Magical Thinking: Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

tiffanyBreakfast at Tiffany’ s is the January read for my Halifax book group: we’re meeting next Saturday at Pipa to talk it over and celebrate the new year.

I more or less enjoyed reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s: more because the prose is so elegant, less because I found Holly Golightly tedious. She seems to me one of a type, though a particularly fey and charming example of it: it’s a type I think of as the intellectual man’s idea of a temptress, and other examples include Sue in Jude the Obscure and Julia in Brideshead Revisited. I believe I accused these two of representing “pseudo-philosophical eroticized flightiness.” Holly lacks their intellectual pretentiousness and shows no sign of haphazard piety, but she raises the same question for me as the other two: what’s so attractive about her? Is it that she’s so unstable her sexuality is not threatening? Is it that her intelligence is randomly dispersed rather than ambitious? Is it that for all her allure she seems fundamentally vulnerable?

Actually, even as I write I’m thinking of more ways Holly is different from my other examples. She is more endearing (at least to me), because for all her elaborate artifice, she seems warmhearted. Though she uses the men in her life to serve her selfish ends, she also enjoys giving pleasure, and she’s loyal . And she says some wise things, including “Anyone who ever gives you confidence, you owe them a lot.” And — and here’s where I think much of her charm probably does lie, for every reader — she’s a wistful dreamer, someone who, like all of us, is just wishing for a way to live her life that feels safe and happy, and maybe even a little bit dignified:

What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. 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 their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.

Do we all have a place that works its magic on us the way Tiffany’s calms and cheers Holly? I bet in this crowd a lot of us feel that way in a bookstore. I’ve been feeling kind of fretful lately, but this afternoon I treated myself to a browse and a coffee at Chapters, and though it’s not even my favourite bookstore to visit, I sure felt better after an hour or so roaming the shelves. While I was in there, I was wondering about one of the sources of my fretfulness–the surge of writerly confidence I felt after I got back from Boston last year, or rather the way that surge seems to have ebbed away. I spent a lot of my time in Boston in bookstores, and with other people who thrive on reading and writing and talking about books. I’m not looking for excuses to buy more books, really! But it occurred to me today that just spending my time in that way might have affected me at some subterranean level by affirming priorities, and even an identity, somewhat different from my day-to-day reality. My relationship with the wider book world is much more furtive in my ordinary life: I often (if irrationally) feel kind of guilty when I buy books, or when I steal away from work and family to browse them at my leisure; my bookish contacts and conversations are nearly all virtual; I have to fit in my non-academic reading and writing in between my “real” work tasks; my home office where I do my blogging and non-academic writing is even in the basement! I think there’s a way in which being in an actual bookstore summons up a fantasy life for me the way Tiffany’s does for Holly, though the precise things we want to feel and do are hardly the same.

5 thoughts on “Magical Thinking: Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

  1. Alex January 13, 2013 / 6:14 am

    You won’t be surprised to hear that I completely agree with you about bookshops. As my hairdresser says (although of course she’s talking about her own profession) they should be on prescription. What really interested me here was the fact that your ‘bookish contacts and conversations are nearly all virtual’. And yet you work in a University English Department. The thing is, I would have had to say exactly the same. You would have thought talking about books (other than those on the syllabus) might be something we might do with our colleagues, who surely should be readers too, but we don’t. Why not?


  2. Sarah Emsley January 13, 2013 / 7:53 am

    I was planning to email you today to see if you want to meet for coffee, so we can talk about books. I’m not in the English dept., but I’m local. And I like to talk about Boston bookstores, too.


  3. Colleen January 13, 2013 / 10:16 am

    Your post reminded me that I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s not all that long ago…I had actually forgotten. Now, I recall enjoying it but it clearly left no lasting impression whatsoever! I don’t recall thinking much of it other than that it was sort of pleasant and easy, a break from more engaging books. I’ll be interested to hear what your book club says about it.

    As for that sort of happy place, bookstores do the same for me, although sadly less so lately. I much prefer secondhand bookstores, but here in Toronto those are all slowly but surely turning into remaindered bookstores–the shelves increasingly filled with multiple copies of all the usual suspects sporting an offensive dot or line along its page edges to show they’re remaindered. Part of my joy of book browsing is the unexpected find.

    There’s also a coffee shop here that does this for me. It’s always full of readers and the owner once told me he”ll never get wifi because he doesn’t want that to change. Bless his heart–there *is* something sad about walking into a beautiful space and all anyone’s doing is surfing Facebook!


  4. Rohan January 13, 2013 / 6:27 pm

    Alex, I wonder that too. I certainly do have some colleagues and local friends (hi, Sarah!) who like to talk books, but at almost every department event I’ve been at in recent years, I usually find myself in long conversations with people about what everyone’s watching on TV. One reason is probably that we do all read a lot for work, and so watching seems more relaxing. Another is that readers so rarely converge on the same books, whereas TV shows come in fads or waves — everyone was watching The Wire, or Mad Men, or Downton Abbey, or whatever, so that’s common ground. But as I’ve remarked here before, when I bring up things I’ve been reading or am interested in reading, very often the response I get is along the lines of “I don’t know how you find the time to read.”

    Sarah, lovely thought! See you soon.

    Colleen, it is kind of forgettable, I think. I didn’t even like it as much as, say, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which is also light and whimsical but seemed also rather deeper. Maybe I’ve fallen into the “relatability” trap–I have nothing in common with the enchanting and careless Holly, but it wasn’t hard to see a bit of myself in drab old Miss Pettigrew! I love second-hand bookstores too, and it is a source of great grief to me that my two favourites have relocated to Dartmouth so between time constraints and my neurotic difficulties about driving (especially in the winter) I can’t stop in and browse in them anymore. That coffee shop sounds very nice.


  5. Colleen January 14, 2013 / 2:46 pm

    I agree re: Miss Pettigrew lives for a day–even finding the part about relatability! That said, now that I’m forcing myself to recall Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there were things I could relate to HG about…but somehow it doesn’t matter. I think it might be the writing, to be honest. It’s clean and readable and sometimes quite elegant, but it’s not robust–and robust seems to be necessary for long-term remembering of books for me.


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