Right from the very beginning I want to make clear that my object of commentary is Truman Capote’s novelette Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and not the movie by the same name.
From the novelistic point of view, a few of Capote’s writing techniques drew my attention during this rereading.
Throughout the book the narrator shows his frustration in attaching a label to the protagonist, a label that would capture and define her personality, something catchy and easy that readers could quickly digest. After grappling with “a crude exhibitionist,” “a time waster,” “an utter fake,” he finally hits on a simple literary device -that when used in the right place and time sticks- that is often neglected: the oxymoron.
How apropos of Holly Golightly! “A phony. But a real phony.” Who can disagree with that?
In the exchange about writing between the narrator and Holly, one common sense jewel shines: Beware of description. This piece of advice coming from an illiterate character such as Holly Golightly wounds the vain writer-narrator.
“I read the story twice,” says Holly. “Trembling leaves. Description. It doesn’t mean anything.
According to Stephen King, three tools are available -narration, description, and dialogue- to novelists, which they must use with care. Abuse one, and the entire work suffers. This is really Holly’s common sense advice. Description should be used to highlight the sensory details that the writer wants the reader to feel. Gratuitous description neither moves nor delays the story since it has more to do with the readers than with the story.
For example, in the scene where the narrator rubs oil on Holly’s back: “Her [Holly’s] muscles hardened, the touch of her was like stone warmed by the sun.” This is ‘description.’
Again, another piece of common sense advice that coming from a character who only reads tabloids, shreds the writer’s vanity:
“I haven’t planned that far.”
“That’s how you stories sound. As though you’d written them without knowing the end.”
Ah! How perceptive of Holly. In Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, we learn that Crusoe falls a magnificent tree and carves out a dazzling canoe, only to see that he couldn’t take it to the water. Lack of planning in daily life as well as in writing can ruin our lives.
Not only is the novelette is rich in straight one-single-image similes such as:
It nagged me like a tune.
Miss Golightly, to be sure, floated round in their arms light as a scarf.
He’d look like a monk if it …
His speech had a jerky metallic rhythm, like a teletype.
…and fell full-length, like an axed oak.
But we can also find similes which are elaborate, more carefully crafted:
“As a quartet, they struck an unmusical note, primarily the fault of Ybarra-Jaegar, who seemed as out of place in their company as a violin.”
“Mag Wildwood couldn’t understand it, the abrupt absence of warmth on her return; the conversation she began behaved like green logs, they fumed but would not fire.”
“And since gin to artifice bears the same relation as tears to mascara, her attraction at once dissembled.”
Similes are a dime a dozen, but when a writer hits on a felicitous metaphor, this figure can become a prototype and become part of the language. Breakfast at Tiffany’s has come to mean ‘expensive mental theraphy’ which soothes the nerves, for as Holly Golightly says, “nothing very bad could happen you there.”