(Because it's always worthwhile reading a review by Deb again)
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.