Two Mid-20th Century Manhatten Novellas: Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1958) and J. D. Salinger’s ‘Franny and Zooey’ (1961)

Edith Wharton aside, my New York reading really has been incredibly bleak so far (as a counterpoint to my holiday – I’m having a wonderful time).  This week, therefore, I’ve decided to go for intellectual middle-class angst over poverty-ridden misery.  Both of these books are short (perfect for reading in Central Park) and any emptiness or ennui they present is actually rather comforting when read after ‘Miss Lonelyhearts‘ and ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn‘!

image It’s a shame that this novella is best known because of the film, when the book is better in every respect – and also not hideously racist.  I want to get this out of the way early because I saw the film for this first time on this holiday and I was disgusted with the unwatchable presentation of Mr Yunioshi … moving on.

Capote’s Holly Golightly is fascinating but ephemeral.  In the first pages of the book we hear about her as a sculpure, an address label, an almost Goddess and an obsession amongst the men she meets, before we hear her actual voice ‘welling up from the bottom of the stairs … silly-young and self-amused. “Oh darling, I am sorry.  I lost the goddam key.”‘  It’s a stunning introduction of a charming, feckless, superficially happy but ultimately lost heroine.

While Holly has a back story, some of which is shared, and Capote hints of future adventures, the novella remains tightly focussed on her brief New York career.  Mixing happily with soldiers and millionaires, equally comfortable at Tiffany’s and in Sing Sing, Holly embodies what is transient and seductive about the big city.  She is the Sally Bowles of New York, equally fragile, but much more optimistic.  A top New York read.

image‘Franny’ and ‘Zooey’ are a short story and novella that can be read either independently (as they were first published) or as a disjoined whole (as their inclusion in a single volume seems to suggest).  Both contain the character of ‘Franny’ a clever, pretty and wealthy college student who appears to have it all yet is faced with despair at the state of the world.  So far, she’s managed to fit in better than Salinger’s most famous adolescent, Holden Caulfield from ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, but things are starting to slip.

The first short story describes the start of a breakdown.  The Franny here is pretty and all-American, a source of pride for her equally sucessful and conventional boyfriend. In the second story Franny (or a different Franny) is suffering in the bosom of her family.  Force-fed chicken soup by her mother, Franny’s confusion is shown as it impacts on her brother, Zooey.  These siblings are the youngest members of the Glass family, a media sensation and well-known collection of celebrity child prodigies.  Seemingly left alone by their vaudeville parents, Franny and Zooey were educated by their equally precocious elder brothers.  The syllabus developed was heavy on ethics and mystical religions and both of the recipients suffer from the conflict between their public selves and the complex ideologies they partially understand.  Like Holden, they see phoniness around them but, unlike him, they know what it is to belong and be loved.  It’s all very self indulgent (their speech is filled with italics and ‘goddam’s) and I found it a perfect contrast to the physical misery of my earlier NY reading.  Long live the guilt-ridden Manhatten intellectual!

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12 Responses to Two Mid-20th Century Manhatten Novellas: Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1958) and J. D. Salinger’s ‘Franny and Zooey’ (1961)

  1. I really didn’t like the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I keep hearing that the original is quite different. You’ve persuaded me to give it a try!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    The book is always better, I say, and definitely with Tiffanys’s – I hate it when film endings cop out! 🙂

    • The horrible thing was that it wasn’t just the ending that was a cop out – the characters, the romance, the main themes. It was a very upsetting film-watching experience. Good thing I had the original to cheer me up afterwards!

  3. MM – not read the Capote – but very tempting to do so indeed, and the Salinger would be a pleasurable re-read Thanks for reminders and temptings!

  4. JacquiWine says:

    I read a collection of Capote short stories earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed them. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is on the list for the future – thanks for the reminder. Glad to hear you’re enjoying your time in NYC!

  5. MarinaSofia says:

    Sounds like perfect Central Park reading. I did like Audrey Hepburn (and her clothes) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but oh, the book is so much better!

  6. I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s so long ago that I’ve forgotten almost all of it and no longer own it, so it’s not ‘on the shelf’ 🙂 I’ve somehow managed never to have seen the film. Reading in Central Park sounds like heaven!

    • It really was.
      The good news is that ‘Breakfast’ is also available as an e-text online so if you’ve an appropriate device that can be a way of reminding yourself of its brilliance…

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