Capote, Sedaris and Schulz: Sunday Book/film review

Today’s book and film review: The film Capote, David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and Bruno Schulz’ The Street of Crocodiles.  This week off the “secong rung” of my self-improvement schedule, I will be working on my Spanish and my voice, spending four hours on each.

These are books.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames-David Sedaris. On writing about the differences of the Japanese language in the essay “The Smoking Section”, David Sedaris reports that in Japanese there is “‘No need to begin with I, as it is clear that you are the one talking’” (289). If only Sedaris had adapted this in his writing. Most every sentence includes “I” “mine” or “my”. From Woody Allen to Ben Stiller, there is now an established cultural trend of glorifying the self-obsessed neurotic man-child. The problem with this is that is all the insight there is to offer: self-revelation and self-deprecation. Sedaris’ collection of essays is well written, charmingly funny, and at points arrestingly recognizable and poignantbut his self-focus gets claustrophobic. The character sketches are detailed and memorable. The best of his characters is a vicious, vulgar old lady named Helen in “That’s Amore”.

Unfortunately, they are just sketches, foils for his own self-exploration all leading up to uniformly neat, facilely wrapped up conclusions. These essays hit the same note over and over and feature only one complex character: himself. He is a fine writer, but one best in small doses.

The Street of CrocodilesT-Bruno Schulz. Schulz’s writing here establishes him as the son of Kafka, father of Kundera, and uncle of Márquez. Considered the best Polish writer between the wars, his prowess as an artist found him a protector in the Gestapo, but when he was given a day pass to leave the ghetto, a rival Gestapo member recognized and shot him dead in 1942.

This collection is deeply weird, centering around a powerful, insane, and genius father that permeates with the same mythic status of Márquez’ José Aureliano Buendía.
To his (and his translator’s) credit, the humor is both exuberant and subtle. At times hard to follow, requiring multiple rereads, the book could still be read in a day. Schulz mixes autobiography with fiction with the metaphysical irony that would later be fit in with magical realism. It is a mixture that offers a perspective with which to trace the western literary movement from 19th century realism to the early 20th centuries avant-garde movement to the modern short story and novel. For that alone it is worth reading. A great look into the mechanics and preoccupations of today’s fiction.

Capote-The film—which follows Truman Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood and his relationship with the two men sentenced to death for the brutal murder of a family in rural Kansas– is an intense meditation on the narcissistic cloud in which genius forms, and how writing is frequently the love-child of a torrid affair of “Author loving author”. Capote—played by Philip Seymour Hoffman—is self-obsessed, anxious to prove himself, and exploitative. No emotion is real to him unless he can map it on to his own experience (but who isn’t like this?).

The film’s best part is his relationship with one of the murderers, where his genuine care for them cannot be distinguished from his willingness to do anything for the sake of his book, which he recognizes will be great. Hoffman does a wonderful job embodying Capote without it being distracting, and playing the author’s almost unbelievably contradictory parts with equal sincerity.

An intense, disturbing meditation on the emotional destruction that often accompanies an individual striving for genius.


About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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5 Responses to Capote, Sedaris and Schulz: Sunday Book/film review

  1. luis says:

    Being a hudge fan of David Sedaris I would like to say I disagree, but this is probably my least favorite of all his work. I didn’t even finish the last chapter. When you’re that style of writer, I think there comes a point when you should just stop. No matter how witty or creative you’re writing style is, if you’re stories are not interesting… they’re just not. “That’s Amore,” was a good essay… wish Helen had been a writer.

    • big Adam says:

      I can get down with that…I like him in the New Yorker, but I found him to be tiring in a collection. I stand by the self-obsessed thing, although that’s pretty much all writers (dare I include myself in that?)

  2. Duane's Mom says:

    Book suggestion:

    A Free Life by Ha Jin

  3. I read When You Are Engulfed in Flames quite a while ago. I found the first half amusing, but the second half set in Tokyo was tiresome and beyond self-indulgent. Holidays on Ice or Me Talk Pretty One Day was much more worthy of people’s time.

    If you want a good read, check out Amélie Nothomb’s The Character of Rain. Her work is nothing like Sedaris, but the book is set in Japan. Her mind is fascinating and she really makes you step outside of yourself and yet inside of yourself all at the same time.

    Btw, are you on vacation? No posts…was enjoying having found your blog!

    • big Adam says:

      haha, thanks for your support…I was on a little vacation up in the mountains, so I decided to take a few days off…I will definitely check out Character of Rain…I’ve been reading a lot of non fiction lately (and also have a rule that i take every book suggestion given to me)

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