I knew Truman Capote (1924-1984) was a shallow, miserable man, so why did I read his biography? It’s not that I think you should only read the biographies of the virtuous, but I do have an aversion to people who idolise celebrity and lack depth, which would put Capote high on the list of those to avoid. Yet Clarke’s 1988 book is a landmark biography and (speaking of shallow) it was on special on Kindle.
It took Clarke thirteen years to write and it deserves its reputation. It reads so smoothly, so effortlessly in a way which only a great biographer can achieve and only then with much sweat. It follows Capote from his troubled childhood in Alabama and the wounds his selfish parents inflicted on him to his emergence as a literary wunderkind in New York and the successes of his early and mid-career to the tragic descent into writer’s block, alcoholism, and exile from the circles of the wealthy and celebrities he had moved in. It’s a tragedy and it’s told with a restraint, clarity, and insight which make it compelling. Only in the 2010 afterword does Clarke reveals his friendship with Capote during those longs years of decline, something which explains his sympathetic treatment of Capote and credulity toward his stories, even if there’s moments in the narrative where Clarke suggests Capote is making things up.
It’s also a biography built on interviews. Not unsurprisingly, it seems to me that biographers often divide by background – journalists (like Clarke) tend to write biographies about the living or recently dead built on interviews, while historians will tend to write biographies of those longer dead built on archival research. I am a little suspicious of dependency on interviews; I think they still need to be backed by solid archival research. (And in this case, Clarke has definitely done solid archival research as well.) For my own biography, I would like to have a historian’s respect for the archives and a journalist’s hunger for a great story.