Of himself Capote once said:

“I am a homosexual. I am a drug addict. I am a genius.”


Conversations with Capote (New American Library 1985.)

It’s tempting to add to that list ‘I am a spectacularly good self-publicist’ because he certainly was! It’s fifty years this month since In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was published. A book that was merited with introducing a new form to the literary world the non-fiction novel and the basis perhaps for any assessment of him as a genius. The story was of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcombe, Kansas by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Capote went there before the murderers were apprehended, later got to know them in prison and researched the murders for six years. The emotional effects of writing the book were depicted in the film Capote (2005) for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar and also Infamous (2006) a film covering almost exactly the same ground but with Toby Jones in the title role. Both films are excellent but Toby Jones is much more realistic casting than Seymour Hoffman.

I thought it might be interesting to see what Capote had to say himself about the book towards the end of his life when he was interviewed by Lawrence Grobel.

“I became so totally involved in it personally that it just took over and consumed my life. All the trials, the appeals, the endless research I had to do – something like 8,000 pages of pure research – and my involvement with the two boys who had committed the crime. Everything. it was a matter of living with something day in day out.”

On being asked about the experience of writing it:

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t do it again. If I knew or had known when I started it what was going to be involved. I never would have started it, regardless of what the end result would be.”

Not surprisingly he was completely disgusted by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song written about the murderer Gary Gilmour, which was published thirteen years later. His main criticism was that Mailer had hired two researchers and had then written the book on the basis of their research. Capote did not like that one bit.

“I have no respect for Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song which as far as I’m concerned is a nonbook. He didn’t live through it day by day, he didn’t know Utah, he didn’t know Gary Gilmore, he never even met Gary Gilmour, he didn’t do an ounce of research on the book … he was just a rewrite man like you have over at the Daily News. I spent six years on In Cold Blood and not only knew the people I was writing about, I’ve known them better than I’ve known anybody. So Mailer’s book just really annoyed me.”

Another thing that annoyed him was that Mailer made no reference to the influence In Cold Blood must have had on him in the writing of his own book. The reason Mailer gave was as follows:

“I just thought that book [In Cold Blood]was so famous that you didn’t have to give credit to it.”

A specious argument to my mind. He probably simply didn’t want to admit that Capote’s book had influenced him.

In trying to sum up the effect of writing the book on him Capote said:

“I came to understand that death is the central factor of life. And the simple comprehension of this fact alters your entire perspective … The experience served to heighten my feelings of the tragic view of life, which I’ve always held and which accounts for the side of me that appears extremely frivolous; that part of me is always standing in a darkened hallway, mocking tragedy and death. That’s why I love champagne and stay at the Ritz.”

After all those sales he could certainly afford to.

Finally, one time Capote was asked to speak at a college to a hall of students. He turned up drunk and then rounded on them:

“Why, if you want to be writers, aren’t you home writing instead of crowding into this hall to listen to an old croc like me?”

He then passed out at the foot of the podium and three people had to lug him from the stage. Below is the link to a recent piece on In Cold Blood in the Guardian.

Have you seen the films? Have you read the book or Capote’s other novels and short stories? What did you think?



I went to see the film A Most Wanted Man this week; I’d put it off because I couldn’t bear the sadness of seeing the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. But the draw of two greats, le Carré (who wrote the book the film is based on) and Seymour Hoffman, was always going to get me there eventually. Needless to say it’s a fantastic film and Seymour Hoffman is wonderful in it. I love le Carré and I’ve always had writer-envy for the magnificently tough way he ends his novels. They are so bleak; bracing doesn’t even begin to describe them.

Here’s a clip of le Carré talking about A Most Wanted Man.

In 2005 the Crime Writers Association marked its Golden Jubilee by presenting The Dagger of Daggers to him for The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Spy). I voted for him.  Apparently he won by a country mile.  In the same year, I was in the audience when he appeared on stage to wild applause after a screening of The Constant Gardener at the London Film Festival. He seemed rather touchingly embarrassed by his reception which was pretty close, in levels of enthusiasm, to George Clooney’s when he appeared after the very well-received Good Night and Good Luck.

I first read Spy in my early teens, around the time I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn. Oh, those happy teenage years! Spy is the only one I have re-read regularly. I’ve tried The Catcher in the Rye but never managed to get to the end again. I think I’d need to be on Prozac to go anywhere near Cancer Ward. But Spy is such a brilliant, bitter, bleak book.

William Boyd wrote an excellent article in The Guardian in which he suggested that the ending was even grimmer than I’d thought. Could that really be possible? Spoiler Alert if you haven’t read the book. Boyd writes that when Smiley calls to Leamas (astride the wall) from the western part of Berlin, ‘The girl, where’s the girl?’ It’s not because he wants to check that she is alright, it’s because he wants to make sure that she’s dead because she knows too much. Smiley wants Leamas back but not her. Liz is actually  lying dead at the bottom of the wall. Leamas then drops back down on the eastern side of the wall to his own certain death. They turned it into a suitably gritty film with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.

I love this quotation from le Carré about spying and writing:

Graham Greene once referred to the chip of ice that has to be in the writer’s heart. And that is the strain: that you must abstain from relationships and yet at the same time engage in them.There you have I think the real metaphysical relationship between the writer and the spy. JOHN LE CARRÉ 

If ever there was a quote to launch a hundred PhDs surely that’s it. There’s a scene in A Most Wanted Man which reminded me of it.  A young man who’s spying for Günter Bachmann, the character played by Seymour Hoffman, says that he’s frightened, that he can’t do it anymore. Bachmann says, ‘Look, into my eyes,’ and then pulls the young man into his arms. He places his hand against the side of his face. It’s pure seduction; the only thing missing is the kiss.

And this is the other  thing about le Carré; he is a seductive writer. His characters are not simply chess pieces to be moved about. He has compassion for them. He draws you in and makes you care about them and then delivers those brilliantly bleak endings. My top three favourite le Carré books are The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Perfect Spy.  If having to make a ‘desert island’ choice I’d probably take  A Perfect Spy, a brilliant book on fathers and sons, on love and betrayal.

After the film, on the way home on the bus, we had one of those conversations about what makes Seymour Hoffman such a good actor. I know that analysing acting can lead one straight to hell via Pseud’s Corner but so what, it’s fun to do. We came to the conclusion it had to do with his lack of vanity, his vulnerability and of course his intelligence. What a great actor. It’s a mesmerizing film. Go see it.

Do you have a favourite le Carré book? Which one would you take to a desert island and why?

Here’s the link to the William Boyd article: