“‘Give me an example,’ I said quietly. ‘of something that means something. In your opinion.’
‘Wuthering Heights,’ [Holly] said, without hesitation.
‘But that’s unreasonable. You’re talking about a work of genius.’
‘It was, wasn’t it? My wild, sweet Cathy. God, I cried buckets. I saw it ten times.’
I said ‘Oh’ with recognisable relief, ‘oh’ with a shameful, rising inflection, ‘the movie.’
I couldn’t help but smile to myself when I read this passage, taken from page 59 of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s the echo of a conversation I’ve had myself whenever I’ve mentioned that I’m reviewing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Oh, I loved that film! Audrey Hepburn was perfect as Holly, wasn’t she?
…And then I have to tell the person I’m speaking with that I’m talking about the book, and I’ve never actually seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the film.
…And then, my interlocutor looks at me as if there’s something drastically wrong with me.
Despite the fact that I haven’t seen the famous movie, whenever I think of Audrey Hepburn, I see her as Holly Golightly; her dark hair swept to the top of her head, a huge, glittering necklace that looks far too big for her elfin shoulders. That black dress, those gloves. That smile, both naive and worldly at the same time.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s has become a cultural phenomenon. Though I’m yet to see the film, I came to this novella with an image in my mind. So naturally, the Holly Golightly of Capote’s novella came as a bit of a surprise.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
by Truman Capote // Published in 1958
“I’d been living in the house about a week when I noticed that the mailbox belonging to Apt. 2 had a name-slot fitted with a curious card. Printed, rather Cartier-formal, it read: Miss Holiday Golightly; and, underneath, in the corner, Travelling. It nagged me like a tune: Miss Holiday Golightly, Travelling.” (p. 16)
Before the narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany’s even meets Holly Golightly, he’s already under her power. He’s listened to her singing softly as she sits on the fire escape outside her window, waiting for her hair to dry, he’s sifted through her rubbish and he’s followed her around the city.
Half a world away, the Second World War is building up to its violent crescendo, but amidst the glitter of New York, you’d never know. The horror of war seems impossibly distant.
The novella’s narrator, a young writer, is new to the city. He’s just moved into the apartment beneath Holly’s. The two finally meet when the novella’s narrator arrives home late one night to find Holly outside the window of his apartment, shivering on the fire escape. Drunk and wearing only a robe, she’s escaped from a particularly aggressive male visitor. He and Holly spend the night talking, and an awkward kind of intimacy begins to develop between them.
The narrator is drawn into Holly’s strange, frenetic life; just one of the circle of friends who spin around her like a whirlwind – each with their own self-serving motivations. The novella’s narrator watches from a distance, patiently, quietly waiting for the chance to prove himself to Holly.
At heart, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a character study. Holly Golightly sits at the centre of the novella, and the other characters – even the novel’s first person narrator – are merely sketches. In many ways, Capote’s narrator reminded me of Nick Carraway – the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Like Gatsby‘s Nick, the narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany’s has that same unflinching devotion to the object of his attention. Capote’s narrator is obsessed to the extent that he neglects to even let us know his own name. At one stage, he briefly dangles in front of us the news that he’s been fired from his job, but, as this doesn’t relate to Holly, the matter is dismissed in the space of a single sentence. We read Breakfast at Tiffany’s through the frame of the narrator’s obsession.
The novella’s narrator portrays all the novella’s peripheral characters as caricatures, carefully teasing out their most grotesque features and accentuating them for comic effect. Yet there are moments where the narrator’s savage, jealous side shows – in particular when dealing with the most noxious of Holly’s entourage; the “absurd foetus” (and his chief rival for Holly’s affections) Rutherford “Rusty” Trawler:
“He was a middle-aged child that had never shed its baby fat, though some gifted tailor had almost succeeded in camouflaging his plump and spankable bottom. There wasn’t a suspicion of bone in his body; his face, a zero filled with pretty miniature features, had an unused, a virginal quality: it was as if he’d been born, then expanded, his skin remaining unlined as a blown-up balloon, and his mouth, though ready for squalls and tantrums, a spoiled sweet puckering.” (p. 37)
Capote makes nothing explicit, leaving his reader to guess at the exact nature of the relationship between the novella’s narrator and Holly. “…I was in love with her.” the narrator tells us on page 71, “Just as I’d once been in love with my mother’s elderly coloured cook and a postman who let me follow him on his rounds and a whole family named McKendrick. That category of love generates jealousy, too.”
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a novel about a relationship – but it’s not a romantic relationship. Capote implies that his narrator is gay. He and Holly share a friendship that, although intense, is completely asexual.
By contrast, sex in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is portrayed in a rather sordid tone – although again, this could be the narrator’s bias. Most readers see Holly as sexually liberated, able to sleep with whoever she chooses…but, to my mind, there’s no passion in sex for Holly. The first time the novella’s narrator meets her, she shows him the bitemarks on her shoulder, the legacy of a violent male visitor. Men seem to expect something from Holly. There’s the lingering question of whether Holly receives payment for sex. The narrator and Holly stop speaking for weeks after, in an argument, the narrator accuses Holly of sleeping with Rusty Trawler for money. Holly is stuck in the cogs of a system that has two sets standards – one for women, and another for men.
The novella is preoccupied with freedom. In Holly’s mind, she’s a self-proclaimed “wild thing”, untamed, belonging to no one, perpetually Travelling, as her name card says. It’s no wonder she enjoyed Wuthering Heights so much – she and Catherine Earnshaw have much in common. But in New York, Holly hasn’t found freedom, but instead, a different kind of entrapment – instant celebrity, an entourage of self-serving friends and hangers-on who’d happily use her for their own purposes.
Capote is such a careful writer. He plays his cards incredibly close to his chest, revealing nothing. It’s so elusive; a novel loaded with hints and suggestions. An unnamed cat and an unnamed narrator; a wild bird trained to speak and an empty cage. It’s a miasma of themes and characters, floating about, unable to be pinned down.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s left me wondering what it was that Capote was really trying to say.
While I admire Capote’s style; his supreme subtlety, I found this novella lacking a sense of conviction. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is indeed a stylistically interesting read, but I found it a little too airy for me.