Six Characters In Search
Sextet By John Malcolm Brinnin Delacorte Press 275pp $15.95
IN SEXTET, John Malcolm Brinnin fuses six distinct portraits into an intricate work, closer to a fragmented fiction than to a fractured reality. Chosen from among the noted and notable of two overlapping intellectual eras, his subjects resemble characters from a diffuse and impressionistic novel. Brinnin has captured them, not at their peak, but in their moments of ascent or descent, grasping or clutching, and always searching.
Spanning nearly two decades, Sextet, compiled from diary entries, letters and reminiscences, focuses on Truman Capote, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elizabeth Bowen, Alice B. Toklas, the Sitwells, and T.S. Eliot. The most comprehensive study, The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect, begins with the first meeting between Capote and Brinnin, in Yaddo during the summer of 1947. Fascinated by this small man-child from Alabama, Brinnin scrupulously details Capote's erratic life through the conception of In Cold Blood, in 1963.
This is a Truman Capote unfamiliar to the readers of Music for Chameleons. Guileless, yet frivolous, self-absorbed, yet generous, Capote through his 20's and early 30's flits heedlessly from lover to lover, from New York to the South, from Ischia to the Continent, returning infrequently to the States, but always writing--a peripatetic dynamo.
Brinnin's study of Capote, from a brash youth, striving for recognition and feeding items to the gossip columns, to an older, established writer searching to maintain his integrity and voice while living as a perpetual guest and jet-set darling, is a model of character development. "I had to know what it was really like. Years and years I'd wondered: What if you woke up in the morning, so rich you were famous for it. Would you try a quiet little murder or two, just to see if you could get away with it? I've found out what I wanted to know...by seeing, being, having it," Capote tells Brinnin.
As the narrator, Brinnin exposes trivial in themselves, yet typical either of the emerging post-war, trans-Atlantic scene or of an insular, archaic Europe. He tracks his subjects by correspondencv and word of mouth, but stays unobtrusive. Touring America with the French photographer Cartier-Bresson, before the latter is discovered; meeting Eliot in the last years of the poet's life; paying court to Elizabeth Bowen and the Sitwells at a time when their eccentricities far exceeded their faded talents--he watches them with clinical detachment, in the throes of past and irretrievable success or in the pangs preceding recognition.
BRINNIN'S PORTRAIT of Alice B. Toklas, some years after the death of Gertrude Stein, differs in tone from the other studies. They meet for first time in 1950, when Brinnin calls on Miss Toklas to ask for material for a biography of Stein. While she refuses at first, it becomes apparent that Toklas, her identity inextricably tied to Stein, is more concerned with projecting her own perception of her companion than with forging her own individuality. Her reluctance to live the rest of her life recounting anecdotes is surpassed by her self-appointed duty as guardian of the faith.
TAKING AS HIS SUBJECT this lesser half of a noted pair, this shadow of a shade, Brinnin is unable to sustain the same degree of focus and self-effacement he shows in his other studies. He does not have the same interest in Toklas as in Capote, and he does not pretend to. Rather than follow a character's progress and transformation, because of a simple curiosity and fascination for that character's doings, he ignores the character at hand, striving to reach through and beyond Toklas, to Stein. Brinnin's goal, the biography, undermines his intent to depict Toklas, alone and aging, in the apartment she shared with Stein. Mushroom Pie in the Rue Christine is less about Toklas and her devoted entourage than it is about Brinnin searching, like his characters, for a vehicle for recognition.
When Brinnin's biography, The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and her World, appears, eight years after that first meeting in Paris, Toklas' health has deteriorated.
"One year later," Brinnin writes, "I heard what I wanted to hear. 'Your book,' she wrote, 'was a great and successful undertaking.' That she then thought I was a Mr. Binner, that the book had got (sic) confused in her mind with the whisky called Four Roses, that she addressed her letter to a street on which I had never lived, were, as I squinted at that spidery scrawl, matters of no consequence." The study revolves around Stein and Brinnin; Toklas has become the foil.
IN ALL, THERE IS a surreal quality to the people Brinnin has assembled. Flitting in and out of each other's lives with a bewildering ease, alluding with cryptic statements to another part of their lives, outside the bounds of Brinnin's knowledge: These are not real people, but characters from another time. On the verge of recognition or oblivion, they appear briefly to impart a glimpse of their lives, haunted, driven, fleeting.
Long after they have left, Brinnin's studies will remain, his characters frozen in their illusions and their delusions.