Having just read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I have recently become interested in Truman Capote, an American novelist with a complex past and quite the socialite in his time. A couple weeks ago, I found an original 1965 edition of Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, a gripping account of the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in the tiny, rural town of Holcomb, Kansas. Capote denoted this work the first ever “nonfiction novel,” a label that has remained subject to controversy to this day. The premise and plot of the book (the town, the murders, the investigation into the killers and their execution) are all based on fact (Capote interviewed extensively, stayed in the town and took copious notes, etc.); however, the catch is that Capote wrote the story exactly like a (seemingly fictitious) novel, complete with lilting prose and recreated dialogue. The question, then? To what extent can we consider the work a truthful, detailed account of a series of horrific murders and the chaos that followed, versus one in some respect “marred” by Capote’s overshadowing interpretation? Where is the line? Interesting to deliberate, though not the subject of this post.
In Cold Blood is a riveting read, in any case—I would recommend it. I was flipping through it again yesterday, this time to investigate its connections with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (in terms of rural setting, ethics at play, etc.). I happened to notice that at the beginning of my edition of In Cold Blood, some of Capote’s other novels are advertised, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s. An excerpt of a Time Magazine review of his novella discussing the heroine, Holly Golightly, was included. “She’s the hottest kitten ever to hit the keys of Truman Capote,” it stated, “a cross between a grown-up Lolita and a teen-age Auntie Mame… aline and a little afraid in a lot of beds she never made.” Having just read the novella, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita this past summer, I found the phrase “grown-up Lolita” particularly intriguing. Further research online revealed that the connection between the two protagonists, Holly and Lolita, seems to have not been fully explored, and I thought it was worth contemplating in greater detail here.
When reading the words “grown-up Lolita,” what immediately came to mind was Capote’s implication in Breakfast at Tiffany’s that Holly Golightly’s childhood was to some extent characterized by abuse. In the novella, “Holly Golightly” is not actually Holly’s given name; rather, just a persona she creates to escape the trauma of her past and reinvent. Holly begins as scarred child-wife Lulamae Barnes, married at age fourteen and shouldering incredible responsibility as mother figure for the previous four children of her husband, Doc Golightly. On top of this, Lulamae was a victim of abuse, as is clear from a discussion on her past lovers in which Holly almost casually says, “not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn’t count.”
We see the likes of this abuse in Nabokov’s Lolita, in the obsession of Humbert Humbert, a thirty-something literature professor, with the twelve-year old Dolores Haze: the “light of [his] life, fire of [his] loins,” his “sin, [his] soul.” She is the perfect “nymphet,” he believes—his Lolita. Over the course of the novel, he becomes sexually involved with her, and at the end, accuses himself of statutory rape. The effects of this abuse on Dolores’s development are clear in Lolita: “amorous relations [with Humbert Humbert become] a commonplace she must face with boredom” (Balakian 141), and which she can frequently manipulate to obtain money from him. “Used up physically before her deeper feelings have been aroused, she cannot grow to the real meaning of love” (Balakian 141). And, as our last glimpses of Lolita suggest—we see her married, in need of money, pregnant, and broken—”she will grow old before having known what it is to be young and fulfilled” (Balakian 141) because Humbert Humbert has robbed her of her childhood.
Lolita later dies in childbirth, so we do not see the more lasting, psychological effects of the abuse much beyond that. But with Holly Golightly, we do see the aftereffects. The little-discussed trauma of child marriage and sexual abuse and the unimaginable pain and loss of innocence that go along with them are the very reason she reinvents, forever in futility. First, she runs to Hollywood, seeing in acting—a socially acceptable profession of reinvention for women—an opportunity to push away her pain forever. However, as an actress, she would need to be “managed” and taken care of, by producers, agents (O.J. Berman), and other men. Having just emerged from an environment in which she was “taken care of” by being forced into teen marriage as a tragic respite from a childhood filled with abuse, this is understandably unbearable. The “wild thing” once again runs, this time to New York—where she rejects stability, masquerading on the edge of danger through the Russian roulette she plays each night with powder room men, or in visiting a drug dealer for weekly prison chats. She chases control (like Lolita, with the bribes), constantly giving out roles for her male acquaintances to play—“serve me a drink, lend me your key, answer to the name of Fred,” she commands enticingly. She increases her allure by creating a game, of sorts—one that allows her to pull all of the strings. She needs to do this, to be able to live with the violation that characterizes her past—that which Lolita also experiences. In a way, Holly’s story, given the time of her life in which we see her in Capote’s novella, could most certainly serve as a continuation of Lolita’s own. She really is a “grown-up Lolita.”
I noticed quite a few other similarities between the two works. In terms of Holly and Lolita again, both Capote and Nabokov write them as rebellious anti-heroines, moving relentlessly against the grain. For Holly, we see this in the “ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow” (3) that stand out to the narrator along with her “chic thinness” (3) and more feminine “rough pink darkening in the cheeks” (3). An androgynous figure, she challenges conventional societal standards for female beauty while still coming across as elegant, slick, and attractive, both in physical appearance and personality. With Lolita, one would expect her to be much more shaken up by the abuse she has faced since childhood—a twisted take on the “damsel in distress” trope—but I would argue that he does not write a lot of that explicitly into the novel. In many respects, Nabokov instead portrays her as a seemingly normal teenage girl whose “lust for life has no other object than creature comforts and infantile excitement” (Balakian 141). That is part of why his novel is actually so controversial—with his beautiful prose, he twists the standard, making us believe for a moment that this kind of “pathological love” (Balakian 141) is possible—real, even—and could actually leave a teenager “normal.” Breakfast at Tiffany’s would of course suggest otherwise, as would the little bits of Lolita’s adult life that we see at the end of the novel.
Published three years apart, both Lolita and Breakfast at Tiffany’s also offer very interesting, but wildly different views of America at the time. Capote tends to focus on New York, the epicenter of the country; for Holly, it is in that city and that city alone where her persona can go unnoticed for its falseness and even be widely accepted! She throws fabulous parties, strings along oodles of men, keeps up a reputation as a starlet, jumps bail, and then leaves and is forgotten almost immediately by the vast majority of people. For reinventresses like Holly, for immigrants looking to become Americans, for the endless amounts of people coming there to escape their pasts, Capote makes it clear that New York is the perfect mask. The city is a kindred spirit; it’s Holly herself who says, “they must see this, these lights, the river—I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it” (19). That is Capote’s vision, and one that has stood the test of time.
Nabokov, on the other hand, characterizes the greater American landscape. This mainly occurs in Part Two of the novel, where Humbert Humbert takes Lolita across the country on a “road trip” (note: really, he kidnaps her). In my opinion, this, along with his absolutely stunning prose, is the real value in his controversial Lolita. Nabokov’s portrayal of the American Roadside no doubt heavily draws from a road trip he took with his wife Vera across the country. “through the open expanses of the Appalachians, the small towns of Tennessee and Arkansas, the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona” (Haven). His descriptions of the landscape in the novel, in Humbert Humbert’s voice, are incredibly detailed and vivid. He writes: “We came to know—nous connûmes, to use a Flaubertian intonation—the stone cottages under enormous Chateaubriandesque trees, the brick unit, the adobe unit, the stucco court, on what the Tour Book of the Automobile Association describes as ‘shaded’ or ‘spacious’ or ‘landscaped’ grounds.” He also extensively describes the American motels in which he and Lolita stay frequently: “Nous connûmes (this is royal fun) the would-be enticements of their repetitious names—all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mac’s Courts.” In the novel itself, motels—locations where people up and leave frequently—serve to detach Humbert Humbert’s actions from society’s moral compass; with them, the two don’t settle down anywhere, and therefore, Humbert Humbert is free to define his own criteria for relationships and continue to live in the hidden dream where what he does to Lolita is acceptable. The description is even more so a valuable account of what motels, the populist American invention, looked like in Nabokov’s eyes—the eyes of a Russian outsider, an émigré. It’s fascinating to contemplate this vision in conjunction with Capote’s. Both authors offer different portraits of America, but with intertwined heroines.
A last note, and not the original subject of this post, but just for fun—the quality of writing in both is absolutely amazing, and renowned as such; both Capote and Nabokov are famous for it. Nabokov’s is the perfect combination of humorous and serious, and somewhat uncomfortably and rigidly intellectual (purposefully so, to reflect Humbert Humbert’s profession as a literature professor as well as his hubris and high personal opinion of his own intellect). And Capote’s is lilting Southern prose, striking in its own right.
Here are my favorite excerpts in this regard from Lolita:
“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
“We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.”
“For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
“My car is limping, Dolores Haze,
And the last long lap is the hardest,
And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,
And the rest is rust and stardust.”
And, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s:
“Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell,’ Holly advised him. ‘That was Doc’s mistake. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”
“Home is where you feel at home. I’m still looking.”
“It should take you about four seconds to walk from here to the door. I’ll give you two.”
“You’re wonderful. Unique. I love you.”
“But it’s Sunday, Mr. Bell. Clocks are slow on Sundays.”
“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.”
And that’s it! Hope you enjoyed this post, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. До скорого, Рая!
Balakian, Nona. “The Prophetic Vogue of the Anti-heroine.” Southwest Review, vol. 47, no. 2, Spring 1962, pp. 134-41, www.jstor.org/stable/43467384. Accessed 24 Mar. 2020.
Haven, Cynthia. “The Lolita Question.” Stanford Magazine, 2006, stanfordmag.org/contents/the-lolita-question. Accessed 24 Mar. 2020.
Some of the analysis is from a paper I wrote about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, specifically around Holly Golightly as a reinventress, for an American Lit class. Read it here.