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“I knew damn well I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing. My complexes aren’t inferior enough; being a movie star and having a big fat ego are supposed to go hand-in-hand; actually, it’s essential not to have any ego at all. I don’t mean I’d mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule, and some day I’ll try to get around it; but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

This is yet another classic story that in the public memory has been eclipsed by a watered down film. Although Moon River was quite sweet. To be honest, I question whether many folks have actually seen Breakfast At Tiffany’s, or simply just had the poster on their college dorm wall. And that Mickey Rooney racist stereotype performance…

Actually that’s one of the early surprises of Capote’s novel. When Mr Yunioshi is first described, the narrator corrects barman Joe Bell that he is not Japanese, he is Californian. The character of Holly Golighty has already been enshrined as a mythical figure by the start of the novel, appearing in far-off Africa and word travelling all the way back to New York. Her past is shrouded in mystery, her personality entirely self-created – peppering her dialogue with random words in French and her manner occasionally quite abrasive. The narrator makes the fatal mistake of attempting to read his writing to her, only for her eyes to quickly glaze over (with the legendary dismissal afterwards that she has no interest in reading about lesbians). Despite his wounded vanity, he cannot help becoming fascinating with the mysterious Holly.

You may notice that I have not really described anything like a plot. Well there are a number of instances, building up to what could be called a climax, but in reality this is a profile of an irrespressible free spirit. In fact her role is quite Wildean in that she is fond of making the occaisonal bon mots, but has no interest in profundity, or tortured meaning. She mocks the narrator for his frustrated writer status. If he is not writing to make money, what is the point? His earnest social realist stories will not bring Hollywood calling. Truman Capote appears to have inserted his own auto-critique on the futility of art in his most popular fictional creation.

However, it is easy to understand exactly why such a ephemeral novella has maintained its hold over the years. For one there is a fascination with the various gay shibboleths that Capote has slipped in under the radar (along with some not so secret references). So much of the humour and wit that still sparkles in this book is due to the acerbic employed in Golightly’s disparaging remarks regarding other characters. Poor Mag Wildwood is said to have contracted the clap so often she has had an applause.

It’s the way you tell ’em. I cannot hope to watch the delivery of the line.

Sharply funny, with a fierce intelligence belied by the superficial film adaptation.

Imagination about travel corresponds in Verne to an exploration of closure, and the compatibility between Verne and childhood does not stem from a banal mystique of adventure, but on the contrary from a common delight in the finite, which one also finds in children’s passions for huts and tents; to enclose oneself and to settle, such is the existential dream of childhood and of Verne.

In 2000 I spent a month living in both Paris and Brussels. This was with a view to practicing French so that I could pass my final exams in college. While I was in Paris I did a lot of browsing in book shops and found the book I am reviewing today. Barthes is often discussed in literary theory workshops due to his ‘Death of the Author’, argument. What is more I was drawn in by the cover of the book, a picture of Greta Garbo. I suspected that this was Barthes tackling an early form of film theory, so I snapped up the book, threw it into my luggage and returned to Dublin some weeks later.

When I got home, a good friend of mine saw my copy of Mythologies and asked for a loan. This was in August 2000. He returned it to me before I left Ireland in May of this year. Well, better late than never as they say.

Mythologies is a collection of previously published magazine articles and essays by Barthes that expand upon de Saussure’s theories of signifiers and codified meaning. It is seen as a landmark work in semiotics. Barthes explores how commonly accepted meanings and objects actually mask a series of competing narratives that lie behind our cultural understanding of the world. This he applies generally to French culture and the media particular to that country, but also generally to literature and cinema.

In many respects Barthes prefigures the work of the mad Slovenian Slavoj Zizek, who extrapolates trends in human behaviour or political consciousness from populist movies and famous recent historical events. The chapter titled The Brain of Einstein describes how the mind of a famous scientist, an ephemeral think indelibly linked to the understanding of the man himself, has become objectified in keeping with his status as an avatar of scientific discovery. Einstein’s cerebellum has become a machine, an object to be fought over by museums and hospitals.

In The Poor and the Proletariat Barthes challenges Charlie Chaplin to live up to the proletarian imagery of movies such as Modern Times and overly embrace a political consciousness that emanates from the working classes, as Brecht has done. The Face of Garbo presents the iconic actress as a Platonic Idea of beauty, whereas starlets like Audrey Hepburn are individualized ‘events’.

This conflict between universals and particulars is central to Barthes presentation of myth, a collection of signs and signifiers that define our understanding of the world. The observer of this order of representation Barthes classifies as a mythologist and in the last essay of this collection, Myth Today, he explains the arguments that lie behind his terminology.

Accessible, erudite and very readable, Barthes avoids the self-reflexive jargon of academic philosophy. A most edifying collection of essays.

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