Have You Read? Breakfast at Tiffany’s

I read voraciously, constantly.  It’s my oldest love.

One of my current reading themes involves early/mid 20th century writing.   Since I live my daily life wearing 70 year old fashions, I like to branch out to gain deeper understanding of pop-culture at the time.  I don’t mean history exactly, I mean what people read and thought, how they cooked their eggs, and exactly what a little bow on your blouse signaled. 

The girl who wore a blouse like this- would someone passing her on the street in the 40’s find her pretty or prim?  Fresh or fussy?  

I like old movies for exactly this reason, with the added bonus I can hear accents and watch women walk.

Old literature- and even more so the trash- reveal much about perceptions and ideas, as well as coloring in the black and white images I carry in my mind.  I recently re-read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and thought to share.

Consider the opening paragraph from Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.  For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment.  It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs, upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.  The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit.  Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints of Roman ruins freckled brown with age…Even so, my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment…”

He assumes we know that particular red velvet, but 63 years after publication I can’t say I do.  Yet the way he describes it, I can almost feel the cheap nap and he conveys its utilitarian ubiquity.  Indeed, the same might be said of his first apartment.  

What’s that?  Breakfast at Tiffany’s set during WW2?  Imagine Holly with blond victory rolls…  I first read the novella about a year ago with trepidation.  What if the book ruined the movie?

They’re different- like how a burger compares to a thick, well-seasoned steak dinner.  Both delicious, but the steak is more of a meal.  With due respect to Audrey, the movie tames Breakfast at Tiffany’s into a bittersweet herterosexual love-story.  It’s pretty and multi-layered, but not like the novella.

The novella explores the full range of human sexuality, drug addiction, child abuse, and the many kinds of unrequited love without offering a neat ending.  Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s breathes and lives.  His Holly hides behind her ability to scandalize people around her, yet Capote himself doesn’t seek to shock us.  At the time of publication, movie makers faced harsher censure than writers, which accounts for the divergences.

And oh oh b-b-boy, I love Mag Wildw-w-wood, Holly’s brief roommate and foil.  She’s a phony phony, not a “real phony” like Holly.  Consider her description:

She was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty, if only because it contains a paradox.  In this case, as opposed to the scrupulous method of plain good taste and scientific grooming, the trick had been worked by exaggerating defects; she’d made them ornamental by admitting them boldly.  Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face.”

Telling, so telling- about Mag, about beauty ideals, about perception.  Starving models don’t belong solely to our generation.  I stand on the outside of his prose assessing the culture that bred this creature, but at the same time I feel pulled in.   I can think of women I consider triumphs of ugliness- I love looking at them, they are arresting and beautiful but in a completely unconventional sense.   

Have you read it?  Did you like it?  If you haven’t read it, will you?  It’s possible to read in one or two sittings and good to the last word.  I miss discussing books, I’d love to hear what you think! 

Would anyone else care to join me reading, maybe some sort of vintage readalong?   I plan to read Casino Royale (1953) next, and re-read both Grapes of Wrath and Gatsby in the next few months.  It’s too bad they force those on us in highschool, I worry it ruins Steinbeck and Fitzgerald for a good many people.  I want to revisit Hemingway and cast around for some other influential works.

I have several crumbling bits of obscure pulp fiction picked up at the op-shop including one called “Lady, What of Life?” which begins with the sentence “I am one of the scraps that life has flung by.”  It’s from 1931.  I adore reading old rubbish.


24 comments

  1. A vintage read along would be interesting! My oldest dd, who is homeschooled, might also be interested in participating–she gets to read Gatsby this year.I haven't read Breakfast at Tiffany's. At present, I am reading Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac, a mid 19th century book. And I'm reading a mystery from early in the 20th century but forget the author. Old books are fun!

  2. I was homeschooled. Or, more accurately, I was unschooled. How old is your daughter? I read gatsby for the first time when I was 12, it went straight over my head but I rejoiced in the way he put words together.I haven't read Cousin Bette, I'll put it on a list for next time I'm in the mid-19th cent. I'm also reading Restoration plays and poetry to feed my Charles II fixation. It's rather earthy…

  3. I have an old 'trashy' book kicking around called A Merciful Divorce. I can't remember how old it is (pre- 1920 I think), but the plot (as you may have guessed) is about wealthy socialites and playboys who seem to constantly marry and divorce, the the wreckage they leave behind. the virtuous woman wins her husband back from the claws of the homewrecker in the end – it's a fun read.

  4. I loved the book! I read it before I ever saw the movie and found myself a bit let down by the adaptation – too 'fluffy' by comparison! Plus the depiction of the japanese neighbour left a bad taste in the mouth…That paragraph about Mag was one of my favourite passages too :) I'm actually going to give away a copy of this shortly (along with another favourite book, The Big Sleep – in which a lot of detail is payed to female outifts!), you've reminded me to get on it and make the post!

  5. Just a few thoughts…You are right, there are a lot of books we are forced to read in highschool that are wasted on us. We don't have the life experience to understand what is going on, let alone appreciate the nuance. Apparently, Truman Capote hated the movie and had wanted Marilyn Monroe as the lead. The movie never made much sense, but gosh was it gorgeous to look at! I saw this in the West End of London last year. It was pretty good, and followed the book more faithfully. I remember reading the House of Flowers as a teenager and liking it. I don't remember much about it, but since I was about 16 it was probably idealised and mawkish! :)

  6. What wonderful descriptions. I think I know exactly the type of velvet that the book is referring to – we still have similar velvet fabric knocking around on some of the older underground trains here in London, and yes I can confirm that they are cheap and nasty!

  7. Birdmommy- what fun! I like trash because it reassures me that trash has always been around. That and they usually carry very good descriptions.oooh Emmi, I'll have to read The Big Sleep, too. I never saw the movie. I could see how the movie Tiffany's would be a letdown after the book. Movie, then book works ok though. Karin- yes, exactly about not having the life experience yet. I did enjoy those books in my teens, but re-reading them even a few years later really brought them to life. I read that about Monroe, I'm not sure she would have necessarily brought the right pathos to the part. But I guess Capote knew who he was writing… (Though at the time, Audrey was a bit over and used this role to re-establish herself…)Freya- how cool! Molly- the book is great. Did I mention that? :) I'll be pleased to post more reviews as I read.

  8. I loved the book, but it must have been at least 20 years since I read it… I really need a nudge to add variety to my reading list, so thank you for the reminder! (I might read along if you start a vintage reading group, too.)

  9. I haven't read it, but it's on my list! I would definitely be into a reading group. I love the old stories, too… so much depth and lets you really understand the 'glorified' and 'romanticized' past. It's amazing how different things really were as compared to old movies and our imagination. Keep me in the loop if you decide to do a read-along… I'm totally in for that.

  10. I never thought to look for that book, usually when we read a book, the movie always disappointed because it leaves no "fly" the imagination as well …. reading old books along, What a great idea!

  11. I read Grapes of Wrath in highschool. It was good, although I didn't particularly care for the way the writer alternated a chapter of story with a chapter of description/ambiance. It did add to the "feeling" but it irritated me as a reader.I don't know… I enjoyed a lot of the books I read in high school, and many of them I wouldn't've touched ever if I hadn't been required to. I still can't abide literary endings, though (you know, the ones where nothing really happens and nothing gets resolved. Grapes of Wrath had one of those. So did Catcher in the Rye.)I read mostly trash, but it's largely fantasy so it's limited in its historic interest (and age, although reading the original Conan the Barbarian stories really gives you a sense of the attitudes of the times even if the specifics aren't there, and Lovecraft is a vintage treat as well).I don't read as much as I did as a teen, though—partly because I'm busier with life, but partly because I don't need the escape as badly as I used to. I don't hate my day-to-day life any more. Which has to be a good thing :).

  12. Great book– biiiiig Capote fan. I often think about the subject of this post, how there are SO many things that would have been part of the common collective consciousness in the eras I'm interested in, which we really have no way of authentically recreating or understanding in a meaningful way, because you just would have had to LIVE in the times to get them. Does not stop us from trying!! Thanks for making me think in these afternoon doldrums. :)

  13. I will definitely join you in a vintage sewalong. I have a Truman Capote collection on my shelf that needs a re-read. I recently re-read Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat and yesterday Chocky fell out of my bookshelf and landed on my foot, so I think it's clamouring for attention. I bought a Kindle to travel with last year and it's so quick, easy and cheap to get these classics now. Incidentally, I watched Rear Window on television at the weekend and the clothing was lovely. If you want to go back further, Wuthering Heights is always good for a re-read. As for Breakfast at Tiffany's I separate the film and the book because they are very different characters to me. I love both of them and will always watch the film when it's re-run.

  14. Have you read much vintage Australian fiction? You might not have come across this in High school. Early/mid 20th century -Ray Chawler, Patrick White, Martin Boyd, Rachel Henning, Aneas Gunn, Henry Handel Richardson . I don't think Brisbane is a very strange or savage part of Australia, so your old profile always gave me a giggle.

  15. K- I've read good Australian fiction, I took a few intensive classes on Australian Lit and Film at university before I moved here. Let me see if I can remember some… Breaker Morant, Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, Frank Moorhouse, and several others I can't recall. Then I moved here and discovered no one knew the authors I'd studied, and anyway artists tend to flee as soon as they are able, so I gave up on Australian culture. Oh well. You're right, Brisbane is neither strange nor savage, it's kind of blandly unassuming so my description is mostly for effect. I'm glad I made you smile.Carol- I love that movie, too! I keep meaning to read "In Cold Blood" but have yet to get around to it. I only just re-read Wuthering Heights, having been forced to read it in high school and discovered such a treat.Lisa- Common collective consciousness, that's exactly right. I'm going to use that phrase.Tanit- were you one of those kids in English class who would put your hand up during a discussion of motifs and say something like "What if the sky was just gray that morning and it had no meaning?" :) I guess it depends what elements you read for- if you read for plot then literary endings are frustrating. Reading for the words and what they're saying, well, then endings like those have to happen. Did you hate the end of Gatsby? To everyone else interested in reading along… Would it help to post a book and some questions to ponder while reading, and then at a predetermined date start a discussion?

  16. I recently read 1984 and re-read Animal Farm by George Orwell. Those are from 1949 and 1945 respectively. I plan on reading Ayn Rand soon and will start with Atlas Shrugged. 1957 but perhaps old enough for you.

  17. Some friends of mine moved in to an old house and found a trashy book hidden up high in a closet. It was tucked away out of sight. I was so interested in why it was hidden (the lady who lived there before had been there for years) that I ended up reading it. It was written in the 20's or 30's and was about a woman who got pregnant by her lover but decided she didn't want to marry him. She raised her child on her own. The book was totally innocent in its descriptions but I guess the topic was scandalous! I can't remember the title now, but I'll look it up.

  18. Dawn- How could I forget the great political commentaries of the time? Good grief. I haven't read any of those in a while, Fountainhead is another of Rand's… Liza- sounds like an honest book. Very interesting. Old houses often hold treasures.

  19. I'm currently reading Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. He wrote it during WWII, but it is set in English upper class society during the 1920s and 30s. Or so I'm told. I've only just started it and he's just arrived at Brideshead and starting to reminesce about his prior visit.

  20. I love "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and though the movie is a very sanitised version of the real essence the book I love them both. Have you ever read any of the books by Edith Wharton? The best known is "Age of Innocence". The author describes upper crust New York society in the 1870s and it is fascinating.

  21. Lizajane's comment reminds me of when my parents were renovating their house (which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year) in the 90s. We found a stash of old "Saturday Evening Post" magazines tucked in the ceiling, dating from 1942-43. They had some nifty period short-stories in them. Probably some nifty fashion, too, but at the time I wasn't interested in that. I should see if I can get my mom to dig them out and scan some…I haven't read Gatsby, I confess. I tend to shriek and hide under the covers at the first hint of Literature with a capital "L". I enjoy good, meaty writing—like the writing in Grapes of Wrath, or Catcher in the Rye—but yeah, I guess I consider "plot" to be an essential. I hate endings where nothing happens. Speaking of Catcher in the Rye, I loved that book right up until the last chapter. When I finished it, I could've thrown it across the room, I was so pissed off with the ending. Ah, well. Good luck with the readalong! :)

  22. I well know the type of velvet mentioned and its modern incarnation lives on in buses and trains across the UK. Not comfy, but oh so hardwearing!

  23. Ahhh…now I am tempted. I did manage to read a bit of vintage trash on the road trip a "romance" (yes, it even said so on the spine) called 'Nurse Nora's Patient', which did have excellent and insightful descriptions of the fashions of the late 50s.


Is it kind, useful or interesting? Great!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s