03 June 2006

On Reading 'The Complete Stories of Truman Capote'

The Complete Stories of Truman Capote was this month's selection of my reading group. I've been mildly interested in reading In Cold Blood since seeing Capote last winter, but never thought about reading his short stories, although I had read some in the past. So, I was looking forward to this book. I was disappointed.

It's not that any of the stories were bad; I just had little interest in any of them. Capote was skillful at crafting sentences, and some of the stories begin with such intriguing leads that you can't help but continue to read. Yet, I can't say that there was any particular story that stands out, only a few that I can remember two weeks later. And, that seems odd to me. Just because a story is short doesn't mean your memory of it should be.

Interestingly, we had a lively discussion regarding the book, although nobody thought there was a particular story which stood out among the collection. One of the topics of discussion was what a short story should be. One member of the group said the stories in this book were about 'nothing' because there was neither plot nor character development. I found this an interesting comment because I think that sometimes the short story form is most effective when it is only descriptive of a character. It is like looking through a peephole at a snippet of a life. When it works well, that snippet tells you all you need to know about the character, whether it is through dialogue or description, and leaves you thinking both 'What happens next?' and that you know how that character will respond.

In some ways, the brief focus that is given in a short story can be the ultimate manipulation of the reader: the author provides exactly what he wants the reader to know -- and the reader buys into it, thinking that they do know all there is. Given that, it's interesting to wonder about what is given and what is omitted in a particular story.

Another thing that we discussed in the group was whether Capote would have wanted a 'complete' collection of his works. Maybe he too would have felt that despite some cleverly crafted phrases, some of the stories just didn't hold up. Had he still been alive, would he have chosen to publish 'The Best of...' rather than 'The Complete Works'? Maybe he would have done both because of the publicity implications. He was, after all, one who could continue to work the talk-show circuit for years after he had published anything.

In the introduction to the book, Reynolds Price writes "America has never been a land of readers, not of what's called literary fiction in any case. And in the twentieth century, only two writers of distinguished fiction managed to become American household names -- Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote." Price writes further that their notoriety was due more to their larger-than-life personalities than for their writing. Capote certainly was a celebrity in a time when celebrities were different than they are today, or at least there were fewer of them, and they remained in our collective consciousness for longer than a weekly newsmagazine stays on the coffee table. But, does Capote merit being placed beside Hemingway as a writer? I don't think so; at least I don't think that from reading his short stories. Maybe it's because I can remember how I first reacted to reading Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River", or "Indian Camp" or "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" in high school, and how I reacted reading them again college. Or 10 years later. Or 20 years. I can remember how I didn't understand 'Hills Like White Elephants' at first; I would have said it was 'about nothing'. But, then I read it again, and while maybe nothing happens action-wise, I realized that story is about so much. I didn't get that kind of a feeling from reading any of Capote's stories. Not only do I doubt that I will remember how I felt when I first read them, I doubt that I will remember that I ever read them at all.

I haven't read enough of Capote to make comments regarding his entire body of work. But, there is little in his short stories to persuade me to read his other works. Perhaps Capote was only a celebrity, more famous for being a writer, than for his writing.


John Baker said...

Interesting thoughts. Thank you. I also haven't read much by Capote, but I did read In Cold Blood many years ago, and it has certainly stayed with me. It is a powerful narrative and I'm sure it broke new ground when it was published.
Perhaps it would be fairer to say that Capote was a one-book writer.

Cam said...

Thanks for your comment John. I had written that maybe Capote was a one-book writer, but edited it out after thinking about Breakfast at Tiffany's. As just about any American baby-boomer would, I've seen that movie several times. But, I've never read the book (Unfortunately, probably true for most baby-boomers too.) I know that the movie had many changes to make it suitable for Hollywood -- much to Capote's dislike. Interestingly, in my reading group, we talked about how different that movie would be if it were made today. I can't imagine that Holly Golightly would be portrayed as anything other than a prostitute, although my fellow reading group members disagreed with me. I just think the sensibilities of today wouldn't allow a Holly to exist and still be believable. She was only barely believable in the movie. Maybe I will read more Capote.

Regarding In Cold Blood, one of the things about the recent movie Capote that I thought failed was that it didn't really adequately explain how emotionally wrought Capote was by the book. The movie suggests that it was what sent Capote into a downward drunken spiral, but I thought it fell short of really making it clear why. In many ways, I think the only thing remarkable about the film was Phillip Seymour Hoffman's dead-on portrayal of Capote. And, maybe researching the book wasn't the cause of Capote never writing anything else. At any rate, if In Cold Blood is as good as it's reputation (remember, I haven't read it), then it is regrettable that Capote never wrote anything else. Perhaps that was what he did best -- applying his skills to nonfiction -- but he just never did any after the book's success.