Tag Archives: Truman Capote

Literary Beginnings – Monday Morning by Patrick Hamilton and Summer Crossing by Truman Capote

Something a little different from me today. It can be interesting to follow the development of a favourite writer to track how their work evolves over the years. In this post I’m looking at the debut novels of two masters of their craft, Patrick Hamilton and Truman Capote, delving into their literary beginnings to see how they started their careers.

Monday Morning by Patrick Hamilton (1925)

A fascinating insight into how Hamilton’s work was set to develop over the years, this debut novel offers early glimpses of many of the writer’s trademark tropes – more specifically, men who become infatuated with unsuitable women; forthright comic characters complete with various eccentricities; the challenges of writing, acting and other artistic pursuits; the seedy atmosphere of Earl’s Court with its smoky bars and pubs; the lure of prostitutes and heavy drinking: and of course, the loneliness of tawdry boarding-houses and hotels. It’s a lovable little novel – rather amusing and optimistic compared to Hamilton’s other work, but characteristically strong on dialogue too.

Central to the story is eighteen-year-old Anthony Forster, a romantic, idealistic young man embarking on the first phase of his adult life in London. (Everything up to this point has merely been a prologue to this ‘true’ beginning, a curtain raiser to the main event.) With his aspirations of becoming a successful writer and poet, Anthony is in danger of daydreaming his time away, forever resolving to make a proper start on *Life* next Monday Morning.

Anthony was quite sure, really, that he would be successful in obtaining a very good journalistic position. Also he had a certain fear in the obtaining of a good journalistic position. Wemyss had frightened him with stories of frantic interviewing, reporting, and putting papers to bed. There seemed in journalism a quite unfamous, distressfully energetic note of competition. Not that Anthony did not relish a bitter fight for fame. But he did not like this way of setting about it. A far nicer way of doing it would be to starve somewhere, in a garret, writing immortal things, and being free. Even been found dead one morning in the red, new sunlight. (pp.70-71)

Very little happens in the way of plot in this novel; instead, the story focuses on experiences as Anthony searches for a meaningful purpose in life. Naturally, there is love along the way, especially when our protagonist meets Diane, a rather shallow, impetuous young girl who happens to be staying at the same Kensington hotel (the Fauconberg). Amid the heady emotions of youth, Anthony’s mood fluctuates from rushes of wild passion to periods of abject disillusionment, particularly as Diane is so capricious in nature.

In time, Anthony gets a small part in a touring play via a fellow boarder at the Fauconberg, the forthright Mr Brayne. The production takes Anthony to a range of different locations including Sheffield, Manchester and Torquay, highlighting the isolated nature of a life lived in temporary accommodation complete with all its drab associations.

Anthony had lunch at his combined room. Steak piping hot, hot plate, greasy potatoes and cabbage. And after this he lay on his bed and slept. Not sleep exactly. A worried, giddy, dim consciousness of his own cold legs, the warm pillow, the milkman’s cart outside, an occasional little shriek from an opening gate, the rapping of quick heels on the pavement, coming from afar and fading abruptly around a corner… (p.158)

While the hopeful ending might feel a little sentimental for some Hamilton enthusiasts, I loved it for its warmth and idealism.

In summary, this is a charming novel for fans of this writer’s work. Probably not the best one to try if you’re a newbie – The Slaves of Solitude or Hangover Square would be my recommendations there.

Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (written in the 1940s, published posthumously in 2005)

This vivid, eloquent novel – Capote’s first – revolves around seventeen-year-old Grady, the beautiful, headstrong daughter of the privileged McNeil family. In many ways, it is a coming-of-age story as Grady’s sexuality is exposed in the blistering heat of a New York summer.

Her everyway hair was like a rusty chrysanthemum, petals of it loosely falling on her forehead, and her eyes, so startlingly set in her fine unpolished face, caught with wit and green aliveness all atmosphere. (p. 51)

When the McNeils set sail for France, Grady is left alone in her parents’ luxurious apartment for the season, determined to make the most of her new-found freedom. The tensions between Grady and her mother, Lucy, are apparent from the start. While Lucy has plans for her daughter’s future introduction to society, Grady herself has other ideas, preferring instead to throw herself into an impassioned love affair with Clyde, a Jewish parking attendant from Brooklyn.

With his rough background and lack of prospects, Clyde is most definitely not the type of man the McNeils would approve of, in spite of his earlier stint in the forces. Closer to their social circle is Peter Bell, a charming, sophisticated young chap who has known Grady since childhood. To complicate matters further, Peter is in love with Grady, a notion that has only just begun to dawn on the young girl herself.

As one might expect, the story plays out in striking fashion, building to a startling denouement that leaves an indelible mark. The contrast between the social classes is a key theme here, as is the impetuous nature of youth, a time when everything seems carefree, untethered and lacking in permanence. For a debut novel, it’s very impressive, hinting at the greatness of Capote’s output in the years to follow. The prose, in particular, is beautiful and lyrical, perfectly capturing the passion of Grady’s emotions alongside a vivid sense of place.

She would stay all afternoon and sometimes until it was dark. But it was never dark there: the lights that had been running all day grew yellow at dusk, white at night, and the faces, those dream-trapped faces, revealed their most to her then. Anonymity was part of the pleasure, but while she was no longer Grady McNeil, she did not know who it was that replaced her, and the tallest fires of her excitement burned with a fuel she could not name. (pp. 24-25)

I thoroughly enjoyed this early glimpse into Capote’s world, a novel that elegantly explores how the choices we make in the inexperience of adolescence may have profoundly damaging consequences in the weeks and months that follow.

Summer Crossing is published by Penguin, Monday Morning by Abacus; personal copies.

The Complete Stories by Truman Capote

Back in July, a couple of bloggers I follow (Ali at Heaven Ali and Lizzi at These Little Words) were reading Truman Capote’s A Capote Reader. I didn’t want to commit to reading such a big volume, but their posts did pique my interest in Capote’s short stories, hence my purchase of The Complete Stories.

This collection consists of twenty stories written between 1943 and 1982, presented in chronological order. I’m not going to try to review each story in turn, but to give a sense of the themes and a little of what I thought of the collection as a whole.


The settings for Capote’s stories seem to fall into two main camps. Firstly, we have the stories set in the Deep South. A few of these tales feature mysterious, almost fable-like characters – in some instances a strange individual who seems to possess some unfathomable insight or supernatural power over others. In Jug of Silver, for example, a drug-store owner looks to revive interest in his flagging business with a competition to guess the total value of all the nickels and dimes stuffed into a large glass jug. The more money customers spend in the shop, the more opportunities they gain to guess the amount. When a curious boy named Appleseed arrives out of the blue exclaiming that he will count the money by sight, no one believes he can do it…

New York provides the setting for the remaining stories, and these city-based tales mostly feature lonely individuals or couples trapped in failing relationships. The situations are not straightforward, and Capote’s characters tend to be vulnerable, isolated or unhappy with the cards that life has dealt them. In Master Misery, one of my favourites from the collection, we meet Sylvia, a young woman who is clearly irritated to be living with her childhood friend Estelle and her husband:

It occurred to her then that she might walk home through the park: an act of defiance almost, for Henry and Estelle, always insistent upon their city wisdom, had said over and again, Sylvia, you have no idea how dangerous it is, walking in the park after dark; look what happened to Myrtle Calisher. This isn’t Easton, honey. That was the other thing they said. And said. God, she was sick of it. Still, and aside from a few other typists at SnugFare, an underwear company for which she worked, who else in New York did she know? Oh, it would be all right if only she did not have to live with them, if she could afford somewhere a small room of her own; but there in that chintz-cramped apartment she sometimes felt she would choke them both. (pgs 155-156, Penguin Classics)

I love that quote: Sylvia’s anger at her situation, Estelle’s patronising tone. It conveys so much about the characters and their position.

The Master Misery of the title is Mr. Revercomb, a man who buys dreams for money, stealing a tiny piece of an individual’s identity with every story. Sylvia starts selling her dreams, but as the story progresses she becomes increasingly unsettled, ultimately realising that she must reclaim what’s rightfully hers.

In Miriam, another disquieting story, a lonely woman in her sixties befriends a young girl, Miriam, on a trip to the cinema. But when Miriam arrives at the woman’s apartment expecting to move in, events take a more sinister turn.

Capote certainly knew how to structure a short story. The openings are strong and for the most part I found myself immediately pulled into the initial scene and the story itself. Here’s the opening of The Bargain in which Mrs. Chase is talking on the phone to her husband. A simple scene but effective nonetheless:

Several things about her husband irritated Mrs. Chase. For instance, his voice: he sounded always as though he were bidding in a poker game. To hear his unresponsive drawl was exasperating, especially now when, talking to him on the telephone, she herself was strident with excitement. “Of course I already have one, I know that. But you don’t understand, dear – it’s a bargain,” she said, stressing the last word, then pausing to let its magic develop. Simply silence happened. (pg.177)

Mrs. Chase is waiting to receive a visit from a woman named Alice Severn, a friend she hasn’t seen in over a year. This woman has fallen on hard times, and the ‘bargain’ in question is a mink coat she needs to sell. I won’t say any more about what happens when the two women meet, but I’ll share the final lines to illustrate how Capote ends his stories. They often finish with a shiver: a note of sadness, a melancholy tone:

Alice Severn did not thank her, and at the door she did not say goodbye. Instead, she took one of Mrs. Chase’s hands in her own and patted it, as though she were gently rewarding an animal, a dog. Closing the door, Mrs. Chase stared at her hand, brought it near her lips. The feel of the other hand was still upon it, and she stood there, waiting while it drained away: presently her hand was again quite cold. (pg 183)

Capote’s stories are very atmospheric. His prose is clean and yet he seems equally adept at capturing the tone of the Deep South and the feel of the city streets. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of the NYC-based stories showing the streets in summer:

He turned into a side street leading toward the East River; it was quite here, hushed like Sunday: a sailor-stroller munching an Eskimo Pie, energetic twins skipping rope, an old velvet lady with gardenia-white hair lifting aside lace curtains and peering listlessly into rain-dark space – a city landscape in July. (pg. 94)

Three or four of the stories towards the end of the collection seem to reflect aspects of Capote’s own childhood in Alabama. Born in New Orleans in 1924, Capote was ‘deserted by a too-young and sexually adventurous mother and a bounder of a father’ only to be raised by a collection of cousins and neighbours. (That quote comes from Reynolds Price’s introduction.) This experience appears to have left its mark on Capote as a sense of loneliness and difference, of not quite fitting in, inhabits these stories. Two of these – A Christmas Memory and Thanksgiving Visitor – are among my favourites from the collection, and both feature the relationship between a young boy, Buddy (possibly Capote) and his best friend and distant cousin, Miss Sook. Buddy’s cousin is ‘sixty-something,’ but as a result of a long illness in her youth, Miss Sook remains a child.

A Christmas Memory tells of preparations for Christmas. Miss Sook and Buddy bake fruitcakes for all those who have shown them kindness during the year; they craft homemade decorations for the tree and presents for each other from materials squirreled away during the year. In Thanksgiving Visitor, Miss Sook attempts to heal the rift between Buddy and a boy who bullies him at school. Both stories are evocative, beautifully told and poignant, A Christmas Memory especially so.

I really enjoyed Capote’s Complete Stories, and they made a welcome change between a run of deeper novels. Most of the stories were very good to excellent, although three or four in the collection drifted a little and didn’t quite manage to hold my attention. Still, that’s pretty good going for a complete set of shorts – I wouldn’t expect to click with each and every one.

The Complete Stories is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 3/20 in my #TBR20.