75 at 75: Sheila Heti on Truman Capote
A special project for the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Sheila Heti writes about Truman Capote reading from “Among the Paths to Eden” and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was recorded at 92Y on April 7, 1963.
Posted on Dec 12, 2013
“Just a minute while I stop being vain,” Truman Capote says, and one can hear the click of his glasses unfolding. He has just introduced his story “Among the Paths to Eden”: “Tonight I want to read a story which I have actually never read aloud, and that’s rather a trick because ordinarily . . . There are certain stories that you can read aloud and certain that you can’t—some that are written for the eye and some that are for the ear. And I really don’t know about this story at all, but I’m going to try.”
Of course, he would have known this story was fine for the ear; he was too serious a performer to make the blunder of reading a story that’s only “for the eye.” Still, one can discern a curiosity about his performance—we can hear him actually listening to himself as he reads. The story is funny and moving—about a woman trying to pick up a recently widowed man in a cemetery. Although the scenario is absurd, it’s also not. It feels like a time capsule—from an era when a woman so desperately had to find a husband or else she might as well live in some cemetery.
When he’s finished, he asks, “Would you like me to read a scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” the way a famous singer might ask, “Do you want to hear that single that I know you’ve all come to hear?”—equally chuffed and resigned. The applause is not as enthusiastic as one might expect, and sensitive to this—Capote was likely sensitive to every room he was in—he offers, “Either that or a story.” But no one applauds at that line so we hear him turning the pages to finds the part.
This reading took place in April 1963, upon publication of The Selected Writings of Truman Capote. His friend, John Malcolm Brinnin, a poet and literary critic and former director of the Poetry Center, introduces him, marvelling, “In the very curious sociology of these times, the name of Truman Capote has become a household word, his comings and goings treated [like those of] movie personalities and baseball players. So that he no longer has to write a book to make news but simply to be . . . Truman Capote.”
Nobody would introduce a writer that way today. It’s unremarkable that someone has “simply to be” to make news. Yet Brinnin’s voice is not that of an elitist fearing the soon-to-be-galloping-away horse of mindless celebrity culture—perhaps because what he sees happening to Capote means only something about the remarkable Truman Capote, not the direction of America itself.
Brinnin says, “No one is surprised anymore to read that this young American writer has been quietly dining with Princess Margaret or that he has been spirited off on the yachts of Greeks richer than Mycaenus, or that he has recently flown to Amsterdam to have a tooth filled. But let us be wary of the disguises of genius.” I love this—the disguises of genius—and am reminded of how when Kierkegaard was writing his great religious texts he made an effort to appear in dandified clothes at the theater every night during intermission (the rest of the evening he was home writing) so he would be seen and thought to be that sort of man—a dilettante and idler.
Brinnin wrote intimately about Capote (whom he met at Yaddo) in his memoir Sextet, calling him “the young artist and the cloistered scholar.” After he introduces him, hearty and sustained applause fills the hall. Capote performs in a voice that edges up against the sarcastic—as if there is still some irony in being Truman Capote—but he hardly has to perform, although he hardly performs his selections marvellously. As Brinnin pointed out, the fact that he is Truman Capote does a lot of the work. Clearly, for a certain type of literary genius—as Kierkegaard’s dual labors show us, racing from the writing-desk to the theater, wiping the sweat furiously from his brow, slowing down his heart as theater-goers flood the lobby—one has “simply to be” in order to please the crowd.
Sheila Heti’s latest novel is How Should A Person Be?