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Murder She Wrote 

The talented Ms. Highsmith

Thursday, Jul 3 2003

Here are two anecdotes about the great American suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith. When she heard President John F. Kennedy launch into his “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” speech on television, she left the room and went into the kitchen to feed the cats. And when she was drawing up her will, she wavered between bequeathing her fortune to the Yaddo Arts Colony and the Palestinian Intifada. Yaddo got it, but it’s hard to imagine any other major American novelist of the late-20th century considering the latter as a legatee. Even William Burroughs wasn’t that alienated from mainstream American life.

People are strange, as Jim Morrison once sang, but Patricia Highsmith was a lot stranger than most. Like Paul Bowles and Gore Vidal, her fellow novelists-in-exile (with whom she corresponded), she stood at a slight angle to the American universe. In Andrew Wilson’s fascinating — if a bit too long — new biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, there are photographs of the young author in 1949, standing on the deck of a ship about to sail from New York to Europe. She looks radiantly happy. The Old World was where she, and her heroes (they were almost always men), wanted to be.

Six years later, Tom Ripley, the Europhile antihero of The Talented Mr. Ripley, would make the same journey. Highsmith described his feelings about the city as he prepared to leave:

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The atmosphere of the city became stranger as the days went on. It was as if something had gone out of New York — the realness or the importance of it — and the city was putting on a show just for him, a colossal show with its buses, taxis and hurrying people on the sidewalks . . . As if when his boat left the pier on Saturday, the whole city of New York would collapse with a poof like a lot of cardboard on a stage.

As that passage shows, Highsmith was a mesmerizing writer who locked readers into her protagonists’ point of view with unequaled ferocity. But despite having her first novel, Strangers on a Train, turned into a successful movie by Alfred Hitchcock, she failed to get much critical recognition in her own country. Since the success of Anthony Minghella’s 1999 movie adaptation of her first Ripley novel, that has changed. New editions of her books are on the shelves, and more films are being produced (the latest, Ripley Underground, stars John Malkovich, who was born to play the role). Until recently, anyone curious about the novelist’s life would have had nothing but a few dusty magazine profiles to go on. Now, together with Wilson’s biography, there is Marijane Meaker’s fascinating Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950’s (from which the anecdotes at the beginning of this article were taken).

 

Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921. Her mother tried to induce a miscarriage by swigging turpentine during her pregnancy, and her father moved out of the house before she’d even been born. When she was 6, her mother remarried (Highsmith took her stepfather’s name, but never accepted him otherwise), and the family moved to New York in search of work. Highsmith discovered her lesbianism early, but her mother never accepted or forgave it. Unconditional love, which every child needs, seems to be the one thing Highsmith never got. She fought with her mother throughout her life and met her real father only once, when she was 17. He tried to seduce her. The seeds for the alienation she suffered and would express in her novels — almost all her protagonists are deeply neurotic and often outright criminal — were sown early.

Her mother may not have approved, but Highsmith herself had no problem with or timidity about her sexuality. Strikingly attractive when she was young, she seduced women by the score despite suffering from an often-crippling shyness. But as is clear from Meaker’s memoir — the two women lived together as lovers for about a year — she was unable to stick with anyone for long, preferring to flit from lover to lover, and country to country (Mexico, Italy, England, France, Switzerland . . .). She also drank heavily, more and more as the years went on, but never let it interfere with her work. Wilson’s biography, which traces the increasing toll of alcoholism, isolation and ill health, can make grim reading. Particularly near the end, when Highsmith turned into a racist bore and anti-Semitic crank — ironically, since she wrote brilliantly about cranks in her novels.

Meaker’s memoir, which begins with a glamorous touch in a Greenwich Village lesbian bar in 1959, when Highsmith was “a handsome, dark-haired woman in a trench coat” drinking gin and smoking Gauloises, ends even more painfully than Wilson’s biography. In 1992, only three years before Highsmith’s death and 32 years after they’d last seen each other, the two women spent three days together at Meaker’s home in East Hampton. It was a long three days. Highsmith’s conversation consisted mainly of diatribes against blacks, Jews and Israel.

Even in her bitter final years, one has to admire her unflagging dedication to craft and consistent hard work. She produced 22 novels (one of which, Carol, was originally published under the name Claire Morgan and is a lesbian classic) and seven collections of short stories in all. She also kept a detailed diary (from which Wilson got much of his information) throughout her life. There is a marvelous anecdote in Meaker’s book about how, when she lived in New York, Highsmith used to get the names for her characters by driving up and down the highways looking at signs and billboards. The inspiration for the character Tom Ripley came to her on a beach in Positano, but the name came from an ad for “Ripley Clothing” on the West Side Highway.

As a writer, Highsmith is pretty much sui generis. She wrote whydunits rather than whodunits, and her novels are closer in spirit to those of her literary heroes — Dostoyevsky, Camus, Poe — than to most books filed under “Mystery.” Graham Greene dubbed her “the poet of apprehension,” and Will Self said that reading Strangers on a Train brought him face to face with an almost physically palpable sense of evil. What has most disturbed readers — particularly of the Ripley novels — is the feeling that not only does Highsmith refuse to judge her murderous hero, but she approves of him as well — goading him on, in book after book, to kill and get away with it so he can live the good life in the French countryside. (The name of Ripley’s country home, Belle Ombre — Beautiful Shadow — is where Wilson gets his title.) This amorality is probably why she did better in Europe than in the States.

But too much can be made of the Ripley books, of which there were five in all, and of her psychopathic heroes in general. Some of her greatest novels — The Cry of the Owl comes to mind — feature protagonists who are pretty masochistic and weird, certainly, but far from unsympathetic. Too rarely noted about Highsmith is her mastery of foreign locales, not just in the Ripley novels, but particularly in The Two Faces of January (Greece, Paris, Marseille . . .) and Those Who Walk Away, whose Venice in winter is surely the ultimate setting for one of her inimitable cat-and-mouse thrillers. These amazingly suspenseful books, with their bare-knuckle duels between (roughly speaking) a “good” guy and a “bad” guy, are like the literary equivalent of a boxing match. It’s no surprise that the French, with their love for drames psychologiques, took to them in a way Americans have never done.

They are also surprisingly acute about Continental working-class life. The sections in Those Who Walk Away, for instance — in which the hero, an art dealer named Ray Garrett, is rescued and hidden by a poor Venetian gondolier after his nemesis, an American painter named Ed Coleman, has tried to drown him — are superb, even heartwarming, without being in the least bit affected or sentimental.

Highsmith is an acquired taste, but if you have it, you won’t want to miss Wilson’s biography — though, at $32.50, it’s pricey — which has some penetrating things to say about the books as well as the life. His attempts to draw parallels between Highsmith’s novels and the political situation in America, particularly during the Vietnam War, are bound to feel strained, however, since Highsmith’s political opinions were felt rather than thought, and were completely incoherent. She was a Thatcherite who hated Bush Sr., a liberal who railed against minorities, a lesbian who despised feminism and gay empowerment — it would be hard to build a political platform on all that. Fortunately, her opinions barely touched her work. Even The Tremor of Forgery, set in Tunisia during the Six Day War, is remarkably evenhanded. Highsmith lived in her imagination, and, ultimately, it’s in her uniquely disturbing stories that you’ll find her.

BEAUTIFUL SHADOW: A Life of Patricia Highsmith | By ANDREW WILSON | Bloomsbury | 534 pages | $32.50 hardcover

HIGHSMITH: A Romance of the 1950’s | By MARIJANE MEAKER | Cleis Press | 206 pages | $14.95 paperback

  • The talented Ms. Highsmith

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