Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Books: PATRICIA HIGHSMITH DAY

Here is Patricia Highsmith on Desert Island Discs

Patricia Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921 and spent much of her youth abroad. Her first novel was STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (later a Hitchcock film) and that set the bar high indeed. Her most popular character was Tom Ripley who appeared in five books but Highsmith did not gain the success she deserved in the U.S. Possibly she was too dark of a writer for that time. The author of more than 20 books, she earned many awards in her lifetime including the Edgar Award and an award from the Crime Writer's Association of Great Britain. She died in 1995.

Patricia Highsmith 's Snail Obsession by Kelly Robinson

Here is a fun site, put together by Highsmith's Publisher: W.W. Norton.  You can figure out through this what Highsmith is for you. Also a nice video on there.

Small g: A Summer Idyll by Patricia Highsmith (Review by Deb)

Patricia Highsmith’s Small g: A Summer Idyll was published posthumously in 1995.  In fact, it had been rejected by Highsmith’s publisher just a few months before her death.  Perhaps the publisher found the book so atypical for Highsmith that they weren’t sure how to market it.  Certainly it does not contain the oppressive sense of dread and foreboding that is a hallmark of much of Highsmith’s work.  With its roundelay of love affairs and heartbreak involving a large number of people, Small g put me in mind of some of Iris Murdoch’s novels of the early 1970s (without the philosophical trappings, however); and I think this work, as unlike anything else that Highsmith ever wrote, is a fitting coda for her body of work and perhaps even goes some way toward humanizing a woman who even her closest friends had to admit was a very difficult and demanding person.
Set in Switzerland during the 1990s, Small g covers a few eventful summer weeks in the lives of an interconnected group of lovers, friends, and acquaintances—some gay, some straight, some still finding their way—who live and work in the same Zurich neighborhood.  The hub of this circle is a local restaurant-bar called Jakob’s, designated in local guide books with a lower-case g to indicate it caters to a mixed gay and straight clientele.
Most of the events in the book are filtered through the perceptions of Rickie Markwalder, a middle-aged commercial artist who is still recovering from the grief of losing his young lover, Peter, to a stabbing some months before.  Police believe Peter was the random victim of a botched robbery committed by drug addicts looking for money, but Rickie is not so sure.
Within Rickie’s circle is Luisa Zimmermann, a young apprentice seamstress who has run away from an abusive family and was in love with Peter.  Although her love for Peter was unrequited, Luisa remains close to Rickie, at first because it helps her feel closer to memory of Peter, but eventually she and Rickie become good friends.  This friendship is a morale booster for Luisa, who lives with and works for the dominating Renate Hagnauer, an ugly homophobe who none-the-less spends several hours a day at Jakob’s.  By a combination of emotional blackmail and controlling the purse strings, Renate keeps Luisa under her thumb.  Renate also poisons the mind of Willi, a mentally-disabled handiman who repeats and believes the gossip and rumors (which almost always reflect badly on gay individuals) that Renate relays to him.
Into the mix come some more people:  Teddie Richardson, a young Swiss-American man who becomes an object of both Rickie’s and Luisa’s affection; Dorrie Wyss, a vivacious lesbian who finds Luisa attractive; and Freddie Schimmelman, a married, bisexual policeman who begins an affair with Rickie.  Freddie is presented in an interesting way--his marriage and his other relationships are depicted in a very matter of a fact manner; his sexuality hardly an issue.
With the main characters in place, and lots of others in supporting roles, the story can begin in earnest.  It all starts with an attack on Teddie Richardson and Rickie’s single-minded pursuit of the culprit. Freddie uses police connections to help prolong interest in a case that the police would undoubtedly have allowed to go cold.  The reader knows who attacked Teddie (and Rickie has very strong suspicions), but will the police ever have sufficient evidence to charge the person?  Meanwhile, Luisa must skulk around, making secret telephone calls and even using Rickie as a go-between in order to meet with either Teddie or Dorrie, or even to slip out of the apartment for a cup of coffee with someone other than Renate.  It all sounds a bit soapy, but Highsmith’s sure hand and attention to detail keep the plot running efficiently.
If I have a quibble with the book it’s that we really never see into the emotional lives of the characters; we can only guess at their motivations.  We can deduce that part of Renate’s homophobia (and overbearing, protective attitude toward Luisa) may stem from her own suppressed lesbianism, but Renate never reveals that aspect of herself.  Also, we can infer that Rickie pursues Teddie’s attacker because Peter’s killer(s) were never caught, but Rickie never lets that element of his pursuit come to the forefront of his emotions.
At this point, I must also address an act committed by Rickie’s doctor that is so unconscionable as to be both illegal and baffling [SPOILER]:  The doctor tells Rickie that he is HIV-positive and allows him to continue believing this for several months, even though the doctor knows this is not the case.  The fact that both the doctor and Rickie (and, apparently, by extension, Highsmith herself) think that what the doctor has done is fine and “for the patient’s own good” is mind-boggling to me and reinforces my belief that, whatever her virtues as a writer, Patricia Highsmith is not someone I could have personally liked.
Eventually, an accidental death, sets the plot spinning into an entirely different orbit.  Ends are tidied up a bit too neatly perhaps, but there’s a sense of the characters reaching certain points in their lives and have learned lessons (some rather harsh).  The summer idyll is over and life continues on even when the weather changes.


I walked into a fabulous bookstore in Chicago two weeks ago and found a stash of Highsmith novels and collections. I eventually chose LITTLE TALES OF MISOGYNY and put aside the novel I had intended to reread.
I am going to go against the grain here and say I found this collection largely dissatisfying-something I would never have thought possible.To me there is an art to a really short story-or flash fiction piece. For it to succeed with me, it has to be a character study, something with a real surprise at the end, something that is very atmospheric, or something funny. And in a collection, those goals take on an even greater importance.You cannot simply assign a laundry list of annoying traits to a character and call it a day.
These stories seemed too plot -driven to succeed. Plot-heavy succeeds best in novels for me. I can see that many people would find these pieces humorous, but coming from a female writer, I found  more than a hint of self-loathing or at least gender- loathing.
Women were punished for wanting too many children, for wanting too much sex, for wanting perfection, for being a prude, an invalid. But underneath all of their superficial traits was largely the same sort of woman: a narcissist who refused to see the world from any vantage point other than her own. Or the husband who was like this. 
And I wouldn't have minded that except the scalpel Highsmith uses cuts the same incision too often. There is a weary sameness to these tales. They are depressing in a way that Ripley never depressed me.

Other Highsmith reviews

Nick Jones, DEEP WATER
Randy Johnson, THE PRICE OF SALT
George Kelley, RIPLEY"S GAME
Kelly Robinson, ELEVEN
Richard Robinson, ELEVEN
Kevin Tipple/Patrick Ohle, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

Other Reviews

Martin Edwards, BORN TO BE HANGED, Paul McGuire
Ed Gorman, CROSS COUNTRY, Herman Kastle
Margot Kinberg, NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK, Ernest Mallo
Evan Lewis, Books with Bones in the Title
Steve Lewis/William Deeck,DESIGN FOR MURDER, KUMMER
James Reasoner, THE CASE OF THE SLEEPWALKER'S NIECE, Erle Stanly Gardner
Gerard Saylor, BAD GUYS, Eugene Izzi
Ron Scheer,  WILD ONE, John Reese
Kerrie Smith, B IS FOR BURGLAR, Sue Grafton
Zybahn, IN THE SHADOW OF THE GARGOYLES, Kilpatrick, Nancy & Thomas S. Roche, eds.


Charles Gramlich said...

I guess I'm gonna have to try something from her. Don't think I ever have.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Interesting but strangely muted collection of Highsmith reviews thus far. Seems not everyone loves her work as much as I do! Great review of Small G though – I haven't read that one yet, but that review really makes me want to. Thanks as ever for hosting, Patti.

By the way, seeing as I posted my review yesterday, I've put up a Highsmith shelf porn post today as well:

Patricia Highsmith shelf porn (slight return)

George said...

Patti, I agree with you. Highsmith's best work is her novels. The short stories have a sense of sameness to them.

George said...

Deb, nice review of SMALL G. Highsmith used that European setting for many of her books including RIPLEY'S GAME.

Kelly Robinson said...

I don't know how my post got missed. I put it up early and I'm plenty proud of it, as she's one of my favorites. Is there a time we should have them up by?

(I'll be back to comment on the post itself!)

J F Norris said...

Here's my Highsmith contribution, Patti:

The Tremor of Forgery

Gerard said...

I checked out the 2009 biography of Highsmith but the text runs for 630 pages so I may not even start it.

J F Norris said...

Gerard (and anyone else interested in Highsmith's biogrpahy) --

I recommend the Andrew Wilson's biography of Highsmith, A BEAUTIFUL SHADOW. Avoid the Schenkar 2009 biography - it's a lurid prejudicial tabloid style peek-a-boo into Highsmith's love life and personal traumas more and it's BADLY written too. Schenkar doesn't like Highsmith or her books and it shows. In Wilson's biography you know that he admires Highsmith as a writer first and foremost regardless of her messy personal life.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

I'd recommend Beautiful Shadow too; I refer to it all the time when I'm writing about Highsmith (which I seem to do quite a lot).

Charlieopera said...

I'm a huge Highsmith fan ... and I highly recommend this particular bio of her, the Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar.

Kelly Robinson said...

Small g is one I haven't read yet. It might seem odd to not have read all the books of an author I call a favorite, but I like her so much, I dread coming to the end of her. I dole them out, reading one or two a year, but often re-reading the ones I like most.

I'm not that surprised that the short stories aren't pleasing most people. I think they're her weakest work.

I sort of regret not tackling one of her better books, but I thought they'd be well covered!

Gerard said...

it's a lurid prejudicial tabloid style peek-a-boo into Highsmith's love life and personal traumas

That's exactly why I picked it out.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I have only read some of the short stories but certainly found them much less memorable than the best of the novels - thanks also for organising the celebration of her work Patti, really worth doing.

Todd Mason said...

My own review of THE PRICE OF SALT and Meaker's SPRING FIRE remains one of my favorites I've done for this exercise...if the one most crying for (mostly syntactic) revision!