Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s is almost certainly more famous as the 1961 film, starring Audrey Hepburn. Or possible the 1993 song, by Deep Blue Something. Either way, this first ‘Looks at Books’ blog post is going to examine Breakfast at Tiffany’s – a mid-century tale of cafe-society girls, roaming cats and the mean reds.
Before the post really kicks off, I’ll explain- this series of posts is a bit more personal than the historical ones (as literature usually is). There’s going to be a lot more ‘I’ than ever before. So, if you’re looking for the facts about the fiction, you’re in the wrong place- consider this borderline diary entry in the amount of ‘I’ that’s going on.
I’m not going to run through a synopsis of Breakfast at Tiffany’s here, because you can either find something much more thorough and much better than I would manage online, or you can just read the book! It’s actually a really easy read- very short, very accessible and with that mellifluous mid-century American linguistic style that makes you feel like you’ve really achieved something by reading the book, even though it’s brief, and there’s not a great deal of plot to have to concentrate on. Instead you can just enjoy the characters and the words and bask in the atmosphere of mid-century Manhattan.
I didn’t expect to, but I loved this book. The first few pages, with that flashback set-up, put me off a bit, but it was absolutely worth pursuing. Maybe I’m a naive reader, but I don’t like knowing what’s going to happen before I get the story…
Having never seen the film, nothing was spoiled for me ahead of reading. Except for the fact that this is 2016, and I’ve grown up in a Hollywood-saturated environment, with happy endings and kisses in the rain and rocking chairs on the patio. So one of the biggest frustrations I had with this novel was the ending-that-isn’t-an-ending. What happens to Holly? I suppose the point is that the ending cycles back to the beginning, with that flashback opening, but it was still a shock. I’m told that the film smooths this over with a satisfactorily mushy ending.
However, the close of this novel summed up a lot of the themes and character issues all in one fell swoop- it was kind of all over the place, self-consciously vague, and it doesn’t even try to offer you comfort or closure. It’s jarring when it ends, but you knew that the story had to come to a close at some point. Holly herself is a cut-and-run kind of figure, and she has spent her life leading stories and then ending them without warning, without closure and without knowing what is going to happen next. It’s the best explanation for the brevity of this book: it’s not a whole story, it’s more of an episode. The only episode Holly will let you have access to.
Image: Truman Capote, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in 1980.
I love a story that challenges you by giving you a character that, should you meet them in real life, would annoy the hell out of you. Holly Golightly might endear herself to the reader eventually, helped along, no doubt, by Audrey Hepburn’s immense charm and grace, but I spent some time wondering when she would just stop. She’s a real Daisy Buchanan, in the sense that the great importance of her character derives from the very things that make her difficult to read. She’s a critic’s dream though, because she develops into someone not anywhere near as cut and dried as you might first think. She just a big ball of contradictions, all wrapped up inside a pretty woman, which is what makes her so appealing to the writer-type, looking for someone to ‘solve.’ She claims to have no feelings for anybody, but expresses genuine affection for the narrator, her brother Fred, and even Sally Tomato. She doesn’t have much in the way of possessions, but she’s always looking for things to take. She needs blacked-out sunglasses to see, but uses them to block out the world.
It’s only in the middle of the journey that we even realise the biggest contradiction of the story– she is the sympathetic character after all. She’s not actually Holly Golightly, as such. She’s Lulamae, child-bride from the South, who’s crafted an accent and a persona that means she can move about intermittently. The novel picks up on contemporary fascination with this flexible, changeable, mold-able actress/muse type of woman, which you see in popular interest in people like Audrey Hepburn, to an extent, and most famously in Marilyn Monroe.
There’s also something to be said about the very American fascination with reinventing or creating your own character, which (to draw another link) is very Gatsby-esque. There’s a cross-over comparison post coming soon, which will pick up on more of the similarities between the two stories, the two authors and the characters, ahead of looking at The Great Gatbsy itself.
Image: The iconic cover of The Great Gatbsy belongs to the publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, and in this instance has been found via wikimedia.
Holly is a real chameleon, actually, with a bundle of different descriptions through out the novel. The clearest picture is from the narrator’s first sight of her:
“She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks.”
Her multicoloured hair and her capacity to wear anything and look like everything is a conscious choice- to be able to move around she needs to be able to be flexible, hence her decision to survive on “cottage cheese and melba toast.” She keeps her hand in at stealing from shops, even though she doesn’t need to. She picks up a guitar every now and then. She keeps books about horse-racing and other ‘men’s topics,’ so she is never without a topic of conversation. She blends in and out of a crowd at her own whim, and this is how she draws a sense of power and control. She consciously chooses to thrive on instability and change, which jars with the narrators desire to somehow make a steady living out of his writing career.
The book has a strange nostalgia for its own time, which matches up with the forever young/ wild thing feel of Holly’s character. The whole book, short as it is, is like a literal snapshot of a time period, a mode of thinking, or a type of community, which was mourned for straight away. Maybe even as it was happening. It’s a romantic story, even without the cleaned-up heterosexual Hollywood ending. However, there’s a real awareness throughout that things can change very quickly, and this homage to a type of person, a type of lifestyle, is tremendously prescient, given the way the US looks back to the mid-twentieth century now as some sort of lost golden age.
You can find Breakfast at Tiffany’s in all good bookshops, or online.
If you’re in the UK, and you’re reading this post at roughly the time it was published, you can go to see a stage adaptation of the novel: full information about dates/prices/Pixie Lott’s hair, is available here.
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Image Credits: Wikimedia (as always), and pixabay for royalty-free gems.
- Jeff Solomon, “Capote and the Trillings: Homophobia and Literary Culture: At Midcentury.” Article in Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 54, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), pp. 129-165.
- This relates to an author (Lionel Trilling) who will be much discussed on this blog in the future. There was a sneaky reference to his own book, The Middle of the Journey, in this post.
- Pamela Robertson Wojcik. The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945–1975. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
- Blas Payri. “‘Moon River and Me’: The film-song as leitmotiv in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Article in The Soundtrack, Oct 2011, Vol.4(2), pp.137-152.
- TIson Pugh. Truman Capote: A Literary Life at the Movies. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014.