Creative Sensemaker: The truth about Truman

Thursday 28 January 2021

Welcome to Creative Sensemaker, our weekly guide to all that’s best in culture and the arts – movies, streaming, books, music, galleries and much else


For an unfinished novel – short, fragmentary, frustrating – Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers has accrued a mythology quite disproportionate to its literary merit.

Commissioned in 1966, the year in which Capote published his greatest work – the true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood – the three-part fiction of Answered Prayers did not appear in book form until 1986, two years after his death at the age of 59. 

The author had intended his novel to be America’s answer to Proust, a grand narrative of social class, human foible, and morality vying with decadence: a testament to his own rise from modest beginnings in Louisiana to literary and social acclaim in New York where (also in 1966) he hosted the legendary Black and White Ball in honour of Katharine Graham at the Plaza Hotel. 

Yet all that survives is three vituperative, muddled and unstructured chapters – “Unspoiled Monsters”, “Kate McCloud” and “La Cote Basque” – that say more about Capote’s sozzled, drug-fuelled decline as a self-mythologising socialite than about the state of the American Dream. 

In fact, the story of the book is much more interesting than the book itself: which is why Ebs Burnough’s documentary, The Capote Tapes (VOD, January 29), is such a gripping contribution to our appreciation of an indisputably great, if tragically flawed, novelist and chronicler of the 20th Century.

Making astute use of archive material (such as the tapes recorded by George Plimpton in preparation for his own 1997 book on Capote), Burnough has also conducted new interviews with Colm Toibin, Jay McInerney, and others, to shed light on the book’s gestation and the author’s precipitous fall from the toast of Manhattan to social exile.

The publication in Esquire of two draft chapters in 1975 – “Mojave” (dropped from the book) and “La Cote Basque” – outraged Capote’s wealthy patrons, especially Gloria Vanderbilt, William S. Paley (the head of CBS) and his wife Babe, Happy Rockefeller and Ann Woodward.

Not without cause, they regarded the work-in-progress as nothing more than an acidic roman a clef, scorning the very people who acted as Capote’s benefactors. Their revenge was brutal and total (the whole story is beautifully fictionalised in Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s 2018 novel, Swan Song).

In one sense, the film is a cautionary tale of literary pretence and deception on a grand scale (Lauren Bacall archly contrasts Capote’s distinctively effeminate public voice with his “deep male laugh” – which was real?). But it is also one of the great examples of what happens to an artist when he or she becomes the work, the object of fascination. 

As Normal Mailer recounts, Capote’s prose, at its best, was unrivalled. But that literary magic was consumed by the bohemian, hedonistic persona of a writer who set out to be a literary Gatsby and finished up a wreck of a man and – worse – a grim spectacle. By the end, it was the tragedy of Truman, rather than his sad, unfinished book that fascinated and appalled people: the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s hanging out with Warhol at Studio 54, barely coherent in chat show interviews.

The novel’s epigraph, attributed to Saint Teresa – “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers” – could scarcely be more apt. Capote got everything he had dreamt of, and it destroyed him.

Meanwhile, there’s still time to book your place at the first Creative Sensemaker Live ThinkIn of 2021 – tomorrow, 29 January, at 1pm GMT – at which we’ll be talking about the glorious resilience and bright future of the printed book. 

And here are this week’s recommendations…

Watch

The Dig (Netflix, January 29)
Based on John Preston’s fine 2007 novel of the same name, Simon Stone’s film – starring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes and Lily James – is a splendid evocation of the Sutton Hoo find in 1939 of an Anglo-Saxon funerary ship, complete with the astonishing treasures of a seventh century chieftain. In effect, the world of Beowulf arose in material form from the Suffolk soil (check out the British Museum’s online account of the find here).

76 Days (VOD)
On 23 January 2020, the 11 million inhabitants of Wuhan were subjected to lockdown – the first such act of quarantine in response to the virus that would quickly spread across the planet. Hao Wu’s film, set in four hospitals, is a gripping account of what happened in this terrible trial run for a model of social restriction that would, with varying degrees of severity, become all-too-familiar around the world. The access granted to the cameras is extraordinary, as are the scenes of family grief and snatched moments of intimacy between health workers and their dying patients. 

Losing Alice (Apple TV+)
Alice Ginor (Ayelet Zurer) is an auteur director past her creative prime whose life is turned upside down by a chance encounter on a train with a young admirer and screenwriter, Sophie (Lihi Kornowski). Sigal Avin’s new series is a first-class psychological thriller, indebted to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, but full of the twisty reveals and menacing hints that make you want to stream the next episode immediately. 

The Turn of the Screw (Marquee TV, January 30)
A bullseye by the excellent arts streaming platform, Marquee TV, this OperaGlass Works video production of Britten’s opera (based on a Henry James novella) was filmed at Wilton’s Music Hall, and features high-calibre soloists such as Robert Murray as Quint and the Prologue, Gweneth Ann Rand as Mrs. Grose, Alys Mererid Roberts as Flora, and Leo Jemison as Miles. If you are missing opera – or, better yet, want to give it a try – this is not to be missed.


Read

(To buy any of these books, and browse further, click on the title to go to the Tortoise Book Store.)

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain – Sathnam Sanghera (Viking)
Rarely does a book successfully combine personal voice – and Sanghera’s voice is one of the most vivid in contemporary journalism – with rigorous analysis. But this exploration of the role played by imperialism in the formation of modern Britain achieves just that, which makes it both engagingly witty and compellingly serious. A fine balance, accomplished with poise, style and humanity.

Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic – Rachel Clarke (Little, Brown)
This memoir of the first wave of Covid will, I predict, be read a century from now as one of the best eyewitness accounts of what happened in the nation’s wards in 2020. But it is no less important that it be read now, as a riveting, heart-wrenching testimony from the front line. As a palliative doctor and a former television journalist, Clarke writes with grace and empathy about her patients and colleagues, but also has much to say about the scandalous shortages of PPE, the mismanagement of the pandemic, and the sheer scale of this (mostly unseen) human disaster. A must-read.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean – Joan Didion (Fourth Estate, February 4; available on Kindle now)
More than half a century after Slouching Towards Bethlehem electrified readers, Didion’s latest collection of essays assembles work that spans from 1968 to the dawn of the present century. From a celebration of subjective journalism and a declaration of “Why I Write”, to a profile of Martha Stewart and a tribute to Ernest Hemingway, this is a book for completists – but then, who doesn’t want the complete Didion?


Listen

Not Your Muse – Celeste (January 29)
This eagerly-anticipated debut album includes at least one track that will be familiar – “A Little Love”, which was the soundtrack to John Lewis’s Christmas advert. That song encouraged those who have drawn comparisons between Celeste’s talent and the much-missed voice of Amy Winehouse. But one only has to listen to “Love is Back” and “Stop This Flame” to grasp that the parallels are inexact: there is more deep soul and R&B in the 26-year-old Californian singer’s vocal style. There is potential for greatness in that style, and this is a hugely impressive first step.

Palintropos / Michael Stewart: Beyond Time And Space (In Memoriam John Tavener) – Aruhi (piano); New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp
The world premiere recording of any Tavener composition is a cause of celebration for his admirers, not least when the pianist is a performer of Aruhi’s distinction. “Palintropos” was written on the Greek island of Patmos in 1978. “While observing the extraordinary changes of colour in the course of a day,” Tavener recalled, “I began to form a sound-world of pitches, intervals and instrumentation. The title literally means ‘a turning-back structure’ and the idea of turning back is essential to the piece.” Other-worldly and hypnotic, the 25-minute composition sits well with three pieces by Michael Stewart in memory of Tavener, who died in 2013.

Dead Hand Control – Baio (January 29)
Best known as Vampire Weekend’s bassist, Chris Baio has cultivated his own style in his solo work. This, his third album, is surprisingly upbeat, more reminiscent of David Byrne at his cheeriest than the indie-pop doomscape of Baio’s Man of the World (2017) which followed the Brexit vote and Trump’s election victory. Eclectic in style – there are hints of Johnny Marr and New Order – this is a joyful album in grey, uncertain times.

That’s all for now. Do please send us your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

Stay safe and take care of yourselves – and each other.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs Getty Images, Larry Horricks/Netflix, Laurie Sparham/Operaglass Works, Apple TV+, Dogwoof/MTV