Happy Readings #26: A Christmas Story



Truman Capote died 37 years ago but in terms of sheer media coverage, which often spills out of the books sections into ‘style’ or even ‘news’, still seems pretty much like a living celebrity. Could Gore Vidal have been right when he described the author’s death as a ‘good career move’? Two of Capote’s books, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, have remained as famous as the man himself, but many will in fact quietly confess their favourites to be his Christmas stories, and especially the strange, sad, autobiographical tale ‘A Christmas Memory’.




Set during Capote’s childhood, ‘A Christmas Memory’ is both a beautifully written method for acquiring fruitcake ingredients in Alabama in the 1930s and a demonstration as to how each happy memory bears the certainty of future loss, in this case that of the cousin who once served as the author’s carer and comrade: ‘I am seven; she is sixty-something, and we have lived together – well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend.’




Kristin Hersh, the rock icon who has lately also become an accomplished author, occasionally gives ‘A Christmas Memory’ an affectionate public mention. When Happy Readings contacts her ‘for comment’ it turns out, and this is a coincidence beyond reasonable belief, she is in the studio recording a song whose outro cites Capote’s story. Specifically, she’s borrowed a line from a scene in which Capote and friend arrive at a ‘fish fry and dancing cafe’ belonging to a man nicknamed Mr Haha Jones, so as to try to buy some whiskey for their cakes. It is daytime, so the business is closed. The cousin knocks on the door and shouts out the following grammatically-intriguing appeal to Mr Haha’s presumed partner: ‘Mrs Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?’ Hersh duly sends the following mini-essay which (1) reveals the common ground between songwriting and cake-making, and (2) shares her own uncannily equivalent memory to that of Capote.




‘An outro is a song’s frosting. Cakes are stand-ins for the body of the baker and a song is a cake that could potentially last forever. Of course, you only know forever is a good thing when the outro leaves you wanting more. In a recording studio yesterday, I sang “Mrs Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?” about ninety times over outro frosting in the hope that a tiny piece of Truman Capote’s ‘A Christmas Memory’ might help listeners want more of this particular cake. Maybe tacky, maybe bad juju, possibly copyright infringement, but magic is magic and I’m hoping it works. It worked for me because Capote’s childhood friend knocking on the door of Haha Jones’s dancing café by the riverbank, looking to buy illegal whiskey for fruitcakes, tumbled me into a childhood memory in Tennessee. My grandmother, a Shawnee Baptist, walked me down a riverbank, stepping over moss and tree roots in bright daylight to what should have been a glowy nightview of an encampment, dreamlike and exotic in the dark. Hints of mud and murder play well at night, but that morning, sun lit the scene in embarrassing exposure. It was way scarier, in other words. “Always ask for the lady of the house when you knock on a door,” my grandmother told me and I nodded up at her, planning never to do this again. The lady of the shack who answered the piece of plywood my grandmother knocked on had few teeth but a big smile, no electricity, but a snapping fire in a metal bin. She filled our arms with “tapping sugar” for our cake, my grandmother not being a whiskey lover. The woman took no money, wishing us a lispy “Merry Christmas” instead, and, arms full of sugar in the sun, we walked home to try and bake a cake deserving of its frosting. Yesterday’s song was lit strategically, in the hope that the listener doesn’t suffer garish exposure or dismal darkness but a raw blend of both; mud and moss helping the sun shine, tapping sugar sweetening the fear. Mrs Haha’s blessing the frosting.’




Happy Christmas, Kristin! I couldn’t see it in the British TV pages but somewhere in the world, a scheduler must have included 1966’s film adaptation in the listings for the coming weekend. So tender, so poetic, and wonderfully narrated by Capote himself, A Christmas Memory: The Movie is only half as good if seen on YouTube as opposed to it ‘happening to be on’. More recently, this year saw the release of a documentary entitled The Capote Tapes, the tapes in question being those from interviews conducted by journalist George Plimpton in order to write 1997’s biography, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. Talking heads consulted include none other than beloved regular Happy Reader contributor Sadie Stein.




Bibliophilic fashion designer Kim Jones has presented a Dior menswear collection taking inspiration (check shirts, narrow ties, chunky hiking boots) from Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road. The show’s soundtrack included Robert Pattinson reading from Kerouac’s works and other literary thrills but the real ‘wow’ generator was the nature of the catwalk itself: a 70-metre-long facsimile copy of Kerouac’s full manuscript. This was in homage to the Beat author’s semi-mythical ‘spontaneous prose’ technique in which he wrote onto a continuous scroll so as not to have to pause during a frenetic twenty-day composition session, of which the ever-caustic Capote reputedly commented, ‘That’s not writing; that’s just typing.’




Moses Sumney, The Happy Reader’s most recent cover star, has released a brand new live album to multiple rave reviews. Entitled Live from Blackalachia, it comes with a corresponding concert movie portraying exactly what one daydreams when one hears a phrase like ‘recorded in the Blue Ridge Mountains’.




‘I have to inform you that the peach melba is alive and well-ba,’ writes Jethro Turner in response to last month’s newsletter (on Denton Welch’s In Youth is Pleasure) which expressed doubt as to whether the dessert persisted. ‘In one of those quirks of menus/produce, I had three in about a fortnight. The first (skin-on as a scoff at Escoffier) was at the Royal Harbour Brasserie in Ramsgate. The second, at Quo Vadis, was a very upmarket version served in a beautiful silver ice cream cup, with half a skinned peach carefully coated in coulis, sitting on top of a perfect demi-sphere of vanilla gelato. Suddenly addicted, I made the third at home with a perfectly ripe white peach. I convinced myself that spending ten minutes straining the pips for the raspberry sauce was worth it. But I haven’t bothered again since.’




A new issue of The Happy Reader is printing and will be published on 27 January. As ever it’s a precisely recognisable publication of two halves, the first an interview, the second about a book. As always, it’s completely different to all previous issues. I can’t reveal the identity of the cover star but I would say it’s quite an English issue. The Book of the Season, as announced in summer, is George Eliot’s Midlands epic Middlemarch. The next issue of this newsletter will welcome global reminiscences from fans of the novel, which can be sent by email to [email protected].


As ever, if you enjoy these newsletters, we’d greatly appreciate you sharing the subscription link. Thanks, and see you in 2022.




Seb Emina

Editor-in-chief, The Happy Reader


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