Wednesday Book Club: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Wednesday, 3 September 2008 — 12:16pm | Adaptations, Book Club, Film, Literature

This week’s selection: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) by Truman Capote.

In brief: Short, simple, and sweet, Capote’s novella is one of those stories that packs every postwar anxiety about the American Dream into one very enigmatic character. There is something mature about fiction that reflects on the idealism of the individual spirit, and asks us to do the same, through immersing us in a deep sense of wistfulness rather than outright disillusionment.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, keep reading below.)

I’ve never bought into the popular division of fiction into plot-driven and character-driven partitions. I think of it as an introductory placeholder, like the primary-school template of the short story (inciting action, rising action, climax, denouement): a good place to start, but completely inadequate for grasping the complexities of storytelling as they empirically appear in the literary corpus. The more publishers believe it, the more writers will do it, and the worse off we all are.

After reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I’m beginning to realize that the plot/character pitfall is made even rougher by what comes after the hyphen: the idea that fiction is “driven” as if pushed from behind, when it is actually drawn like a Central Park carriage or a rickshaw (depending on whether you are reading New York fiction or colonial fiction, because it’s got to be one of the two, doesn’t it). There’s no doubting that Tiffany’s is at its heart a character piece, not because interior motivation takes precedence over exterior causality, but because a particular character is the locus of interest that tugs the reader into the story’s gravitational field.

Tiffany’s is a mystery of motive. Who is Miss Holiday Golightly? What makes her tick? Is there any consistency to her behaviour? Is there anything real under the dark glasses and the funny name? What accounts for the appearance of a carving of her likeness in the middle of Africa, a place that could not be more removed from the stomping grounds of glamour girls with lost souls? (The story, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, is acutely New York and not at all colonial—though you couldn’t tell by the diamonds alone.)

When all is said and done, Holly Golightly is not overwhelmingly atypical by the standard expectations of what flighty, soul-searching socialites are like. But there’s something iconic, something instantly memorable about her because the narrator puts the reader in the position of trying to make sense of a person who makes no sense.

Holly is such a character. So it’s all the more ironic when, the first time we read her name, the narrator confesses that he saw her as anything but:

It never occurred to me in those days to write about Holly Golightly, and probably it would not now except for a conversation I had with Joe Bell that set the whole memory of her in motion again.

One thing I didn’t expect was a moment here, a moment there, where Tiffany’s evokes J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I don’t need to tell you is a completely different book with a voice that bears no resemblance to Capote’s whatsoever. I compare them here because I get the strong sense that Holly Golightly’s America and Holden Caulfield’s America are one and the same. They live in the same 1940s New York, breathing the same air of a genuine anxiety about phoniness, caught in an ambiguous rupture between the intense desire to be self-made and the inescapable web of social relations that manufactures them from without.

Look at how O.J. Berman, Holly’s Hollywood agent, describes his runaway client:

“So,” he said, “what do you think: is she or ain’t she?”
“Ain’t she what?”
“A phony.”
“I wouldn’t have thought so.”
“You’re wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand you’re right. She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes. You can’t talk her out of it. I’ve tried with tears running down my cheeks.”

And if we’re going to play Six Degrees of Audrey Hepburn, we’ll find our way through My Fair Lady and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and meander back to this:

“[…] she opens her mouth and you don’t know if she’s a hillbilly or an Okie or what. I still don’t. My guess, nobody’ll ever know where she came from. She’s such a goddamn liar, maybe she don’t know herself anymore. She’s such a goddamn liar, maybe she don’t know herself any more. But it took us a year to smooth out that accent. How we did it finally, we gave her French lessons: after she could imitate French, it wasn’t so long she could imitate English.”

Speaking of Audrey Hepburn, I’m not going to pretend that the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s didn’t colour my expectations going into the book. Some of the differences are more pronounced than others, but the imagination has only two major cognitive disparities to get over. First, Capote’s Holly is a blonde. Second, the story is set in 1943, and Capote (writing in 1958) is critically aware of its situation both in wartime and in the long-term aftermath of the Depression. Holly is running away from the flux of history, which extends well beyond her personal memory of the past.

I also can’t mention the film without drawing attention to the following passage:

Also, she had a cat and she played the guitar. On days when the sun was strong, she would wash her hair, and together with the cat, a red tiger-striped tom, sit out on the fire escape thumbing her guitar while her hair dried. Whenever I heard the music, I would go stand quietly by my window. She played very well, and sometimes sang too. Sang in the hoarse, breaking tones of a boy’s adolescent voice. She knew all the show hits, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill; especially she liked the songs from Oklahoma!, which were new that summer and everywhere. But there were moments when she played songs that made you wonder where she learned them, where indeed she came from. Harsh-tender wandering tunes with words that smacked of pineywoods or prairie. One went: Don’t wanna sleep, Don’t wanna die, Just wanna go a-travelin’ through the pastures of the sky; and this one seemed to gratify her the most, for often she continued it long after her hair had dried, after the sun had gone and there were lighted windows in the dusk.

Now, isn’t that just the perfect forecast of the future songwriting style of Henry Mancini? Not just “Moon River”, either, but the legacy of his repertoire as a whole (“The Days of Wine and Roses”, “Two for the Road”… maybe not so much “The Pink Panther”, but never mind).

I’ve always adored “Moon River”: it’s one of those flawless American songs, the kind of melody you have in mind when you waggle your cane and gripe about how the kids don’t have any music anymore and culture has all but died. But until I read the Capote passage above, I never realized how completely Mancini’s song and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics captured everything about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, from the sentence to the paragraph to Holly Golightly and all the way up to the essence of conflicted nostalgia itself. It’s as perfect a fit as “Over the Rainbow” was to Oz, but on top of that, it is an adaptation of the most spirited faith. The film may differ in many respects, but the song and scene are exactly as Capote imagined it:

I loved this song. Now I am in awe.

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