Book review: Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote

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TRUMAN Capote's tarnished reputation as a truth-teller isn't helped by this collection, writes Charles McGrath

PORTRAITS AND OBSERVATIONS: THE ESSAYS OF TRUMAN CAPOTE

Random House, 528pp, 11.99

TRUMAN CAPOTE ENDED AS HE began, writing sketches and mood pieces, but the later versions were a little skimpier and less promising than the earlier ones. That's the sad conclusion to be drawn from this collection of 42 pieces spanning his career. The first, a remarkably stylish and assured autobiographical sketch about living in New Orleans, was written in 1946, when Capote was in his early twenties. He was working on the last piece in the collection, a recollection of meeting writer Willa Cather back in the early 1940s, on the day before he died, in August 1984.

Handsomely produced, with a careful index, the volume is actually less substantial than it seems, because it includes a fair amount of froth: a couple of self-interviews; a 1974 sketch of Elizabeth Taylor; a story about following around his cleaning lady for a day; some extended photo captions for a coffee-table book he did in collaboration with Richard Avedon; brief profiles of Jane Bowles and Cecil Beaton; and a made-up-sounding interview with Marilyn Monroe. The ballast is "Handcarved Coffins", Capote's so-called "nonfiction account of an American crime" from the late 1970s; from much earlier, his famous 1956 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando; and "The Muses Are Heard," an almost book-length account of a trip to Russia made by an American production of Porgy and Bess in the middle of the Cold War.

Both these New Yorker articles owe something to Lillian Ross – to her groundbreaking 1950 Hemingway profile and to Picture, her book about John Huston and his filming of The Red Badge of Courage. But Capote's essays have a style and easy grace of their own.

Brando later complained that Capote had trapped him – and in the profile he sometimes comes across as comically self-absorbed – but on balance it's a sympathetic portrayal, and ends memorably with a scene of Brando on a giant poster. He looks, Capote says, like a Buddha: "A deity, yes; but more than that, really, just a young man sitting on a pile of candy."

"The Muses" is as funny today as when it first came out, maybe funnier now that the Cold War is such a distant and, relatively speaking, innocent interlude – a comic novel in miniature, filled with odd and telling juxtapositions, closely observed details and sparkling dialogue, much of it courtesy of Mrs Ira Gershwin, who accompanied the troupe partly in hope of finding some good caviare: "Don't think I'm not going to tear into the cavy, darling. It cost $35 a pound in Beverly Hills."

Still, it's not much of a legacy for someone who was for a while probably the most famous writer in America – a couple of 50-year-old New Yorker articles, a sweep-up of assorted freelance chores for other magazines and a novel-like crime story that has its moments but that also strains credulity more than once. In fact, the whole volume won't do much for Capote's already tarnished reputation as a truth-teller. His meeting with Willa Cather recounted in the final piece is also recalled in an earlier one, different in many of its particulars. An anecdote about a drunk in a Key West bar, who demands to have his penis autographed and is informed that only Capote's initials will fit, also turns up twice, and in one instance it's Tennessee Williams who comes up with the punchline, while in the other Capote thinks of it on his own.

In a piece called "Self-Portrait" he says of himself: "Some of my friends think that when relating an event or piece of news, I am inclined to alter or overelaborate. Myself, I just call it making something 'come alive'." You could also call it lying, and in an earlier piece, in which he apologises for telling tales about his life in New York to an old woman named Selma, who used to cook for his aunts in Alabama, he says as much: "But mostly they were lies I told; it wasn't my fault, I couldn't remember, because it was as though I'd been to one of those supernatural castles visited by characters in legends: once away, you do not remember, all that is left is the ghostly echo of haunting wonder."

To really comprehend Portraits and Observations, its early, almost overheated precociousness and later sense of weariness and dwindled powers, you have to imagine a crater roughly at the centre of it: In Cold Blood, the 1966 book that was ostensibly not altered or elaborated at all and that was both the making of Capote, or of his reputation, and also his undoing.

Even while working on the book, he had begun to drink heavily, and fterward, riding a wave of financial and social success that most writers only fantasise about, he began adding uppers and downers to the mix. By the late 1970s, after the disastrous reception of some early instalments of Answered Prayers, the novel he hoped would do for jet-set New York what Proust had done for Paris, he was a sodden, pill-popping wreck suffering from what he called a "creative crisis". In the preface to Music for Chameleons, the second-to-last book published in his lifetime, he says he realised he was working with only a half or a third of his powers and that he set out to purge and refine his style. The truth is more nearly that he was desperate to write anything at all and that he instinctively went back to his roots – to childhood memories, to the oddballs and eccentrics who populated his early fiction – leaving the world of high society behind. He even turned up at the offices of the New Yorker, asking for a second chance.

Only one of those last efforts, the title piece in Music for Chameleons, appeared in the magazine, and in many ways it's a distillation of earlier themes and images: absinthe, ghosts, a mysterious mirror, a carnival parade, a whiff of violence and homosexuality. In many ways the Capote of this book is not the heroic reporter of the two recent movie versions of his life but, rather, a Gothic, fin-de-siecle kind of writer who would have fitted right in with Beardsley and Wilde. You don't read him here so much for character (most of his people are types) or for vivid description as for atmosphere and filigreed prose.

From his descriptions, it's sometimes hard to tell one place from another – Capote's Brooklyn is practically indistinguishable from New Orleans – and that's because all his landscapes aspire in a way to the remembered South of his childhood. Even when he describes the present, many of the pieces feel nostalgic, and there hangs over almost all of them a scent of over-ripeness, of blooms beginning to fade.

A surprising number of lizards scuttle through these pages, not just in Music for Chameleons, but in descriptions of New Orleans, Haiti, even of Brando, who is described as a "guileful salamander". They're not a bad emblem for the author himself – tiny, languorous, changeable, ornamental, gimlet-eyed – and may even suggest why Capote could never repeat the success of In Cold Blood. The climate was all wrong for him: too wintry and wind-swept.