffany’s represents the elegance and permanence that Holly aspires to in her own life but while she is enraptured by the capitalist dream of luxury and a well-to-do family she also carries a great desire for freedom, for living outside of social convention. She hates cages of all kinds and has wrought for herself a life that does not constrain but that leaves her free to roam as the “wild thing” she is. Kozhuhar obverses, “This paradox is a tragic mix and one that no doubt contributes to her depressive episodes (her “deep reds” as she refers to them).”

Undoubtedly, Capote’s excellent portrayal of Holly Golightly is what sells the story. To quote Kozhuhar the plot is slim at best. “But how beautifully Capote details his characters and their story. He writes exquisite prose, less ornate than Fitzgerald but as carefully crafted and full of small observations:

“We giggled, ran, sang along the paths toward the old wooden boathouse, now gone. Leaves floated on the lake; on the shore, a park-man was fanning a bonfire of them, and the smoke, rising like Indian signals, was the only smudge on the quivering air. I thought of the future, and spoke of the past.”

“In a novella where words are limited it is all the more obvious when an author has crafted his thoughts into a perfect form. Like finely cut diamonds, Capote’s sentences shimmer with carefully worked beauty that has been carved to perfection.”

No wonder, then, aware of the power of words in a writer’s hand, Capote critiqued the Beat Generation writers. It “isn’t writing at all,” he deadpanned. “It’s typing.”

At times he was a latter-day Oscar Wilde. “Do you think that remarks can be literature?” interviewer Lawrence Grobel asked Capote. “No,” he replied, “but they can be art.”

Yet, he had immense respect for the master craftsmen of his trade. “Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon,” observed Capote. “Hemingway is a first-rate ‘paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all.”

Almost a century later, I would like to add one more writer to Capote’s list. Capote himself. Capote is the Everyman among writers. He had one quality all writers possess. “He was a famous but charming liar,” writer George Plimpton said. “He always felt that if it didn’t happen that way, it should happen that way.”

In those rare moments of honesty, I am sure every writer will confess they too have twisted facts every now and then, to show things the way it should have happened.

Sadly, Capote is not around to ask if he was practicing what he preached when he wrote, “it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.”

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