AN unfinished novel by a great author has all the poignancy of a bird shot in mid-flight. The same sort of questions are left, hovering hesitantly. Where exactly would the bird have melted into the twilight if it had not been shot? Would this book have been the literary tour de force that the author aspired to, a consummate culmination of his art? So it was with Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon and so it was with Truman Capote's Answered Prayers.
Capote was writing, rewriting or wanting to write Answered Prayers, intended to match Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, for more than two decades. Readers unfortunately have to make do with only three chapters bolstered with the respectability of an editor's note. When he signed the contract with Random House in 1966 with an advance of $25,000, he already had to his name the hugely acclaimed Other Voices, Other Rooms, written when he was only 23 on the strength of a $15000 advance and an O. Henry short story prize. He was also the author of the immensely successful novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, immortalised on film by the unforgettable Audrey Hepburn. And most importantly, he was on the verge of making literary history with his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, based on six years of close research into the murder of a Kansas family.
But... Answered Prayers was never delivered, though Random House kept extending the deadline (and raising the promised advances). Nor did Capote ever admit that the book was not being written. To the contrary, he gave every impression, in his interviews and elsewhere, that it could reach the publishers any day, relating chapters and dialogues to editors and friends. When the chorus of criticism for non-delivery of the book got to him in the mid-1970s, Capote brought out four of the chapters and published them one by one in the Esquire magazine.
Not a wise decision
As it turned out, it was not a wise decision. The rich and famous set in which Capote moved was scandalised by the revelations in the chapter entitled "La Cote Basque"; Capote had told their lives, warts and all, sometimes not even bothering to disguise names. Jackie Kennedy was "an artful female impersonator impersonating Mrs. Kennedy"; the Kennedy men were "like dogs — they have to pee on every fire hydrant"; Faulkner was "Lolita-minded"; Sartre was "wall-eyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued" and so on. Capote did not also spare his "swans" — the beautiful, intelligent, stylish set of women whom he liked to escort, and whose confidences he won. Not surprisingly, he lost his set of friends post-haste but was unrepentant. "What did they expect," he said. "I'm a writer and I use everything. Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?"
Capote did not blame the public outcry for his inability to finish the book; rather, he blamed his loss of form, a crisis of creativity. It altered the way he looked at art and life. He worried about the difference between "what is true and what is really true." He obsessed on how a writer could apply within a single form all that he has learnt from every other form of writing. He read all that he had ever written and was convinced that he had not fully exploited the aesthetic value of the material that had been in his possession. He laboured to relearn his art so that he could use at will, or even simultaneously, all he knew about the art of writing of poetry, reportage, plays, short stories, novels... .
In any case, when he died in 1984, Answered Prayers was not complete and several theories exist about the truth of the matter. One belief is that the missing chapters are in a safe deposit box. The second is that they were never written. But the most credible view — since he used to quote widely and consistently from the missing chapters — is that they were written and at some stage, destroyed.
Even in its curtailed form, Answered Prayers opens up a richly layered literary world. Capote's progression from being "a spiritual orphan, like a turtle on its back," to a job in the New Yorker "sorting cartoons and clipping newspapers" to celebrity status, with his face on so many magazine covers, is the stuff of legends of a scale that only American literary lions — Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Mailer, Salinger, Vidal... — can manage. Add drink, drugs, homosexuality and self-professed genius and the mix becomes almost too powerful, right up there with Marlon Brando, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac. (Incidentally, it was Capote who made that withering comment about Kerouac's masterpiece On the Road: "This is not writing, it's typing.")
Remarkable body of work
But when the romance fades, when all the drinking and hangovers are done and all the bright lights switched off, one must look for the true test of genius, the actual work. And Truman Capote left behind a remarkable body of literature. When he died at 59, the New York Times described him as a writer "whose prose shimmered with clarity and quality." Capote combined brilliant reporting with lyrical writing, sensitivity with linguistic originality to achieve his objective of writing simply, "clear as a country creek." William Shaun, editor of New Yorker, paid a huge tribute on his death when he said, "... what seemed to mean most to him of anything in the world was words and sentences." Such a man could not have much wrong in him.
Recounting his ambitions in 1978, Capote said that he had known he had to be successful, and he had to be successful early. He also always knew that he wanted to be a writer and to be rich and famous. Having achieved it all, and paid for it in many ways, he probably also understood well the meaning of St. Teresa's statement: "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones." Hence the title of this unfinished book.