It’s a time-honored literary tradition for a writer to bite the hand that feeds him. It is also a time-honored literary tradition that when their scalded source material cuts them at parties writers always seem surprised.
This is certainly the case with Truman Capote, who raised ingratitude to an art form. The chapters of his work-in-progress “Answered Prayers” published in Esquire in 1975 and 1976, and now republished as a book, were a betrayal that left the smart set shaken if not stirred. Only three of the four chapters have been included here; Capote put the fourth into his 1980 collection “Music for Chameleons” instead. Of the offending material, the first chapter, “Unspoiled Monsters,” introduces the narrator, P. B. Jones, Capote’s dark doppelganger, who skids between high life and low life, working as a male prostitute to finance a promising first novel. The second, “Kate McCloud,” introduces the odious Mr. Jones to an impossible love object, a mysterious society woman isolated by her sinister, rich husband. The third, “La Côte Basque,” features Jones lunching a deux with a distressed Park Avenue matron who unloads her marital intimacies in a sodden aria of indiscretion.
It was the transparent identities in this last that did Capote in. Even to this day it is fashionable in fashionable circles to take the line that poor Truman lost his marbles when he let out that bit of his awful seedy little novel set in La Côte Basque. “What did they expect?” bleated Truman when the social world turned on him. “I’m a writer, and I use everything. Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?” Thereafter he blamed his failure to finish the novel on a crisis of form. It was not the unsettling public reaction that paralyzed him, he said, but the problem of how to mix on the same palette everything he had learned from film scripts, plays, reportage, poems, novellas and novels. This, he claimed, was what kept aborting his attempt to be the American Proust.
It was humbug, of course. The Capote of this period was adept at inventing elaborate highbrow Angst as a red herring when in fact his creative problem was simple. Reading the fragments published now, it is clear that Capote had the raw material for a best-selling nonfiction book and should have written it as just that. It could have been the definitive portrayal of the witches of East Side, gleaned from his 20 years as their walker in chief. Capote knew he had that material but he also felt it was unpublishable. Even if he managed a path through the libel laws, his revelations would kiss goodbye the ladies who lunch. In 1959 Norman Mailer made this perceptive comment about Capote: “I would suspect he hesitates between the attraction of society which enjoys and so repays him for his unique gifts, and the novel he could write of the gossip column’s real life, a major work but it would banish him forever from his favorite world. Since I have nothing to lose I hope Truman fries a few of the fancier fish.”
Mr. Mailer was right about Capote’s psychological inhibitions, though I think he was wrong about the proper vehicle for Capote’s raw material. I have always felt that the journalist in Capote was stronger than the novelist, and that the discipline of fact saved him from his fiction’s tendency to wallow in charm or yield to malice. That’s why “In Cold Blood” is a greater work than all the fiction put together. The trouble with “Answered Prayers” is that Capote at this stage was not amenable to the demands of nonfiction. He was out of control in his life and in his art. The nonfiction constraints of libel, taste and feeling were just what he needed at a time when his internal editor seems to have collapsed. Such constraints might have forced him to report with the fine calibrations of “The Muses Are Heard” and “In Cold Blood” instead of indulging himself in the worst solution of all, a rubbishy roman a clef. All that mixing real names with obvious composites achieves is a socio-pornographic “Ragtime” rife with the low cackle of camp. Peggy Guggenheim is “a long-haired Bert Lahr.” Sartre is “walleyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued” with “his spinsterish moll, De Beauvoir.” Gertrude Stein is “a Diamond Jim Brady personage, a big-bellied show-off.” In fact, it’s Capote himself who is the braggart. Dishing the sacred monsters is just another form of showing off. And what it confirms is how dependent he’d become on them all. “Answered Prayers” reveals the seduction of Capote the artist by Capote the socialite. He had become a sacred monster himself. Even as he burned his bridges he still fantasized the rich, still retained the outsider’s thrill at being on the inside track. There is admiration latent in the sneer. All his hard reporting, all his prison visits, only served to excite his romance with the beau monde.
Nonetheless, out of this conflict Capote could occasionally create art. Between the cloudbursts of malice there are flashes of prose in “Answered Prayers” that bring the aching reminder of a more whole writer, prose that makes the heart sing and the narrative fly. Some of the character riffs are inspired. Consider this description of a homosexual cosmetic king’s first sight of a boy he covets: “When he saw Denny, it must have been as though a collector of antique porcelain had strayed into a junkshop and discovered a Meissen ‘white swan’ service: the shock! the greedy chill!” Only a social journalist as knowing as Capote could have come up with the first part of the sentence; only a master writer could have achieved the conclusion’s thrill.
The narrator of “Answered Prayers” says in a conversation about Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”: “If he had been absolutely factual, it would have been less believable, but . . . it might have been better. Less acceptable, but better.” It’s the right epitaph for the book the American Proust didn’t write.
Stood Up By The Dutchess
“Carissimo!” she cried. “You’re just what I’m looking for. A lunch date. The duchess stood me up.” “Black or white?” I said. “White,” she said, reversing my direction on the sidewalk.
White is Wallis Windsor, whereas the Black Duchess is what her friends call Perla Apfeldorf, the Brazilian wife of a notoriously racist South African diamond industrialist. As for the lady who also knew the distinction, she was indeed a lady – Lady Ina Coolbirth, an American married to a British chemicals tycoon and a lot of woman in every way. Tall, taller than most men, Ina was a big breezy peppy broad, born and raised on a ranch in Montana.
“This is the second time she’s canceled,” Ina Coolbirth continued. “She says she has hives. Or the duke has hives. One or the other. Anyway, I’ve still got a table at Côte Basque. So, shall we? Because I do so need someone to talk to, really. And, thank God, Jonesy, it can be you.”… The Cristal was being poured. Ina tasted it… “I do miss Cole. And Howard Sturgis. Even Papa; after all, he did write about me in Green Hills of Africa. From “Answered Prayers.”
By TINA BROWN