Friday, December 14, 2007

A True Man

So last evening my wife walked in from picking up one of my sons at the public library and handed me Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote.

I fell into it and have only just surfaced. Read it all, or all that I'd not already read or want to read just now. Reminds me how good he could be: "Handcarved Coffins" is riveting, for instance.

"You trying to kill me or get me killed?" I asked my wife once when I glanced up. "You know this will just quicken my ambitions."

On the back of the book is quoted an excerpt from the Preface for "Music For Chameleons". It says in part, famously, "...Writers...who take genuine risks... bite the bullet and walk the plank..."

He is comparing writers who go for broke to professional gamblers but he misses the mark. It's an act of redemption and you risk trading your soul for your art. As he so notoriously did with In Cold Blood and as he so vividly understood.

There is an interesting passage in this book during which he discusses having published two chapters from his work-in-progress Answered Prayers. These famously caused backlash from rich friends who felt he'd betrayed them. In this passage he says no, he merely used his material, as all writers must, and then goes on to say, much more interestingly -- because their reaction is inconsequential to him compared to what he discovered -- that after the chapters had appeared he reassessed all his published writing, and found all of it wanting, and, worse, knew why. He says he had systematically tried to conquer all forms of writing, some with great success, others with little. He says the failing he spotted was built in to each form; by following the techniques of a given form, he was forced to leave out abilities and effects he may have mastered from other forms. Thus he conceived the ambition to bring all of it to bear at one time -- everything he'd learned from novels, short stories, poetry, screenplays, stage plays, essays, reporting, and so on.

He claims this is the style one sees in the book Music For Chameleons and perhaps most effectively in "Handcarved Coffins".

I chose to read this book as a collection of high spots. Many reviewers scrambled to sneer at its lesser pieces, such as a portrait of Liz Taylor. Their loss.

There is a remarkable interview with Bobby Beusoleil, one of the Manson Family, that reveals several aspects Bugliosi's lies about helter skelter cannot cover up forever, and there are any number of amazing passages and entire pieces that sustain a focus and balance that was, and is, remarkable. He is shown to have been nothing like the effete, lisping femme of his image, but a very tough-minded, agile-minded, single-minded writer who gave everything to his art and who looked deeper and less blinkingly into evil than many a seemingly tougher guy. Maybe than any of us.

He concluded the one unforgivable thing was deliberate cruelty.

Funny how that is what so many offer his memory now.

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