Novel Readings

Magical Thinking: Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast 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.