A swirling mass capable of picking up anything with no single purpose, yet moving in one general direction.
On occasion ideas will continually present themselves until I have no choice but to notice. Or perhaps this continually happens and only sometimes will life knock me over the head with it in a way that rips me (if momentarily) away from complete and utter self-absorption. Well in this instance life has treated me like a kindergartener. Kindly but condescendingly showed me the fascinating and obvious comparison between two iconic writers who led parallel lives. It began, like all good things, while wandering in a bookstore. I picked up Answered Prayers by Truman Capote and decided to buy it after reading a few pages. Some time later I decided to go see the Oscar Wilde play An Ideal Husband and brought my book as an intermission companion. Well somewhere during Act II I had that moment that happens when you get a joke two beats after everyone else – thankful for the understanding but embarrassed you didn’t put that together earlier.
The concept of ‘Answered Prayers’ is taken from St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th-century Carmelite nun, who said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” This shows up as the title of Capote’s unfinished novel in addition to Act II of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895).
LORD GORING I had no idea that you, of all men in the world, could have been so weak, Robert, as to yield to such a temptation as Baron Arnheim held out to you.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN Weak? Oh, I am sick of hearing that phrase. Sick of using it about others. Weak? Do you really think, Arthur, that it is weakness that yields to temptation? I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to. To stake all one’s life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not – there is no weakness in that. There is a horrible, a terrible courage. I had that courage. I sat down the same afternoon and wrote Baron Arnheim the letter this woman now holds. He made three-quarters of a million over the transaction
LORD GORING And you?
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN I received from the Baron 110,000 pounds.
LORD GORING You were worth more, Robert.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN No; that money gave me exactly what I wanted, power over others. I went into the House immediately. The Baron advised me in finance from time to time. Before five years I had almost trebled my fortune. Since then everything that I have touched has turned out a success. In all things connected with money I have had a luck so extraordinary that sometimes it has made me almost afraid. I remember having read somewhere, in some strange book, that when the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.
LORD GORING But tell me, Robert, did you never suffer any regret for what you had done?
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN No. I felt that I had fought the century with its own weapons, and won.
Perhaps the most obvious comparison begins with the autobiographical elements in their work. Wilde provides An Ideal Husband with a dandy to show the conflicting values between him and the more reputable characters. People have (understandably) been quick to assign the dandy as written after Wilde himself. Evidence suggests that the scene in which a letter is left in a coat pocket and then used for attempted blackmail is a scene stolen straight out of Wilde’s own experience.
Around the time of its writing, Lord Alfred had given a suit to his friend, Alfred Wood, who discovered a love letter from Wilde carelessly left in its pocket. Wood confronted Wilde with the intention of blackmail, but the unconcerned author was able to appease the would-be extortionist over dinner. Unfortunately Wood had also given a copy of the letter to two professional thugs, who also approached Wilde with demands for payment. Wilde nonchalantly dismissed them as well, however, reportedly telling the men that he found the idea of such a price being proposed for a piece of his writing quite the compliment.
Truman Capote himself labeled Answered Prayers as a roman å clef – a novel that represents historical events and characters under the guise of fiction. He released the first chapter “La Côte Basque 1965” in Esquire magazine’s November 1975 issue. “Unspoiled Monsters” (May 1976) and “Kate McCloud” (December 1976) followed. The chapter scandalized New York society, identifying the stories taken from Capote’s friends and acquaintances such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, Mona Williams and more.
The status within society both the men held in society seemed to be of a double-edged sword. It seemed to be what provided and took from both. A healthy helping of distain and skepticism for their way of life seemed to accompany their existence within it. Wilde’s most famous plays were scandalous in their assault on England’s increasingly conservative Victorian society in the 1890’s. Capote’s revealing accounts of the socially prominent and rich revealed the dirty laundry of the polished upper crust.
“I had a lot of rich friends. I don’t particularly like rich people. In fact, I have a kind of contempt for most of them. . . . Rich people I know would be totally lost … if they didn’t have their money. That’s why … they hang together so closely like a bunch of bees in a beehive, because all they really have is their money.” -Truman Capote
The public scandal and exclusion of both authors caused with their work was further complicated by love affairs that were equally as outrageous at the time. For Truman Capote it was John O’Shea. A man married for 20 years, with four children. For Wilde it was a love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, which would result in an arrest and conviction for homosexual practices.
Sadly for them both, the public disgrace and emotional devastation led to alcohol and drug abuse and began a self-destructive path for both. Truman Capote died in 1984 after a long decline brought on by substance abuse. Wilde spent the last years of his life wandering Europe and sinking into drug addiction. He died of cerebral meningitis in a Paris hotel in 1900.
John Richardson says of Truman Capote, “I think that the gossipy part will fall away, and he’ll be remembered as a very brilliant writer who, like so many other writers, died of drink. He joins a tradition. His name—it’s such an unforgettable name—will be remembered.” I feel that this is true for both men. They were great charmers. Their wit their greatest asset they managed to reflect society back at itself through its art. I’m of the opinion that the world is a better place because of them.
(The majority of my prayers have been answered seeing evidence that Mr. Capote could do a killer spread eagle.)