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Empathy, Authority, and the Narrative Ethics of Truman Capote’s “La Côte Basque, 1965”

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 43, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 218-244 | 10.1353/jnt.2013.0023

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Truman Capote’s short story “La Côte Basque, 1965” was not the last he published, but it has since been positioned at the end of his oeuvre as the final chapter in the unfinished novel Answered Prayers, and its original publication in Esquire magazine in 1975 seriously compromised his productivity. Helen Garson describes “La Côte Basque, 1965” as “a disaster for Capote” (68), and Gerald Clarke details the “disaster, complete and absolute” that followed the story’s publication (470). Capote’s editor at Random House, Joseph M. Fox, was “convinced it was one of the reasons why he apparently stopped working, at least temporarily, on Answered Prayers […]” (xiii). For these observers, the problem was the story’s content: composed entirely of gossip between two pairs of New York society insiders, it consists of a series of painful, shockingly personal anecdotes, all, apparently, true to a degree, and all about named or barely disguised friends and enemies of Truman Capote. The story’s publication in Esquire left Capote’s social network in tatters, and one of his targets, aware of its contents and perhaps having seen an advance copy, committed suicide two weeks before the issue became publicly available. Even Wayne Booth, in his The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, refers to Capote’s Answered Prayers as “a singularly unscrupulous act of exploitation” (130, n. 5), identifying the problem as Capote’s abdication of responsibility to “those whose lives are used as ‘material’” (130). However, not every roman à clef inflicts such heavy damage on its writer’s life and work, and analysis of why this story did so when it was first published in 1975 reveals a good deal about Capote’s writing after In Cold Blood and his attempts to manage the effect of his most famous novel on his later writing. Critics have identified as the story’s problem its relation to the real subjects of his story, but the root of the problem is the positioning of the implied reader so that actual readers find their attempts at empathy consistently thwarted and, as a result, find their ethical judgments unstable and inconclusive. Recent work on empathy and reading and on ethical criticism enables us to go beyond the real-world ethics of exposing personal lives under the guise of fiction to the narrative ethics of the story, and the latter are instrumental in understanding the “explosion” that followed the publication of “La Côte Basque, 1965” (Fox xiii) and the ambiguity that has characterized responses to it since. Capote clearly had not foreseen the “earthquake” (Clarke 468), but the stories he wrote after it register his response to it, a response that is attributable to more than the story’s content: its narrative configuration reveals an artistic dilemma that continued to preoccupy him to the end of his life.

In In Cold Blood, Capote had successfully completed the demanding, nearly debilitating, work of putting his readers into a position of empathizing with both a pleasant, middle-class, Midwestern family brutally murdered and with their underprivileged, undereducated, executed murderers. In stark contrast, the narrative configuration of “La Côte Basque, 1965,” which also features real individuals as characters, reveals that Capote was experimenting with the opposite possibility, that of putting his readers into a position in which empathy is rejected and denied. Capote’s characters are carefully chosen for this experiment: far from Kansas, these members of New York society’s elite seem to scorn the reader’s empathy—they do not want or expect us to be able to identify with them. They are no more receptive to the empathy of their fellow characters: we might imagine this would be more acceptable, as the characters move on the same social plane. Instead, they seem to fear the empathy of those most like them and to feel that accessibility to empathy would compromise their power and authority. Although the characters are well known for their accomplishments in business, government, music, fashion, and other fields, we notice from the start that authority is always shifting in these tales, and empathy—for or from others—can only be a sign that one’s authority has failed to...

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