Saturday, April 23, 2011

Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany's (a novella)

US 1958. Read in a Penguin Editions copy: London: Penguin Books, 2011.

Having read Breakfast at Tiffany's a couple of times in the Finnish translation by Inkeri Hämäläinen (Helsinki: Tammi, 1967) I now read for the first time in English the work that stirred Norman Mailer to call Truman Capote "the most perfect writer of my generation".

I'm back from under the jacarandas of Pretoria to face the still naked trees of springtime Helsinki. Spring is late. Unto Hämäläinen, a top journalist at the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, reports that last Sunday he was still cross-country skiing at Paloheinä in the northern section of the Helsinki Central Park.

Finland is reeling from the shock of last Sunday's election, where the populist Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) party won by a landslide. On the planes from Johannesburg via Amsterdam to Helsinki I read alarmed articles and columns in the international press with titles such as "Finnished?" The True Finns' victory may jeopardize the EU financial aid to Portugal - and the status of the Euro currency - and the future of the European Union. How stupid can we get?

The Compass (Kompassi) café by the popular Kaivopuisto seaside walk has opened. Three days ago I visited the new Mattolaituri Café not far away; it is easy to predict that that place will also be a success. It is named by the most famous seaside carpet-washing platform of the country (matto = carpet, laituri = platform).

The Compass is a favourite of the motorcyclists, as there is ample parking space for them. A few years ago hundreds of them gathered there to watch the Night of the Fireworks. The motorcyclists have been riding here for two weeks now, but I heard that today is the first really nice day for them as the temperature is above ten grades Centigrade.

Truman Capote is a writer's writer. His prose is terse but vivid, constantly on the move, with a sense of purpose. Capote mastered both fiction and non-fiction, and there is a sense of poetry in his art of crystallization and creating memorable images. Much of it is lost in the Finnish translation.

Set in the 1940s, Breakfast at Tiffany's is based on real-life models and experiences. The novella touches me also because I have known a Holly Golightly or two, myself. In 1955, Capote met Marilyn Monroe, who had left Hollywood and moved to New York. Capote's "conversational portrait" of their encounter in his anthology Music for Chameleons in 1975 is one of the best pieces of writing on Marilyn. Marilyn was Capote's candidate to portray Holly Golightly, but Lee Strasberg advised her against it.

Both Truman Capote and Audrey Hepburn, herself, thought that Audrey was an impossible candidate to portray Holly Golightly in Blake Edwards' exceptionally successful film adaptation. The movie does not make sense, and I'm amazed that intelligent women consider Breakfast at Tiffany's their personal favourite film. I suspect the same women would probably vote for a ban of prostitution. Does Holly Golightly belong in their opinion with Manon Lescaut, Marguerite Gautier, and Madame Butterfly, or with Pretty Woman? And maybe the profound contradiction is the secret to the extraordinary success of Breakfast at Tiffany's the movie?

In the advertising copy Breakfast at Tiffany's the movie is marketed as "a romantic comedy", and the misrepresentation now seeps back to Capote's book. On the book cover they call it "the most romantic story ever written"! Actually it's an anti-romantic story with no love interest at all. But it's a tender and unforgettable portrait of a bright café society girl who may be deeply mad. Or maybe just young and crazy.

In the Finnish-language Parnasso literary magazine (1/2011) Martti Anhava has published a magisterial essay "The Art of Finishing On Time" about how writers finish their careers. Capote belonged to the ones who experienced a creative crisis. In the preface to Music for Chameleons he says that most writers like to overwrite but that he himself prefers to underwrite. "Simple, clear as a country creek. But I felt my writing was becoming too dense". Music for Chameleons remained Capote's last published book during the writer's lifetime. In the last sentence of its preface he writes: "Meanwhile, I'm here alone in my dark madness, all by myself with my deck of cards - and, of course, the whip God gave me".

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