December 26, 2012

A Christmas Memory

If what you think about when you think about Truman Capote is Philip Seymour Hoffman's virtuoso turn as Capote hot on the trail of a story about murder in cold blood on the Kansas plains, or old black and white Life magazine shots of New York's famous Studio 54 where he's seen hanging out with Andy Warhol or Bianca Jagger, or maybe even the scandalous "come hither" photo of 23 year old Truman reclining on a second empire couch which appeared on the back cover of his first novel Other voices, other rooms, you might be surprised to know that he is the author of a beautifully warm and tender Christmas story.

A Christmas memory originally appeared in the collection to which Breakfast at Tiffany's gave the title, way back in 1958, but Modern Library reprinted it as the title piece of a trilogy of Capote stories about childhood, which is the copy I found in the Central City Library basement when I decided on Christmas Eve that I'd like to re-read it. I was well into it by the time I hit the stairs, but luckily not yet at the end, because I surely would have tripped from the sudden blurring of my vision. The story is not sad, or at least not just sad, but the last page and a half is one of the saddest pieces of writing you'll find anywhere, and it always makes me cry.

It's a semi-autobiographical story which draws on a time in Capote's childhood when he was packed off to stay with relatives in Alabama. It's about a boy and a much-older distant cousin: he by circumstance motherless and fatherless; she a "childlike" spinster, crippled from a childhood illness, with a face -- lest you think we are getting soppy here -- like Abraham Lincoln's. It's about their Christmas ritual of making fruitcakes together. It's about love and friendship and, in that way that really good writing has, where you find something new every time you read it because of how it invites you to bring things of your own to it, this time I realised that it's also about how a tradition, to be important, doesn't need to exist over such a long time as you might think. It only takes one time around, and two hearts, when that's all you've got.

I have to say that in this sense, Modern Library should be reprimanded for their dismal cover flap blurb, which sums up the story like this: "In A Christmas Memory, Miss Sook, Buddy (the narrator) and their dog, Queenie, celebrate the yuletide in a hilariously tipsy state." Is this the Walt Disney version or what? In A Christmas Memory the scene where Sook and Buddy get tipsy finishing off the whiskey left over from their fruitcakes is 1 1/2 pages out of 27. The other 25 1/2 pages are filled with things like Sook and Buddy going out with an old baby carriage to gather windfall pecans and the long evening they spend shelling them, "scraps of miniature thunder" crackling through the air, or the counting of the pennies they have been saving all year to buy the other ingredients, earned by killing flies for the "others" of the house (25 flies = one penny), or, my favourite, when they go over the list of people they send fruitcakes to every year, a list which includes Pres. Roosevelt and a couple from California with whom they once passed an enjoyable hour on the porch when the couple's car broke down near the house.

And the last of the things that happen in the other 25 1/2 pages is that the boy gets sent off to military school, and the cousin, already elderly when the story begins, ages and grows weaker, until finally one winter when the fruitcake weather arrives she cannot rouse herself to greet it. And when that happens, says the boy, "A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken sting. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven."

Harper Lee's friendship with Truman Capote goes back to the time of A Christmas Memory. Monroeville, Alabama, the town Capote's relatives lived in, was her home town and the model for Maycomb, the fictional setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. She put him in To Kill a Mockingbird as Dill, or so he proudly claimed. You can read about their friendship on the website Southern Literary Trail.

Have a look at the Truman Capote page on pinterest by Diane Wiggins, where you can see a photo of the real-life Sook, with Capote as a boy, and another of little Truman in a white suit, hands in pockets, looking exactly as you would expect Dill to look.

You can read the first pages of the story on the Auckland Libraries online catalogue record for the book. Don't worry, it's easier than you think to get used to the lack of paragraph formatting!

And to finish off, here's a very short, very beautiful (appropriately) videoclip made at the Kite Festival in Cervia, Italy:

December 13, 2012

What I'm reading

What the library, that great book dealer, has lately dealt me: a diamond, a spade, a heart, and a club.

Diamond, the hard guy

Fat City by Leonard Gardner
I had seen and not forgotten the movie John Huston made from this book (screenplay by Gardner, it turns out), starring one of my favourite actors, Stacy Keach, and a very young Jeff Bridges, and one day I saw that the book was back in print and put in a suggestion for purchase. It’s about the world of the boxers who never make it big, the tanktown circuit, as they call it, small matches for small money. Fundamental for me was the setting, a part of California that I find incredibly suggestive, Joan Didion country, the delta fields of the Central Valley, the deep water channels, the levees, the orchards, the heat, the small towns where the air smells like diesel.

Spade: one-eyed jacks

Syncopations: beats, New Yorkers and writers in the dark by James Campbell
A book I picked up by chance, the keywords jumping out at me, and took out, although that  "syncopations" worried me a bit, which turned out to be a bit of an omen. It's a collection of pieces of literary criticism, with all the good and bad that entails. I skipped the piece about Toni Morrison, and a few others I can’t recall right now, but learned some interesting things about Art Spiegelman, Richard Wright, and Alexander Trocchi as cartographer.

Heart: Edmund Valentine White

The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White
syndetics-lcAt this point in Edmund White’s series of autobiographical novels he is growing up, ie at that stage where you become what White in a stroke of genius calls "a provisional equal”. In his last year of boarding school in Chicago he starts haunting a bookstore run or owned by a gay guy named Tex, who soon cottons on to what it is he’s wanting as much or more as a good book. Tex lets him know about the man in the corner who owns several bookstores and is married, but might make a nice date (he says something like, “He’s here without his wife and you’re a not uncomely ephebe”). Young White has a brush cut his father has chosen and thick black glasses. When he finally gets up the courage to say something to the man, what comes out is “What do you think of the Kierkegaard boom?”

Club (soda): I know he liked Gin tonics, but would he have said no to a Gin fizz?

The Paris Review interviews Vol. II
The highlight of this volume for me was an erratic, and often droll, interview with Philip Larkin, who agreed to be interviewed but only by mail and took five months to answer the first set of questions because “It has taken rather a long time because, to my surprise, I found writing it suffocatingly boring.”

Interviewer: Can you describe the genesis and working out of a poem based upon an image that most people would simply pass by? (A clear road between neighbors, an ambulance in city traffic?)

Larkin: If I could answer this sort of question, I’d be a professor rather than a librarian. And in any case, I shouldn’t want to. It’s a thing you don’t want to think about. It happens, or happened, and if it’s something to be grateful for, you’re grateful.
I remember saying once, I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems; it’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife. Whoever I was talking to said, They’d do that too, if their agents could fix it.

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