December 12, 2008

Top Banana in the Shock Department

Breakfast at Tiffanies- the story not the film- is a bleak encounter with the modern world. It is a work that could only have come from the pen of someone who knew small town America and left it: the small town America whose heroes and villains were made epic by the author’s great friend, Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mocking Bird. Truman Capote does not focus so much in his story on what small town America did and would do about race- as about what the city did and would do with people- especially the young woman at the heart of the story Holly Golighty, traveller. Capote’s interest lay in the fact that this self described ‘independent’, like her tom cat a roamer with no home, finds modern society both the source of her dreams and the source of her inability to find them- like a diamond from Tiffanies, the modern world glistens and is cold.

Holly is a wonderful creation- in my fairly wide reading experience I do not think I have come across a woman so delightfully sexual In the whole of literature. She is a courtesan but no whore- having as she tells the narrator only slept with eleven men (not counting those before she was thirteen or the man she married when she was fourteen!) But she is incredibly seductive- our narrator ends up bewitched and as readers it is hard not to either be bewitched by this charm, this insouciance that proclaims that it hates snoops and mixes irreverently between languages and the cool speech of upper new York- ‘top banana in the shock department’ indeed! But charm is deceptive- throughout this novella, Holly is in trouble and part of our affection and that of the narrator for her is the affection of chivalry and protectiveness- a protective chivalry that on his part is misplaced because he no more than her is caught up in a process of society- the urbanisation of America.

Holly is a creature of anonymity- she is deliberately vague about where she has come from, deliberately vague about where she might be heading. She is introduced to us by the revelation that she might be in Africa. Throughout the novel, she is always moving. We find her in South America, we find her in Los Angeles, in New York and in Texas- as a friend of hers says ‘you don’t know if she’s a hillbilly or an Okie or what?’ We discover though what Holly is- she is like a bee, searching for the perfect flower- searching for a scent of home. She dwells in constant movement both because she is attracted by the prospects opened up to her as a citizen of the world, and because she cannot find a village to be a city of. She seeks a home- but she seeks a perfect home, rejecting what her mothers might have accepted- marriage to a dull Texan who wants her to bring up his dead wife’s children- but longing for the perfect home. It is the fate that the world has opened up to most of us- not by the way a condition of women alone but of all humanity who face a world in which we seek to find the perfect familiar in the strange.

How achievable is this vision, is this dream? Truman Capote faced the same issues as Holly Golighty- he like her was an immigrant from the small town to the big city, from the stultification of simplicity and solitude to the scary city with its boundless possibilities and opportunities for destruction. What Capote gives us is a vision of survival- it’s a vision of how to survive in this world of danger- of besetting problems. Golighty is both naïve and sensible- in the first lies her appeal and her craft, she inspires others to protect her and help her. Its what makes men give her hundreds to go to the powder room. And yet, and yet, she also knows her value- she is cynical enough to know the going rate to go to the powder room- and a suitor who sees her as a naïve little girl is in for a nasty surprise (as we see in her entry to the story proper when she reminds a retreating suitor who took her home that she won’t have sex with him and what’s more, she thinks that he is cheap!) Don’t think that that combination of naivety and cynicism is only sexual- it isn’t- it applies when she gets arrested, involved because of her naivety in delivering messages to a gangster, but cynical enough to know that noone will care if she just runs away- avoids bail and that whilst in New York, it might damage her reputation, no-one will know in Brazil! Ultimately Holly is wiser than our narrator, a penniless narrator for whom art is the thing, for Holly everything is interesting but ultimately only dollars can feed you.

Seeing Holly as a creature of sociology enables us though to see something else. What Capote exposes is the insecurity of living in a world of strangers. We have to trust others- of course- and normally that works. For Holly it does more often than not- and though perhaps she has to trust in her line of ‘work’ more sordid individuals, she finds as we all do that human beings are generally rats but only rats when they actually have to be. What Holly understands is that this nature of humanity makes us both vulnerable and safe in the world of the city- we are vulnerable because ultimately anyone can walk away from us, they can find a new friend, a new associate, a new partner- but we are secure because so can we. Anonymity is a loss because it is a loss of permanent relationships- a loss of permanence- but it is also a gain because relationships which do not work, the man who bites during sex classically for Holly or the selfish flatmate can be left behind like the flotsam and jetsom they are.

Modernity and its most basic condition- the great and teeming city- have bred a new kind of human relationship, farewell the chain of custom and everlasting friendships, welcome the fleeting felicity of closeness followed by forgetfulness. Whatever you think of that movement and that moment, it is a sociological fact, bred not so much by any moral change as by the growth of the great cities of the modern world. Holly Golighty is a heroine of the Jazz Age- she is its spirit and the age is not over- the music goes on and we choose and change partners as we will! That as Capote reminds us is neither good nor bad necessarily- it has good and bad aspects- but it is a change and its one that will dominate our era, and change the nature of our relationships in ways that really will be top banana in the shock department. The process began with Holly, quite when it will end or if it will reverse or what form our societies will finally take is anyone’s guess.


stacy said...

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Gracchi said...

Thanks Stacy.

There used to be a spam comment here about viagra- I'm not sure that the spammer really got in their thick little head that I delete all spam comments, will always delete all spam comments and would advise noone to ever click a spam link on the internet.

James Hamilton said...

An estimated 30% of men are unable to what? It's gone, and I'm curious.

Gracchi said...

Viagra James. Link the dots.

James Hamilton said...

Oh! Do you mean this stuff? I'm only 40 so probably wouldn't have understood the reference.

Gracchi said...

Yeah- don't you get spam on more than mind games- obviously its a superior kind of blog- plebeian blogs like this always have Chinese gamblers and American vendors turning up to comment.

James Hamilton said...

No, I don't - thank obscurity and Akismet for that - and it does wonders for my confidence with women.

I'll stop this now.