It feels a very long time ago that I started my A Capote Reader, originally to take part in a summer readathon of some short stories and novellas. Once the volume had arrived though I realised I wanted to read it all. I promised, rather rashly, at the time that I would read and review A Capote Reader in small manageable bites, and that I would finish the whole thing by the end of September – Ha! Although I have read twelve short stories two novellas and some travel sketches I am still only on page 308 of 722, there is a massive amount packed into this tightly printed volume. I am utterly useless at reading non-fiction, I am a pure fiction junkie through and through. A Capote reader is packed with travel sketches, reportage, observations and biographical essays, which will be great at getting me to read some more non-fiction, widening those old horizons – but oh my I am very slow – I am now wondering if I’ll get it all read by the end of the year. There is so much potentially fascinating stuff in this volume, but I do have to be in the right frame of mind to read non-fiction.
So far I have read four of the travel sketches – and to be honest I am surprised at how enjoyable I found them – despite the dis-jointed nature of Capote’s travel writing. Each of the sketches concerns a different place – New Orleans, New York, Brooklyn and Hollywood the subject of the first four. In subsequent travel sketches I will be leaving the cities and suburbs of America behind me, and in Capote’s company travelling to Haiti, various parts of Europe and Tangier.
In these short sketches Capote gives us tantalising glimpses of a place as he knew it. Through seemingly unconnected snapshots – reminiscences of people, recounted anecdotes of a place, descriptions of a building, Capote can in a few paragraphs bring the world of unknown people to life. The keenly felt sense of place that I discovered I loved so much in Capote’s fiction, is very much evident in these sketches too, Capote was quite obviously a keen observer of people and places.
In his writing of New Orleans (1946) Capote remembers running from the sight of a hanged man. He recalls Miss Y and her reminiscences of the old New Orleans. Also living in the building in which Capote lived at this time was Mr Buddy, a thief and a scoundrel who Capote catches stealing from during the night. Here he is remembered with what appears to be weary tolerance. This sketch of New Orleans closes with the descriptive remembrance of a greasy little café where Shotgun plays piano amidst last year’s Christmas decorations and cigarette smoke.
“It is a myth, the city, the rooms and windows, the steaming-spitting streets, for anyone, everyone, a different myth, and idol-head with traffic light eyes winking a tender green, a cynical red. This island, floating in river water like a diamond iceberg, call it New York, name it whatever you like; the name hardly matters because entering from the greater reality of elsewhere, one is only in search of a city, a place to hide, to lose or discover oneself, to make a dream wherein you prove that perhaps after all you are not an ugly duckling, but wonderful and worthy of love, as you thought sitting on the stoop where the Fords went by; as you thought planning your search for a city.”
In New York (1946) Capote catches sight of Garbo at the theatre. This is the New York of Capote’s early career, and it is also the city of many unknown people, who have their own stories to tell. One of them is an ageing radio repair man, and former swimming champion who wants to re-capture some of his former glory. Writing letters to Capote, from Alabama is 83 year old Selma, who despite her promises to visit the great city of New York, never does.
Brooklyn (1946); opens with the beautifully evocative image of an abandoned church, and in this place Capote sees echoes of what is happening to Brooklyn as a whole at this time. Landladies Miss and Mrs Q are portrayed with wry affection, running an answering service from their basement. We are also treated to the tantalising image of Truman Capote dining regularly at a place called The Cherokee hotel, an apartment hotel for the elderly – why Capote who would have been twenty-two in 1946 would have been dining at such a place is unclear – I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was true – maybe an early eccentricity – maybe a bit of poetic licence I couldn’t decide.
The Hollywood (1947) sketch – is possibly less gossipy than I had expected, but there is a lunch invitation from “the fabled Miss C” – I wonder who that might have been? I could hazard a guess but I could be disappointingly wrong. Her place is described as a fortress – and Capote is more or less frisked by a guard. He is greeted at the house by a fat child in pink ribbons who offers to show him her mother’s things. Capote also muses on the idea of Christmas in Hollywood – he seems to find the two things don’t quite go together – I think I can understand why.
“Earlier today I took a bus all the way from Beverly Hills into downtown Los Angeles. The streets are strung with garlands, we passed a motorised sleigh that was spinning along spilling a wake of white cornflakes, at corners sweating woolly men rustle bells under the shade of prefabricated trees, carols, hurled from lamppost loudspeakers, pour their syrup on the air, and tinsel, twinkling in twenty-four karat sunshine, hangs everywhere like swamp moss. It could not be more Christmas, or less so. I once knew a woman who imported a pink villa stone by stone from Italy and had it reconstructed on a demure Connecticut meadow: Christmas is as out of place in Hollywood as the villa was in Connecticut. And what is Christmas without children, on whom so much of the point depends? Last week I met a man who concluded a set of observations by saying, ‘And of course you know this is the childless city.’”
I am looking forward to the rest of these sketches – goodness only knows when I’ll get around to them – but I’m intrigued at the idea of Truman Capote’s travels around Europe and Africa at the end of the 1940’s, he does so paint a picture.