Thursday, February 18, 2016

Patricia Highsmith / The poet of apprehension

The poet of apprehension: Patricia Highsmith's short stories


I ’ve been reading Eleven, a collection of some of Patricia Highsmith’s short stories (two of which I’d read before in other horror anthologies). Highsmith is an author I’ve long admired, but often from a distance. Even for people with a cynical view of human nature, her work can be discomfiting, or downright unpleasant, and this is perhaps truer of her short stories, which by their very nature are more intense than her novels (such as The Talented Mr Ripley and its sequels). Unsettling as the full-length books are, they have breathers that allow the reader to sit back and reflect on the plot convolutions or simply soak in a place description. But the shorter pieces, being more concentrated, offer fewer escape routes.

Other masters of the macabre (an obvious example being Roald Dahl, a contemporary of Highsmith) have a – dare one say it – feel-good style that makes their stories easy to savour, or at least chuckle at, even if you aren’t in a particularly wicked mood. Some of Dahl’s best work is marked by the twist in the tale, which means the reader can first anticipate a delicious ending and later feel the satisfaction of having experienced a neatly rounded-off story. Highsmith usually doesn’t provide such comforts. In contrast, the horror in much of her work comes from the fact that there isn’t a twist in the tale or a definite ending; that things simply continue to be as they are – bleak, unresolved. I’m thinking in particular of “The Cries of Love”, about two elderly women living together in what we assume is an old person’s home (or possibly a house for the mentally ill) – their mutual co-dependence, their inability to sleep in separate rooms, and the little acts of petulance and cruelty they direct at each other (destroying a precious cardigan, chopping off a braid of hair), which are natural offshoots of this lonely, parasitic existence. In such a story, the reader might expect a twist at the end – perhaps an act of supreme, unforeseen viciousness – but the story simply closes on an almost mundane note, with one of the women looking forward to Christmas (so she can damage the gifts that her roommate receives). It’s very depressing, because one sees then that the horror lies not in the specifics of the women’s actions but in the continuing banality of their lives: this endless cycle of vindictiveness, childlike sulking, recrimination and making up is all they have.

This isn’t to say that Highsmith doesn’t trade in more conventional thriller endings, but when she does it’s usually subtle and drawn-out – the effect isn’t so much of something suddenly springing out at the reader as he turns a corner but more that we are dragged along, reluctantly, towards the corner and to what lies beyond it.

There’s a definite mollusc fetish on view in Eleven, with two very creepy stories featuring people who become obsessed, in different ways, with snails: “The Snail-Watcher”, in which a seemingly innocuous hobby leads, in just a few short pages, to horrific consequences (the stunning matter-of-factness of the resolution has to be read to be believed); and “The Quest for Blank Claveringi”, about a professor visiting an island in the hope of sighting giant snails with shell-diameters of 20 feet. (While on shelled creatures, there’s also “The Terrapin”, about a little boy, his bad-tempered mother and the doomed terrapin that has been brought home for dinner.)

Highsmith’s writing can be savage and malicious at times. If you want to test your morbidity-endurance, try out the collection Little Tales of Misogyny, the opening story of which begins with the sentence “A young man asked a father for his daughter's hand, and received it in a box – her left hand.” Don’t feel sorry for the young lady, she’s rotten to the core, as many of the women (and most of the men) in this book are. Highlights include “Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman” (who was constantly pregnant and had never experienced the onset of puberty, “her father having had at her since she was five, and after him, her brothers. Even in late pregnancy she was interfered with and men waited impatiently the half-hour or so it took her to give birth before they fell on her again”); “The Prude” (who wants her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters to “Be Pure in Every Way”); “The Breeder”, about a woman who has 17 children after nine years of marriage; and “The Fully Licensed Whore, or, The Wife”. The stories are subversively funny, as their titles suggest, but their critique of social conventions is so sharp-edged, bitter, even gratuitous at times, that the reader feels uncomfortable about participating in it. Highsmith seems to actively dislike many of her characters and relish their misfortunes, which is not the sort of thing one is accustomed to in satire. My response to this is ambivalent: like I said, I admire her work but I can’t read too much of it at one go.

But having mentioned the seeming heartlessness of some of her work, I’d like to recommend a very affecting, empathetic story that also features in Eleven. “When the Fleet Was in at Mobile” is a little masterpiece about a timid woman named Geraldine escaping her louse of a husband and trying to reclaim her freedom. We learn about her past in bits and pieces, and through allusions, as the story proceeds. There is an unforced gentleness in Highsmith’s writing as she makes us care for this damaged, perhaps mentally unstable woman, and it all leads up to a devastating conclusion.

Incidentally Graham Greene wrote the Foreword to Eleven, and he astutely captures the moral disorder in Highsmith’s fiction:

She is a writer who has created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half turned over the shoulder, even with a certain reluctance, for these are cruel pleasures we are going to experience…it is not the world as we once believed we knew it, but it is frighteningly more real to us than the house next door. Her characters are irrational, and they leap to life in their very lack of reason; suddenly we realise how unbelievably rational most fictional characters are as they lead their lives from A to Z, like commuters always taking the same train…from Miss Highsmith’s side of the frontier, we realise that our world was not really as rational as all that. Suddenly with a sense of fear we think “Perhaps I really belong here”…she is the poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably.

In making Tom Ripley attractive – sensitive to beauty, considerate to others in his everyday dealings, courageous and resourceful and endowed with an acute awareness of mood and place – Highsmith was not romanticising villainy; she was presenting a fact of life that moralists prefer to forget. The qualities that enable people to live an interesting and fulfilling life – and that make them valuable to others – are not all of one piece, and what are usually seen as the distinctively moral virtues are not always among them. Moral virtue is only a part of what makes life worth living, and not always the most important part.

P.S. At least three wonderful films – Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, Rene Clement’sPlein Soleil and the John Malkovich-starrer Ripley’s Game – are based on Highsmith novels. Maybe David Cronenberg should adapt one of the snail stories!

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