Saturday, August 10, 2019

Moby Dick Again

I have somehow transitioned to reading books on my devices. Much as I love the physical item, digital books offer advantages.  So, because Moby Dick is so readily at hand, I am reading it once more. I’ve read it enough times that I can read in dribs. I can enjoy it a chapter at a time because I need not race forward to see how the narrative resolves.

Narrative kinda bores me. So often, an author’s narrative intention produces misshapen exaggerations. An unneeded *about* hangs over such work.

I haven’t read Toni Morrison, for instance. This is not a willful choice, I just haven’t felt the gravitational pull. I wonder if she can surprise me, because popular novels tend not to. I do not offer these thoughts as reasonable criticism. I’m just wary of professional novels.

Melville tried to be professional. He’d had vivid, exotic experiences to work with. Those early novels were easy ventures. Moby Dick begins that way, but then Melville discovered unexpected depths, which he sounded. The book became, let us say, a spiritual commitment.

I have previously burbled about Truman Capote’s failed grand d’oeuvre. He signed a contract and just wished the venture well. I am not so I interested in that, and I suppose I should leave it there. Narrative is the least vital element of novels for me. I like the kicks of Language, and the awareness of the author. Virginia Woolf’s driven exercises, for instance. I will have to find my way into a Morrison novel, so I can cross over from conjecture. Right now, tho, The Whale.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Answered Prayers by Truman Capote

As a reader, I have tried to read widely. That means a lot of the classics, and various genres. It also means whatever one might stumble on. Be open to whatever. Let’s call it an exercise in seeing what I can see. I guess I am making an excuse for having read this book

Seeing Truman Capote so often on tv in the day, made it hard to remember that he was a writer, and not just a celebrity. In Cold Blood made his name, and for good reason. It proved an early if not first example of non-fiction as fiction a la Tom Wolfe and scads of writers for The New Yorker. I read it long after it was published, long after the movie appeared. Long after, indeed, having read much of Tom Wolfe’s work. It is a seminal work.

Years ago, I happened upon Answered Prayers at the used bookstore. It was, I found, Capote's stated attempt to write a Grand d’Ouevre, a modern Remembrance of Things Past, no less. I can tell you, it failed by many counts. The effort and full conundrum of this failure fascinates and instructs.

First of all, someone named Marcel already wrote Remembrance. Done deal. What can Truman write? Already his effort has become something less than organic.

Surely the idea of Great American Novel entered his head. If something so definitive could exist, Herman Melville already wrote it. The idea of a Great American Novel sags under its own weight.

Capote had the problem of being at loose ends when he first contemplated the project. He’d had success with In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany's, and other works. That success became secondary to his celebrity, however. He was that guy with the distinctive voice who you often saw on talk shows. Those visits to Johnny Carson weren’t likely enough to finance a Studio 54 lifestyle. And they certainly contributed nothing to his sense of being a serious writer. He thus determined to write a masterpiece. He even received a comely advance. Actually two advances. He received substantially more money when he missed the deadline of the original contract, which is to say, throwing good money after bad. With celebrity comes opportunity, or why else would we have books by Nancy Reagan and Donald Trump?

Unfortunately when artists hope for a result in their work, they betray the nascent energy. They start directing the work toward a response. What will sell, what will impress, such questions only distract the artist from finding a path.

Capote chose to depict the jet set high society world that Capote ran after. The lumpen richness of one Babe Pauley, wife of the president of CBS, provided a central figure of Capote’s _roman a clef_ . She wasn’t aristocracy, she was like aristocracy. How do us plebes and proles relate? We don’t, really. Capote’s avidity to enter the world creates the mainstay of this contraption. Capote, however, doesn’t recognize his own fascination. He is too busy gossiping.

Jackie’s less interesting sister Lee Radziwill also shows up, I guess. She was a princess but that just means she married some jetsetting prince from somewhere. Capote doesn’t speak of the aristo structures of this One Percenter world. He is more into who slept with who, and used what drug,

Ostensibly, these were his friends. He sees them as a noble class, tho most readers would need some convincing to regard them as so. For someone intent on producing Proust redux, he doesn’t exactly dig deep. If you have ever seen photographs of the people who Proust modeled his characters on, you see black and white images of ordinary people. as characters, tho, you see the cunning richness of Proust's relentlesstness observation. By the time Proust actually wrote Remembrance, he was essentially out of that world. Capote on the other hand tried to write his tell-almost-all while still embedded.

Knowing them as he did, he could gossip about them thru a thin veil. That thin veil included Capote as the protagonist, P. B. Jones. He is mostly an observer of these grand people, with more than a touch of self-aggrandizement. People saw thru the veil. Capote may have thought his subjects would be pleased by his portraits, just as God must’ve been pleased that Michelangelo painted Him up there on that ceiling. When the first installment of _Answered Prayers_ appeared in magazine form, however, a chill wind arose. Capote was ostracized (I don’t know if Michelangelo was). That must have felt like an arrow thru Truman's heart.

I read an essay by Capote about writing. He dramatizes the difficulties of the art, right down to the dire exercise of, as he wrote, paragraphing. Well yeah, it’s hard to do anything well, and commas don’t just place themselves, you know. He was, one can tell, a painstaking writer. One doesn’t see him producing a high daily word count. As his lifestyle became more commanding, writing became more difficult. The real hard part was being Truman Capote at swish Hollywood parties and dribbling talk shows, and cocaine in the medicine chest.

Capote’s hope for Answered Prayers hit the rocks. The swank people turned from him and he couldn’t seem to write, despite contracts and deadlines, His snide comment about Kerouac’s work, that it wasn’t writing but typing, could be thrown back at Capote. Capote just talked to an amanuensis. I don’t mean that’s wrong, John Milton and Henry James did likewise. But if you are going to boil things down, keep the valuable stuff, not the dross.

So Answered Prayers recounts the leering affairs of the rich and uninteresting. I get it, Madame Verdurin wasn’t essentially beguiling either except that Proust proved so dedicated and exacting about seeing her, and that world. Capote just shares something over the fence, because he got to walk around in Hollywood muck.

Answered Prayers ended up an average-sized book, not the three-volume tome that he planned. The book was published posthumously, tho portions saw magazine publication. I seem to have read it as a doctoral thesis on how artists fail. Weed it and reap. I mean, one needs distance from the work. Hopes and aims only distract from the endeavour.