Friday, June 11, 2010

The Old One-Two Punch

I just read Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, a little story that the late Norman Mailer particularly loved. Mailer said that "Capote is tart as a grand aunt, but in his way he is a ballsy little guy." Capote's style got me to thinking about what exactly it was--that verve, that tenacity--that American lit had in the 1940s through 1960s, when things were a bit more pugnacious than they are now, where machismo was a bit more cherished, where folks were far cheekier than they dare to be now.

But what I noticed in Breakfast at Tiffany's is how Capote is at once tough but sensitive; the fierce front of his prose actually works to reveal the sentiments of his characters. In Breakfast at Tiffany's, the main character--who has worked to distance himself from the mysterious Holly Golightly--finds himself called to Joe Bell's bar, where a photograph induces the recollection of the narrator's interactions with Holly.

Capote's prose is terse, yet sweet. Consider, for instance the narrator's final weeks in Holly's presence, a sequence that Capote handles in a few words of exposition that seem, on the surface, rather blunt. However, the quickness belies an underlying attachment--and a sort of brotherly love--that the narrator has for Holly:
"Those final weeks, spanning end of summer and the beginning of another autumn, are blurred in memory, perhaps because our understanding of each other had reached that sweet depth where two people communicate more often in silence than in words: an affectionate quietness replaces the tensions, the unrelaxed chatter and chastising that produce a friendship's more showy, more in the surface sense, dramatic moments....we spent entire evenings together during which we exchanged less than a hundred words; once, we walked all the way to Chinatown, ate a chow-mein supper, bought some paper lanterns and stole a box of joss sticks, and then moseyed across the Brooklyn bridge..."

This is one of the small joys of the novella: that such large spans of time, collapsed into a millisecond, reveal far more than page after page of scene might. There's something to Capote's prose that wants to simply tell us what happened and how the last weeks with Holly Golightly were spent. But at the same time, we hear seeping through that narrator's word the "sweet depth" that exists between himself and Holly, and we can almost see them striding alongside each other in a delicate, peaceful silence. It's as if we're observing the knowing nods between them--simple gestures that reveal two minds in sync--as they enjoy their quiet--yet exciting--night in Chinatown.

Usually, straightforward, linear prose isn't exactly my thing, nor is the terse-n'-tough minimalism of the Hemingway years generally one of my favorite styles. But Capote shows us how effective this can be. On one hand, it's tough, fast, sure of itself, and in that approach we can see precisely how emotional and sentimental a good prose narrative can be.


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