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A Man for All Seasons

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One of Truman Capote’s not-so-secret weapons was astonishing versatility. He seemed equally at home penning frothy novellas like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the seminal true-crime chiller, In Cold Blood. Capote was also adept at screenplays (Beat the Devil, The Innocents), books and lyrics for Broadway musicals (House of Flowers), countless magazine articles and several collections of short stories. Of all these remarkable works, one of his shortest – a mere 27 pages – remains my favorite. Published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1956, A Christmas Memory is the gossamer-thin reminiscence of a seven-year-old boy, Buddy, and his elderly cousin, Miss Sook, poor relations in Depression-era Alabama. A roman à clef culled from Capote’s childhood, it follows the unlikely pair as they make fruitcakes, cut down and decorate a Christmas tree and fly kites. Not much to write about you may think, and in the hands of a lesser writer that might be true. With Captain Capote at the helm, the story unfolds like a delicately carved ivory fan, and trumps brevity with an incredibly deft economy of words. Not a single one is wasted, rather remarkable given the Southern storyteller’s penchant for being long-winded.

Geraldine Page won an Emmy for her portrayal of Aunt Sook.

Geraldine Page won an Emmy for her portrayal of Aunt Sook.

Consider Capote’s introduction of Aunt Sook. “She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long, youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable – not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid.” Just as you’re digesting that, Capote gives Miss Sook her first words. “‘Oh, my!’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the (icy) windowpane. ‘It’s fruitcake weather!’” Capote enriches the simple search for a Christmas tree with sumptuous imagery. “A mile more: of chastising thorns, burs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south.” Who but Capote would dub fungus “gaudy” or turn shrills ecstatic or refer to the tree’s scent as “virile, icy perfume”? A love forged by loneliness is what binds these two disparate characters. The story is by turns, funny and sad, sweet and poignant, but not once is the reader asked to pity the characters. You know in your gut what will ultimately happen, yet when it does you may find yourself unprepared. I still do, but that’s part of Capote’s unforgettable journey.

Capote narrated the 1966 television production.

Capote narrated the 1966 television production.

Several editions of A Christmas Memory are available. One from Modern Library includes two more Capote short stories, A Thanksgiving Visitor and One Christmas. A Christmas Memory is one of the precious few short stories making a successful transition to the screen. Filmed in 1966 and directed by Frank Perry, the Emmy-winning production starred the incomparable Geraldine Page as Miss Sook and Donnie Melvin as Buddy and is narrated by Capote himself. You’ll be hard pressed to find richer, more heartfelt holiday moments on either film or printed page.

Merry Christmas everyone!

1 Comment

  1. Karen Derderian
    Nov 29, 2014

    Oh wow, A Christmas Memory is one of my all-time favorite books! I have the exact same copy that you are showing above. I’ve owned it since I was in college. My mom & I would sit down every year around Thanksgiving and read it together. I was just thinking about it the other day & thought it’s time for another read of that exquisite gem of a book. So glad you feel the same way.

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