Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Reading Capote: Chapter Two

Started reading George Plimpton's oral history of the life and times of Truman Capote last night and came across two passages that I got a kick out of because of how they related to a couple of ideas in Sunday night's post about Capote deciding to write a "problem novel" because he felt a need to compete with James Baldwin and about how he set out when he wrote In Cold Blood to change his own direction and style as a writer.

First one is from the essayist and critic Diana Trilling:

TRILLING: It's interesting to compare Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. In some ways I prefer the Truman Capote way of doing things. I was thinking of Gore because recently I saw a movie on television about West Point called Dress Gray. It was very good. Gore wrote the teleplay from a successful novel about a West Point murder. And did very well indeed. He's skillful. It was well acted and well directed. But it was full of Gore's anti-establishment, anti-military-industrial complex, and anti-religious wrath of oblivious fathers. The works, he gave us the works! Now, no matter what you say about Truman, he did not go sliding along the greased path of political, liberal, enlightened---supposedly enlightened ideas. Truman's chich was what you might call designer chic---it was the chic of the homosexual smart world and he did not take on the cultural and political views of people who secretly think of themselves as so much better---like the way Gore or Kenneth Tynan or The New York Review of Books do. In some sense Truman was pure and braver, in my view. He didn't just "dress up" his books with a lot of political, unexamined, regurgitated folderol from the left.

The second's from Norman Mailer:

MAILER: Something very nice happened to him while he was writing In Cold Blood, which was that he was getting more masculine---which was terribly important to him. It was much more important to him than to any other homosexual I've known. He really wanted to be a most fearsome little man. He did not want to be received as a homosexual. Getting to know all those people out in Kansas---the KBI men, people like that---had given him fiber. He was toughening up, and now you could see what a strong man was there along with everything else. Then of course he got fat. Then he got impossible. He turned dictatorial and boring. By the time he knew Jan, what I couldn't bear about him was he was boring. Truman had become boring. Terribly opinionated. He used to remind me of J. Edgar Hoover toward the end. Looked like him.

It's typical of Mailer that he'd use the word masculine to describe a quality I'd called simply grown-up, but, putting that aside, I think he's talking about what I was discussing, Capote setting out when he began In Cold Blood---and he began it when he went out to Kansas to ask his first questions---to grow as a writer and artist. The other night after watching the movie I'd have said "grow up" but that trivializes what he was doing. He was a serious artist, a very dedicated and disciplined one until celebrity undid him, and I think he recognized the limits of the kind of work he'd done up to that point in his career and understood that if he continued in the same vein he'd wind up repeating himself.

It's almost a rite of passage for great writers. They reach a certain point in their development as artists when they decide that the work they've done so far isn't good enough and they reject it. They head off in a brand new direction. This takes courage because it means risking disappointing your loyal readers, who always want more of the same from their favorites, and it means you're out there in the great unknown with no map and none of your old tools and tricks to save you. That may be what Mailer is getting at when he uses the words masculine and tough and fearsome when talking about Capote.

By the way, all the quotes from Mailer I've read so far in Plimpton's book indicate that Mailer admired Capote as a writer and not just for In Cold Blood.

The movie Capote is fictional. It's not meant to be "read" as if it tells a true story about a real writer named Truman Capote, but the quote from Diana Trilling suggests an underlying truth in the juxtaposition of the scene of Capote telling an anecdote about James Baldwin in which the joke appears to be on Baldwin and the next scene of Capote finding the story about the Clutter family in the newspaper and deciding to write about their murders.

I don't know if Capote felt a real, intense, and specific rivalry with James Baldwin. But he was ambitious and he was competitive and he had excellent judgment as an artist. I can see him reading Baldwin's "problem novels" and the work of other socially and politically "relevent" writers and saying to himself, I can do it better. I can do it without all the cribbing from psychology text books and op-ed page style ranting. I can write a great novel.

I don't know if he thought of In Cold Blood as that book or if he thought of it as practice. We'd know if he'd managed to write another serious novel. But as Mailer said, he got fat.

Mailer's not talking about his waistline.


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