TOO BRIEF A TREAT

The Letters of Truman Capote

Edited by Gerald Clarke. Random House. 487 pp. $27.95

Truman Capote was born 80 years ago this week, not exactly the most momentous of anniversaries but one that his publisher has chosen to go overboard for all the same. To celebrate the occasion -- which occurs, as it happens, 20 years after Capote's death -- the Modern Library imprint of Random House has issued new editions of Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and of his Collected Stories, and Random House itself now comes forth with Too Brief a Treat, an encyclopedic collection of Capote's letters as edited by his biographer, Gerald Clarke.

All of which is not exactly much ado about nothing, but it certainly is much ado about not very much. Capote was a precocious writer (that first novel was published when he was 24 years old) who never really lived up to his promise, though he achieved considerable renown for the literary persona he cultivated as well as some measure of literary respect for his most notable book, the "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood, which was published in 1966 and enjoys respectable sales to this day. His sentimental short story "A Christmas Memory" now occupies a small place in the holiday canon, but apart from that he appears to be a writer whose work is on the way out, and Too Brief a Treat is most unlikely to bring him back in.

The reason is clear and rather surprising: Capote, for all his wit and irreverence and taste for gossip, turns out to be a mediocre letter writer. Clarke, in his introduction, claims that his letters convey "a world of fascination, pleasure and fun," that they "have a spontaneity that is often lacking in the correspondence of more cautious and deliberate writers," that they "constitute a kind of autobiography," but the letters themselves do not support these assertions. With a few exceptions they are slapdash and trivial. Readers who are deeply interested in Capote will want to read them because he wrote them, but readers who cherish the epistolary art will find little pleasure in them.

They stand in interesting contrast to the letters of Capote's friend and frequent correspondent Cecil Beaton, the designer, photographer and social butterfly. Beaton does not seem to have been a very nice man, but he wrote his letters with care, and they are immense fun to read; often it is wicked, mean fun, but it is fun all the same. Capote, who occupied a territory somewhere between innocence and cynicism, loved to write letters but obviously didn't take them seriously. Though he was a writer his entire adult life, there is astonishingly little in his correspondence about writing per se. There is plenty of the usual moaning about getting on with his work and about the mundane business of publication, but there's little to be learned here about what drove Capote to write or how he went about it.

Yes, there is the occasional effusion. To his editor, Robert Linscott, in 1947: "I am working on the book and it is really my love and today I wrote two pages and oh Bob I do want it to be a beautiful book because it seems important to me that people try to write beautifully, now more than ever because the world is so crazy and only art is sane and it has been proven time after time that after the ruins of a civilization are cleared away all that remains are the poems, the paintings, the sculpture, the books." There is an offhand note to an aspiring writer: "But there is really no practical help that one can offer: it is a matter of self-discovery, of one's own conviction, or working with one's own work: your style is what seems natural to you." There is as well the rather plaintive acknowledgement that "in this profession it's a long walk between drinks."

That's pretty much it. Clarke tells us that Capote was "a writer of stern and unsmiling discipline," but little of this comes across in the letters. What the reader mostly gets from them is an itinerary of Capote's endless peregrinations, a long succession of dropped names few of which any longer have currency, and an insider's chronicle of life in what Capote called "the Lavender Hill mob" -- the transatlantic gay crowd of writers, artists, musicians, theatrical types and hangers-on in which Capote became a major player when he was very young and remained one for the rest of his life. As the published letters, diaries and other writings of Beaton, Noel Coward and many others make plain, in many ways this was a singularly smart, amusing, high-octane crowd, perhaps especially so because it was out of the mainstream and existed on its own terms. Capote clearly relished this company, but his reports on it don't have much staying power:

"You ask about [William] Aalto and [James] Schuyler. Well, that is a story. They have divorced and in the most dramatic of fashions. According to Jimmy, Aalto is insane, has been insane for a very long time, all of which bothered him not one whit until one night about two months [ago] when Aalto tried to kill him. My private suspicion is that there is a great deal to be said on both sides. Jimmy, who is still here, is carrying on an affair with a tiresome little party named Charles Heilleman, Aalto is living in Rome, and sends Jimmy three letters a day, which may be a sign of insanity, but I, the hopeless romantic, think it very sweet, for all the letters say is I love you, come back! come back!"

Capote was indeed a "hopeless romantic," as a result of which the reader has to wade through oceans of gush: "Darling, I hope everything goes well. This is just a note to tell you that I am all right, that I love you with all my heart and miss you," and, "I miss you dear heart. I admire you as a man as much as anyone I've ever known. But more importantly, I deeply love you -- ," and, "I miss you both and love you with all my heart." Et cetera. Clarke correctly says that Capote was "almost saintly in his generosity," that "like a child craving affection, he loved his friends without reservation -- he told them so again and again -- and he expected from them an equal affection," which indeed he mostly got, but his effusions quickly pall.

Drowning in gush is not the most pleasant of experiences, and Too Brief a Treat serves it up to excess. Knowing as the reader does about Capote's wit and the razor's edge with which he could slice and dice in other arenas ("It's a scientific fact that if you stay in California you lose one point of your IQ every year," "The better the actor the more stupid he is," "The good thing about masturbation is that you don't have to get dressed up for it"), one keeps waiting for a glimpse of this side of him and almost never gets it. One notable exception is worth quoting at length:

"I've concocted the most scandalous parlor game. It's SO educational; and you can slander people right and left, all in the interest of le sport. It's called IDC, which stands for International Daisy Chain. You make a chain of names, each one connected by the fact that he or she has had an affair with the person previously mentioned; the point is to go as far and as incongruously as possible. For example, this one is from Peggy Guggenheim to King Farouk. Peggy Guggenheim to Lawrence Vail to Jeanne Connolly to Cyril Connolly to Dorothy Walworth to King Farouk. See how it works? Peggy Guggenheim had an affair with L. Vail who had an affair with J. Connolly etc. Here is another, and much more difficult, not to say raffine, example: from Henry James to Ida Lupino. As follows: Henry James to Hugh Walpole to Harold Nicolson to the Hon. David Herbert to John C. Wilson to Noel Coward to Louis Hayward to Ida Lupino. Or: from Aaron Copland to Marlene Dietrich. Aaron Copland to Victor Kraft to Cecil Beaton to Greta Garbo to Mercedes DaCosta to Tommy Adams to Marlene Dietrich. Perhaps it all sounds rather dreary on paper; but I can assure you that, with a few drinks inside you and some suitable folks to play with, you'll be amazed."

Never mind that many of those names are long forgotten -- if ever they were known at all -- because that's not the point. Here we see Capote at his witchy, bitchy best, leaving us longing for more but not providing it. For that one must turn to Clarke's Capote: A Biography, which a decade and a half after its publication is still very much in print and still a delicious blend of reportage, gossip and literary commentary. Clarke holds Capote's work in higher esteem than I do, but that, too, is not the point. He brings Capote alive in that book, with a fullness and vivacity that are only hinted at in this interminable volume of letters. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

Truman Capote by Cecil Beaton