Monday 24 March 2008

Truman Capote's first Soviet piece, written for The New Yorker, which paid his costs (he left for the Continent in December 1955), came by way of a drama contact, Harold Arlen (pictured). According to Gerald Clarke's biography, Capote had wanted to try journalism for some time, and Arlen's suggestion was an ideal reason to begin.

Arlen had worked with Capote on some of his unsuccessful drama works. Capote does not chronicle the genesis of the piece, which covers ninety pages in A Capote Reader, and swings, instead, into third gear from the word dot.

At first, the piece feels raw and undisciplined. The number of 'characters' (members of the drama troupe and associated staff) is excessive, so it is virtually impossible to keep track of who says what.

This holds true even after the Americans arrive in St Petersburg (Leningrad at the time). But Capote does not insist on any cultural or racial stereotypes, instead relaying exactly (he insisted at the time of writing In Cold Blood that he had over 90 per cent recall) what was said.

Who says things is less important than the kind of things said. In the case of the Americans, there's a lot of flippant banter. Much of this has to do with stereotypes, some of which turn out simply to be the truth. The poverty of the city, the possibility of surveillance, the freezing cold - these things become fact.

The magic Capote weaves derives from his making them exist as truths, proven and delivered without fanfare or gross compliments to his native country.

The sincere pleasure the performance of Porgy and Bess (first performed in 1935, and with music by George Gershwin) gives the Soviet audience is tempered by Capote's shrewd reading of audience responses. At the critical moment, Capote is awake to the nuances that applause, or lack of it, carried.

It is a tour-de-force or literary journalism, and forshadows (in its assured movement from standstill to full speed) the triumph of the book he would write in the following decade, and which would alter him forever. The piece ends at the end of the first performance; this 'jump cut' in prose gives gravitas to what came before.

It was, quite literally, a voyage into the unknown, a kind of Columbus moment in American cultural history. A similar moment may have recently occurred, when the New York Philharmonic toured North Korea, performing in Pyongyang to an audience that was subsequently viewed, on TV, by millions of people worldwide.

A major difference in that case is the size of the entourage: 80 journalists went on tour on the peninsula, according to The New York Times. Daniel Wakin, the paper's reporter, calls it an "updated version of ping-pong diplomacy". A similar thing happened, he says, in the 1970s with Maoist China. There is no mention of Capote's tour.

This is a shame. Regardless, the fact that the iron curtain fell only forty years after Capote drank in the grimy backstreets of Nabokov's home town with a man who spoke fluent English and admired one of the troupe, the woman named 'Nancy' in The Muses Are Heard, must give us pause.

Another thing that Capote does is to render in detail things many would either forget or deem unimportant, such as the goings on of 'Delicous' Swann and her puppy Twerp, or those of the state-appointed translator, Miss Lydia. This fine attention to ephemeral detail grants significant affect to what could so easily have been a form of journalistic crusade: the sophisticated Americans bringing 'high' culture to an oppressed people.

Nevertheless, Capote does not shy away from telling stories both countries may have preferred left untold. The events surrounding Stefan Orlov, for example, are quite curious. "A man in his late thirties, clean-shaven, dignified, an athletic figure with a scholar's face," he took a fance to Nancy (Miss Ryan - the old-fashioned title is touching), and sort of followed the troup around.

Capote dined with Orlov in the Hotel Europa before following him off the Nevsky Prospekt (St Petersburg's Champs Elysees) and continuing the drinking in "a workingman's place". But is his initial picture of Orlov tempered by what came later? We cannot know.

Earlier, Capote had fronted the 'real' Russia during a break in the train trip across Eastern Europe. At Brest Livosk, The Blue Train stopped to have its bogeys replaced so that the train could continue running on the Soviet Union's larger-gauge rails. Capote and Nancy alighted and went looking for refreshment (the arrangements on board left much to be desired, it is quickly clear).

They go through "a small red door" into "an extraordinary restaurant" where they are seated with a drunk and another man, who they think to be Russian. They order beer in the absence of stronger liquor and start discussing their companions, one of whom leaves in disgust (they later learn).

The other man turns out to be a Norwegian timber merchant who, in fluent English, tells them a lot about contemporary Russia:

Whenever I go to your country ... it always strikes me that Americans are the only people who remind me of Russians. You don't object to my saying that? Americans are so generous. Energetic. And underneath all that brag they have such a wishing to be loved, they want to be petted, like dogs and children, and told that they are just as good and even better than the rest of us. Well, Europeans are inclined to agree with them. But they simply won't believe it. They go right on feeling inferior and far away. Alone. Like Russians. Precisely.

Whether this episode really took place, is something that (since the writer is dead these twenty years) we can only guess at.

I like to think it is a true account. If so, it is a stupendous find, something only an artist could be either lucky enough, or generous enough, to discover. Even just the fact of soliciting such sentiments from an aberrant stranger in a nothing dive in an unknown part of an invisible city - this shows real talent.

The same talent would serve Capote well in his conversations with Perry Smith a few years (published in 1966, In Cold Blood took almost ten years to write) later. With Smith Capote felt on sure ground. He identified a sophisticated intellect but one that had been oppressed by early experiences to hate the world. Smith found no purchase, using his mind, in the cliff-face of his childhood. By the time he matured, it was already too late.

Capote revisited Moscow after deciding, in 1957 (a year after returning from Russia), to write a piece about "the pampered, privileged, and thoroughly Westernized young people he had met in Moscow". He started research for the piece but broke off to go to Europe, as he usually did each year. Returning to New York, Breakfast At Tiffany's was in the shops.

In early 1959 he returned to Moscow for more research, wrote 40 pages, but then told his publisher, William Shawn, that to publish would bring state-sanctioned violence to the homes of his subjects.

It is possible that it was published in The Dogs Bark (1973) as the current volume is said (Wikipedia) to contain "most" of Capote's non-fiction. I will reconnoitre (to borrow a military metaphor) and try to find it.

It would make great reading, I'm sure.

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