Friday, September 04, 2009

Guest of the non-fiction novelist

Benjamin Stein, the German novelist and blogger (whose contribution to the symposium on The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time appeared here earlier this morning, by the way) has replied to my denigration of Truman Capote.

I had said that Capote’s first four books were “distinguished by style and really little else,” but that the style was not very distinguished. It was a bookish style, I said, but “bookish only in the sense of being derived entirely from books without much contact at all with a world outside.” And by the time Capote came to write In Cold Blood, “the mannered prose had become an afterthought.”

For Stein, these assertions are heretical. “None other” than Norman Mailer, it turns out, believed that Capote ranked among the greats:

He is tart as a grand aunt, but in his way is a ballsy little guy, and he is the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which will become a small classic.I am tempted to say that Mailer and Capote deserve each other—two overblown reputations that owed more to extraliterary tomfoolery than to their writing. Algis Valiunas buries what is left of Mailer’s reputation in the current issue of Commentary. At all events, I would not change two words of Ancient Evenings either, but only because I would not want to open it again to find them.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a flimsy bauble upon which to rest a claim for literary immortality. An absurd little melodrama prancing on stiff-legged prose, it was translated for the screen by someone else, significantly enough—George Axelrod, who also wrote The Manchurian Candidate—when Blake Edwards filmed the novella in 1961. Word for word, rhythm upon rhythm, Capote wrote prose of astonishing dishonesty.

In Cold Blood, I repeat, is the book Capote will be remembered for. But not for its literary qualities. Now that the “non-fiction novel” is an established genre—Mark Bowden, a careful reporter and natural writer, is the current master—now that it no longer has any news value, In Cold Blood has little to recommend it.

Its importance, if any, is historical. Capote may not have invented the genre of the non-fiction novel (that honor may go to Defoe), but he inaugurated a literary trend that has been far more influential—what I called in my original post the “chic collaboration with evil.”

Stein is offended:Yes, Capote sympathizes with the murderers, above all with one of them. . . . But Capote does succeed in portraying the killer as a human being. And, no matter how gruesome the crime, no matter how little remorse he shows for his act, he is still a human being. . . . Myers clearly expects the perpetrators to be dehumanized, as is also common practice in war. . . .My objection to what I characterized as Capote’s attempt to mitigate the evil of the killers has not been made sufficiently clear if Stein believes that I expected them to be dehumanized. My objection, in fact, is that the four victims of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith’s botched robbery—Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and two of their four children, Nancy and Kenyon—are the ones who are dehumanized in In Cold Blood. Capote reduces them to the details of the physical objects they left behind them in death.

What Stein takes for granted is not so obvious to me. Is it true that “no matter how gruesome the crime, no matter how little remorse he shows for his act, [a mass murderer] is still a human being”? Or is humanity a moral achievement? Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Capote weaves a humanity for the murderer that Perry Smith was incapable of earning for himself.

Consider, for sake of comparison, how Mark Bowden “humanizes” one of the guards in Guests of the Ayatollah (2006). Akbar is described as “the only guard who took pity” upon Michael Metrinko, a Farsi-speaking State Department official who was locked in solitary confinement in Evin Prison. “He was not an innocent,” Bowden writes. “He had taken part in the assassination of a government official ten years earlier, and at one point had been arrested by SAVAK [Iran’s domestic security and intelligence service under the Shah] and thrown in jail.” Nevertheless, he was more reflective than the other guards:Akbar told Metrinko that he, too, had been trapped by the embassy takeover, caught up in events that he could no longer control and which he no longer agreed with. He shared some of the prisoner’s contempt for his jailers; they, after all, were warm and comfortable and still basking in praise from the great mass of Iranians. For many of them this would be the most important accomplishment of their lives, and they delighted in remaining at the center of such worldwide attention. But what kind of attention? It pained Akbar to know that because of what they had done they were considered thugs all over the world, and he admitted to Metrinko that even in Iran there was now a growing criticism of the ongoing standoff. He and many others now believed the effects of taking and holding diplomats hostage were bad for his country and were going to get worse. He stayed, he said, because he felt partly responsible for putting the Americans in his position and felt obliged to do what he could to ease their captivity.[1]Akbar does nothing to help Metrinko escape—he continues to collaborate with evil—but he does something at least to ease his captivity, if only in spreaking frankly with Metrinko and accepting some responsibility.

There was much more that Bowden could probably have told about Akbar, but he reduces the guard to what is relevant to his narrative purpose: that is, to make known the experience of hostages like Michael Metrinko from the inside.

By contrast, Capote indulges Perry Smith for page upon page as he carries on about his lousy childhood. For the indulgence of Smith’s self-pity is relevant to Capote’s narrative purpose: not to humanize Smith, but to diminish what he did to the Clutters by heaping up the details, not of his crime, but of his person. As Stein says, the “object of Capote’s interest” is not the murder, and not the victims, but the killer. Capote “humanizes” Perry Smith at the expense of the evil he committed.

Is this a “heavy moral judgment,” as Stein accuses? Do I conceive of evil in a “black-and-white scheme”? Or do I insist, like Mark Bowden, that the commission of an evil act is the only reason that someone like Akbar and Perry Smith is known at all—the only reason anybody would care to know anything more about him—and that evil, then, is among the colors of a great writer’s palette?

That evil is conceivable only in a black-and-white scheme is the view successfully propagated by Truman Capote. To hold such a view is to remain his guest.

[1] Mark Bowden, Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), p. 545.


Benjamin Stein said...

Well, citing Normal Mailer as a witness in matters of style may be a weak defense. That Mailer and Capote »deserve each other« made me smile. We will not agree about »Breakfast at Tiffany’s«, never mind.

You bring up the very interesting question whether humanity is a moral achievement. If so, a newborn would not deserve human rights, but it surely does.

Let’s come back to the other example I have mentioned, Robert Merle. We could as well have a look at Martin Amis’ »Times Arrow«. Amis like Merle let the murderer speak, and in both cases the victims are dehumanized. Of course - since this is how a murderer can commit the crime in the first place. In case you know one of those two books I would be interested in your opinion and comparison. Do you see the three books in the same category of books »diminishing evil«? A comparing discussion may shed some light on the question whether »In Cold Blood« is indeed a failure.