Swan Song is a remarkable novel that explores the life of Truman Capote and his “swans” the society women he hung around with – you could say, the set that he inveigled his way into.
I confess that I knew relatively little about Capote, having not seen any of the biographical films about him, nor read much of his work. I was aware of In Cold Blood his account of some murders that took place in Kansas, but beyond that, I just knew he’d written things like Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Swan Song doesn’t really deal with his time investigating the murders covered by In Cold Blood. There is a short section near the start of the novel that imagines Capote as a child, winning writing competitions in local newspapers, but being denied the prize when local residents complain that he has written thinly veiled accounts of their lives.
Instead, the book really starts when in 1975, Esquire magazine published a chapter of his forthcoming novel as La Côte Basque 1965. In the chapter, Capote tells gossipy stories of a socialite set that are in effect his friends and acquaintances. There is very little disguise, and his friends are horrified. They drop him instantly, to Capote’s chagrin.
The book is told from the perspective of these swans; never naming any particular individual as our narrator. We jump back and forth in time, as Capote spends time with Babe, Marella, Slim, CZ, Lee and others. He befriends them, goes on holiday with them, charms them, wines and dines them, and listens to their (sometimes very) intimate stories.
To what extent these stories are true isn’t entirely clear – the real people who share their names with these characters are dead, so there’s no risk of libel. Greenberg-Jephcott, whose first novel this is, provides a vast bibliography for those who want to delve further into the truth.
Capote is remarkable for maintaining his position at the centre of things – organising elaborate parties at vast expense, even as he bilks stationers of their fees when he gets invitations printed. He manages to transition from dance halls with live orchestras to Studio 54, fuelled by a growing mix of alcohol and pills.
He extracts enormous sums from magazines and publishers, somehow sustaining his lifestyle. And he’s a shoulder to cry on for his friends as their lives and romances are played out around him.
At first I did find the backwards and forwards nature of the novel confusing. The cover carries a blurb from William Boyd who’s written a series of wonderful fictional lives, although told in a more conventional timeline. The difference here is that basically every character in this novel is a real person, and this is a world I didn’t know before.
It’s an epic piece and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Very much recommended.