It is cold where I am, far far away from the equator. Far away from poisonous snakes and reptiles and lizards, far away from burning summer skies and creaking ancient mansions that are sinking into swamps… I’m not quite certain what led me to pick up Truman Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), this week, but the weather that forms the backdrop to these heady Southern Gothic vibes was a pleasant distraction from the polar vortex spinning around my corporeal form. However, as a tense, engulfing and ambiguous novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms wasn’t much of a pleasant distraction from my garbled, anxious attempts to begin life anew in a different (colder) country, because Capote’s long-praised prose continues to be fucking affecting. i.e. it was good but it didn’t make me feel happpppyyy.
Truman Capote was born in 1925 in New Orleans, and this novel is a loosely autobiographical piece, though I imagine – and hope – that Capote’s real life was a little bit less unpleasant than his fictional foil’s, Joel Knox’s. Knox is the child of divorced parents in an era when this was still a scandal, and following the death of his mother the pubescent youth is summoned to the home of the father he has never met and his second wife. On arrival, Joel is greeted by his stepmother and her confusing, sickly, cousin Randolph, and everyone – including the servants – changes the subject whenever he asks about his dad.
I haven’t read much Southern Gothic before (though I’ve read some), but I don’t think I’ve read anything so unrecognisable in terms of its setting but so familiar in its emotionality for a while. Because the threat and the ambiguity is eternally human here, because the horrors that lurk under the surface are to do with hidden crimes and hidden passions and hidden addictions, meaning Other Voices, Other Rooms feels far more modern than I’d expected. There are injuries and violence and hatred and cruelty, there is repression and disloyalty and conniving and numerous people who are unhappy and troubled due to the society they live in. The ending can either be read as a positive movement towards self-acceptance and potential future happiness or (as I imagine most contemporary readers chose to see it) the tragic victory of temptation, and sin, over innocence.
It’s a novel that’s difficult to know how to judge, ethically, because though it makes clear that the mistreatment of others due to their race, class, gender and/or sexuality is a bad thing, it doesn’t do much to condemn prejudice other than humanise those who are victim to it, and probably not enough to change the mid-century minds of the mean.
There are haunting images here, there is lots of death and there are lots of vivid descriptions of the rural dangers of the Deep South. The animals and the landscapes and the people are dangerous: nobody is safe, not from each other but also not from their environment. Change is unlikely, horror is normal, hope is something stupid, love is always futile. This is not a happy novel, it’s en enveloping and an emotional read but one that is just as engaging as In Cold Blood, the only other Capote I’ve read. It also makes very clear the preoccupations and thematic interests that would come to define the author’s long-term legacy.
Capote was an interesting figure whose writing went in disparate and unexpected directions, but his prose is crisp and only ever ambiguous by design. As I said, I haven’t read much by him, but where Other Voices, Other Rooms succeeds, it succeeds in a profound way, and I will be keeping my secondhand-bookshop eyes out for his later books, ideally one of the ones that blended fiction and non-fiction and pissed loads of people off. I like writers who care more about their work than their social lives, and Capote fits that bill.
Truman: we’ll meet again…
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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