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.