Reading Book #13: Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing

I worship at the altar of Truman Capote. I adore his prose and I’m fascinated by the man. I’ve watched two different biopics about him – Infamous and Capote – almost back to back (I favoured Infamous, because the dishy Daniel Craig played Perry Smith). I’ve read the book – In Cold Blood – which Capote wrote at the end of the events covered in the movies. I’ve also read Breakfast at Tiffany’s; I found it to be profoundly moving. How many of us can say that we haven’t felt as rudderless as Holly Golightly confesses to feeling? As for the gem of a short story A Christmas Memory, I’m yet to come across prose that aches with such nostalgia and loneliness.

What I’ve found most interesting about Capote is how he could employ such very different prose styles to tell very compelling stories. In Cold Blood, as everyone knows, is the account of the brutal murder of a Kansas family, and the prose is appropriately sombre. Obviously, it’s a book that is very different in tone from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The latter is, in fact, closer in style to Summer Crossing, his very first novel. There’s an interesting story here; you’ll find it everywhere if you go online. In a nutshell, Capote was apparently unhappy with this manuscript, he abandoned it, left instructions for it to be discarded, but someone held onto to and long after the author was dead, it was rediscovered, auctioned by Sotheby’s and bought by the New York Public Library. After much deliberation, it was published.

The plot of Summer Crossing revolves around 19 year old Grady McNeil – a beautiful young debutant, who has been left in New York for the summer, as her parents sail off to their vacation home in the South of France. Her married sister is residing in her family’s summer home at the Hamptons, so it’s a great opportunity for Grady to continue, and intensify, her affair with the unsuitable Clyde Manzer. Clyde is unsuitable for many reasons, primary among them being the fact that he’s a Jewish parking lot attendant from Brooklyn. He’s also older to Grady and indicates at one point that he may be engaged. Nonetheless, what started out as a summer fling turns into a full-blown love affair.

When reading the novel, one can clearly see the beginnings of Capote’s trademark style of sharp social observation combined with unsparing, razor-sharp wit. His insights into people’s minds are quite brutal. Capote is not a very polite man, at least in his prose, and he says things as they are. One of the notions that our minds find difficult to accept is that while a mother may love her child, she need not necessarily like her. It’s after all, much like other human relationships, and governed by compatibility of personalities. Capote, however, does not hesitate to delineate a mother-daughter relationship that is affectionate at best, and distant at its worst. Sample this:

“…once when she was fourteen, she’d had a terrible and quite acute insight: her mother, she saw, loved her without really liking her; she had thought at first that this was because her mother considered her plainer, more obstinate and less playful than Apple, but later, when it was apparent, and painfully so to Apple, that Grady was finer looking by far, then she gave up reasoning about her mother’s viewpoint: the answer of course, and at last she saw this too, was simply that in an inactive sort of way, she’d never, not even as a very small girl, much liked her mother.”

This is brutal, but it’s not quite conscious of being so. It is rather matter-of-fact in describing this less-than-ideal relationship between parent and child. Considering Capote’s own personal history, of course, this is quite understandable. As a child, he had been subjected to the ‘benign neglect’ of his parents and had been brought up by relatives. It’s clear he never quite got over his loneliness and parental absence is a motif in most of his work, such as A Christmas Memory and Other Voices, Other Rooms. Indeed, Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly’s family background is a complete mystery. Summer Crossing is less thorough in its abandonment theme, although Grady’s parents do leave for France right at the beginning of the book. Significantly, when Clyde’s mother, who clearly still has an overbearing presence in her son’s life, is introduced, it’s the beginning of the end for the love affair. Perhaps on an unconscious level, Capote seems to be indicating that true love, and poetry and romance, can only flourish away from the severe, judgemental gaze of parents. After all, didn’t his talent as a writer blossom when he was away from his parents?

Capote once again displays his casual cruelty when describing the love affair: Grady is pretty and smart and seems just a little bit lonely, but she displays a sort of benevolent contempt and a rather cold affection for her family and her immediate circle. Clyde, on the other hand, is affectionate, impetuous, loud-mouthed and can be a bit of a male chauvinist. Love between these two – even the fierce urgency of first love – is bound to be an imperfect thing, and the romance of their encounters begins to fade as the book progresses. And yet, he inserts gems like this:

“Snatching her hand, he pulled her along with him, and they ran until they reached a side street muffled and sweet with trees. As they leaned together, panting, he put into her hand a bunch of violets, and she knew, quite as though she had seen it done, that they were stolen. Summer that is shade and moss traced itself in the veins of the violet leaves, and she crushed her coolness against her cheek.”

Knowing what we do of Capote, it’s fairly obvious right from the start that the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Not for him the satisfying finale with a happy marriage, kids, perpetual health and wealth. After all, such stark happiness leaves no room for ambiguity and ambiguity is what Capote is best at. That’s why, when he describes the little scenes of affection between Grady and Clyde, their brief playacting of domesticity and their certainty that they do indeed love each other, it breaks one’s heart. Little do they know how Capote has plotted their story.

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