He seduced us all with his words – and Truman knows full well the power of words. They’re both armour and weapon, the one thing he’s sure of. They alone have never failed him, their lyricism hinting at the beauty trapped within his stunted body, not to mention his conflicted soul.
In her debut novel, Swan Song, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott reimagines the decline of Truman Capote due to the backlash that followed the publication of Capote’s infamous short story La Côte Basque 1965 in the November 1975 issue of Esquire magazine, the first excerpt from his unfinished novel Answered Prayers. Capote’s intention was to expose, in what he believed would be his most ambitious work, the scandalous secrets of his Swans: a group of wealthy, stylish, influential New York socialites, including Nancy “Slim” Keith, Babe Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marella Agnelli, and Lee Radziwill, who accepted Capote into their social circle, and, as it later turned out, unwisely trusted him with their private thoughts and, often salacious, secrets.
The book offers an interesting interpretation of what might have motivated Capote to commit such a callous act of betraying his friends and suggests that he wanted to get some sort of revenge on the rich and powerful, who he blamed for the loss of his mother. The reasoning was rather strange, but, in the light of his eccentric personality, I guess that kind of makes sense. The book also suggests that Capote hadn’t really thought through the consequences that might follow his actions.
In the end, the book-in-progress actually turned into a swan song for Truman Capote himself: with the publication of this La Côte Basque 1965, he had essentially committed social suicide. Suddenly abandoned by the Swans, Capote fell into a downward spiral, fuelled by his destructive relationship with drugs and alcohol, that ultimately lead to his premature death.
The story is mainly told from the point of view of the Swans, who loved Capote and felt betrayed and humiliated by his actions. The narrative shifts between these socialites and forms a vivid portrait of their luxurious, indulgent lifestyles, their shallow, vindictive personalities, and how, later on, each of them dealt with the scandal. It’s quite a long novel and the author goes into great detail in describing the relationship dramas among the high-society men and women, so, at times, the novel starts to feel like a literary gossip column, which would have been more fun to read, if I hadn’t had to google most of the names that were mentioned in the book. In some parts, this made the reading experience a bit tiresome, however, I suspect that other readers with more previous knowledge about these famous, extremely rich people might find this aspect of the book more enjoyable. It’s clear that the author had done a lot of research in the process of writing this story.
My favourite parts of the novel were the chapters that focused on Capote and gave some insight into his personal history and over-the-top personality. Seeing the way in which his life unravelled after the publication of the excerpts from his planned novel almost reads like a cautionary tale about how a person can climb right to the top of the social ladder, and then, somewhat unwittingly, trigger his own downfall and self-destruction.