Sunday, 16 August 2015

Cats and Snails and Patricia Highsmith


"Even in his arms dancing, one feels her in one's arms dancing. The brain dully occupied with him, dreams with a clarity and a sentiment (not being controlled by its logical mechanism) that stifles the breath, bringing tears. One dreams of dancing with her, in public, of a stolen kiss more freely given and taken than any heretofore, in public. One  is utterly crushed with the thought which had become reality now, here that one is for eternity an imprisoned soul in one's present body... One knows then too, and perhaps this is no small portion of the sadness, that life with any man is no life at all. For the soul, with its infallible truth and rightness, its logic derived from perfect purity, cries for her one loves, her!"
What kind of world did she, Patricia Highsmith, live in? Who am I kidding? She lived in the same world I do even though she suffered unimaginable self-loathing for being the one thing she had no need to loathe herself for- being lesbian.In a time when homosexuality was not only frowned upon it was also illegal she, thinking herself perverse, undertook therapy. She sought to cure herself of the thing she was. What kind of world makes what is natural seem unnatural?

She led a life much on her own, often in seclusion. Having slept with both women and men she decided the best friends a woman can have are either cats or snails. She had a point.
“My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people.”
"She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person. I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly." - Otto Penzler
When seeking a name to define crime thriller writing then look no further than Patricia Highsmith. "The Talented Mister Ripley," first published in 1955, is a claustrophobic, dense, taut work. The Ripley character is one of the fictions most unlikely but convincing anti-heroes, one who leaves Hannibal Lecter pale by comparison. How so? Lecter was caught.

The five Ripley novels are known as "The Ripliad." They consisted of "The Talented Mr.Ripley," "Ripley Under Ground," "Ripley's Game," "The Boy Who Followed Ripley" and "Ripley Under Water." They formed five of the best crafted of novels, any novels but when classified as 'crime fiction' then they fall within the top five best of any of that genre. They portray the sociopathic, psychopathic Tom Ripley, a suave, sophisticated, narcissistic conman whose sexuality is questionable even though he ends up married.


Highsmith's talent in creating characters so regrettably true to life was possibly her greatest attribute, this coupled with the way she managed to pace the plot so that the horror is that of a creeping fear gradually building but without the histrionics of blood and guts or any obvious ploys.

Ripley is apparently bereft of conscience suggesting at one stage that he is not troubled by guilt, having committed multiple murders, but sometimes 'regrets' his earlier homicides. He even seems to have a degree of love for a few of the characters in the stories.

It all began, as far as Ripley is concerned, with book one: "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
 
The twisted mind of Ripley is where we the readers reside during this unbelievably exciting, tense work. Tom Ripley is followed by the father of a friend he moderately knows. The father is concerned for his son who now lives Italy. The father asks Ripley to help, invites him back to his house then offers to pay Ripley to go to Italy to persuade his son to return to him and his wife is concerned for their son’s well-being. When Riley arrives he finds Richard (Dickie) the son living with a girl but with whom he is not sharing any intimacies. Tom, whose sexuality is vague and ambiguous, manages to win Dickie over as a friend. This causes the girl, Marge, a deal of consternation as she is in love with Dickie. In Tom's oddball mind, he too loves Dickie.
We never find out if Tom is indeed homosexual but the vague implications are made. Following a period of ecstatic living where both Tom and Dickie go everywhere together, things turn slightly sour. Tom kills Dickie, adopts his identity and moves to another city. Dickie's best friend comes in search of Dickie, realises Tom has done something to him and goes to confront Tom. Tom kills Freddie, dumps the body and continues to live as dickie. The Italian police investigating the business of Dickie's disappearance and Freddie's murder speak with Tom the imposter now posing as Dickie. the police then suspect Dickie may have killed Tom. Tom leaves town, dyes his hair back to his own colour and takes up his real identity again and then confronts the police as himself.
It is a knotted, twisted tale that makes you wish you could somehow escape the erratic thoughts of Tom Ripley which cling, dark and sinister yet childlike to your thoughts. Set in an era before DNA testing it is one hell of a dark work even though it is written with blinding clarity and supremely sharp intelligence.

However, it wasn't with Ripley that Highsmith's career as a novelist began. No, Ripley was her fourth book. The first was "Strangers on a Train" which not only caught the public's imagination with its faultless plot but also the eyes of Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock liked it so much he made a film of it.

“In view of the fact that I surround myself with numbskulls now, I shall die among numbskulls, and on my deathbed shall be surrounded by numbskulls who will not understand what I am saying ... Whom am I sleeping with these days ? Franz Kafka.” 

With "The Price of Salt," a novel published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and with an alternative title, "Carol," was to prove to be a brave, groundbreaking move. Such was its influence that Vladimir Nabokov's much vaunted, much-acclaimed novel, 'Lolita' owes, by some small degree perhaps, a token nod of thanks. I have never read 'Lolita' so cannot comment. All I know is what others have said.

"The Price of Salt" is a work of romantic fiction. Highsmith, at first, shied away from having it published in her own name. Also, Harper and Brothers, Highsmith's regular publisher's rejected the book. It was subsequently published by Coward-McCann whose gamble paid off as the book sold over a million copies.

Therese Blevit is a nineteen-year-old with aspirations of becoming a set designer. She takes a job working in a departmental store where she meets Carol. Therese has been dating Richard, a man she is fond of and with whom she has slept (this is 1952. you didn't have sex then) with on three occasions none of which she enjoyed. After meeting the beautiful Carol with whom she is smitten she suddenly on impulse sends her a greeting card.

Carol is married to Harge but is going through a divorce. The couple has one child, Rindy, a daughter. Harge is a domineering man more concerned with living a life of having, owning in reality, a wife, a daughter and to be seen as the typical nuclear family. He is aware that Carol has already had relations with another woman, Abby, which didn't last even though both Carol and Abby have remained friends. Carol and Therese then decide to take a vacation. They take off on a road trip around the United States. Unknown to either Carol or Therese, Harge has hired a private detective to follow them.

The brilliance of the novel is the manner in which Highsmith maintains a sense of innocent sexual attraction then slowly builds the tension which takes most of the novel before it blossoms. This is combined with the intrigue of finding, as the two lovers finally do, of being followed and with it the subsequent court proceedings. 


The sex scene, when it comes, is delivered in a prose poetry style that never once describes the physical act but dances around the subject inviting the reader to explore the inferred intimacy that flows from the words. It is remarkable for its subtle eroticism but also its psychological detail. It is, in fact, a remarkable book full stop. Much of its content was taken from Highsmith's experiences many of which she kept secret for many years fearing  public reaction but also deeply ashamed of her own sexuality.

It was her characters though whom Highsmith spoke most eloquently. Virtually all her major protagonists were either amoral or victims of their own fits of passion. Her heroes were anything but heroic. Most of them were the very reverse. In many ways it could be argued she wrote of disturbed anti-heroes, often with homosexual overtones.

Born in 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas as Mary Patricia Plangman. She was the only daughter of Mary Coates and artist Jay Bernard Plangman. The birth took place in her maternal grandmother's boarding house and was of very curious circumstances as her parents had divorced ten days before their child's birth. It was not an auspicious entrance into this world and, upon reflection, didn't bode well for the infant girl.

She was subsequently abandoned, age twelve by her mother, who she always had a tempestuous relationship with especially when her mother remarried a man she, Patricia, disliked intensely. It was this love-hate relationship with her mother that strikes me as a defining moment. I believe this unbelievably selfish woman who confessed she had tried to abort her offspring was core to many of Patricia Highsmith's deep-seated insecurities. It was also this unlikely relationship which gave the author the drive and desire to write in the manner she did.

“Having mothers who send you back to live with your relatives in the South while they trot around New York is what makes great writers! I’m going to do that to my kids! Every single one of them!”
A thing she often overlooked if not forgotten, was the short time she spent writing for Marvel Comics predecessor Timely but also  Fawcett Comics and also Atlas. She wrote romance, westerns and even one or two superheroes. These were the only regular jobs she had before turning her hand to full-time, self-employed writing.


As a young woman, Patricia Highsmith was pretty, attractive even but after years of smoking along with alcohol abuse she grew a rugged demeanor that perhaps gave insight into what and how she felt about life in general.

As the years passed so her personality became more and more divorced from pleasantness. She was often rude, could be cruel, was a devout atheist, didn't much like black people and wrote often, even though she had Jewish friends, anti-Semitic letters to a multitude of government bodies and newspapers deriding the state of Israel but also openly criticizing the influence Jews had in the world and America in particular.

She died 4th February 1995 of Leukemia. She was 74. Four years earlier her mother had died aged 95.

Her posthumous book, "Small g: a Summer Idyll" was another novel featuring homosexuality. It was published the same year as that of her death. No one, or at least very few, cared much about homosexual love by this stage.

She may have been horrible, the worst kind of bigot. She may have been racist and even homophobic (there is nothing like hypocrisy). She may have had all the bad things attributed to her but, and without making any excuse but instead offering reasons, she had one hell of a childhood with a mother undeserving of the title. But even if you don't accept that and think she was unconscionably anti-social with fits of brutish rage she was still one of the best writers of not just crime fiction butt novels. She was one of a kind. 


















 
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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.