Saturday, 8 March 2008

Capote comatose taken from the Manhattan apartment he lived in is just part of the picture missing from the 2006 film, Capote, that chronicles but one of the mythical windows of time Gerald Clarke recounts (and interprets) in his engaging 1988 biography.

Just before the closing credits we read that Capote wrote no books following publication of In Cold Blood, his "non-fiction novel". The story is endlessly more complex than this brief and sentimental note implies, and Clarke's book is a good source for the curious.

One element contributing to the author's decline - the lengthy series of appeals and hearings in various courts culminating in the hangings - is not highlighted. And it should be. I think that part of the problem Capote had was that his creative act was severely interfered with by delays he didn't control.

In essence the book took over his life. Which makes his early prediction that it would change the way people wrote particularly poignant. Despite the knowledge that the book would change his life, he could not predict all the ways it would do so.

A quibble - the film is very nice, if overly enthusiastic about its subject - is that Capote did not invent literary journalism. John Hershey's Hiroshima (also written for The New Yorker, and published there) is just one in a viable English-language tradition that may be traced back to Daniel Defoe (Lay-Man's Sermon upon the Late Storm appeared in 1704).

A film can never more than approximate a book, even a work of non-fiction such as Clarke's biography. But here we have the opportunity to see how a writer can be perceived by his or her conationals.

Striking is the fact that Harper Lee and Capote grew up next door to each other in the same Alabama town. Lee, who is still alive, also never wrote another book. To Kill A Mockingbird, which deals with the inmates of an insane asylum, remains her only publication.

America's love-affair with Hoffman-Capote seems to have completed its honeymoon phase. The actor is onto other things and the writer is at peace with his personal deities. Yet at least we are encouraged to read the other books of a truly talented writer.

A personal note in favour of Capote is that he never relinquished his step-father's name despite earnest lobbying by his biological father. The Cuban may have been responsible for a point of future conspiracy for those desirous of rapprochement between the two countries.

Castro is out of the seat of power but Mr Capote will always find a seat at the table that is kept for American men and women of letters, with an offering of pride placed before each of their constructed images. In the film Capote shows Perry Smith a copy of Thoreau's Walden saying, in effect, that like Smith and like Capote himself, the nineteenth-century New Englander was always an outsider.

It is a pity that this vignette, with powerful links to an American dream of entitlement, cannot help many, especially the young (and especially those young men who routinely take revenge on an uncaring society by shooting dead random individuals placed in proximity to their moments of casual violence).

Capote's tears near the end of the film do not seem to fall fast enough to catch the attention of the American media.

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