Review: A Christmas Memory, Truman Capote

I’ve had In Cold Blood on my To Be Read pile for years without it ever making it to the top. Truman Capote is one of those writers where you feel you know them even if you’ve never picked up one of their books. Still, I was intrigued to see that Penguin Modern Classics have reissued six of Capote’s short stories which centre around a wintry or festive theme; A Christmas Memory seemed like a perfect choice for Blogmas.

The first three stories in the collection are the titular ‘A Christmas Memory’ then ‘The Thanksgiving Visitor’ and ‘One Christmas’, all of which are autobiographical, featuring recollections of the young ‘Buddy’ living with his aunts and uncle. The other three stories are ‘Master Misery’, ‘Children on their Birthdays’ and ‘Jug of Silver’, although puzzlingly when I checked the chapter listings on the ebook preview on Amazon, it didn’t mention ‘Children on their Birthdays’. But I can only comment on what I received in my review copy.

I found the autobiographical content to be more effective than the fiction. It’s possible that I felt that I was on familiar territory. The character of Buddy, Capote’s own younger self, is so recognisably Dill from To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee and Capote were childhood friends, going on to collaborate together on In Cold Blood. It was interesting to catch what he was doing when he was away from the Finches. As Buddy, he even remarks on the sin of shooting a mockingbird. In these stories, Buddy’s closest bond is with his Aunt Sook, a child-like woman who joins in many of his games and daydreams. As in so many Christmas-themed stories, there is a heavy helping of nostalgia but with Capote there is an extra emphasis on the bittersweet.

Why is it that we always look back on our childhood Christmases with such fascination? We try the best we can to recreate them as adults but how often do we ever achieve that same magical excitement? Each of the stories are retold through the lens of an adult. While the whirl of Christmas tradition may appear evergreen, the adult narrator knows that things are about to change very abruptly when he is sent away to school. From there, Sook will lose her omnipotence and will fade from his life. I had a sad feeling that no one ever replaced her in Capote’s affections.

Yet there are lessons to be taken. I think that my favourite of the collection was ‘The Thanksgiving Visitor’ where Buddy tries to take revenge a childhood bully only for Sook to teach him that ‘there is only one unpardonable sin – deliberate cruelty. All else can be forgiven. That, never.’ That resonated. When I look back on my life thus far, the only times when I have ever found it difficult to forgive is when I have seen the flash of deliberate cruelty. A sight you never forget.

The other story that I particularly enjoyed was ‘One Christmas’ where young Buddy visits his father. Once again there is something fascinating going on here in how Capote captures the child’s realisation about the work that goes in to Christmas. Beyond the sparkle and glitter, Christmas can expose uncomfortable family truths.

The other three tales felt more variable. ‘Mister Misery’ seemed to have some interesting shared themes with Breakfast at Tiffany’s but was also far darker. ‘Children on their Birthdays’ had a fantastic central character and punchline but ‘Silver Jar’ left little impression.

Capote captures beautifully the kaleidoscopic feel of memory but has a melancholy quality about it. If it came with a soundtrack, there would be sad piano instrumentals. It’s beautiful writing but I can’t quite imagine purchasing this as a Christmas present. Still, I’ve finally tried out Truman Capote and now I really do need to read In Cold Blood.

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A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
Published by Penguin Classics on October 29th 2020
ISBN: 0241474418

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