Friday, 11 September 2015

Book Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote are books that everybody has at least heard of and that keep attracting readers throughout years, decades and in some cases even centuries, in short books that are timeless classics of literature. Undeniably, the slim volume that I picked for today’s review is such a classic or to be precise a modern classic since it first appeared only in 1958. I admit that Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote may owe part of its lasting notoriety and popularity to the fact that it was adapted for the screen as early as in 1961 starring Audrey Hepburn. For the rest, the novella is a brilliant portrait of a young woman who left behind a modest life somewhere at the back of beyond in order to enter well-to-do society of New York City and to get her share of glamour and happiness.

Truman Capote was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, in September 1924. Already as a child he knew that he wanted to be a writer, and in fact, he started his career right after graduation from high school writing short stories – several of them award-winning or critically acclaimed – for various periodicals. His first novel titled Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared in 1948 and became a bestseller right away. In the 1950s, however, he turned more and more to working for theatre and film although he also brought out a great number of articles for magazines, some short stories and the novellas The Grass Harp (1951) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958). The author’s most important literary work titled In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences came out in 1966 and was followed by a number of shorter works at ever longer intervals. After years of alcohol and drug abuse Truman Capote died in Los Angeles, California, USA, in August 1984. The long expected, but still unfinished novel Answered Prayers (1986) and the author’s unpublished first novel from the 1940s titled Summer Crossing (2006) were published posthumously.

Set in New York in 1943/44, thus during World War II, Breakfast at Tiffany's recounts an episode in the life of eighteen-year-old Holly Golightly in search of a wealthy husband to give her the glamorous and carefree life that she has always been dreaming of. She lives in a brownstone in the East Seventies together with a nameless street cat that she picked up somewhere and several removal boxes that she never bothered to unpack. Her world is a floating one as indicates even the card in the name-slot of her mailbox which reads “Miss Holiday Golightly, travelling”. The unnamed narrator, who just moved into the attic and over the following months makes friends with her, soon finds out that she is a full-time socialite frequenting the cafés, restaurants and clubs of the wealthy. To make a living she “allows” her numerous male acquaintances to give her money for expenses or costly presents, but she never promises (though occasionally grants) them more than her company. Her permanent suitor is wealthy Rusty Trawler whose proposal of marriage Holly refuses, though, because three-times divorced and much like a spoilt big boy he isn’t what she is looking for. Brazilian diplomat José Ybarra-Jaegar suits her better except that he is the companion of her roommate Mag Wildwood. However, as time passes relations between the four shift. Mag and Rusty get married and José courts Holly. Alas, Holly gets into trouble because for about a year she has been visiting a “darling old man” called Sally Tomato in Sing Sing prison once a week. He paid her for passing on the weather report to his lawyer and it never dawned on her that the convicted Mafioso might just use her to continue his illegal activities. To avoid being put behind bars Holly disappears from the scene and the narrator’s life.

Taken from the point of view of the unnamed first-person narrator, who is himself part of the story, the portrait of Holiday “Holly” Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's is necessarily biased and limited. At the beginning of the main plot the narrator is a budding young writer, just arrived in New York and fascinated by the unconventional young woman representing a world (and a life-style) far from everything he has seen so far. He doesn’t seem to mind that she sought him out as a friend (or rather as someone making her feel at home a little like the showroom at Tiffany's) because he reminds her of her beloved brother whom she left behind and because with him she is safe from losing her ambitions out of sight. To a certain degree she confides in him although she always keeps up the artful image of herself that she created and internalised to the degree of self-denial. Even to him her true past remains in the dark, though, with the exception of bits and pieces provided first by the Hollywood agent O. J. Berman who turned the presumed teenage runaway into an actress and much later by middle-aged Doc Golightly from Texas who shows up one day to take his runaway wife Lulamae Barnes now called Holly back home. Whatever plans the men in Holly’s life have for her, she has her own mind and has no intention whatsoever to give up her freedom. At times her behaviour and talk make Holly appear naïve, but she may just as well be really sly, thus perfectly suited for the life she has chosen although it is at odds with the prudish conventions of Puritan America. The latter together with the blunt language made the novella a bit of a scandal when it first came out. For the rest, it’s a quick, easy and entertaining read that doesn’t call for interpretation while leaving much room for it.

Although Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote is only a short novel usually published together with other stories, notably House of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar and A Christmas Memory from the 1959 book edition, it offers a rich and convincing plot that caught me already when I read it for the first time twenty years ago. Rereading it now it has lost none of its appeal to me, nor has the Blake Edwards film from 1961 although it deviates quite a bit from the original plot. Both definitely deserve their status as all-time classics! Thus my final verdict can only be: highly recommended.

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This review is a contribution to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015, namely to the category Classic With a Name in the Title.

»»» see also my post with the complete reading list for the challenge.

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