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Year with Short Novels: Breakfast at Sally Bowles’

By (July 1, 2010) One Comment

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

By Truman Capote
Original publication 1958

Sally Bowles

By Christopher Isherwood
Original publication 1937,
Currently in print as part of Berlin Stories

This article is part of a series which delves into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton[at]live.com.

Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s are two mid-20th century short novels memorable for their blithe lead characters, two of the most charismatic heroines in fiction. In decadent Weimar Berlin, English expat Sally Bowles mixes prairie oysters (raw eggs doused with Worcestershire sauce) with a fountain pen, trots through shabby-elegant bars and plots her acting career, oblivious to the offhand anti-Semitic remarks and black streamers that bode ill for Germany and her adopted lifestyle. Meanwhile, Holly Golightly, woman of obscure origins, strides through World War II-era Manhattan wearing thick prescription sunglasses and elegantly simple dresses, riding high and proud on grifting New York men who slip her fifty dollar notes for the powder room.

The kinship is obvious: both possess charisma, insouciance and breathtaking style. They are also women of glaringly dubious means. Sally has vague acting aspirations but spends more time fretting about the hot and cold attentions of go-getting men. Her naiveté is both charming and unnerving: “Work comes before everything,” Sally explains gravely, “But I don’t believe a woman can be a great actress who hasn’t had any love affairs….” Holly, on the other hand, is more hardnosed, reading books about baseball and horse-racing to carry conversations with wealthy Gotham gents: “I can’t get excited by a man until he’s forty-two,” she says, typically cavalier. “I know this idiot girl who keeps telling me I ought to go to a head-shrinker; she says I have a father complex. Which is so much merde. I simply trained myself to like older men, and it was the smartest thing I ever did.”

They each drop “darlings,” possessing idioms all their own. Holly speaks bastardized French. Sally’s German pronunciations are so unlikely that “You could tell she was speaking a foreign language from her expression alone.” They are strikingly beautiful and over-candid about their sex lives, Sally with mischievous provocation, Holly with jaded self-awareness. Their jaunty appeal leaps beyond the words that conjure them, as though they were flesh and blood, on the periphery of your acquaintance. How both arrived at their unconventional autonomy seems a matter of personality rather than biography. Both women are only 19 years old.

The novels are narrated by the introverted authors pulled into their magnetic orbits. In Sally Bowles, Isherwood’s alter ego Chris, or “Herr Issyvoo” as his (and Sally’s) German landlady calls him, is an aspiring novelist who is dimly and pleasurably thwarted from writing by the decadence around him. Capote’s is a slightly more detached figure, flourishing in the independence of having his own New York apartment and toiling late at night on short stories while Holly, his neighbor, forces herself into his purview. The stories are told episodically, through the string of circumstances upon which the friendships build. Between the two novellas, Capote’s published in 1958, twenty-one years after Sally Bowles, one senses a lineage. More than lineage: direct influence.

Capote himself had been friends with Isherwood, 20 years his senior, since 1947 when the two met in New York. That spring he wrote to poet and critic John Malcolm Brinin, “There are no new people in my life, except Isherwood, whom I see now and like very much, though he baffles me somewhat.” He almost certainly read Sally Bowles around then. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is strewn with direct appropriations of the earlier book. Herr Issyvoo visits Sally at the “nursing home” after she undergoes an abortion; the narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany’s visits Holly in a hospital after she miscarries. “Lying there in bed without her make-up, she looked years younger, like a little girl,” Isherwood writes of Sally. Holly, Capote writes, “looked not quite twelve years: her pale vanilla hair brushed back, her eyes, for once minus their dark glasses, clear as rain water.”

“I can’t be bothered to explain, darling,” Sally tells Chris after reading a break-up letter from her handsome beau Klaus, decamped to London, “Here, read this, will you? Of all the blasted impudence! Read it aloud. I want to hear how it sounds.” Likewise, the narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany’s has arrived at the hospital bearing a letter from Jose, Holly’s handsome Brazilian fiancé, calling off their engagement. “A girl doesn’t read this sort of thing without her lipstick,” Holly announces, asking him to get her purse so she can paint “every last vestige of twelve-year-old out of her face.” She scans the letter and says, “Maybe this will come in handy – if you ever write a rat romance. Don’t be hoggy, read it aloud. I’d like to hear it myself.

In each story, after getting close to the heroine, the narrating young writer suffers a falling out related to his work. Sally Bowles chastises Chris for a lack of ambition and focus; he writes her off as superficial. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly shows one of the narrator’s stories to a callow Hollywood producer: “He thinks maybe you’re worth helping. But he says you’re on the wrong track. Negroes and children. Who cares?” The narrator is angry and wounded.

Dramatic events (a con-man swindles Sally; Holly’s husband from the Texas grasslands comes to New York looking for his child-bride) stitch the burgeoning platonic relationships back together. There are hints in both novels that the narrators are homosexual (as Isherwood and Capote were in real life), but the works also exude deep yearning, with each man longing to be part of the world the heroines inhabit. Both stories end with the postcards the narrators receive after the ladies vanish. Sally leaves Berlin to pursue her fortunes in France and Italy, sending a postcard from Rome, “‘Am writing in a day or two,’ it said. That was six years ago.” Holly flies to South America, temporarily hitches her wagon to some “duhvine $enor,” and promises to forward her address when she knows it herself.

What a generous reader might call Capote’s imaginative debt to Isherwood does not diminish his achievement. If writers sometimes get prickly when readers glean influences in their work, it is because they sense the trap by which being inspired is mistaken for being derivative. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is in many ways Capote’s personal crystallization of Sally Bowles. In his hands, Sally’s careening innocence gives way to Holly’s steel and self-creation. There is no doubt that Isherwood inspired Capote – or Sally, Holly. But the works both map different terrain, emotionally and geographically, belonging uniquely to their creators. Sally Bowles’ anecdotal free-wheeling style contrasts sharply with Capote’s bittersweet lyricism.

The books yield different pleasures but share a page-turning joie (as Holly might say), propelled by their heroines’ magnetism. Both appeal because of the utter freshness of their protagonists, so vividly drawn and alive that they begin to become our own crazy friends. They get into our heads, and we wonder about them – whether Sally will be all right, how Holly became who she is. And like two best friends who at first seem to have everything in common, Sally and Holly turn out to be deeply different women: in their aims, their reaction to crisis.

Isherwood and Capote wrote their novels in their early 30s as they rounded the corner from youth to maturity, looking back on the past. Both books seem to issue from lost worlds – chillingly for Sally Bowles, published on the eve of World War II and set two years before Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany. History lurks in the wings, all the more menacing for being unexpected by the characters. Sally Bowles is a resolutely present-tense novel, impressionistic and unmediated by judgment or retrospect. Indeed, in 1939 Isherwood was reluctant to republish it as part of his Berlin Stories because it seemed to him too insubstantial. But exactly that airiness gives the work its energy and the coming crisis its foreboding. Chris and Sally traipse around Berlin, plotting success and doing little to achieve it:

When the weather was fine, and I hadn’t any lessons to give, we strolled as far as the Wittenbergplatz and sat on a bench in the sunshine, discussing the people who went past. Everybody stared at Sally, in her canary yellow beret and shabby fur coat, like the skin of a mangy old dog.

“I wonder,” she was fond of remarking, “what they’d say if they knew that we two old tramps were going to be the most marvelous novelist and the greatest actress in the world.”

“They’d probably be very much surprised.”

“I expect we shall look back on this time when we’re driving about in our Mercedes, and think: ‘After all, it wasn’t such bad fun!’”

We don’t blame Chris for basking in Sally’s bright, playful optimism. The pair wheel through their scenes oblivious to all the damage time can do – to society, to individual dreams. Sally Bowles is a classic expat story, where foreigners skim the surface of their adopted world, happily oblivious to dangerous undercurrents of which we are only too aware. Sally herself is striking because, as she prattles on about millionaires and success fantasies, her own ability to stay afloat is mysterious and worrisome. Chris quickly learns she is the daughter of the upwardly mobile Jackson-Bowles of England, who still send her an allowance. She drifts along floats on the goodwill and protectiveness of strangers, always resurfacing from busted-up love affairs, from her abortion, from getting badly conned. But we’re always aware that one more bad turn could destroy her.

That is the difference between her and Holly Golightly: dapper, girlish Sally girds for her possible failure, the sense that she is falling but hasn’t hit anything, while Holly is striking for her cold-blooded success, how much she thrives on her off-kilter life. The prospect of ultimate failure is always with Sally; to Holly, that prospect is unthinkable.

Sally Bowles is the tale of a friendship, the springs of closeness that flow between Chris and Sally, her vulnerable appeal for him. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is also a book of friendship and unconventional attachment, but in a more backhanded way, in which the narrator is aware that he is but a supporting character in Holly’s life. He learns about her from eavesdropping on the fire escape, glancing at the trash she throws out, and flipping through the tabloids she graces as much as by roaming New York with her: “I have memories of spending many hither and yonning days with Holly; and it’s true, we did at odd moments see a great deal of each other; but on the whole the memory is false.”

While Issyvoo is simply retiring, happy to play straight against Sally’s wan humor, the narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany’s aggressively self-effaces, occasional hinting about a background or day job only insofar as it will advance his narration of Holly’s life. “Never mind why, but once I walked from New Orleans to Nancy’s Landing, Mississippi, just under five hundred miles. It was a light-hearted lark compared to the journey to Joe Bell’s bar,” he says, in one of the frequent examples of an oblique autobiographical referencere. Just as the plainness of the clothes Holly wears, “the blues and grays and lack of luster…made her, herself, shine so,” the interest Holly comes partly from the narrator’s constant efforts to divert attention from himself. The peripheral, episodic way in which he gets to know her (first when she comes down the fire escape, fleeing a bearish would-be suitor) drives the narrative. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is in many ways a mystery story. The suspense comes from: who is Holly?

Whereas Sally’s precarious existence abroad seems strange because her reasons for being there are so vague and haphazard, Holly’s abiding drive turns out to be a near-irrational need for freedom. The life story the narrator cobbles together ranges over the entire United States, with Holly (née Lulamae) a malnourished dustbowl child, marrying an older man named Doc Golightly in Texas (“I was only fourteen, for God’s sake. It couldn’t have been legal”). She reads magazines about sophisticated cities which inspire her to run away, taking up with a jockey in California. She is then discovered by a Hollywood agent who pays for lessons to flatten her twangy accent. But she abruptly leaves him and flees to New York. The dichotomy between smooth urbanity and hillbilly pragmatism is the key to Holly’s tough wisdom: “Mention that to a living soul, darling,” she calmly informs the narrator when they discuss her young marriage. “I’ll hang you by your toes and dress you for a hog.”

Just as Sally Bowles’ lodging houses and mangled conversations in two languages make the novel quintessentially European, a tale of English people abroad between the wars, Holly’s ruthlessly self-created persona and constant uprootings, chasing a place to belong, are indissolubly American. When Holly’s husband Doc Golightly journeys from Texas-Oklahoma border to look for her in New York, she sleeps with him one last time, escorts him back to the bus station, and bids him farewell. Afterwards she drags the narrator out for martinis at a bar on Lexington Avenue, tended by frog-voiced Joe Bell, who acts prickly to conceal his tender love for Holly (of which she is perfectly aware):

Joe Bell disdainfully settled the fresh martinis in front of us.

“Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell,” Holly advised him. “That was Doc’s mistake. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”

“She’s drunk,” Joe Bell informed me.

As the chapter ends, she lifts her martini glass and informs Joe and the narrator, “it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.” Those words conjure all the space and mobility of America, a country founded on the pursuit rather than enjoyment of happiness.

In a larger sense, that vague country where people disappear off the cliff of their own desires is the one both Sally and Holly inhabit. The characters exude vitality, but the lifelike nature of both books comes from their narration by someone who loves and loses them. This mirrors life. The major players during any given period of one’s life exit abruptly. They leave us remembering and wondering. The secret power of Sally Bowles and Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes from our identification with the narrators, looking back and picking up the pieces of those vital friends who sometimes leave as decisively as they came, but leave well-beaten foot-trails in the memory.

Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.