Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019
There was a moment I was about to close Swan Song for ever. I really did not look forward to several hundred pages more of gossip, high society ado about nothing, who is in the picture most, who is about to lose. Fortunately I persevered and was rewarded with gossip turning into the painful description of one man’s downfall. Truman Capote at his most vulnerable.
Swan Song centres on a novel that Truman Capote is about to publish. Pre-publication of a chapter has his best friends in turmoil: he has revealed some of their best known secrets, shared with him during intimate moments between friends. He has crossed the line between things that are meant to remain between friends and literary input. The chapter causes a rift between Capote and two of his lady friends that never closes again. Capote proclaiming not to understand why, only trying to help his best friends by sharing the truth about their husbands.
Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel sometimes reads like the gossip pages in magazines. Capote seemingly having befriended the richest amongst the rich, we see their world through their eyes: holidays on large yachts, everything provided for, luxurious clothes, fine dining, drinks, drugs and alcohol. It is also the world of having to tread carefully everywhere: someone might steal your husband, ruin your reputation before you know it. Capote is the one the women in this world do not need to fear, he has his Jack. They, his swans, the friend they can confide in.
One could almost feel sorry for Capote’s swans: a life in public is not always easy. On the other hand, no one has forced Babe, Slim, Gloria, Marella, CZ, Jackie and Lee to become the wives of very successful and wealthy men. They know what they are in for, they know they have to tread carefully whilst their husbands can do as they please. JFK telling Jackie to spend less time with an Italian industrial whilst at the same time probably sharing his bed with other women himself just one example of the hypocrisy of the time and set.
We are introduced to Capote when he has become an old man; alcohol and drugs have taken their toll. He is an addict, suffering from hallucinations, having lost the majority of his friends and the love of his life, Jack. Life in the limelight might be spectacular, it does have its disadvantages if you are prone to addiction. Capote’s swans seem to understand this better than he himself. Though they also consume large quantities of drugs and alcohol they do seem to know the boundary. Him being born out-of-wedlock, child to a woman who was never made out to be a mother, only one of many reasons for Capote becoming a victim of drugs and alcohol. Slim and Gloria’s background is not that cheerful as well.
After becoming successful Capote throws a party that has people talking for ages: will I be invited? What will it be like? What celebrities will come? Greenberg-Jephcott spends many a page on the preparations for the party and the party itself. I am sorry to say I could have done without them. As I said before, it felt like reading an overdose of gossip. I did like Greenberg-Jephcott switching perspective from swan to swan all the time, bringing the women closer and closer to us. I also liked those chapters in which she painstakingly describes Capote’s downfall. Succumbing to his addiction, no longer knowing what is real or fake, talking to imaginary friends who died ages ago.
In the novel Capote never grows up. Though he is an adult, he remains the child desperately hoping for his mother to pay him attention, desperately hoping for people to like him. Throwing away his friendship by trying to score another bestseller. He is a sad, sad man for a number of reasons. Greenberg-Jephcott referring to him as ‘the boy’ is a sure sign of the child underneath the man.
Did I like Swan Song? Certain parts of it? No. Though I recognize the pages and pages filled with high society are well-written, oozing nervousness through words and the construction of sentences, I just did not find them interesting. I really could have cared less who went with who, left who for whom and was left behind. I definitively preferred those chapters and pages dedicated to the swans, their one-on-one relationship with Truman, their fears and worries, those final chapters portraying a man who has come down so low he no longer recognizes his low.
Greenberg-Jephcott is a pretty good writer, she managed to capture the sphere of fifties and sixties journalism with its exaggerated tone reporting on the happy few. Did I notice the parallel with the unpublished novel? Off course. Still, I wished she would have used that talent to give us more pages on Babe, Slim, Gloria, Lee, Marella and CZ.