Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Books, Friday Februar 22, 2013

Deb Pfeiffer


About 25 years ago, I packed a copy of SLOWLY, SLOWLY IN THE WIND, a short story collection by Patricia Highsmith, to read on vacation. Halfway through the book, however, I had to stop reading--the sense of unease, even dread, evoked by the stories was ruining my holiday.  Eventually, I got around to reading more of Highsmith's work--both short stories and novels--and found her writing interesting and inventive, but it never lost its power to ignite foreboding; I cannot say that I've ever found Highsmith a comfortable writer.  And yet--there's something there, something that makes me keep reading, keep wanting to discover what happens next, even when I know the outcome will almost always be awful.  Highsmith is a writer I can read only in daylight--never just before bedtime--and always with the lights on.

Andrew Wilson's BEAUTIFUL SHADOW (the title is the English translation of Belle Ombre, the name of the fictional Tom Ripley's French home) is a warts-and-all biography of the writer capable of creating that sense of disquiet.  Making great use of Highsmith's trove of letters, journals, and other material that she collectively referred to as her "cahiers,"  Wilson attempts to get to the heart of Highsmith, a woman of whom Otto Penzler once observed, "She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person.  I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly."  In this book, Highsmith doesn't come across as a very approachable person, but one certainly gains a better understanding of why Highsmith was the way she was and why she wrote the way she did.

Born in Fort Worth in 1921, Highsmith's upbringing was tumultuous:  Her parents divorced before she was born, her mother remarried three years later, and it was this husband, Stanley Highsmith, who gave Patricia the last name she had for the rest of her life.  Highsmith never liked her step-father and never resolved the difficult relationship she had with her mother (who would sometimes claim she tried to abort Patricia by drinking turpentine during her pregnancy).  The cruelty of their love-hate dynamic expressed itself in a number of Highsmith's dark stories of bad children and even worse parents.  Frequently overlooked and unwanted, Highsmith was moved from Texas to New York and back to Texas again, living first with her mother and step-father and then with her grandmother.  She was not a happy child, but she loved to read and made great use of her grandmother's library.  She was also a writer from an early age--even at eight years old she was writing little sketches about the hidden lives of supposedly "normal" friends and neighbors.  This would be a major theme throughout all of her work:  The juxtaposition of a person's public facade against their private desires.

After graduating from Barnard College in 1942, Highsmith worked for comic book syndicates (she was one of the first women to write for the comics) while she spent her spare time writing and developing her own style.  She eventually spent time at the Yaddo writer's colony in Saratoga Springs, New York.  It was here that Highsmith wrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN which was published in 1950 and provided her with her first major success, especially when it was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock the following year.  She was fortunate that success came early.  This permitted her to spend the rest of her life writing without needing an additional source of income.

Highsmith's popularity grew (especially in Europe) and the Ripley novels (five in all, published over a 36-year period) cemented her status.  Tom Ripley, outwardly charming, inwardly a cold-blooded killer without conscience or compunction when it comes to protecting himself, personifies Highsmith's theme of the hidden interior life of people who appear quite affable on the surface.  Highsmith herself was not immune from this dichotomy.  She presented herself as an animal lover, a gourmet cook, and a good friend, when in actuality she alternately smothered and neglected her cats, was an atrocious cook who rarely ate (she had a drinking problem which only got worse as she aged and she always preferred drinking to eating), and was a terrible friend.  None of her relationships (sexual or platonic, with men or with women) lasted very long because of her rages, unwillingness to compromise, and unreasonable demands. 

If I have one problem with this biography, it is that is takes more than 300 pages before there is any mention that Highsmith may have suffered from undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome or another form of high-functioning autism, and even then the comment is made in an offhand way by one of Highsmith's acquaintances and is not really examined at all by Wilson.  Having an Asperger's child myself (hopefully one who has been giving a more loving and secure home life than Highsmith received), and based on evidence of Highsmith's inability to relate to others and her social isolation, I think it's a very real possibility that Highsmith was functionally autistic and that idea should have been considered and explored much earlier in the book.  It's very likely that someone with an autism spectrum disorder raised in the dysfunction and emotional deprivation of Highsmith's early life might easily evolve into the misanthropic and disassociative person that Highsmith became.  As one of her friends observed, it was a good thing Highsmith could write, without that outlet she might have been committed to a mental institution.  That, despite her alienating personality and worsening alcoholism, Highsmith could continue to produce quality work is an indication of her discipline (when it came to writing) and her undeniable talent--although some of the odd, violent, and unpleasant imagery served up by that talent may give one pause..

Highsmith's last years were plagued by ill-health and on-going self-imposed separation from those who wanted to help her.  In addition, her nasty vein of racial prejudice and an almost demented anti-semtism began to disgust even the most tolerant of her acquaintances.  Highsmith died of cancer in 1995 (outliving her mother by only four years), leaving the bulk of her estate to the Yaddo writer's colony.  Several years after her death, the film version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" spiked renewed interest in her writing.  She left behind a body of tense, uncomfortable, yet strangely hypnotic work and enough ancillary material to allow Andrew Wilson to fashion this thorough and thoughtful biography.

Charlie Stella reviews the same book right here. 

And on other blogs
Sergio Angelini, BRAINWASH, John Wainwright
Joe Barone,  OUT OF THE DEEP, I CRY, Julia Spencer Fleming
Les Blatt, NO COFFIN FOR THE CORPSE, Clayton Rawson
Bill Crider AND BE A VILLAIN, Rex Stout
Scott Cupp, THE PASTEL CITY, M. John Harrison

Curt Evans,  DEATH OF AN OLD GOAT, Robert Barnard

Randy Johnson, SPECIMEN SONG, Peter Bowen
Nick Jones , A MURDER OF QUALITY, John LeCarre
George Kelley, THE PHARAOH CONTRACT, Ray Aldridge
Margot Kinberg   UNEXPECTED NIGHT, Elizabeth Daly
B.V. Lawson. THE CHINK IN THE ARMOR, Marie Belloc Lowndes
Evan Lewis, UNSEEN SHADOWS, Jim Steranko
Steve Lewis, AFTER THE WIDOW CHANGED HER MIND, Cornelia Penfield

Steve Lewis' followup. 

Neer, THE LAST MOSHA'IRAH OF DELHI, Mirza Farhatullah Baig

J.F. Norris, PRESIDENT FU MANCHU, Sax Rohmer

David Rachels,THE HOT ROCK, Donald E. Westlake; THE BLACK ICE SCORE, Richard Stark
Karyn Reeves, MEMOIRS OF A BRITISH AGENT,  Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart
James Reasoner THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS- Vol. 1 & 2, Jim Steranko
Richard Robinson, THE TROUBLE WITH ALIENS, Christopher Anvil, (Harry Crosby)
Gerard Saylor THE NEAREST EXIT, Olen Steinhauer

Ron Scheer  The Lions of the Lord: A Tale of the Old West, Harry Leon Wilson
Michael Slind, THE MURDER OF ANN AVERY, Henry Kuttner
Kerrie Smith, THE GRASS WIDOW'S TALE, Ellis Peters
Kevin Tipple,Patrick Ohl, THE SEVENTH HYPOTHESIS, Paul Halter

Jim Winters, WINTER'S END, John Rickards



The Passing Tramp said...

I thought this a fascinating book too. I didn't find Highsmith an appealing personality either from this book, but, like you say, one can certainly better understand from it how she wrote like she did. I've been reading some of the non-Ripley books and finding them quite interesting.

Steve Lewis said...

Thanks for the link to the Cornelia Penfield book I reviewed, Patti.

There is a followup to the story, posted here:

Have you ever read a never published Golden Age of Detection novel in manuscript form? I did!

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I just bought the Highsmith book as luck would have it so really enjoyed the review - thanks.

Todd Mason said...

And, as frequently, I'll suggest also HIGHSMITH: A ROMANCE OF THE 1950s by Marijane Meeker, which deals mostly with Meeker's years-long affair with Highsmith, and how bitter Highsmith was with getting high accolades and micro-royalties for her novels with Knopf while Meeker, as "Vin Packer" and under other names, was raking in the cash as a Fawcett Gold Medal writer (even if "only" Tony Boucher/H. H. Holmes would review those books regularly and with great praise in major showcases--the NEW YORK TIMES and HERALD-TRIBUNE). Also, one of those late in life reunions, brief and sad, that you mention, Deb.

I still think that, in part, Highsmith's resentment of having to work for Fawcett comics in the 1940s might've kept her from trying to at least get a little Gold Medal gravy in the '50s. That, and everything else about her stubbornness and resentment.

Todd Mason said...

And welcome back to the listings, Patti...hope the one-off version is less time-consuming.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Patti, I didn't know you were back with FFB. I won't have one this week but I'll be back next weekend.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have no idea why these spacing issues are occurring. Drat!

J F Norris said...

Deb -

Excellent review as usual of a book which I have wanted to read for a long time. Highsmith has always fascinated me. Now to learn of her high functioning Asperger's I am even more interested. It's something she and I have in common.

Katherine Tomlinson said...

Great review. I read the Meeker book and was glad that someone somewhere loved her at one time because when Highsmith's review came out it said she had no survivors. And I thought that terribly, terribly sad. But really, if a survivor's job is to remember, then her readers are all her survivors.

Todd Mason said...

You can use the justification tool at the top of the screen in both Compose and HTML to force them to line up on a margin or center...but if there's something wonkier going on (in Blogger? NO!) you might have to go into HTML and pull out whatever is cabbaging up the works.

It's functional as it is, however.

Deb said...

Thanks, John. The whole time I was reading the book, I kept thinking that Highsmith was very likely a high-functioning autistic. Of course, diagnostic tools for that sort of condition were limited (if at all) during Highsmith's early lifetime. My oldest daughter has Asperger's and I know she faces challenges every day that I don't even realize.

Yvette said...

I've never read any of Highsmith's books, never even saw the movies (though I love Matt Damon in anything, I think I've been afraid to see him as a cold-blooded killer) and now after reading your review, I doubt I'll change my mind.

What a downer. That is some condemnation by Otto Penzler.

Still, brilliance is where you find it.

Anonymous said...

I believe it is Marijane Meaker, not Meeker. She wrote THE EVIL FRIENDSHIP, a fictional retelling of the Juliet Hulme (later Anne Perry)-Pauline Parker murder of Parker's mother, as Vin Packer.

Jeff M.

neer said...

A very interesting review. I had no idea Highsmith was this possessed of demons. The only book that I have read of her is Ripley. As you pointed out, her work is disturbing and so I did not read anything of hers after that. But now I feel like picking her up once again.

Here's my FFB:

The Last Musha'irah of Dehli

Ron Scheer said...

Excellent review. A cogent, illuminating, clearly expressed summary of the book. Thanks. Highsmith fascinates me, having seen the films of her stories, but I'm too timid to try her fiction.

Charlieopera said...

Great post. I'm a huge Highsmith (the author) fan ... the person, well, not so much ... here's a semi-review of the bio I read about her (I forget when, but it should be on the post):

Anonymous said...

Patti - Sorry I'm late for this, but thanks so much for including my post!

Todd Mason said...

Jeff, correct...I have a tic wherein, when not careful (or distracted by a chest cold), Ralph Meeker and Marijane Meaker become sibs or perhaps father and daughter.

Though "Vin Packer" wrote a whole lot more, as did "M. E. Kerr" (the name under which I first encountered Meaker) and others. Another interesting contrast between Meaker and Highsmith...Meaker loved to hide behind several pseuds, Highsmith only used them when she thought she had no with her second, lesbian-themed novel, which when I read it along with Meaker's first (also lesbian-themed, and published as by Packer) seemed to have a lot of parallels...and the baby/quasi-lesbian passion between the two girls who were the model for THE EVIL FRIENDSHIP were also the model for the film HEAVENLY CREATURES, as well, of course, an earlier project for Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as the girls and cowriter/director Peter Jackson...

Todd Mason said...

I don't think anyone should be Afraid of Highsmith the artist...reading the likes of "The Terrapin" can show, as can Ripley novels, how she could sympathize with her characters in at least certain, perhaps too familiar, circumstances...

Anonymous said...

'It's very likely that someone with an autism spectrum disorder raised in the dysfunction and emotional deprivation of Highsmith's early life might easily evolve into the misanthropic and disassociative person that Highsmith became.'

Might it rather have been her childhood that made Highsmith autistic? Despite the term Asperger's syndrome, autism is a set of behaviours with a great many known and unknown causes, rather than a diagnosable illness.
The thing which astonished me most about her life was her affair with the British writer Ronald Blyth- one of the least likely amorous encounters of all time. In a book- eeven one by Hignsmith- one wouldn'tbelieve it.