sábado, 6 de julho de 2013


The Truman Show

December 5, 2004

Introduction by Reynolds Price.
297 pp. Random House. $24.95.
The Letters of Truman Capote.
Edited by Gerald Clarke.
487 pp. Random House. $27.95.

It comes as no surprise to learn, as you do in the preface to ''Too Brief a Treat,'' a new volume of Truman Capote's letters, that the author was as eccentric in his spelling as he was in pretty much everything else. Still, it's fascinating to find out that three words in particular gave him a lot of trouble -- so much so that Gerald Clarke, Capote's biographer and the editor of the letters, decided in the end to let them stand uncorrected in the published text. One of the three trips up a lot of people (''receive''). But the other two are generally less troublesome -- if only because one is a word that most of us dare not use of ourselves, and the other is a word we prefer not to use. Given all we know about Capote, his difficulties with both seem significant.
The first word was ''genius''- or, as Capote sometimes spelled it, ''genuis.'' At the beginning of his life and career the word cropped up often. ''We all thought he was a genius,'' said the writer Marguerite Young, after the diminutive, flamboyant youth arrived at Yaddo, the artists' colony, in the spring of 1946. Capote was then only 21, but had already attracted considerable attention. This was partly for his writing -- a couple of macabre short stories, published in Mademoiselle and Harper's Bazaar -- and perhaps more for his public antics. (He'd been fired from The New Yorker for impersonating an editor -- he was a copyboy -- and was a regular at El Morocco and the Stork Club, swank nightspots where he would appear with fashionable young women like Gloria Vanderbilt and Oona O'Neill.) At Yaddo, though, he worked hard: he was writing a novel for which he'd received a contract from Robert Linscott, an editor at Random House, who like so many others found Capote's combination of elfin charm and childlike vulnerability irresistible. ''Truman has all the stigmata of genius,'' Linscott declared in 1948, after publishing his first novel.
That novel was the career-making ''Other Voices, Other Rooms,'' an exercise in Southern Gothic that, as one newspaper put it, had ''critics in a dither, as they try to decide whether he's a genius.'' In fact, many if not most of the major critics dismissed the novel, an overspiced gumbo of rape, murder, homosexuality, disease, madness and transvestism. (''A minor imitation of a very talented minor writer, Carson McCullers,'' Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in Partisan Review.) What made the book was the sensational publicity over the author's jacket photo, which showed the 23-year-old Capote lying on a divan staring at the camera with the hungry look of a rent boy. Capote himself later acknowledged that it was the ''exotic photograph'' that marked ''the start of a certain notoriety that has kept close step with me these many years.''
When you pick up ''Other Voices'' today and slog through the Spanish-mossy plot and the overinflated sentences (''he knew now, and it was not a giggle or a sudden white-hot word; only two people with each other in withness''), it can be hard to see what the fuss was all about. And yet a powerful presence is unmistakable -- you can see how clearly the deliberate, almost Wildean aestheticism of Capote's prose stemmed from his outre pose. Both excited an entire generation. Cynthia Ozick later recalled how brandishing a copy of ''Other Voices'' was like waving a banner against the ''blight'' of the drabness of the postwar milieu. Capote would work at the exquisiteness of his sentences until it became a hallmark of his mature style. Norman Mailer summed up the consensus of that generation of writers when he declared that Capote wrote ''the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm,'' of any of them.
Remarkably, Capote's child-prodigy persona carried him nearly into his 40's. ''Yes, he's a genius, Ma'am,'' Capote's friend Cecil Beaton told the queen mother late in 1962, when Capote was 38. But again it was unclear what, precisely, ''genius'' referred to. In the 15 years since ''Other Voices, Other Rooms'' he had added to his oeuvre just two slight novellas, ''The Grass Harp'' and ''Breakfast at Tiffany's,'' a few stories and a short book that grew out of a long New Yorker piece about touring the Soviet Union with the cast of ''Porgy and Bess'' (''The Muses Are Heard''). Still, the royal lady found him a genius -- quite wonderful, so intelligent, so wise, so funny'' over lunch, at which Capote laughed and whooped with joy ''when the summer pudding appeared,'' as Beaton later recalled. It is that last detail that suggests why it was so hard not to think of the author as remarkable: throughout his life he loved to play the child. People reacted accordingly. Again and again in the various biographies and memoirs of Capote, you're struck by how often and how naturally people would make the comparison. ''A precocious child, so cute and funny,'' Eleanor Lambert declared at the beginning of his career; a ''wonderful but bad little boy,'' David Selznick remarked, when Capote was 28.
An inveterate fibber, Capote enhanced his lunch with the queen mother in later retellings, shifting the venue to Buckingham Palace and enlarging the guest list to include the Queen herself. But it was with a work ostensibly devoid of any invention at all that he secured what was to many his most plausible claim to being a genius. In 1965, when he was 40, he completed ''In Cold Blood,'' his harrowing, tautly written account of the murders of four members of a wealthy Kansas farm family by a pair of young drifters -- a ''nonfiction novel'' that used novelistic techniques to achieve a narrative power rare in reportage. After an electrifying debut as a four-part serial in The New Yorker, the book was published in January 1966 and became an enormous best seller, adding considerable wealth to solid literary acclaim. Capote sealed this artistic triumph later that year with his greatest social success: the legendary Black and White Ball he gave at the Plaza Hotel in honor of Katharine Graham, one of the many rich women whom Capote, who prided himself on his social as well as his literary genius, so assiduously cultivated.
The second word Capote could never get right was one he often spelled ''dissapoint.'' This, too, has a special resonance. For almost immediately after the double triumphs of 1966, something went catastrophically wrong. During the writing of ''In Cold Blood'' he'd begun to drink heavily; his friend Phyllis Cerf, wife of the Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, later claimed that writing the book had, essentially, made Capote an alcoholic. As the 60's went on, and then the 70's, he drank more and more, began taking pills, and wrote less and less. Increasingly, his public appearances became occasions for embarrassment. (In 1977 he had to be escorted off the stage at the beginning of a reading after he began to mumble incoherently.) There were halfhearted attempts to get back to work: Capote talked about doing a series of articles on a string of gay sex-torture killings for The Washington Post -- a reprise of ''In Cold Blood'' -- and a magazine piece about touring with the Rolling Stones, a ghost of ''The Muses Are Heard.'' But they never got written.
The one work he claimed to be seriously embarked on was a grand, ''Proustian'' novel that he had been contemplating for a long time -- an epic work in which he planned to set down everything he knew about the very rich, whom he had been studying all these years. (The only standards he seems to have maintained, at the end of his life, concerned money: ''In this day and age, you've got to have at least $500 million. Free. That you can pick up,'' he told an interviewer, who had asked him his definition of ''rich.'') But the few chapters from this work in progress that appeared in Esquire in the mid-70's -- like a naughty schoolboy, Capote kept claiming that he'd written much more but that it had been lost, or even stolen -- suggested that he'd lost his touch. Amounting to little more than thinly disguised items of high society gossip, they were flatly, even slovenly, written and notable for a child's obsession with bodily functions and parts. (One story concerns a sexual encounter between characters meant to be William Paley and the menstruating wife of the former governor of New York; another eavesdrops on Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo discussing their genitals.) These rambling narratives are drearily strung together by the clumsiest of devices: the anecdote about Paley, for instance, dished out in the notorious story ''La Cote Basque,'' is one of several related by yet other characters, themselves thinly disguised society figures, over meals at expensive restaurants.
For betraying the secrets of the ladies whose lapdog he'd been, Capote was exiled from the jet set. By that point, his private life was a mess anyway. Increasingly estranged from his longtime lover, Jack Dunphy, and now in his 40's -- undoubtedly a traumatic milestone for anyone as invested as Capote was in both looking and acting boyish -- he embarked on a string of affairs with ostentatiously ordinary family men. These lovers were repairmen, bartenders and midlevel bankers, men whom Wyatt Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt's husband, recalled as ''men without faces'' -- chosen, many couldn't help thinking, to outrage his posh friends. (''Ooooh! I didn't want an air-conditioning man for a friend,'' Mrs. Graham exclaimed.) By the end, those few of his former set who still spoke to him encountered what looked like a parody of the old Capote: a bloated, baby-faced man, who soiled himself during alcoholic stupors and whose former naughtiness had curdled into viciousness. (One entry in the index of Clarke's biography is ''O'Shea, John, Capote's hit men and'': he twice had people vandalize the property of boyfriends who'd left him.) His boyish qualities had persisted, but less attractively. ''I feel like a trust officer dealing with the senile and the infantile,'' John O'Shea, one of the men without faces, griped when he tried to organize the alcoholic writer's business affairs. Capote died in August 1984, a month shy of 60, after nearly two decades of decline.
IN his inexorable disintegration, Capote represents a certain type of American failure -- the artist whose early success is so spectacular that both life and art are forever trapped by, and associated with, long-past triumphs. (Orson Welles and Marlon Brando -- whom Capote famously profiled in The New Yorker, maliciously and brilliantly -- come to mind.) Dazzled by his own early persona -- the literary golden boy and enchanting, honey-tongued child of high society -- Capote clearly felt he had to cap his career with an appropriately Proustian masterpiece. But it was a work he did not, in the end, have the resources to write. After grilling him on the subject, Gore Vidal concluded that Capote had never actually read Proust, and shrewdly observed that ''Truman thought Proust accumulated gossip about the aristocracy and made literature out of it.'' Capote's problem was that he had the gossip, but didn't know how to make it mean anything to anyone not interested in the real-life figures behind it. His tragedy is that he had already written his great book; but because ''In Cold Blood'' was grittily realistic, Dreiserian rather than Proustian -- because it didn't fit his image of himself -- Capote didn't know it. Thus seduced by his own reputation, he failed to pursue an artistic avenue that could well have led him to greater success.
As his life spun out of control, Capote had more and more opportunities to misspell ''disappoint.'' He became obsessed with the idea that his work had been inadequately recognized: he never got over being passed over for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for ''In Cold Blood.'' He grew bitterly jealous of the acclaim enjoyed by authors (Norman Mailer, for instance) who, he felt, had stolen his ideas and methods, particularly the technique of the nonfiction novel. In a letter to Bennett Cerf in the summer of 1964, Capote complained that Cerf had decided not to publish his ''Selected Writings'' under the ''august imprint'' of the Modern Library. ''Can you imagine how very galling it is for me to see so many of my contemporaries . . . included in this series, while the publisher of same ignores its own writer? It's unjust -- both humanly, and in terms of literary achievement.''
Since then, of course, Capote has received the recognition he so eagerly sought: there are now four volumes in the Modern Library devoted to the author's work. To the continuing project of canonization his old publisher, Random House, is now adding with two more volumes of Capotiana: Clarke's new volume of the letters, entitled ''Too Brief a Treat,'' and ''The Complete Short Stories of Truman Capote.'' And yet although both volumes are undoubtedly meant to shore up Capote's posthumous reputation as an American classic, they end up shedding as much light on his shortcomings as they do on any genius he might have had. Together, they provide intriguing insights into the nature both of his gift and of his terrible failure.
Despite its imposing title, ''The Complete Stories of Truman Capote'' is a slender affair, 20 pieces in all. It is a startlingly insubstantial output for a writer whose career lasted 40 years, and who was most comfortable in the short form. Of the 20 stories, moreover, 14 were written before Capote turned 30 (12, indeed, before he was 25); another three were written during his 30's; and the final three during his 40's.
Another way of putting this is that in the ''Complete Stories'' you're dealing, essentially, with a volume of juvenilia. What strikes you now is, in fact, how adolescently lurid and creepy the earliest stories are -- and yet how earnestly ''serious'' and grown-up they're meant to be. At least half the new collection falls into this unfortunate class. There are hammy tales of erotic obsession (''The Headless Hawk,'' 1946); heavy-handedly dark stories like ''Shut a Final Door'' (1947), in which the comeuppance of a ruthless social and professional climber arrives in the Twilight Zone-ish form of anonymous phone calls that follow him wherever he goes; and morality tales about doomed young innocents, like the college girl in ''A Tree of Night'' (1945) who falls victim to sinister freaks on a train, or the depressive young working woman in ''Master Misery'' (1949) who sells her dreams to a man known as Master Misery and who may well be . . . the Devil. (''I figure it this way, baby: dreams are the mind of the soul and the secret truth about us. Now Master Misery, maybe he hasn't got a soul, so bit by bit he borrows yours.'')
These works, with their affected Gothic darkness, are often marred by leaden symbolism (a number of them feature long dream sequences -- always a crutch), juvenile awkwardnesses (''the hostess went toward her sudden guests''), and overwriting of the sort that characterized the young Capote's hothouse style. (''A knot of pain was set like a malignant jewel in the core of his head'' is a sentence likely to induce a few headaches of its own.) But you can also see what caught people's eye. In ''Miriam,'' the story that first won Capote serious attention, in 1945, a middle-aged widow called Miriam is befriended by a small girl, also called Miriam, who gradually insinuates herself into the older woman's apartment and eventually takes over her life. Here you can see the author struggling to control the prose and put his effects in the service of the narrative. Near the beginning of the story, a snow begins to fall during which ''foot tracks vanished as they were printed'' -- a nice way of suggesting how the elder Miriam herself will soon be erased.
Others of these early tales give you glimpses of the aptness of detail and rigorousness of style that were so enthusiastically celebrated later on. In ''The Bargain'' (1950), a short story discovered among the writer's papers after his death, the awkwardness of a transaction between a wealthy woman and her impoverished friend, who's trying to sell an old fur coat, is beautifully conveyed in the matron's somewhat pretentious lapse into French when the difficult subject of money comes up: ''Combien?''
In these early stories Capote wrote often about upper-crust ladies who experience tiny epiphanies. Small wonder. Capote, who was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans in 1924 to unhappily married parents -- the father a pathetically failed huckster, the mother a child-bride beauty with, to put it mildly, convenient morals -- spent only the earliest years of his childhood with the eccentric Alabama relatives he later memorialized in stories and novellas. From the age of 8 (when his mother was remarried, to a rich Cuban whose name he later adopted) he lived in Greenwich, Conn., and later on Park Avenue. Glamorous ladies and fur coats were very much a part of his life. It was not a particularly happy life. Capote's mother, Nina, a narcissistic alcoholic, was horrified by her son's all-too-evident effeminacy, and frequently abused and humiliated him.
All this bears mentioning only because the stories seem to fall into two categories that reflect the author's bifurcated childhood. One of them features those grim, rather dutiful tales of doomed cosmopolites, New York ladies or well-brushed suburban girls, falling victim to Destiny. But the best of Capote's short fiction belongs to a second, far smaller group, which draws on his happier memories of Alabama, when he was cosseted by three elderly spinster cousins. It's a remarkable experience to encounter first the empty posturing of ''Master Misery'' and then to read ''Jug of Silver,'' a charming tale about a poor Southern boy bent on winning a jar filled with coins at the local drugstore, or ''My Side of the Matter,'' a slyly funny first-person narrative of a young Southerner's conflict with his bride's less-than-welcoming family. Here the young writer is clearly at home in every way, his assurance and perfect pitch evident in the kind of delicious details that cannot be counterfeited. ''The Odeon had not been so full since the night they gave away the matched set of sterling silver'' tells you more about the sociology of this fictional place than 10 pages of exposition could.
In these stories, too, the first of a distinctively Capote type of character appears: the stubborn misfit whose refusal to heed convention transforms and elevates those around her -- not least, by reminding the grown-ups of the beauties and pleasures they knew as children but have since forgotten. ''I think always,'' says Miss Bobbitt, the precocious 10-year-old heroine of ''Children on Their Birthdays'' (1947), ''about somewhere else, somewhere else where everything is dancing, like people dancing in the streets, and everything is pretty, like children on their birthdays.'' This motif would reappear throughout the fiction for which Capote is best remembered: ''The Grass Harp,'' in which a crew of adorably eccentric Southern misfits leave their homes to go live in a tree; ''Breakfast at Tiffany's,'' whose heroine, Holly Golightly (nee Lulamae Barnes), has, largely thanks to the 1961 film, become a cultural byword for a certain kind of enviable free-spiritedness.
Given the ferocity of his attachment to the distant happiness and emotional comfort of his Alabama years, it's not hard to see why Capote kept returning to this theme; when he does so all his graces as a writer combine -- the wise-child humanity, a real rather than faked lyricism, strong detail. This is nowhere truer than in ''A Christmas Memory,'' his 1956 reminiscence of baking holiday fruitcakes with his elderly Alabama cousin. The story's stately, delicate, spun-caramel narration lends an incantatory aura to its almost hieratic lists of actions and ingredients (''cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour. . . . '') -- all in the service of evoking a memory whose delight is enhanced by the inevitable parting at the end. The story represents, perhaps, the acme of Capote's fictional art, whose special character lies in its ability to give voice to the childlike in us. The part of us, in other words, that resists adult strictures, that wants to retreat, delightfully, to treehouses or to the inviolable past; the part to which he himself had such remarkable access.
IF you close ''The Complete Stories of Truman Capote'' with a sense less of genius than of disappointment -- a feeling that there's somehow less than you thought there would be, and that the ingenious talent for spinning caramel-sweet charm you may have recalled is, in fact, seldom in evidence -- an overview of the career is likely to leave you with a similar feeling: the catalog of Capote's substantial published work is disarmingly brief, at least in proportion to his reputation. The narrowness of output is matched by -- and, I think, ultimately explained by -- a narrowness of outlook.
''Narrow'' may seem unfair given the way Capote's work veers from enchantment (in his best stories) to terror (those other stories, and of course ''In Cold Blood''). But the extremes between which Capote's work seems to move may be seen as no more than the poles of a child's consciousness, divided as it is between golden fantasies of pleasure and omnipotence on the one hand, and terrors of the dark on the other. That Capote's oeuvre should oscillate so consistently between the two was, if anything, overdetermined: for the alternation also reflects the bifurcated nature of this particular child's early life, split between the womblike snugness of that house in Alabama and the cold limestone of 1060 Park Avenue, where a monster lurked who was, for him, only too real.
It is in this light that Capote's famous characterization of ''In Cold Blood'' as ''a reflection on American life -- this collision between the desperate, ruthless, wandering, savage part of American life, and the other, which is insular and safe,'' takes on its proper meaning. ''In Cold Blood'' is, of all Capote's work, the one that can stand as a classic outside the context of Capote's time and persona -- and the reason has much to do with the way it cannily maneuvers between the two poles that framed his artistic vision. There is, again, the alluring, cherished surface calm: the meticulous pacing, the careful enumeration of small details, everyday objects and moments (''for the longest while she stared at the blue-ribbon winner, the oven-hot cherries simmering under the crisp lattice crust''). And there is the horror that lurks, always about to explode -- and which, like a child, you both do and don't want to see, when it's finally described. Here Capote's mature stylistic rigor, his journalist's eye for the telling detail, and the oral tradition of his haunted Southern boyhood brilliantly come together to create what is, essentially, one of the great ghost stories -- a tale that continues to have the power to enthrall and terrify precisely because it conflates our childish fears of things that go bump in the night with our adult understanding of what those things can actually be.
One of the things Capote's child's-eye view accounts for in this book is his preoccupation more with the killers, Dick Hickok and Perry Smith, than with the victims, the Clutter family. The author's presentation of the killers (particularly the ''artistic'' Smith) as children gone pathetically wrong, as poignantly misguided dreamers, was a terrible variation, but still a variation, on the type of child misfit that in his fiction he found irresistible. Capote's boyhood friend Harper Lee, who accompanied him to Kansas to research the story, recalled that when Perry Smith, whose legs had been shortened as the result of a motorcycle accident, took his seat at his arraignment, Capote noticed he was so tiny that his feet didn't touch the floor. ''Oh, oh!'' Lee remembered thinking. ''This is the beginning of a great love affair.''
Capote the child is also much in evidence in the letters collected in ''Too Brief a Treat.'' (The title quotes the opening lines of a letter Capote wrote to Bob Linscott in May 1949: ''Your letter was too brief a treat, but a treat all the same.'') Certainly much here is charming. In his biography of Capote, Gerald Clarke writes of the ''puppylike warmth'' that was ''basic to his personality,'' and this aspect of Capote's character goes a long way toward explaining why, despite his frequent malice, Capote was thought so adorable for so long by so many. But beneath the endearing, tail-wagging enthusiasm of his hyperbolic Southern salutations (''lover lamb,'' ''Magnolia my sweet'') lies, all too obviously, an infantile neediness. ''Dear Marylou,'' he wrote his Harper's Bazaar editor, Mary Louise Aswell, in 1946, ''everyone loves you so much! I am really jealous, because I love you more than anybody, but everyone keeps saying how much they love you without seeming to realize that you belong to me, and that I love you more than anyone.'' You can almost hear him waiting to be told that she loves him more than anyone, too.
This, alas, sets a tone that never really lets up. The letters will doubtless provide many tasty morsels for students of midcentury American social and publishing history. Some of the gossip is literary: ''Did you see the Guggenheim list?! Ralph Bates!'' And much of course is decidedly and exaltedly jet-set: in August 1953, he writes, ''everything became too social -- and I do mean social -- the Windsors (morons), the Luces (morons plus), Garbo (looking like death with a suntan), the Oliviers (they let her out), Daisy Fellowes (her face lifted for the fourth time -- the Doctor's [sic] say no more.)'' And some, of course, mark milestones both golden and black in Capote's career. ''The reaction,'' he wrote to William Styron in January 1976 after one of the ''Answered Prayers'' chapters appeared in Esquire, ''has ranged from the insane to the homicidal.''
But after nearly 500 pages of this, you can't help noticing how small Capote's world -- and worldview -- really was. What the letters don't provide is, indeed, anything beyond the local, at any point in his life. (Here again, chronology is revealing: of this volume's 452 pages of letters, almost 400 pages' worth were written before Capote turned 40.) There are virtually no references to larger world events; nor are there substantial literary insights apart from what Capote thought of his own work and the occasional contemporary novel. For comparison's sake, I took down a volume of letters by Evelyn Waugh -- another writer whose literary substance was matched by a keen interest in Society -- and opened to random pages. On one: musings on the history of heraldry and the nature of a stable social structure. On another: tart thoughts about religion in the novel, following the publication of ''Brideshead Revisited'' (''No one now thinks a book which totally excludes religion is atheist propaganda''). Another: Mme. de Pompadour's disastrous influence on Louis XV's foreign policy in the wars of 1759. And so on.
Or take the letters of another socially conscious, adorably popular gay litterateur: Oscar Wilde's correspondence sparkles with true wit rather than mean cracks, and the personal warmth that emerges is generous and adult, rather than childishly selfish. When you read these and other authors' letters, in other words, you get a sense not only of them but of their time, the world. But to read Capote is to note how little interest he showed in any life but the social life. He prided himself on refusing to go on sightseeing tours of the exotic Mediterranean locales to which his rich ladies' yachts took him (he preferred the nearest bar to ruins or museums); prided himself, too, on never having voted. Like a small, imaginative child, he was, to himself, the world entire.
The smallness of Capote's world helps explain what is, in the end, so curiously unsatisfying in his work -- even, to some extent, ''In Cold Blood.'' However appealing are the fantasies of freedom that recur in his writing, they are, at bottom, un-adult: if to be an adult means to be grapple successfully with the unyielding realities of life, it's interesting that this is something that so many of his characters -- like Capote himself, in the end -- never do. Capote may write Lulamae/Holly a ticket to freedom at the end of ''Breakfast at Tiffany's,'' but he, and we, know all too well what happens to the real Lulamaes. (The real name of Nina Capote, the author's awful mother, was Lillie Mae.)
The transformation of the monstrous Lillie Mae of real life into the adorable Lulamae of fiction seems, in fact, to be much more than conventional artistic chemistry that turns life into art. It may, rather, be seen as a symbol of Capote's distaste for hard realities, as opposed to the kind of gossamer fantasies he spun in both his work and, increasingly, his life. (Before he died he dreamed, rather pathetically, of giving another grand ball, at which he planned to appear disguised in peasant clothing, ''revealing his true identity only by the huge emerald that would sparkle from his forehead, dazzling all those who approached his royal presence.'')
This, in turn, provides the key to understanding one of the great puzzles of Capote's career: why he had such notorious difficulty writing the endings of his works. In many of his letters he complains bitterly of the torture of completing everything from ''Other Voices'' to ''In Cold Blood'' -- he took a three-month hiatus before tackling the final section -- and you feel that difficulty, that struggle, in the finished product. ''I couldn't help feeling that you had gotten a little bit tired of the book,'' his publisher Bennett Cerf wrote to him upon receiving the manuscript of ''The Grass Harp'' in 1951, ''and were hurrying to close it in much shorter a space than you originally had intended.'' Much, if not indeed most, of Capote's fiction leaves you with a feeling of incompleteness; there's often a sense of abruptness, of a failure to resolve. (''Breakfast at Tiffany's,'' in particular, simply grinds to a halt.) Here again, the image of a child comes to mind -- one who, having toyed with a bit of tinsel, or an object that has caught his interest for a while, suddenly throws it away, as if he'd been distracted by something shinier or sweeter.
Or, perhaps, as if something had scared him away. Surely the most revealing expression of Capote's difficulty with endings and all that they represent is the lyrical scene with which ''In Cold Blood'' ends. He liked to say that part of the appeal of writing the book lay in the discipline imposed by having to recount a true story: ''I like the feeling that something is happening beyond and about me and I can do nothing about it. I like having the truth be the truth so I can't change it.'' The great sweep of the story he tells in ''In Cold Blood,'' with its severe and measured pacing -- the discovery of the terrible crime; the search for the killers, craftily intercut with flashbacks to their wretched lives; the canny rhythms with which Capote presents the hasty trial and the prolonged delay before the executions -- culminates beautifully in a final scene. It takes place in a cemetery where, on a wind-swept day a few years after the killings, Alvin Dewey, the detective who solved the murders, encounters a young woman who had been the best friend of the teenage Nancy Clutter, one of the victims. A brief conversation between them pointedly gives both Dewey and the reader a gentle sense of closure, and the novel ends on one final, alliterative evocation of the bleak Kansas landscape: ''Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.''
The problem is that this ending is too artful; as it turns out, the scene was entirely fictional. Capote added it, he later told Clarke, because the ending that real life had provided him -- the hangings of the killers -- didn't seem satisfying. ''I felt I had to return to the town, to bring everything back full circle, to end with peace.'' Faced with an ugly reality, he withdrew into a beautiful fantasy -- the kind of gentle peace that imbues his evocation of childhoods long past. (Gerald Clarke rightly notes that this final scene rehashes the ending of ''The Grass Harp.'') Capote knew, finally, that he wasn't up to bringing his most serious and important work to an authentic conclusion. The coda as it stands was just the last in a series of endings from which he retreated.
You can't help wondering whether the inability to face unalterable facts (as represented by this particular false ending) was the key to Capote's disintegration. ''No one will ever know what 'In Cold Blood' took out of me,'' he later said. ''It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me.'' Indeed, the experience of writing his grim best seller may have traumatized the writer in profound ways unrelated to the usual creative anxieties. Norman Mailer observed a change in Capote during the Kansas years. ''He was getting more masculine. . . . Getting to know all those people out in Kansas . . . had given him fiber. He was toughening up.'' Capote himself acknowledged this transformation. ''I've gotten rid of the boy with the bangs,'' he told Newsweek in 1966. ''He was exotic and strange and eccentric. I liked the idea of that person, but he had to go.'' But once that boy left, it wasn't clear what remained.
It's no wonder that, after being forced to inhabit a world other than his inner child-life for a long time, he turned inward again. But somehow, the stark confrontation with his limitations, symbolized by his inability to complete his book honestly, permanently destabilized him. The simultaneous publication of the author's stories and letters has the unintentional effect of reminding you that however enchanting Capote's inner world may have been, and however lovely the writings it inspired, it was a very limited world -- a space that the writer was unable to break out of. These two new volumes -- the one preserving an oeuvre that should have been larger, but was in fact all ''too brief''; the other a too-lengthy record of a life that clung too long to childhood, a record that, like the consciousness itself, cannot move beyond youth -- constitute an epitaph for the writer who might have been, rather than a tribute to the one who was: not entirely a disappointment, but not quite a genius, either. 

Daniel Mendelsohn is the author of a memoir, ''The Elusive Embrace.''

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/05/books/review/05MENDELS.html?sq=A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote book reviews&st=cse&scp=5&pagewanted=print&position=
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