Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 11, 2007

PORTRAITS AND OBSERVATIONS

The Essays of Truman Capote

Random House. 518 pp. $28.95

Is Truman Capote a writer of lasting importance? Fewer and fewer people seem to think so, even though Random House has worked hard to secure Capote's literary immortality: This volume of the writer's collected essays follows hard upon his complete short stories, his selected letters and his "long-lost" first novel, Summer Crossing. Before these, Gerald Clarke brought out a substantial and deservedly praised biography. More recently, two films have drawn renewed attention to Capote the man and to In Cold Blood, his celebrated "nonfiction novel" about the murderers of a Kansas family.

All this activity notwithstanding, Truman Capote now tends to be frequently viewed as a talented self-promoter, the jester and pet of the beau monde, with a calculated flair for cozying up to show business people and lunching with the wives of moguls. In particular, he seems to have genuinely worshipped eccentric old ladies, starting with his simple-minded relative Sook Faulk (protagonist of A Christmas Memory) but including such eminent authors as Isak Dinesen, Colette and Willa Cather. Though Capote died relatively young (in 1984 at the age of 59), even his most ardent fans would agree that the writer's last years were sadly frittered away with unavailing efforts to get on with his tell-all society novel ( Answered Prayers) and then made even more miserable by drink, drugs, health problems and general dissipation.

Compared to the jack-rabbit prolificness of his contemporaries (and rivals) Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, "Little TC" was undeniably a tortoise-slow writer. Aside from the substantial In Cold Blood, he only produced novellas ( Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp, Breakfast at Tiffany's), a handful of short stories, some theater and movie scripts, and a few volumes of literary journalism ( Local Color, Observations, The Muses Are Heard). That journalism makes up Portraits and Observations. . . and it is, whatever the status of Capote's reputation, quite wonderful.

It's a wonderful volume on several counts. First, Portraits and Observations contains all of Capote's nonfiction (except In Cold Blood). Second, it's of a handy size, substantial and inviting without seeming magisterial and sepulchral. Third, nearly every page can be read with real pleasure, whether Capote is describing New Orleans or Brooklyn, whether he is profiling the fatuous Marlon Brando or his own high-spirited cleaning lady. Fourth, those who appreciate the music and cadence of a sentence, or relish a well-turned simile, will find much to enjoy and learn from in these crafty, intricately structured essays. Fifth, despite his real zest for high society, Capote is clearly a democratic bard, drawn as much to the glamour of a derelict washerwoman as to that of a Hollywood superstar. He is, in this regard, an heir to his fellow New Yorker writer, that chronicler of metropolitan life, Joseph Mitchell. As Capote remarks of himself, "I am a city fellow. I like pavement." In his earliest writing the young Capote -- born in New Orleans, raised in Alabama -- repeatedly depicts the tawdry beauty of urban decay. Don't just read, but listen to this sentence, describing the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1946:

"The torn lips of golden-haired girls leer luridly on faded leaning house fronts: Drink Dr. Nutt, Dr. Pepper, Nehi, Grapeade, 7-Up, Koke, Coca-Cola. N.O., like every Southern town, is a city of soft-drink signs; the streets of forlorn neighborhoods are paved with Coca-Cola caps, and after rain, they glint in the dust like lost dimes."

Note the alliteration of the L's and S's throughout, the double-meaning of "torn lips," the drum beat of the soda pops, the elegant adjective "forlorn," the sociological observation about the abundance of bottle caps, and the loveliness of the buildup ("after rain") to a striking simile: "they glint in the dust like lost dimes." This is a deliberately artificial style, affected, even overwritten, but also sinuous and exact. Here is a writer who perceives the beauty and secret meaning of the quotidian. Capote can even evoke domestic furnishings as well as Balzac:

"The interior of the house is a grimy jungle of Victoriana: lily-pale, plump-faced ladies garbed in rotting Grecian veils prance tribally on wallpaper; in the hall an empty, tarnished bowl for calling cards and a hat tree gnarled like a spruce glimpsed on the coast of Brittany are elegant mementos from Brooklyn's less blighted days; the parlor bulges with dusty fringed furniture, a family history of daguerreotype parades across an old untuned piano, everywhere antimacassars are like little crocheted flags declaring a state of Respectability, and when a draught goes through this room beaded lamps tinkle Oriental tunes."

Sometimes this early work suffers from youthful excess -- the gnarled hat tree isn't simply compared to a spruce, which would be fine, but to a spruce glimpsed on the coast of Brittany, which is too much. There can also be a certain sentimental quality to the scenes (often memories), as if the sentences sought to match the soft-focused beauty of photographs shot through lenses smeared with Vaseline. Note, for instance, the lilting word-music of this description of an old man:

"We found him in a garden facing the ocean; a knotty, phlegmatic old man with blue-white hair and skin browner than iodine, he was slumped in a patch of sunshine, his eyes closed, no sound to disturb him but the slumbering slap of waves, the dozy singing of bees. Old people love California; they close their eyes, and the wind through the winter flowers says sleep, the sea says sleep: it is a preview of heaven."

Though Capote's style grew more dramatic with the years -- more reportorial than memorial -- he never lost his way with a simile or description: "There were hints of sunrise on the rim of the sky, yet it was still dark, and the traces of morning color were like goldfish swimming in ink." "Miss Ryan was wearing a low strapless dress that hugged her curves cleverly; and as she swayed down the aisle, masculine eyes swerved in her direction like flowers turning toward the sun." Stores in 1950s Moscow consisted of "counters and alcoves whose shelves seemed mostly stocked with shooting gallery prizes, the cheap familiar dolls, ugly urns, plaster animals, the toilette set bedded in a crumpling of white casket silk." Describing a hotel room in Kyoto, the writer notes "the Japanese penchant for an ostentatious barrenness"; after meeting the anorectically thin Isak Dinesen, he says that "time has reduced her to an essence, as a grape can become a raisin, roses an attar."

Capote can capture a character in a phrase: Of a wife who dotes on her husband, he concludes that "if she could find enough paper, she'd wrap up the world and hand it to him." That same husband, he later reveals, "has an actor's trained voice, 'placed' in a register so very deep that it makes for automatic pomposity, and as he speaks his manicured hands move with his words, not in an excitable, Latin style, but in a gracefully slow ritualistic manner, rather as though he were saying Mass."

Though some of the portraits and observations in this volume now seem like period pieces, this is paradoxically all to the good: Capote conveys the very aura of a time and place. The Muses Are Heard, about a theater company's visit to Russia, deftly registers the common view of our Cold War enemy as frightening and sartorially challenged, simultaneously paranoid and childishly naive. Here, too, are famous profiles of the movie stars Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and briefer memoirs of Cecil Beaton, Tennessee Williams and Jane Bowles (a slyly funny writer -- try Two Serious Ladies-- still overshadowed by her husband Paul Bowles).

In these pieces Capote employs reportage, journal entries, personal letters, dramatic dialogues, whatever kind of prose will best give substance and dimensionality to his subject. One late piece of "new journalism," the rather neglected "Handcarved Coffins," is, like In Cold Blood, an account of murder in the heartland, and generates as much tension as any Gold Medal paperback thriller: Why are these particular people being killed, one by one? And by whom? The ending of the story is appropriately low-key and noirishly downbeat.

Even if Truman Capote never enters the hallowed (and consequently rather deadening) Library of America, he remains a writer we should keep reading. "A work of art," he once said, "is the one mystery, the one extreme magic; everything else is either arithmetic or biology. I think I understand a considerable lot about writing; nevertheless, when I read something good, in fact, a work of art, my senses sail away into a universe of wonder: How did he do it? How is it possible?"

Pick up Portraits and Observations and you will feel the same wonder, ask yourself the same questions. No matter what his subject, Truman Capote's canny, careful art gives it warm and breathing life. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. His latest book, "Classics for Pleasure," has just been published.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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