February 07, 2009

In Cold Blood: Part 1

I'm reading In Cold Blood (Truman Capote's classic account of a group of murders committed at the Clutter Family farm in Kansas in 1959) at the moment- one of the interesting things that comes out of the book (as an immediate impression) is the way that in reality the value of the book stems from the fact that it is a summation of interviews. Capote skilfully interweaves the accounts of various people who were involved into a fictional narrative, composed out of actual interviews about actual events. What he does is perform a reconstruction through fiction of what his interviewees told him. There are real dangers in this approach in that obviously he mediates his evidence through his imagination- and there are dangers in that he does not take an impartial view of his own evidence. However it is worth saying that what he does do is provide a vivid account- which awakes the empathy of the reader. I'm not sure that this mode of writing- a fictional account of non-fictional events- is something that you can rely on purely to get the sense of an event- but it is an important view on an event. It allows us to recapture some of the emotion of the participants- who Capote got very close to- and it allows to understand what the case looked like to an interested and thoughtful observer. The fine writing probably does more to reawake the conservative world of the Holcombe congregation and the killers who came to destroy the lives of one of its leading members more than a number of dusty history books could: I have found in particular the account of the Clutters which forms the first part of the book more interesting than any of the rest. The Clutter family including Herb, the father, teetotal, godly and responsible, the psychologically enfeebled mother, the bright, pretty capable daughter and the physical son are captured wonderfully- and what Capote does is draw us into that world- so strange to him and to us- a world which is more interesting than that of the killers who came to so brutally interrupt it. This isn't rigourous history- but it is useful empathy- and that is a thing that every historian has to develop.


Ian Appleby said...

Strangely enough, this came up in discussion today. sparked by Eisenstein distorting the historical record in October. I daresay he did it in other months, as well...

I was put in mind of Fazil Iskander's story about Sandro of Chegem, in which Sandro (a larger-than-life embodiment of Abkhaz virtue) dances for Stalin. The dictator is powerfully portrayed as paranoid, cruel, and beset by ennui. A cunningly interwoven subtext shows Stalin as a young man betraying his comrades in a robber gang. Both are clearly inventions, but I think youi'd be hard pressed to argue that the image of Stalin that emerges would not ring true.

But of course both Eisenstein and Iskander were creating myths; just coming from different directions.