Patricia Highsmith W.W. Norton, $27.95 (cloth)
by James Sallis
A writer is a distinctive kind of loner—psychologically apart, yet committed to communication. This conflict seems particularly true of writers who simultaneously court and challenge genre conventions, people like Theodore Sturgeon, Chester Himes, Iain Sinclair, Jonathan Carroll, Jack O'Connell; often they struggle with self and with reader's expectations as much as with the material at hand. There's a gravity forever working to draw down both work and worker. Each new day, each new novel or essay, each new paragraph and page, requires renewed conviction—a new act of self-persuasion that this is worth doing, that what one does, matters. No surprise then that writers so often prove such a stubborn, contrary lot.
Few more stubborn, contrary or self-assuming writers than Patricia Highsmith. Making no concessions to market forces—perhaps, like other highly individualist, idiosyncratic writers, she found herself unable to do so—she pursued a career unparalleled among contemporaries, baffling readers and critics, many of whom finally threw up their hands. Here in the States, when known at all, she was known as a mystery writer. Her books fell from and returned to print in odd cycles, as though editors, recognizing her importance, could not quite leave her alone yet were so disquieted by the work, so intimately troubled by it, that, having initiated conversation, they turned and fled.
In Europe, where she spent much of her productive life, and where, as with Gallimard's La Série Noire, genre writing is more likely to be embraced than scorned, Highsmith won wide recognition as simply a novelist, even though, as with many expatriates, America remained her compelling subject.
American literature, of course, bears a heavy heritage of pulpdom, and for the most part prefers lines between low and high cultures solidly drawn. With Strangers on a Train and subsequent meta-mysteries, Highsmith tapped into genre energies, but she also inflamed bare-rubbed spots of the American soul others had agreed to leave alone. Her art records a bursting of the blisters that develop when shoes of seem (the salesman measured and assured you they were perfect) don't fit the feet that be. She pushed things to the very borders of expectation, civility, civilization and reason—even of humanity. The Roman playwright Terence wrote that "nothing human is alien to me." Much that's human is alien to Highsmith. And if America's tale has always best been told by outsiders, by the frontiersmen, Tocquevilles, and Thoreaus among us, by artists who ritually, by sheer force of will, turn themselves into outsiders, then Highsmith made herself, or found within herself, the perfect outsider.
Half a century before the term came into general usage, Highsmith's work was deeply transgressive—transgressive not only of received wisdom, proscribed behavior, and social attitudes, but also of conventional notions of fiction. She makes little concession to supposed axioms of character development, proper motivation, the necessary shape of a story. Narrative lines may diverge sharply on the third or fourth page, or in the second paragraph. A story's end is likely to find us with re-complication in resolution's place. Characters act, even kill, arbitrarily and without reason, as in Strangers on a Train,while others for similar lack of reason fail to do the simple, obvious things (such as going to the police or withdrawing) that would save them. One wonders if she may not in fact be the ultimate realist. Her characters refuse to fulfill our expectations. They dodge and duck, shimmy, signify, dive and resurface, trailing behind them like an insect's egg case all the complications, swellings, self-contradictions, paper cuts, codicils, boils, blisters, burdens, and sudden turns of our lives.
"She is a writer who has created a world of her own—a world claustrophobic and irrational," Graham Greene noted in his introduction to 1970's The Snail-Watcher, reprinted here. A world without moral endings, as Greene says, dark, and lit by sudden flares of violent action. "Nothing is certain when we have crossed this frontier."
Nothing indeed. Everything in Patricia Highsmith's world is fluid, runny, hard to hold onto. Touch it and it breaks up, rolls sluggishly away in pieces, like mercury. The malleability of identity itself proves a constant theme. Tom Ripley, who not altogether coincidentally deals in art forgeries, is the primary example, of course. David Kelsey in This Sweet Sickness creates quite literally a house of lies, a kind of stillborn cocoon in which he swaddles himself. Highsmith's characters step between lives, move from fantasy to dailyness and back without so much as wiping their shoes at the threshold. Just as Whitman brought out edition after edition of Leaves of Grass in more or less continuous revision, so does America, this great anthology, continually reinvent itself—and so do American lives.
Always the shape of the life looms like a beggar in the doorway, or mad cousins shut away in Southern attics, behind the work.
Patricia Highsmith was born January 19, 1921, in Fort Worth, Texas, to Jay Bernard Plangman, of German descent, and Mary Coates, of English-Scots descent. Shortly after her birth, the parents separated and divorced; Patricia was raised by her Texas grandmother until the age of six, at which time she joined her mother and stepfather, both commercial artists, in New York. She did not meet her father until age twelve and apparently felt no connection to him. Following a series of separations, her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, and her mother would eventually divorce, though not until after Patricia had graduated from Barnard College and returned to live with them in their Greenwich Village apartment. She wrote scripts for comic books to support herself, turning to more serious literature evenings and weekends.
A story written while at Barnard, "The Heroine," was published in Harper's Bazaar and reprinted in O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946.Then in 1948, with the sponsorship of Truman Capote, she attended Yaddo, where she wrote Strangers on a Train, published in 1950, after six rejections, by Harper & Brothers. Down the hall from Patricia at Yaddo was Chester Himes. Alfred Hitchcock filmed the novel in 1951. Though later reclothed by Czenzi Ormonde, the original script ofStrangers was written by Raymond Chandler, who, interestingly enough, in a letter to Hitchcock and in these excerpts from his own working notes, remarked the story's implausibility:
It's darn near impossible to write, because consider what you have to put over: A perfectly decent young man (Guy) agrees to murder a man he doesn't know, has never seen, in order to keep a maniac from giving himself away and from tormenting the nice young man....We are flirting with the ludicrous. If it is not written and played exactly right, it will be absurd.
During the Fifties and Sixties, while chiefly based in New York, Highsmith traveled to and lived in Europe, Mexico and the American Southwest. A tacit assertion of her independence of thought came with publication, in 1952, of a lesbian novel, The Price of Salt. Brought out under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Highsmith's second novel was reissued under her own name only in 1991. In 1963, she moved to Europe for good, first settling in England, then France, finally, for the last thirteen years of her life, Switzerland.
Highsmith never had much that was good to say of her parents. Asked in a 1980 interview why she didn't love her mother, Highsmith replied, "First, because she made my childhood a little hell. Second, because she herself never loved anyone, neither my father, my stepfather, nor me." The same interviewer asked her if she, with a reputation as a reclusive, had ever attempted to live with someone. "Indeed, but it was catastrophic….So, the pleasures of family life, no, thanks."
In her work there are few successful couples or families. Far more common is the sort of desperate isolation à deux demonstrated by Vic and Melinda Van Allen in Deep Water. Attractions occur only in tandem, it seems, with repulsion. The stronger character fully subsumes the weaker. Couples seldom reproduce (the Van Allens are an exception), and parents are as absent as children. Highsmith's characters exist as islands, afloat and apart. Tom Ripley is never happier than when shut away from humankind in his train compartment. Highsmith was herself a recluse, living for much of her life alone in an isolated house near Locarno on the Swiss-Italian border. Tom and Heloise in the later Ripley novels do have a workable marriage, true. And Highsmith's lesbian novels—the marriage of Therese and Carol in The Price of Salt, and the extended family of her last, Small g: A Summer Idyll—offer visions of successful alternatives. But for the most part there is a horror of relationships and, especially, of family.
"Old Folks at Home" may be the ultimate horror-of-family story. Looking to be good people and hoping in some vague way to fulfill themselves, its upper-middle-class couple adopts, not a child, but an elderly man and wife formerly ensconced in a nursing facility. Gradually they come to realize they've forfeited their lives. In order to work, they're forced to move to a rented office; soon thereafter their house, everything they own, goes up in fire as a result of the old folks' smoking in bed. Through it all, though sinking like stones, they retain their good will. "We'll make it," they tell themselves again and again.
When in "The Kite," a rare story including a child, one parent says to another, "As long as he hasn't been—you know," meaning not masturbation, as we're set up to anticipate, but a visit to his sister's grave, we learn something of the real family values at work: illusion, the status quo, the silent agreements, must be maintained at whatever cost. It's not flying too close to the sun that brings Daedalus down; not heat at all, but the bone-chill of pretense.
Of a long-past era when short stories were thought as urgent in their own way as novels, or at very least proper employment for the imaginative writer, Highsmith published seven story collections, beginning with Eleven (1970) and ending with Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987), all but the last, posthumous volume brought out in the UK by William Heinemann. W.W. Norton, which is also reissuing many of the novels, brings together in The Selected Stories representations from five of the collections: The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (1975), Little Tales of Misogyny(1977), Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (1979), The Black House(1981), and Mermaids on the Golf Course (1985).
In what is thus far the only book-length study of Highsmith's work, Russell Harrison has likened the early stories to those of Carson McCullers. They are indeed of similar impress. Several collections, such as The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder and Little Tales of Misogyny, congeal about some central conceit. Interestingly, the stories demonstrate far greater variety in subject matter, theme, and voice than the novels. They're filled with surprises, sharply drawn intriguing characters, brilliantly realized scenes. One turns the page eager to see what comes next—between as much as within stories. Quite possibly this fine collection, along with Norton's reissues of her novels, will win Highsmith the recognition she deserves. Certainly it should gain her a new cadre of readers.
Still, these stories haven't a great deal in common, Harrison points out, with the mainstream American short story, and strike many chords familiar from the novels: evocations of states of extreme anxiety, displacement of a privileged class, the malleability of history and of identity itself, eruptions of violence, cataclysmic interpenetrations of one world into another.
That last may be the key theme for Highsmith.
When at the end of one story here, having just been pulled, as by a drain, into the occasion of another's death, a man stands imagining his own, we understand not only the importance of imagination to Highsmith and her characters, but also that something has begun within this man, and where it will lead. "He stared down a long while, and imagined his body toppling over and over, striking the water with not much of a splash, sinking.…But he hadn't even the courage or the despair as yet for suicide. One day, however, he would, he knew. One day when the planes of cowardice and courage met at the proper angle." Does anything better define our ambitions and failures, our much-vaunted freedom and all our much-cherished choices, than that final phrase?
Again and again characters force or insinuate themselves into another's life, altering it beyond recognition. Like black holes, they draw everything, even the very light of those other lives, into them. Tom Ripley's irruption into Dickie Greenleaf's life and gradual assumption of it in the initial Ripley book is the best-known example. But there are many others, Charles Anthony Bruno's annexation of Guy Haines' life in Strangers on a Train among them. In This Sweet Sickness, David Kelsey will not let ex-girlfriend Annabelle be. He purchases a house and furnishes it just as he knows she would like, then lies abed while masturbating with the thought that "His house had the virtue of never being lonely. He felt Annabelle's presence in every room."
Often it seems as though for Highsmith, for her characters, virtually any connectedness is fraught. Entanglements draw one down. Personal boundaries fallen, others will follow: social, spiritual. Physical contact becomes ontological horror. Ever the observer, ever apart, the recluse looks on, fascinated, appalled.
This basic theme of interpenetration resounds throughout Highsmith's novels and stories alike. And while they may first appear so, such intrusions are no simple co-opting or appropriation. Guy Haines is complicit in Bruno's scheme; Dickie Greenleaf becomes, at least for a time, half the equation that is Tom Ripley. As Francis Wyndham notes in an essay in Lesbian and Bisexual Fiction Writers, Highsmith's
peculiar brand of horror comes less from the inevitability of disaster, than from the ease with which it might have been avoided. The evil of her agents is answered by the impotence of her patients—this is not the attraction of opposites, but in some subtle way the call of like to like. When they finally clash in the climactic catastrophe, the reader's sense of satisfaction may derive from sources as dark as those which motivate Patricia Highsmith's destroyers and their fascinated victims.
More than one critic deems the theme of interpenetration an essential masking, and locates the subtext of all Highsmith's work in homosexual suppression and discovery. Certainly there's that—as there is, also everywhere, Highsmith's most un-American emphasis on class. No doubt she's a master of misdirection, pointing one way, happening another. This is, after all, what artists do. Nor must we demand that artists be fully aware of these displacements. Often they're out there working without a map, making the plough down sillion shine, gee- andhaw-ing by intuition, instinct, crochet, quirk.
With the years, Highsmith became ever more like Tom Ripley shut away from humankind in his train compartment, ever more apart. Willfulness—stubbornness, contrariness—turned slowly, one suspects, towards true misanthropy; independence of thought to a kind of intellectual fascism. A curious double vision overtook her. Everywhere she looked now were victims. She cared greatly for none of them but could not leave the trailing, pale stories of their lives alone. She had written almost exclusively of victims, it seemed, people whose lives had been annexed, inhabited. Had everyone's life been taken over?
Nowhere is Highsmith's misanthropy more apparent than in Little Tales of Misogyny, a series of savage vignettes and character sketches with titles such as "The Female Novelist," "The Middle-Class Housewife," "The Fully Licensed Whore, or, the Wife," "The Breeder," "The Perfectionist."
One begins: "A young man asked a father for his daughter's hand, and received it in a box—her left hand."
Another: "There are lots of girls like Mildred, homeless, yet never without a roof—most of the time the ceiling of a hotel room, sometimes that of bachelor digs, of a yacht's cabin if they're lucky, a tent, or a caravan. Such girls are bed-objects, the kind of thing one acquires like a hot water bottle, a traveling iron, an electric shoe-shiner, any little luxury of life."
And, from "Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman": "She was a bit hairy, one front tooth missing, but her sex appeal was apparent at a distance of two hundred yards or more, like an odor, which perhaps it was. She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, round-hipped, and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her."
The stories of The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder by contrast show great compassion, though not for humanity. "Chorus Girl's Absolutely Final Performance," told from the point of view of an elephant, gives us in nine pages the whole arc of that elephant's captive life. Also extraordinarily touching is "Djemal's Revenge," with a camel as protagonist. This story is a marvel of setting and atmosphere as well as of headlong narrative motion. Other tales feature a cockroach (again, in first-person), a monkey, hamsters, ferrets, goats, cats, a horse and a wonderful truffle-hunting pig named Samson.
Compassion persists, even turns humanward, in Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, which appeared in 1979, two years after Little Tales, four years after The Animal-Lover's Book. Stories such as "The Network" and "Broken Glass" feature aged, lonely people with few ties remaining, sequestered and barricaded in their apartments in cities—in a society—changed beyond recognition. It's as though their lives had been lifted from the shelf, drained of all that's vital, and the shell replaced. All the old certainties are gone, there's minority threat all about, and everywhere, like black smoke from factories, an unfocused fear and dread. Highsmith's novels of the decade, A Dog's Ransom (1972) and Edith's Diary (1977), essay similar embranchments, particularly the latter, which concerns itself rather directly with media manipulation, active feminism, the civil rights movement, and anti-colonialism, as in this passage:
7/Nov./54. In New York people say politics don't interest them. "What can I do about it anyway?" This is the attitude government powers in America want to foster and do. News is brief, filtered and slanted. The Guatemalan "uprising" would have been far more interesting if social conditions there had been described and if United Fruit Company's activities had been exposed—by radio and TV. Discussion clubs should be set up all over America to talk about forces behindthings. We have been brainwashed for decades (since 1917) to hate Communism. Readers Digest has never failed to print one article per issue about the inefficiency of anything socialized, such as medicine.
That Highsmith's shadowy tales bear political intonations should come as no surprise. This is, after all, the woman who dedicated her 1983 novel People Who Knock on the Door
To the courage of the Palestinian people and their leaders in the struggle to regain a part of their homeland.
This book has nothing to do with their problem.
and Ripley Under Water, eight years later,
To the dead and the dying among the Intifadah and the Kurds, to those who fight aggression in whatever land, and stand up not only to be counted but to be shot.
Also from Slowly, Slowly, and continuing Highsmith's investigation of the ever-deepening chasm between rich and poor which she touched on in stories like "Broken Glass" and "The Network," is a rare divagation into apocalyptic science fiction: "Please Don't Shoot the Trees." Elsie and family live in great privilege in a protected enclave safely tucked away from "the cesspools" of the cities. All is ease and good thoughts; even the children travel to school by helicopter. But forces far more ancient than mankind's relentless tucking-away and smoothing-out are at work. That obliviousness we call peace of mind, we purchase finally at great price.
It was right, Elsie felt, right to go like this, conquered by the trees and by nature…. Now the wind whistled in her ears, and she was falling at great speed. A land mass, big as a continent, it seemed, big as she could see, was dropping—slowly for land but fast for her—into the dark blue waters.
Over time the stories, as do the novels, grow denser, layered, increasingly inhabited by darker, more obscure motives and by subtler forms of subterfuge and supplantation. Accordingly they become harder to pin down, to define, and ever more troubling at various subterranean levels.
Stories from The Black House are a bleak lot. It's here that "Old Folks at Home" appears, with its adoption of an elderly couple bringing ruin to the adoptive couple's life. Others like "The Kite" and "Under a Dark Angel's Eye" are as deeply disturbing. But the standout is "The Terrors of Basket-Weaving," a masterpiece quite possibly on the order of Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle." Discovering an uncanny, wholly unconscious skill while repairing a basket found on the beach, a modern urban woman begins to feel simultaneously aligned in spirit with the entire history and character of her race and somehow at a remove from her daily life. She's in equal measure frightened and entranced. "I feel—as if a lot of other people were inside me besides myself. And I feel lost because of that," she tells her husband. But her feelings and her confusion are far more complex than she can relate. In some curious way she has glimpsed transcendence, and, in finally burning the basket, refused it. It's much that feeling we have in the moment great music ends, just before the noise of the world rushes back in and overtakes us:
Three weeks after the burning of the basket, her crazy idea of being a "walking human race" or some such lingered. She would continue to listen to Mozart and Bartók…and she would continue to pretend that her life counted for something, that she was part of the stream or evolution of the human race, though she felt now that she had spurned that position or small function by burning the basket. For a week, she realized, she had grasped something, and then she had deliberately thrown it away….And in fact could she even put any more into words? No. So she had to stop thinking about it. Yes.
With its sharp sense of alienation from the ordinary, its ambiguity of motive and emotion, its questions of identity and dark interiority, "The Terrors of Basket-Weaving" seems an ideal vehicle for many of Highsmith's concerns. Here again there's an interpenetration of lives that appears to redeem our common humanity, but in the end cleaves us from it. For Highsmith, one suspects, this may be the ultimate horror, boundaries of self utterly lost. The protagonist's tremulous, penumbral state of mind gets captured marvelously in a story as complex, unsettling, and finally as unsortable, as her own emotions.
Curiously, each of the stories from Mermaids on the Golf Course in some way deals with families. "A Clock Ticks at Christmas" chronicles the dissolution of a marriage from a couple's differences in attitude towards possessions and inability to cross class barriers. In "Where the Action Is," a freelance photographer still living with his parents happens onto the shot of a lifetime, a young woman fleeing from her supposed rapist—a photograph that makes his career and bends the lies that are his life into a new, ever-hardening form. "Chris's Last Party" touches on the extended family of young creative people taken under wing by an older mentor. In "The Button," a man filled with bitterness for his Down's-syndrome son and empty of feelings for his wife, kills a man, throttling him as he has often imagined throttling his son, and finds release therein: "He had killed a man in revenge for Bertie. He had superiority, in a sense, one-upmanship. He must never forget that. He could face the years ahead with that."
These stories are also, in Grace Paley's phrase, about enormous changes at the last moment. They deal in one way or another with people whose well-set lives have been breached, their boundaries disrupted, and who are now retrenching.
The protagonist of the title story, "Mermaids on the Golf Course," happened to be on the grandstand nearby at a St. Patrick's Day parade and instinctively threw himself in front of the President when snipers opened fire. Now he is recovering, but everything in and about his life has changed. Nothing is as it was, nothing is as it seems, and he cannot get a hold on any of it. Like "Please Don't Shoot the Trees" a rare excursion into the literature of the fantastic, "Not in This Life, Maybe the Next" recounts the appearance in a lonely woman's life of a gnomelike creature no one else can see, an appearance that first begins refilling, then empties, that life. In "The Romantic," following the death of her long cared-for mother, a woman dresses in her best, most fetching clothes and sits in fashionable lounges pretending to wait for a rendezvous, creating for herself an external life to match the internal. Actual dates only serve to persuade her that her life of mind and imagination far surpasses that of the real. She need not be (as Rilke put it) distracted by expectation. "I prefer my own dates."
So did Patricia Highsmith. She might dress up to date Mysteries, head downtown to hang out with Noir, smile at Literature quaffing Merlot at the next table. But she always preferred the life of her own imagination, her own dates. She always knew that was the only place she could rightfully live and work.
James Sallis's latest books include Chester Himes: A Life and the novel Ghost of a Flea, both published by Walker and Company, which is also reissuing his earlier novels.