Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

BreakfastatTiffanysWhere to begin? Breakfast at Tiffany’s is so classic as to seem larger-than-life. As is often the case, though, I’d never seen the movie either (that’s up next), so at least I didn’t have any of those preconceptions working against me.

I love this beginning, because it speaks to me:

I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.

The narrator is awfully like Truman Capote himself, and looks back upon a time when he was living in a brownstone apartment building in New York City. The bartender from around the corner, who was a friend or at least a regular acquaintance at that time, has asked him to visit. It’s about Holly Golightly, who was the narrator’s neighbor and another bar regular. Joe Bell, the bartender, reports that she has ostensibly been spotted in Africa, of all places. There she is reputed to have slept with a woodcarver:

“I don’t credit that part,” Joe Bell said squeamishly. “I know she had her ways, but I don’t think she’d be up to anything as much as that.”

Which is a rather excellent characterization of Joe Bell, I think.

We then flashback, as the narrator recalls his coming to know Holly, her outrageous comings and goings and relationships, and her departure – fleeing the city while out on bail, headed for Rio. He got a postcard:

Brazil was beastly but Buenos Aires the best. Not Tiffany’s, but almost.

The narrator concludes that he hopes Holly eventually found somewhere she belonged, “African hut or whatever.”

Of course that summary leaves out everything in between, which is the good stuff. I think I’ll leave that be, and if you’re like me and had never read the story, I hope you will.

Holly is a mysterious character. Her erstwhile Hollywood agent says, “She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes.” She is said to have given different versions of her past, although I think we never see her do so on-screen: she may give no version at all, but I’m not sure we ever hear her own voice offer contradictory stories. That may be one of the layers of artifice to this tale, which is obsessed with artifice. Damn; I already need to go back for a reread.

Holly is almost too fabulously odd and wild, somehow sweet and conniving at once, too fantastical, for my tastes. The narrator, now, he’s somebody I’d like to study. I love that he is off-screen (because we look through his eyes, we never see him) but also the center of everything: we see through his eyes, see what he sees. He is both undescribed and reveals himself everywhere, like Gatsby‘s Nick Carraway. Is he honest? Is he real? In what artifices is he engaged? And, of course I wonder, to what extent is he Truman Capote? (I read recently that Holly is based “by Truman’s admission” on a few women he knew – stay tuned for my review to come of Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir. It will be worth your wait.)

There’s a lot going on here; I think it’s a good candidate for a close reading. And I’m especially curious now about the movie, because the novella I just read doesn’t lend itself easily to the screen. For one thing there’s that narration question; and I think there’s actually less action, less ramping-conflict-to-denouement than movies like. I read this as a mystery story, in part: which is the real Holly? And I fear a movie would be apt to go ahead and answer that question, where Capote hasn’t. But this is all guesswork. I’ll be looking for the movie next.

Holly and our unnamed narrator are both compelling and memorable characters. I expect I’ll be wondering about them for some time now. Her story is sensational and salacious, and interesting in that regard; but I find the mystery of Holly’s inner truth (if you will) the central gem of this book. It is, of course, decorated by Capote’s language and eye for detail, as in characterization via dialog; for example, Holly goes on amusing and surreal several-page-long monologues which bring her into focus for me. But my favorite line of the book was this one:

Aprils have never meant much to me, autumns seem that season of beginning, spring; which is how I felt sitting with Holly on the railings of the boathouse porch.

And I think we’ll leave it at that.

Rating: 7 pieces of memorable speech.

8 Responses

  1. I’m not, as I think we’ve discussed before, one of those “The book is always better” people, but in this case, yes, the book (the story) is better.

    Truman Capote became such a celebrity (and largely stopped writing), and was so associated with In Cold Blood, that it’s good to remember the writing that actually made him famous.

    • I heartily second your second paragraph.

      Regarding the first: I’m no great movie buff, so this is not to argue, but I can’t think of a movie that was better than the book, off-hand. Those LOTR ones were excellent, but c’mon, this is Tolkien. Can you give an example?

      I was going to get around to watching the movie (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) one of these days. Still worth my time?? I just had this discussion, incidentally, with a friend who just read A River Runs Through It for the first time. I said the movie was not as good but still a nice movie. So I’m open to that.

      • It’s been a very long time since I saw the movie of Breakfast at Tifffany’s. I remember an iconic performance by Audrey Hepburn, and the rest is sort of a blur, except for Mickey Rooney’s legendarily offensive performance as a Japanese man.

        Movies better than the book? Off the top of my head:

        MASH (forgettable book, pretty terrific movie).

        Under the Skin (good book, amazing movie — I wrote about it here:

        I know we disagre about this one, but To Have and Have Not (still in my top ten all-time movies after all these years.)

  2. wow, you are way over my head with this one; I cannot fathom how that intriguing passage translates into favorite-category sense; I’ll have to remember to ask sometime…

  3. Eh, I don’t know if we exactly disagree about To Have and Have Not – I certainly won’t argue against it being an extraordinary movie, and would also allow that the book was not one of Hemingway’s best. I would have trouble saying that either book or movie was “better” in this case, because they weren’t terrible like. Fair?

    The others are totally new to me. Thanks!

  4. […] career was distinctly tied to Attie’s when the latter was hired to photo-illustrate Breakfast at Tiffany’s for its scheduled appearance in Harper’s Bazaar, which Eli learned only decades after his […]

  5. […] got around to the movie! This 1961 adaptation of the Truman Capote novel was an enjoyable visual and emotional experience – not quite the same feat the novel […]

  6. […] am just finishing up this volume of Capote’s, which includes Breakfast at Tiffany’s and three short stories (the third is “A Christmas Memory“). I am rewarding myself with […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: