12 December, 2008

Of course she never has breakfast at Tiffany's!

I remember seeing Breakfast at Tiffany's in my "film studies" elective class in seventh grade, though I don't really remember much of it other than daffy, romantic banter, a cutesy moment centered on a Cracker Jack box, talk of a guy in Sing Sing, and a bespectacled Mickey Rooney screaming down a flight of stairs. I also distinctly remember having no idea what the title meant and deciding that it was an intentional non sequitur serving only to confuse. She never has breakfast at Tiffany's! How could she? It's a jewelry store.

So when I decided to read the novella a few days ago, I actually didn't expect much insight. In fact, when gabby, beautiful Holly Golightly--to a certain extent a New York City escort, to another extent a social butterfly and starlet, but quite possibly none of the above--first drops the titular line, it is indeed a non sequitur. She confesses:
I don't mean I'd mind being rich and famous. That's very much on my schedule, and someday I'll try to get around to it; but if it happens, I'd like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany's.

At that point it's not even clear if she's talking about the store or some friend's house, though other than her big dumb lovable brother Fred--long estranged by the trials of adulthood--she doesn't seem to have any real friends she thinks of by name and would make such plans involving. But soon after, hugging the cat that lives in her transient apartment, she clarifies:

Poor slob... poor slob without a name. It's a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven't right to give him one: he'll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don't belong to each other: he's an independent, and so am I. I don't want to own anything until I know I've found the place where me and things belong together. I'm not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it's like.... It's like Tiffany's.... Not that I give a damn about jewelry.... 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.

Tiffany's is home, and as revealed throughout the book through the eyes of a nameless neighbor narrator she lovingly calls Fred (for a while), Holly spends her whole life looking for it, abandoning her abusive childhood, slipping away from an empty teen marriage, escaping all ties and titles (her business card simply states, "Holly Golightly, traveling"), and eventually fleeing the country to South America and then onward to third-world Africa.

Holly and the narrator are cursed by their excessive talent and their overwhelming ambition. In a world populated by pudgy-faced millionaires with baby complexes, huge, flat-chested women who seductively accentuate their speech impediments, and other such absurdities, they are two smart, young souls bursting with life and ability and unwilling to be imprisoned by anything less than their desert. The narrator, it's assumed, succeeds because he's able to focus his energy on the singular goal of being a published writer, but Holly is unable to align her broad array of exceptional talents and gifts, which brought her from an impoverished life in the deep south to the upper echelons of fashionable New York society.

She despises zoos for their cages, lives out of a few hastily packed cardboard boxes, never seems to sleep, and talks several interesting pages at a time. Breakfast at Tiffany's is hilarious, scandalous (I'm curious to see how the G-rated Audrey Hepburn movie was even made, now that I know about the drugs, sex, and language that proliferate the source material), and rich with modern absurdities, but Capote treats his shy, nameless narrator and his wayward star with a heartfelt tenderness. Their relationship is sweet though not quite romantic, and their peaceful success is yearned for by the reader.

In the end, as Holly prepares a hasty departure, she unleashes her moniker-less feline friend (the cat is like the narrator, who she first calls Fred and then calls Buddy, never bothering to learn the real name because she knows she's destined to lose him in short time), who runs off to find his own Tiffany's while she, perhaps tragically, continues her quest for a sense of belonging and a chance to stop and breathe.


There are three additional short stories compiled with Breakfast at Tiffany's, all of them very diverse: "House of Flowers," a fable about Haitian prostitutes and Carnivale that reminded me of Black Orpheus; "A Diamond Guitar," a precursor to The Shawshank Redemption; and "A Christmas Memory," a beautiful recollection of a perfect friendship.

Of the three, the last is by far my favorite. Capote writes of two friends and distant cousins, one a septuagenarian and the other a seven-year-old, the former as youthful as the latter is wise, preparing for an advancing Southern Christmas by baking fruitcakes for distant acquaintances (motorists who once broke down at the driveway, the bus driver, the President of the United States) and crafting gifts and decorations. Capote's images are precise, as in this scene where the two misfits, neither with any source of traditional income, dig out their savings to prepare for grocery shopping:

Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man's eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies.

The pair enjoy Christmas richly without material goods, savoring the smells of good cooking, the warmth of companionship, and the taste of adventure. Yet for all its tenderness and tranquility, in spite of its familiar theme and message, the story never comes off as schmaltzy, moralistic, or falsely nostalgic. It's a terrific snapshot of a sweet spot from childhood, and it deserves to be a Christmas classic by now, though unfortunately I'd never heard of it before.

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