My mother-in-law, a terse Teuton with a gift for expression in her acquired, German-accented English, once described Truman Capote as “a poison dwarf.” Hard to improve on that, either for malice or vivid accuracy. Capote was an eccentric, nasty little bastard, but he brought a rare artistry to nonfiction prose. (Sometime he brought fabrication, too, as in the last chapter of In Cold Blood, but that’s another matter.)
Today I am pointing you to a great Capote piece, “The Duke in His Domain.” The duke is Marlon Brando, observed and interrogated by Capote in a Tokyo hotel room in 1957. The piece weighs in at 14,000 words—OK, a tad long for an alumni magazine feature well—and appeared in The New Yorker on November 9, 1957.
I’m sending you to the poison dwarf for two reasons. One, as an example of an artful profile, “The Duke in His Domain” ranks with some of my favorite profiles by Gay Talese. Second, Nieman Storyboard has inaugurated a new series of posts called “Why is this so good?” and they’ve begun with a concise, nifty bit of analysis of Capote’s story by Alexis Mad-rigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic.
Let’s start with a tasty morsel from “The Duke.” Here is part of Capote’s description of Brando’s hotel room.
Without the overlying and underlying clutter of Brando’s personal belongings, the rooms would have been textbook illustrations of the Japanese penchant for an ostentatious barrenness. The floors were covered with tawny tatami matting, with a discreet scattering of raw-silk pillows; a scroll depicting swimming golden carp hung in an alcove, and beneath it, on a stand, sat a vase filled with tall lilies and red leaves, arranged just so. The larger of the two rooms—the inner one—which the occupant was using as a sort of business office where he also dined and slept, contained a long, low lacquer table and a sleeping pallet. In these rooms, the divergent concepts of Japanese and Western decoration—the one seeking to impress by a lack of display, an absence of possession-exhibiting, the other intent on precisely the reverse—could both be observed, for Brando seemed unwilling to make use of the apartment’s storage space, concealed behind sliding paper doors. All that he owned seemed to be out in the open. Shirts, ready for the laundry; socks, too; shoes and sweaters and jackets and hats and ties, flung around like the costume of a dismantled scarecrow. And cameras, a typewriter, a tape recorder, an electric heater that performed with stifling competence. Here, there, pieces of partly nibbled fruit; a box of the famous Japanese strawberries, each berry the size of an egg. And books, a deep-thought cascade, among which one saw Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider” and various works on Buddhist prayer, Zen meditation, Yogi breathing, and Hindu mysticism, but no fiction, for Brando reads none. He has never, he professes, opened a novel since April 3, 1924, the day he was born, in Omaha, Nebraska. But while he may not care to read fiction, he does desire to write it, and the long lacquer table was loaded with overfilled ashtrays and piled pages of his most recent creative effort, which happens to be a film script entitled “A Burst of Vermilion.”
Start with the detail, what you might call the granularity, if you want to sound au courant. Were it merely in the service of a meticulous inventory, this amount of detail would be tedious. But attend to how Capote uses it. This graph appears high in the story, it’s the better part of Capote’s introduction of Brando, and it’s deployed to begin getting at Brando’s state of mind—all his clothes strewn about in disorder instead of stashed in clever Japanese storage space. Brando seems at war not just with Japanese orderliness but Japanese reticence and opacity. Also attend to Capote’s unexpected phrases. The clothing has been “flung around like the costume of a dismantled scarecrow.” A pile of books is a “deep-thought cascade.” The heater works with “stifling competence.” Finally, with the last two sentences, Capote establishes two things. First, he intends to range across all of Brando’s life, from birth to this evening in 1957. Second, he has set in motion a narrative motif that he will use expertly to hold the reader. Brando happens to be in the middle of trying to write a screenplay with a man Capote chooses to call “Murray.” In the sentences that follow my sample above, Murray wants to go over what they’ve written later that night, but Brando is unenthused and pushes Murray off with a promise to call at 10:30. Alexis Madrigal astutely observes:
By Chekhovian logic, we know the phone will ring before the story is over; such a call might even end the story, so we’re watching for it. The telephone actually rings four times in the course of the rest of the piece, and each time, we zoom back from wherever we were to the room where Brando is sitting with Capote. The first ring whips us back from the strange James Dean-Marlon Brando relationship. The second ring interrupts Brando’s detailed, inarticulate descriptions of his acting. The third ends an inquisition into whether Brando makes real connections with anyone. And the fourth stops Capote’s masterful description of the actor’s family.
If you plotted the movements with time on the x-axis and distance from Brando on the y-axis, Capote’s perambulations would resemble the elliptical orbit of comets, reaching away from the dinner to various distances, but always returning to late 1957.
That’s how Capote handles big time, always grounding us back into his narrative present and giving his piece the reassuring rhythm that he’s got all Brando’s history firmly under control.
I’ll leave you the pleasure of reading the rest of Capote’s piece and close with a brilliant observation by Madrigal.
There are two Russian critical terms that are helpful here: fabula and syuzhet. The fabula is the real chronology of a narrative: Brando was born at such and such a time, grew up, and meets up with Capote in 1957. The syuzhet is how the story is told, its internal narrative time. How you convert fabula into syuzhet is storytelling, and Capote is dazzling. He weaves big time (a life) into little time (the hours), always working at two scales. For all its descriptive frippery and meandering actor monologues, the profile is set in reassuring 4/4 time. We never really leave that room in Kyoto even though Capote sweeps across Brando’s entire life.