Friday, January 30, 2015

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Title: Breakfast at Tiffany's
Author: Truman Capote
Publisher:  Random House (1958)

I'm really excited to start the year (perhaps moving into our sixth year of doing this??? Michael, can you remember?) with one of the titles gleaned from Michael's poll results. It was a fantastic idea that Michael had to allow interested readers to make suggestions for our book/movie postings; and then for everyone to vote on them. One of the winning titles, this one, I haven't read/watched for over a decade. It's been cool to re-visit.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here. 

Click here for Michael's film review of Breakfast at Tiffany's
at It Rains... You Get Wet

From an indeterminate point in the future, the narrator in Breakfast at Tiffany's recounts his friendship with Miss Holiday Golightly, Travelling. We know at the outset that he hasn’t seen her in the intervening years. He even mentions he never thought to write about her until an acquaintance calls him up to see a remarkable photograph of a piece of artwork resembling Holly. Both men, in remembering Holly, exhibit the melancholia that pervades this novella. Even in scenes when Holly and the narrator are pulling larks in their neighborhood, having drinks, and shooting the shit there is an ever present sense of sadness. The narrator, who is never named, meets Holly after moving into a room in the same boarding house. Holly keeps forgetting her key and ringing his bell. They don't actually meet until a night hiding in his apartment from a john (windows make such handy exits) but then she stops ringing his bell. After writing a polite note to her the next week, she invites him to a party.

It feels melodramatic to describe the narrator as obsessed with Holly but it’s difficult to find another word for it. He’s one of those people that is never quite comfortable being friends on the terms that are offered. Holly is described multiple times as ‘a fake but a real one’ which mostly seems like a superficial alternative to noticing that Holly wasn’t given the life she wanted so she’s attempting to take it. The narrator is relentless in trying to get at what he thinks is real about her and almost equally relentless at rejecting what he sees as fake. (Or, at the very least, judging it.)

Breakfast at Tiffany's is an interestingly crafted book as the reader is never outside of the narrator’s very strong view of things yet it’s still easiest to know more about Holly than him. I get Holly. I get her fears, insecurities, ambitions, and frustrations. I get her charm, guardedness and managing nature. I don’t get very much about the narrator. It’s possible that’s a pretty personal reading of it, though. I’m not a call girl living in 1940s New York but I get the challenges that were present for women flying solo in that time period. The narrator, despite only hinting at his non-Holly life, seems to have one; but readers only see him through the lens of his obsession with Holly. For me, that’s a limiting view of a character. 

(For a counterpoint, see this article by someone who connected deeply with the narrator. I was struck particularly by this line: "Capote doesn't claim his alter ego's sexual identity, but it's clear that Tru [narrator] is gay from his infatuation with Holly." It was illuminating for me to read that as it's a perceptiveness that my experience has not yet brought to me.)

The narrator and Holly have a lot of good times together (and some full-on quarrels, as well) but a sense of menace is never far below the surface. It’s not just the narrator’s structure that makes it feel like an hourglass is running down for Holly. It’s the edge she’s always pushing to get the life she’s decided is the one that will cure the 'mean reds.'

I’d be remiss to not mention that this can be a difficult read due to the racist attitudes of many of the characters. A lot of slurs are bandied about - in addition to a questionable decision on the author’s part - which makes this a very white-centered NYC story. (And I’d love the chance to ask Capote about Holly’s assessment of gay women. I'd like to know what inspired him to make that choice.)

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx


  1. Another fine examination, Rachel. I'd always heard of Capote's novella, and the differences between it and the '61 film, which I first saw on network TV in the same decade. Perhaps because of Capote's original treatment, it was a fascinating read. Certainly the wartime setting wasn't expected, but it did work as a framing device. Yeah, the dialogue and time is reflective in the language and attitudes. Only after I finished this did I realize Mr. Yunioshi's placement in the setting seemed odd (given the internments of Japanese-Americans).

    Holly, though, was a fascinating character. Even after all these years. And yes, I can see the narrator could well have been gay and enamored with Miss Golightly. Wasn't the inference that her brother Fred was that, too? Loved Capote's style of writing, too. Colorful, but elegant. Interesting that you used the word "Call girl" to describe Holly. I didn't see her so much as "a pro" that a woman using whatever means to get by. If that meant using her body, or wiles for $50 to go the powder room, to perchance marry financial stability, so be it. Girl's gotta eat.

    Anyway, I thought it great to finally catch up with the source material and compare it to my only exposure (the '61 film) to this unique character. She's hard to get close to, but certainly one you can't ignore and strangely want to be around.

  2. I had read the novella before seeing the movie (years ago now) and I always wondered what folks thought who went the other direction. I would imagine it would be quite jarring to read the novella after the movie. They really are so very different.

    It's the only Capote I've read but he does seem to be quite the wordsmith. Quite honestly, I never gave much thought to the sexuality of the characters (other than Holly's) and so missed what was so meaningful to others (it's why I was so intrigued by the idea that it was inevitable that the narrator would love Holly). As a straight woman reader, it's a fine line to walk where if a man isn't interested in women sexually you then assume they are interested in men sexually? For me that falls uncomfortably into the realms of assuming a man must always be interested in sex. Disinterest, disinclination and asexuality are all as legitimate for men as for women (whether they be straight, gay or somewhere in between). However, I think it's important to recognize when books were written and what choices the authors had to make about what they could share about their characters.

    I can only agree with your call girl assessment. She was probably more opportunistic than anything and not officially set up in the call girl style but I would still describe her as 'a pro.' All survivors are in one way or another. :)

    A fine way to start the year! Thanks!