Does Truman Capote belong to the history of literature or the history of celebrity? Both, of course. The man who imposed himself upon the world as an orchid of graciousness and grotesquerie is a legend in himself, and as the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood was someone who made waves and profited from the recording of how waves were made.
In Swan Song, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott novelises the dramatic moment of Capote’s fall from favour with the great society ladies of the Upper East Side. Slim Keith, Babe Paley, C. Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli were household names to people who cared about fashion and glamour and clout.
In 1975, Capote published in Esquire a long extract from his protracted and procrastinated work in progress Answered Prayers, which dished the dirt on these women, and they never forgave him. Capote, who had thrown the Black and White Ball in 1966, the most famous party in the history of the United States, never recovered from their disdain and declined into a world of booze and drugs and degeneration. Nor was Answered Prayers in its shortish entirety a new-found Remembrance of Things Past. But this dramatic and piteous saga is certainly high vitamin – or at any rate, high sugar hit – grist to Greenberg-Jephcott’s mill.
This is a surging, sizzling, big screen, long-form, technicolour epic of a page-turner in grand middlebrow style, rather in the manner of the late Tom Wolfe. Words of the lushest kind abound: they creep, they crawl, they coruscate and they chorus with every hallelujah and ejaculation. Jackie Kennedy and ferried emissaries of the Vatican, Truman and Nelle Harper Lee, and the velvet voice (we hear Gregory Peck’s, of course) of the man we think of as Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird.
This is a big succulent succubus of a book – a sort of panoramic airport novel full of juices of every flavour, but with plenty of eloquence and vaunted style.
Capote’s lisping Southern drawl, as well as his frailty and fearfulness, is more vividly indicated than anything else, though there is some kind of attempt to orchestrate a choric voice for the grandes dames.
Swan Song is a very concerted attempt at a literate novel in the popular mode, a novel about gossip and the pain that comes when it’s mixed with poison, and the heartbreak that can ensue when spotlights shift or fade. QSS
Hutchinson, 480pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan Song ". Subscribe here.