Wednesday 25 February 2015

Breakfast At Tiffany's, by Truman Capote - a review

cover scan of my copy - it looks a bit the worse for wear but I love the cover art
With her tousled blonde hair and upturned nose, dark glasses and chic black dresses, Holly Golightly is top notch in style and a sensation wherever she goes.  Her brownstone apartment vibrates with Martini-soaked parties as she plays hostess to millionaires and gangsters alike.  Yet Holly never loses sight of her ultimate goal - to find a real life place like Tiffany's that makes her feel at home.

I realise I'm very late to this party, since the novella was first published in November 1958 - it originally appeared in the magazine Esquire, before being collected with three short stories and published by Random House - but I thought I’d take some time to write about my thoughts on this, especially since a lot of older works are, I feel, under-represented with reviews on the Net.

 I’ve seen the film and enjoyed it and had wanted to read this for a while but we were like ships that passed in the night.  Late last year, though, I picked up a Penguin edition (which is undated - I bought it in a charity shop but it appears it might have been a promotional item) and having just read Stephen Volks’ “Leytonstone”, for a change of pace I decided to dip into it.  I’m so glad I did.

Opening in Autumn 1943, the unnamed narrator becomes friends with Holly Golighty, his downstairs neighbour in the Upper East Side brownstone they live in.  She is a charming woman, a society girl who manipulates the men around her to give her money and gifts, hoping to marry one of them one day.  As the friendship develops over the course of a year between the narrator and Holly - she calls him ‘Fred’ because he reminds her of her beloved brother - he finds himself falling under her spell and who wouldn’t - she fiesty and free-spirited, likes to shock people with revealing details of her personal life and sits out on the fire escape on summer evenings, playing the guitar as her hair dries.  ‘Fred’ is a writer, observing everything around him and although he’s inclined to want to protect Holly, she seems more than capable of doing so herself, until a family tragedy, a blast from the past and a betrayal by a friend turn things on their head.

A brisk read, this is full of life and even though there are dark aspects to the story and characters, they don’t overwhelm at any time (well, apart from perhaps the once).  War-time New York is seen and explored but always at a distance (at one point, ‘Fred’ worries about being drafted), with most of the story taking place either in the brownstone or at Joe Bell’s bar, where both of them are treated as friends.

The writing is deceptively simple, filled with beautifully constructed sentences and little throwaway lines that just build and build as the book goes on (“another night, deep in the summer, the heat of my room sent me out into the streets”).  The characterisation is equally wonderful, from Joe Bell and Mag Wildwood (the stuttering former socialite and model, who muscles in on Holly’s men), Rusty Trawler, O. J. Berman, “Sally Tomato” and Jose Ybarra-Jaeger, the men Holly charms (especially the latter) and poor Doc Golightly but the story, of course, stands on the two leads.  ‘Fred’ narrates and gives everything his personal spin but we never really get a sense of him from anyone else, so he effectively becomes the reader (as a male writer, that worked well for me) but Holly - oh, Holly.

A walking contradiction - an escapee of a terrible childhood but always full of ‘joie de vivre’ - she doesn’t set down roots (her cat has no name because it’s not hers to name - they met at the river) and her flat is barely furnished.  As ‘Fred’ finds out more about her, so her mystery seems to deepen and when bad things do happen (especially with the real Fred), it’s all the more shocking for it and we feel for her.  Naïve but tough, she knows what to say and how to act (Berman calls her a “phony, but a real phony”) and looks great, with her ever present smile, dark glasses (and their prescription lenses) and great clothes, facing a mans world and taking it on in her own way.

As wonderful as I think this is, it’s worth mentioning that there are some jarring elements for the modern reader, from the casual racism to issues with Holly’s age (she ran away from home a fourteen-year-old wife and tells ‘Fred’, on the subject of past lovers, that she’s “not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen…”).  Those niggles aside, this is a terrific book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It has a great pace, a wonderful atmosphere and a timeless feel to it, that draws you along.  Differing from the film (and ending with a sense of melancholy), this is remarkable piece of work.  If you haven’t read it before, then you really should and if you have, why not revisit it?

Very highly recommended.

Oh - and the title?  When Holly gets the "mean reds" (what 'Fred' identifies as angst) she's found that what "does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany's. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name."

Truman Capote (Truman Strekfus Persons) was born in 30th September 1924.  An American author, screenwriter, playwright and actor, many of his short stories, novels, plays and non-fiction are regarded as literary classics, especially “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” and the true crime novel “In Cold Blood” (1966).  He died on 25th August 1984.  According to Random House, as of 2008, the book continued to sell about 30,000 copies a year.

No comments:

Post a Comment