“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods.” That’s the first line of Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote.
Me – I am always drawn back to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the sentences and their paragraphs.
Every autumn, for the several years I’ve rented a room on an elm-lined street in Carlton, I get an urge to read the novella. I want to read it sitting in my terrace courtyard in the waning sun; on a stool in the window of a busy café; on my grandmother’s old armchair in my room, looking out to the yellowing trees.
It’s an autumnal story, gentle and sad, lonely and tender, its scenes fluttering with falling leaves. It begins and ends in fall, and the narrator first meets Holly Golightly in September, on “an evening with the first ripple-chills of autumn running through it”. It barely wisps through winter and spring, and Holly “hibernates” in summer.
The narrator she calls “Fred”, after her brother, or sometimes Buster or Cookie, and who shares much with a young Capote – and something with me, too – says he doesn’t care much for springtime; autumns, rather, “seem that season of beginning”.
I’ve never thought about the book all that much, about what it means, or why I like it so. I just want to read it when the mornings are crisp.
But this year, I was drawn to it before the leaves alerted me, by the New Yorker, which carried a dismissive review of a new Broadway adaptation. The critic adores the novella, however: it is “so extraordinary a work,” he wrote, “that it incites not writerly envy but pride”.
Yes, I thought, that’s true. When it was published, Norman Mailer said Capote was “the most perfect writer” of his generation, who wrote “the best sentences, word for word, rhythm upon rhythm”. Mailer said he “would not change two words” in the book. Yes, I should read it again. Maybe its sentences will rub off on mine?
That was in early April. Normally, the leaves on my street would have begun to fall by then. One summer during the drought they fell at Christmas and we all worried it was the end for the trees. But the council installed all kinds of sprinklers and mulched around the trunks, and gradually they recovered. And this year, autumn arrived late. The hottest summer on record stretched deep into March and April: an extended, gelato-summer, my evenings still punctuated by the short walk across the park and around the corner to the ice-cream counter at Brunetti. Beneath those balmy days and mild nights the trees remained green.
I do not know how many times I’ve read the book; less than ten, I’d guess. But I do remember when I first heard of it. I was in a crummy bar in Canberra, visiting an old friend, my first housemate when I moved there after university. He is several years older, a contrary character, alternately passionate and ambivalent about day-to-day life.
The bar has a sour smell, sourer every time I return. There were three of us: my friend and an old comrade of his – a socialist turned sensualist with a large tattoo of a rat on his forearm. We were drinking beer and talking about books; or rather, they were talking about books and I was listening. The socialist adored Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My friend agreed: “It’s a gorgeous story,” he said and his eyes grew moist, as they do in all the conversations with him I like best.
I thought it improbable. I’d never seen the movie – still haven’t, as a matter of fact – but I had the notion it was a swooning romance. I was suspicious of the book. Nevertheless, I bought a copy, one of those cheap, orange, Penguin classics. It contains the novella and three short stories, same as the first edition in 1958. It is pleasingly slim, enough to fit in your pocket.
The story isn’t a romance, I found out – not that sort, anyway. It’s all memory, belonging and loss, and a platonic kind of love. A decade on, Fred recalls the cycle of seasons he spent living above Holly Golightly in a New York brownstone; at first captivated, then burned and finally, warmed, by her reflected glow.
It was wartime, 1943, and young Fred had moved from the south with a fancy to be a writer. Before he’d even met her, the card above the girl’s mailbox nagged him “like a tune”:
Miss Holly Golightly
Holly is a society girl, not a prostitute, though she understands the gossip; after all, she admits, “I’ve always thrown out such a jazzy line”. Assorted unpleasant men exchange generous tips for her company; Capote described his creation as an American geisha. She’s only 19, escaping her past, but always remembering it – playing sad country songs in the fire escape while her hair dries – and then inventing herself anew.
I’m not one for recalling plots, and I know it. But even so, Breakfast at Tiffany’s surprises me every time. By the end, yet again, all I have is a shimmering sense of her, and an impression of the writer too, the outsider upstairs, sometimes writing, often listening in, wishing he were nearer.
This year, though, I noticed a few things along the way.
It’s the ’40s, sure, but Holly stumps for marriage equality. She’s settled down some by this stage, and tells Fred she loves her man just fine, but he’s not her “guy ideal”. And who is? Jawaharlal Nehru, say, or Greta Garbo: “Why not? A person ought to be able to marry men or women or – listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’ War, I’d respect your feeling. No, I’m serious. Love should be allowed. I’m all for it. Now that I’ve got a pretty good idea what it is.”
Man o’ War was a famous thoroughbred horse.
This too: I discovered – again surely – that Fred’s birthday is 30 September, the same as mine. And Capote’s. Not only that, but it’s also the day on which everything unravels: “So the days, the last days, blow about in memory, hazy, autumnal, all alike as leaves: until a day unlike any other I’ve lived.” That’s how Fred described our birthday. It was really the three of us there, you know: Holly, Fred and me.
But most of all, I thought about Holly and the “mean reds”. Not the blues.
“No,” she tells Fred, slowly. “No, the blues are because you’re getting fat or maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re sad, that’s all. But the mean reds are horrible. You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is.”
Her only cure is to hail a cab to Tiffany’s and look in the windows. “It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in the nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.”
Holly yearns for a real-life place that makes her feel the way Tiffany’s does, maybe in Mexico by the sea, when her lost brother returns from the war. She went there once – they’d raise horses, and he’s good with horses. But even as she says it, Fred and Holly and me, we all know it’s an impossible dream.
In my street, the first heavy leaf fall came on May 1, the first day of the last month of the season: there was a cold wind and the yellow leaves fell like a storm. But then it got warm again, and once more I went for gelato. In most respects I’m an advocate for variety, but when it comes to ice cream, I’ve settled on my gelato ideal: two scoops in a waffle cone, chocolate and lemon.
This autumn Brunetti moved around the corner from Faraday Street, where it had been for nearly 30 years, and into the space on Lygon Street vacated when Borders died.
I visited the new store on a Saturday night, on a date. I had the mean reds that day, shot through with the blues: I knew well the cause. I’d been writing about climate change – the worsening disaster projections now, next decade, throughout my lifetime and beyond, together with the profound absence of either prevention or preparation. Nothing new, I know, but nothing tolerable either, when you think about it. In a recent journal article, a speculative “future history” by respected American science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, I read a throwaway line: “The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.”
The store was alive, teeming and hollering like an old-time trading floor in a stock boom. As we entered, it became clear there were two kinds of people. Dozens of waiters strode after their errands, wearing bow ties and black waistcoats or else slim black aprons tied in a cross at the back, while all around the rest of us tottered, distracted and enraptured by the cakes, tarts, chocolates and macaroons, and the mirrors, the bonze trim, the patterned tiles and the blown-up, black and white photographs on the walls. We gaped alongside infinite desserts, we stared at the baristas on the central podium and we swept past pastries and savouries, croissants and paninis, until we stopped before a huge, tiled pizza oven.
I was agog. Sparkle-eyed. I turned to her and gestured toward all the people, sitting, talking, waiting, laughing, fattening: “Isn’t it wonderful?”
To our left there was a roped-off section commanded by a waiter in a headset. Straight ahead, the gelato, more flavours than ever before. “Maybe,” she replied slowly. “But it’s so much. It’s awful. It’s madness – it’s everything that doesn’t make sense.”
I agreed: awful. And wonderful. We slipped out of there, without gelato this time, and back into the autumn Carlton night.
I read the novella for a second time, writing this story, but the moment had passed. I’m done with wistfulness, for now. Everything – endless summer and falling leaves, apathy and indulgence, reds and blues, bad governments and worse; brown coal, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and humanity – it all has its season.
Read this article at the Wheeler Centre website