In my early twenties, at about the same time as I was connecting with a certain type of cynical, over medicated American writer, I came across the work of Truman Capote. I’d watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s of course, and heard of his larger than life reputation, but his writing came as a complete revelation. In place of the froth or glitz that his lifestyle suggested was a clear eyed take on the world, utterly honest but not jaded. Capote wrote with a journalist’s eye for detail and a poet’s ear for the music of the English language.
My favourite writing dealt with his day to day observations. Like the piece where he followed a cleaning lady around New York, taking regular breaks to smoke one of her many ‘roaches’. Then there were the reminiscences from his childhood in a place that feels as distant as Huckleberry Finn’s but is remembered with typical clarity.
A Christmas Memory returns us to the 1930s when Truman was seven and lived with a collection of distant elderly cousins in the small rural Alabama town of Monroeville (where he met his lifelong friend Harper Lee). It deals with another close ‘friend’, his cousin Miss Sook Faulk, a woman in her sixties ‘but still a child’.
‘Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!’ Capote’s friend says as they begin their annual Christmas preparations. Dirt poor, they wheel out an old pram and scour the countryside for windfall pecans.
Then, what little they do have in the fruitcake fund is laid out on the bed ready to pay for the rest of the ingredients, ‘Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man’s eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles.’
Katherine Rundell has said ‘It is easier to trust a writer who writes great food,’ and judging by the attention he lavishes on describing the cake making, Capote was a man you could trust with your last, lively dime.
‘The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odours saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke.’
Next on the list is a Christmas tree, procured from deep within the woods. Truman’s cousin has some useful advice on how to select your tree – make it ‘twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.’
Decorations are of course home-made, ‘I make sketches and my friend cuts them out: lots of cats, fish too, some apples, some watermelons, a few winged angels devised from saved up Hershey bar tin foil.’ It’s a scene reminiscent of the hand made decorations in the Shirley Hughes classic Lucy and Tom’s Christmas and there’s a similarity too in illustrator Beth Peck’s painting style.
This is a hugely emotional book, but never nostalgic. It ends terribly sadly, but Truman still has his old friend in his heart as he writes about her thirty years later; this unusual, childlike woman who he immortalises in the most beautiful way.