In center age Patricia Highsmith perfected a very ghastly celebration trick. Invited to a swanky London dinner, she arrived with 30 “pet” snails in her purse which she proceeded to tip out on to the desk. The snails instantly began their decided looping throughout the linen tablecloth, abandoning a lattice of silvery slime. Everybody, together with Highsmith herself, pretended to not discover.
If Highsmith have been merely a sociopathic alcoholic, and there’s loads of proof to counsel that she was, then this anecdote can be picturesque however not vital. What makes it matter is the way in which it captures the uncanny menace on the coronary heart of her most profitable novels, Strangers on a Practice (1951) and The Gifted Mr Ripley (1955). There’s nothing intrinsically evil about snails, purses, linen tablecloths and even swish dinner events. However put them in the best, or quite incorrect, order and you’ve got the type of insidious nightmare that turns into inconceivable to shake off. Graham Greene, an early fan of Highsmith’s, described her as “the poet of apprehension”. You possibly can not learn her, he mentioned, with out consistently checking over your shoulder.
It was Greene who additionally mentioned that factor about writers needing a splinter of ice of their hearts, by which he meant the willingness to cannibalise actual life, actual relationships, actual ache within the service of 1’s artwork. Was he considering of Highsmith? Actually, on the proof that Richard Bradford units out right here, Highsmith was an “emotional vandal”, who went out of her method to wreck the lives of her many lovers so as to generate concepts for plots. At any time when her emotional life seemed like settling down – there have been type companions like stolid Doris and stylish Caroline who solely needed one of the best for her – she would do one thing appalling to make sure the utmost mayhem. There have been suicide makes an attempt, ménages à trois, stressed flitting from home to accommodate and boastful claims about having intercourse with 10 completely different girl in a single day. A lot of it went straight into her novels.
Truly, earlier than it went into her novels it went into her journals. There are 39 of those, all deposited within the Swiss Literary Archive, together with an enormous tranche of diaries, correspondence and but extra notebooks. Highsmith’s archive ended up in Bern quite than on the well-known Harry Ransom Library in her native Texas as a result of she all the time felt extra appreciated in Europe. Right here she was handled as a severe “psychological” litterateur within the vein of Kafka and Camus, whereas America regarded her as a cack-handed thriller author with the unlucky knack of letting her baddies get off scot-free. After which there was the intercourse. When attempting to publish her second novel in 1952, a lesbian romance with the biblically doomy title The Value of Salt, Highsmith’s agent suggested her to keep away from profession suicide by utilizing a nom de plume. Not till 1990 did the British publishers Bloomsbury convey out the e book below Highsmith’s actual title. In addition they modified its title to the jauntier-sounding Carol after the lead character who leaves her shiny marriage for an affair with an arty youthful girl, based mostly on Highsmith herself.
Carol was filmed by Todd Haynes in 2015 with Cate Blanchett within the title function, making it the third time that Highsmith’s psychologically complicated and densely plotted novels hit cinematic pay grime. In 1951 Alfred Hitchcock had made her debut Strangers on a Practice right into a wildly noirish suspense drama, whereas in 1999 Anthony Minghella flooded the display screen with hallucinatory Mediterranean technicolour in The Gifted Mr Ripley. The success of those movie variations, Ripley and Carol particularly, account for the late flowering of Highsmith’s repute. By the top of her life in 1995 she was promoting extra books – dangerous ones, truly, since her writing deteriorated sharply from her early Nineteen Fifties heyday – than would have ever appeared attainable.
All of that is fascinating, however it’s not actually new. Andrew Wilson wrote the primary large biography of Highsmith in 2003 based mostly on a meticulous fingertip search of the Bern archive buttressed by interviews with surviving lovers, a lot of whom have since died. Fairly what Bradford brings to the desk, except it’s to remind us that this month is Highsmith’s centenary, is unclear. Wilson labored laborious to indicate how Highsmith’s psychic fractures have been a consequence of being a intelligent, homosexual girl in newly Conservative postwar America. Bradford is way much less on this sociological strategy, preferring to pathologise Highsmith as a substitute. At one degree this is sensible – her virulent antisemitism, misogyny and common awfulness actually can’t be defined away by cultural fault strains. However on the different it does imply that Bradford’s Highsmith turns into a determine bordering on the grotesque. There’s additionally one thing odd about the way in which he offers with what he phrases Highsmith’s “lesbian inclinations”. One minute he feels like a maiden aunt, the subsequent like a voyeur who has triumphantly decoded proof from her diaries concerning the dimension of her clitoris. The result’s a biography that manages to be each plodding and salacious on the similar time.
• Devils, Lusts and Unusual Wishes: The Lifetime of Patricia Highsmith is revealed by Bloomsbury.
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