Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Monroeville, Alabama, CourthouseThe Grass Harp, Capote’s 1951 novella - Gerald Clarke, his biographer, calls it a ‘novel’ - took a year to write.

Receiving a manuscript after the author had gone to Venice, Random House editor Robert Linscott praised the “miraculous perfection” (Capote: A Biography, Hamish Hamilton, 1988, p 220) of the two chapters that had kept Capote “in a painful emotional state” (p 219).

Capote’s "vision” was “clear”, he had written to Linscott, “if I can half execute that vision it will be a beautiful book” (ibid). But Linscott felt “let down” by the ending “coming too soon and lacking the profusion of delight that had so entranced one up to that point” (p 222).

It is painful to read editorial advice attempting to reinvent a narrative not understood. Even Clarke assumes a right of proprietary favour to inform us that Capote “has not dispelled [the ending] in a believable way” (p 223).

Capote would be insulted by his friends again, unfortunately. In the movie made from the biography, he’s seen, at the end, nursing a drink while whimpering sadly about traitorous treatment received. In this scene, it is Harper Lee who hears him, and walks away.

A recent interview with writer Haruki Murakami can point us, thankfully, in a more profitable direction.

Speaking about Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), Murakami praises how “a woman called Holly speaks on behalf of” the narrator. “I think perhaps this is a kind of bashfulness,” he goes on.

This line is finer and more discerning than Clarke’s. Clarke, a biographer (and not a writer, or a critic), in a predictable, utilitarian manner, assigns ‘roles’ to people from Capote’s past. In this reading, Collin Fenwick becomes Capote and Dolly Talbo becomes Sook, who raised the boy when mum absconded.

But The Grass Harp is manifestly ‘about’ tolerance, as when Judge Cool says “it’s the uncertainty concerning themselves that makes our friends conspire to deny the differences” (A Capote Reader, 1987, p 181).

“In this slow manner we crossed the grass,” (p 204) writes Capote of Dolly, the dreamy sister. If anyone in the story resembles Capote, it’s Dolly, and not the irritatingly predictable Collin. Perhaps Collin - who becomes a lawyer - is what Capote wanted to be.

Or what his mother wanted him to be. Dolly, on the other hand is easily pleased, undemanding.

“[I]t was her one real vanity to prefer that she, rather than you, point out certain discoveries,” (ibid). The product of Capote's summertime, it is a chilly and demanding work.

The great joy in the novella is not what it says, though, about people in society - although this is brilliantly expressed and true beyond mere imagining - the distress propelling the fiction forward is a powerful engine - but in the sheer poetry that accompanies even minimal events.

Dolly wants “choice”. She wants to feel as though she has a say in her life and she resents the way her sister Verena denies it her. She also resents the way others use her for ends she disapproves of: “[I]t’s wicked - taking the bread out of children’s mouths and using my name to do it” (p 203).

These points of light allow Capote to carve out arabesques so delightful, so evanescent - as delicate as the curve of a wayward thought - that we feel as though he has not a care in the world. His late-life spiral into alcoholism tells us, however, that he did care.

It was his belief that poetry could express things mere prose could not. His early editors, excited by the Tom Sawyer-esque exhilaration of the story’s opening phase, did not see that flying ants die after one day.

Capote knew this, however. The sudden flurry of a swarm of male ants is soon followed by their rapid descent to earth - whence all things come. “[T]he destination of each character has been prepared from the beginning,” (Clarke, p 222) he writes, in frustration, from Italy, to Linscott.

The picture shown here is of the Monroeville Courthouse tower. In the novella, the clock in town strikes half-an-hour early - every hour. The town councillors got a mechanic to look at it with a view to repairing the idiosyncrasy. When he failed, the fictional city fathers decided to make a virtue of a stubborn trait.

This novella is more beautiful and more complex than the later one - the one that would cement Capote’s fame, and draw the Japanese author's praise. It is to do with how Capote felt himself to ‘be’ in the world.

Too hard for his peers to understand. Perhaps we are ripe to do so today.

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