Review: ‘A Christmas Memory’ by Truman Capote

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‘I could leave the world with today in my eyes’ – Truman Capote, ‘A Christmas Memory’

The holiday season is a time for sentimentality. One can crack open a box of Celebrations and sob to It’s a Wonderful Life or The Muppet Christmas Carol without shame. It is a time of nostalgia and reflection, of looking back as well as forward.

Capote’s festive short story, ‘A Christmas Memory’, is the perfect beacon of literary light in this often-soppy time of year. ‘Tis the season for piles of cheap, maudlin films to dominate streaming services and the big screen, churning out storylines that include forcing beloved actresses from our childhood to fall in love with bizarre, handsome time travellers, or taking a classic Wham! song far too literally. In this flurry of dreadful seasonal story-telling, ‘A Christmas Memory’ is a breath of fresh, frosty air.

Capote’s festive short story is the perfect beacon of literary light

It perfects the art of sentimentality, walking the boundary between moving and nostalgic without ever verging into the murky, nauseating territory of sappiness.

The story is autobiographical. It describes a childhood memory of a Christmas spent with the narrator’s relative and friend Sook (who is left unnamed in the actual work) in depression-era Alabama. There is a cheeriness in the child-like charm of the narrator’s friend, a woman in her sixties, and the sweet, untainted bond between the two of them.

Humour permeates this tale. It comes through in the contraband whiskey, the unexpected kindness of the intimidating bootlegger and the ‘Fun and Freak Museum’ whose main exhibition is a three-legged biddy chicken. One finds oneself smiling at many points while being guided through this lucid and entrancing narrative.

While the story is tinged with humour and nostalgia, it is also edged with tragedy. The depression-era setting alone throws a shadow of struggle over the narrative, emphasised by the tight fiscal situation of the narrator himself, as well as in the trip to buy bootlegged whiskey for cakes.

While the story is tinged with humour and nostalgia, it is also edged with tragedy

The narrator’s friend appears to be trapped in childhood, due to the trauma of losing her friend whose name she uses for the narrator. There is a suggestion that the death has stunted her development, remaining forever a child. While there is a sweetness in her childish disposition, and her unspoiled nature, it is also unsettling. Capote balances charm and disconcertion, sweetness and sadness in perfect harmony.

Capote balances charm and disconcertion, sweetness and sadness in perfect harmony

There are only a set number of works of literature that leave one with the feeling that ‘A Christmas Memory’ does, that, in the words of Alan Bennett, “a hand has come out and taken yours”. We can all relate to the feeling Capote holds for this frost-covered memory, that wringing in the heart for a past one can only grasp at, like melting snow. The story is beautiful, Capote is a master storyteller and the festive season is given the credence and warmth it deserves in this tale of friendship, love and death.

If you are looking to read something with heart and life this holiday season, ‘A Christmas Memory’ is the perfect short read. Capote’s short story is, with a glass of mulled wine in front of the fire, a candle flickering through a winter’s night to throw light on us all.

Photograph: Flickr via Creative Commons

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