Capote Readathon: Short Stories (Part Two)

For those of you who have been following the Summer Capote Readathon that I’ve been doing with Kirsty of The Literary Sisters, you’ll know that we are reading from The Capote Reader – a sort of compilation of his best short work, including twelve short stories. We wrote about the first six of these at the end of July, and in August we read the second six of these. Enjoy!

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Master Misery

This story follows Sylvia, a lonely young typist in New York who takes a job just to get away from the “excruciatingly married” and rather narrow-minded couple that she lives with. That sounds simple enough, but really this is quite a surreal story – the centre of which is a man who buys dreams from people. They visit his house and sit in a waiting room and are ushered in by his assistant, Miss Mozart, rather like at a doctor’s surgery. Sylvia hears about him in a cafe and goes there only to see if she can make some money and move away from her irritating flatmates.

One her second visit she meets a man who tells her that Mr Revercomb, the man who buys dreams, should be known as Master Misery, because “all mothers tell their kids about him: he lives in the hollows of trees, he comes down chimneys late at night, he lurks in graveyards and you can hear his step in the attic. The sonofabitch, he is a thief and a threat: he will take everything you have and end by leaving you with nothing, not even a dream.” Sylvia replies that she heard of him too as a child, and remembers the stories. This man, Oreilly, and she become sort of friends, and bond over their mixed and dubious opinions of Master Misery. Over time his influence seems to help Sylvia to stop being afraid of things, of the city and the dark, of having no money. In the end she walks with her head high, “truly […] not afraid … and anyway, there was nothing left to steal.”

 

Children on Their Birthdays

In this story all the children seem to behave like adults – a Miss Bobbit is at the centre of it all, a ringleader who gets two particular boys (one of which is the narrator’s cousin) to work for her. They seem to think whoever does the best job will be chosen as her “true sweetheart” but when they mention this to Miss Bobbit she only says “sweetheart my eye”, calls them country children and asks what sort of businessmen they are going to be. All the boys seem to adore her, and she takes advantage of her status to ask for donations to finance her trip to Hollywood to become a star. She says they will all get 10% of her life’s earnings, and being so crazy about her they are more than willing to pay.

The story begins with the fact that “yesterday afternoon the six o’clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit. I’m not sure what is to be said about it; after all, she was only ten years old, still I know no one of us in this town will ever forget her.” The narrator tells us that she never did anything ordinary, and I suppose that is why she has such an effect on the town, though she is only there a year. Right at the end of the story she is waiting to travel to Hollywood, and she is distracted by the boys playing the roses, and she runs to them – and gets hit by the bus. I’m not sure if there is supposed to be a moral here – perhaps the point in that no matter how extraordinary you are, you might still get hit by a bus like anyone else?

 

A Diamond Guitar

I remember first reading this in an edition my sister had of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It takes place in a prison, described as “the farm”, where a new prisoner arrives with a rumour that he owns a guitar covered in jewels. He is assigned to ‘shadow’ one of the older and more respected prisoners, and much of the story explores their developing friendship. They eventually plan as escape, but the older prisoner, Mr Schaeffer, knows that his young friend is “a terrible liar” and would spin yarns and promise “the world” if they escape. The guitar comes to symbolise the beauty of the world outside the prison that is somehow unattainable. It is a very vivid story, and filled with beautiful descriptions and very believable characterisations. Like a lot Capote’s short stories this one is quite sad, but I didn’t find it as dark as a lot of the other stories. It’s really quite lovely to read.

 

House of Flowers

In a way House of Flowers is also about unattainable happiness. Ottilie is fourteen years old and working in a brothel in Port-au-Prince. She is selfish and vain and is happy to manipulate men to get what she wants. One day she falls in love with a boy named Royal Bonaparte that she sees at a dance, and they run off together. They get married, and go to live with his grandmother – who happens to have a reputation as a “maker of spells.” She and Ottilie immediately clash, and the grandmother soon starts leaving bits of animals in her possessions as spells, the first being the head of a cat left in Ottilie’s sewing box. Ottilie promptly drops the head into the stew the grandmother is making, and continues to do this with every animal she finds.

The grandmother comments on how good the food is, and asks Ottilie why she won’t have more – who replies that she doesn’t like cats in her stew, or spiders in her bread, or snakes in her soup. The grandmother then understands what Ottilie has done and promptly dies that afternoon – though it is not clear if it was the food or not. Ottilie soon believes that she sees the grandmother as a ghost, watching her. Her idyllic life as Royal’s wife as become dark and strange, but somehow their relationship seems to endure. It’s quite a surreal story, told with a certain distance and flippancy, and this makes it seem even more strange.

 

Among the Paths to Eden

This little story takes place entirely in a cemetery – and in some ways it is rather grim, and focussed on death. A gentleman, Mr Belli, visiting his wife’s grave is approached by a woman. They talk about their deceased family, and seem to get on well. She is a slightly odd young woman, but nice enough, and Mr Belli wonders why she is making such a point of talking to him – until she reveals that her friend has advised to look for a husband “in the obituary column”. Her friend has married twice that way, reading the obituaries of dead women and going to the cemetery to charm their widowers. It’s a strange practice, though she seems likeable enough. In the end Mr Belli manages to excuse himself, but he doesn’t actually seem that put off – maybe they will meet again one day.

 

Mojave

This is quite a late story of Capote’s, from 1975, and I think demonstrates an evolution in his storytelling. His gay characters are openly so, and the darkness that he often suggests within relationships is clear to see. Mojave is filled with damaged and unhappy relationships, which is not unique to Capote, but here the damage is more visible, the unhappiness is less tame. There is a story about an old man standing alone in the Mojave desert, who tells the story of a burlesque dancer he had an affair with, that takes up most of the text, and is quite surreal. To  me it seems like Mojave is more about a state of mind, or being, than anything else. It contains several stories within in it, separate and yet connected, and is not as simple as it sounds. But then, you could probably say that about most Capote stories.

You can see Kirsty’s post about these stories here.

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