Perceiving Truman

 After travelling a considerable distance through unfamiliar urban landscapes like a sightless sightseer, I arrived home and dived into the dictionary to find the definition of the word ‘glaucoma’

Only this morning did its meaning hit home. According to the dictionary: “‘Glaucoma’: (glô kō / mə, glou-) is a disease of the eye characterised by increased pressure within the eyeball and progressive loss of vision.  [<Gk  glaǔkōma, opacity of the eye lens etc.]”  I just cannot believe this ‘progressive loss of vision’. Those Greeks have a lot to answer for. Maybe if they hadn’t invented a word for it, it might not have existed. So I’m typing with my left eye shut the way people save on electricity by switching off the lights, to prevent my vision from petering out too soon.

Truman Capote is now in search of something he can write about that he can get his teeth into; something meaty. He wants the truth to be the truth, of something happening ‘beyond and about’ himself -a truth he cannot change. To be sitting there writing fiction he said was “as though there were a box of chocolates in the next room, and I couldn’t resist them. The chocolates were that I wanted to write fact instead of fiction…Suddenly the newspapers all came alive, and I realised that I was in terrible trouble as a fiction writer.”

It was in this state of tension, almost as if he were led to it, that he opened The New York Times on November 16, 1959 and read about the murder of four innocent people from an exemplary family, the Clutter family of Kansas. And so began his writing of In Cold Blood, a piece of journalism which was not just a report but something about the town in which the murders happened, its inhabitants’ and the impact the event had on them –their reactions to the tragedy. Had he known, he said how difficult and harrowing the entire exercise was to be and how long it would take and how it would haunt him for years, he would have driven past that town of Holcomb, Kansas. “Like a bat out of hell.”

In Cold Blood is a masterpiece of non-fiction writing which everyone should read. He brought all his discipline as a great writer to bear on it and plodded through it despite the difficulties it presented: his ambivalence regarding the Death Sentence and the execution of the two murderers who, through the years had looked to him as their only friend after his visits and his correspondence with them as they waited on Death Row.

Although he did look out for places to rent where the atmosphere was conducive to writing, it appears that he was a man who could write anywhere and under any conditions although in the case of In Cold Blood, there were times when he just couldn’t write, because the horror of the entire episode absorbed him so much -he just wanted to think about it constantly rather than write about it. But every work was done with an enviable intensity of concentration. A bomb could go off beside him says the biographer and he would be unfazed as he wrote a single sentence. Each sentence demanded the time and energy which transformed his entire features until the muscles in his cheeks twitched.

In Cold Blood took six years of work, rising every morning between 3 and 4 to write; travelling back and forth from Europe where he was writing to England to interview psychiatrists and psychologists and returning to New York, then travelling out to Kansas to interview friends and family members of the deceased and further out to interview the family of one of the murderers in order to get an insight into his childhood and adolescent years.

I believe it takes not only concentration and discipline but genius for a writer to write words like these which seem to come from some place distant and unfamiliar to us:

A leaf, a handful of seed –begin with these, learn a little what it is to love…First, a leaf, a fall of rain, then someone to receive what a leaf has taught you, what a fall of rain has ripened. No easy process, understand; it could take a lifetime, it has mine, and still I never mastered it –I only know how true it is; that love is a chain of love, as nature is a chain of life.

These words, said by the Judge in Truman Capote’s semi-autobiographical fiction The Grass Harp could have applied to Truman himself: that as ‘nature is a chain of life’, so is love a chain of love. That was something the murderers missed: the lifetime’s understanding that the single encounters of love need to be recognised and continued in ‘a chain of love’.