“I don’t think my books should be in prison libraries.” — Patricia Highsmith, 1966
It’s Patricia Highsmith’s birthday today.
He wouldn’t have killed someone just to save Derwatt Ltd. or even Bernard, Tom supposed. Tom had killed Murchison because Murchison had realized, in the cellar, that he had impersonated Derwatt. Tom had killed Murchison to save himself. And yet, Tom tried to ask himself, had he intended to kill Murchison anyway when they went down to the cellar together? Had he not intended to kill him? Tom simply could not answer that. And did it matter much?
– from Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith
“Tom simply could not answer that.” In that one chilling sentence is the key to Patricia Highsmith’s style. There’s nothing else in that sentence except what it expresses. That is a criminal mind. It’s as chilly as Johnny Cash’s unforgettable line: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Unlike Cash’s narrator, Tom Ripley does not kill to see someone die. He kills to survive and keep his true nature concealed. Anyone who is in his way or onto him must go. Tom is almost confused by who he is and why he does what he does. But he’s not all that worried about it. Above all else, he is logical. The way a lion is logical when it camouflages itself before pouncing on the gazelle.
Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith is one of the most startling biographies I’ve ever read, unique in its structure, thrilling to read. It’s up there with Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte.) What I appreciate so much about Joan Schenkar’s writing is her fearlessness in sharing her obvious obsession with Highsmith. It takes courage to write the way she does. Schenkar has lived and breathed Patricia Highsmith for decades. You can feel, in the introduction, her own baffled question of how on earth to start. She does not worry too much about making Patricia Highsmith comprehensible. Besides, Highsmith could be extremely difficult to understand. She even lied in her diary. The lies were meant to throw people (posthumously?) off the scent.
The chapters in Schenkar’s book under the heading “A Simple Act of Forgery” come at the beginning and examine how Highsmith would deceive her personal notebooks/journals, altering dates to make it seem like she was somewhere she wasn’t, messing with her timeline. Forgery is a theme in all of the Ripley books, plus her thriller with the revealing and erotic title, The Tremor of Forgery). All artists are forgers, to some extent. They take on different personae, they imagine themselves into different psychologies, they “steal” qualities from others. In her deceptive journals, Highsmith would “forge” her own version of her life for all kinds of swirling psychological reasons.
In the chapters under the heading “Alter Egos”, Schenkar takes on Highsmith’s detailed creation of alter egos. Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s most famous alter ego, is one of the most brilliant portraits of a sociopath – told from inside his head – ever put on paper (the most chilling probably being Iago, Raskolnikov, or Cathy from East of Eden). Highsmith’s most famous books involve some sort of doubling, usually with two male characters. The homoerotic nature of the bond between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf is explicit, just like it is in Strangers on a Train.
Highsmith kept her life compartmentalized, guarding different section with the ferocity of a warlord. Her literary life was separate from her family life which was separate from her friendships. Her multiple lovers, whom often overlapped, were kept in the dark about the presence of the others. This required byzantine deceptions on Highsmith’s part: reading her journals, you wonder how she kept all her lies straight. She would write in the present tense in her journal to make it seem like she was in London at that time, when she was actually in Switzerland (or whatever).
When I first read The Talented Mr. Ripley it thrilled me because it felt so accurate. The Ripley books are totally in line with all of the psychological studies of psychopaths (involving MRI programs started in prison populations to study the brains of those who rate high on the Psychopath Scale, created by Robert Hare). Those studies predate Highsmith’s work (but they predate Dostoevsky and Shakespeare too. Those studies just codify what humanity has always known.) If you meet a Tom Ripley, there is only one thing you should do: Run.
When she was young, Highsmith’s beauty were a convenient smokescreen. Everyone who met her in the 1940s talked about how dropdead gorgeous she was in person. People would stop and stare. Perhaps because of this, Highsmith was able to operate in secret. Nobody would guess the nasty little stories Highsmith was cooking up at home, stories of murder and crime and deception.
Highsmith had a complicated romantic life.
When she was a little girl she insisted on dressing like a boy. She felt like a man trapped in the wrong body. When she was young, she stealth-navigated through the underworld of lesbian life in New York/Paris/ London, having intense relationships, many of them overlapping. She was rarely single. She would get obsessed with a certain woman (one woman she saw for 2 seconds at a counter at Bloomingdale’s and became so obsessed she found out the strange woman’s address and drove out to New Jersey on occasion to drive by the house).
And of course we all now know the result of that obsession, her novel The Price of Salt, adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy into Carol, directed by Todd Haynes into a swoony dream of obsession and romance.
My review of Carol here.
In The Price of Salt, a shopgirl at Bloomingdale’s falls in love at first sight with an elegant customer who comes to her counter. It is an astonishing book, even more so when you compare it to Highsmith’s other novels of crime and sociopathy. She wrote it at a feverish pace, losing herself in the tale, not wanting to leave her apartment. It was a kind of wish-fulfillment. The brief encounter she had actually had in real life was drawn out into a three-dimensional fantasy: “What would have happened if I spoke to her? If we met for coffee? If she invited me out to her house?” To quote Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
Love is merely a madness and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do, and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love, too.
Love assaults every sense. Love keeps you captive and dizzy. dizzying captivity. People do not behave like they are sane when they are in love. Love is a riptide. Love is glorious, awful. Love is life or death. Highsmith understood the yearning, the terror of rejection. How would one survive if this particular love crashed and burned? Friends advised her not to publish the book all. Eventually, it was published under a pseudonym.
Patricia Highsmith was obsessed with numbers, and her journals are filled with charts and diagrams. You can see that obsessive mathematical tendency in the Ripley books. She loved the finer things. She was a materialist. She only wanted the best coffee, the best cigarettes. While her fellow students at Columbia were living conventional college student lives, Highsmith trolled the streets, going to underground lesbian nightclubs, trying to infiltrate the literary scene in New York. She meant business, and she meant business YOUNG.
Highsmith doesn’t appear to have been particularly well-liked. People were slightly afraid of her. However, many of the relationships she formed in those early years lasted decades. People were loyal to her, as difficult as she could be. By the end of Highsmith’s life she had alienated many. Her alcoholism was acute. People were driven away.
Highsmith kept a chart in one of her notebooks detailing her various lovers’ qualities and prowess in the sack. There were columns for different things: how many times they had sex, how good the sex was, how many orgasms were had (or if none were had), hair color, body type. It’s ridiculous to me that people were so appalled by Duke student Karen Owen’s sex-rating Power Point document, as though that stuff hasn’t been going on forever. The Prudes, male and female, went into high gear expressing Outrage about her calculations, as well as her promiscuity, and there was bemoaning of the Pornification of America, and how Karen, Poor Little Slut, was a victim of that. It was assumed that Karen had no agency whatsoever. So silly. She clearly DID have agency. Dear Men, I know it’s horrifying to imagine being “rated” like that, but oh well, if you dish it out you should be able to take it, right? God help me if my private journal got out. In my youth in particular I was a floozy and a half. Nobody forced me to or had to twist my arm. It was what I wanted to be doing. I had a blast. You couldn’t have “slut-shamed” me if you tried. Highsmith’s Sex Account Ledger shows her obsession with trying to ORGANIZE her overpowering personal experiences.
Many of her girlfriends reported that Patricia Highsmith was the best lover they ever had. Decades later, they still remembered her rapturously, told Schenkar that, of all their lovers throughout their lives, Highsmith was #1.
Speaking of alter egos:
Joan Schenkar uncovered the extent of Patricia Highsmith’s involvement in the comic book world of the 1940s, something not really explored or delved into before. Although comics sold like hotcakes, writers who wrote for comic books often hid their reliance on that quick-cash world. If you wanted to be a serious writer, writing panels for Superman lessened your street cred.
Similar to actors who do soap operas or voiceover-work or industrials so they can afford to do off-Broadway plays, or write a one-person show, or shoot a movie on their iPhone with their friends, Highsmith’s comic book work gave her financial freedom, allowed her room to maneuver, breathing-space to devote to her “serious” literary pursuits. From her notes and story-outlines, it is clear that she took her comic book work very seriously. She didn’t seem to think she was “slumming” at the time.
While she was in college Highsmith got a job with a comic books publisher (the only woman in that particular outfit). She created plots and scenarios, as well as dialogue. She is mainly known for her work on “The Black Terror”.
At night, she would work on her crime stories, and by day she sat at a desk in the comic book office, toiling away at her panels. She worked there for a year, and then for six or seven years afterwards she maintained a position as a freelance writer for various comic book outfits. She would send in her comic-book scripts back to New York from Switzerland or Venice or Paris. Her embarrassment about this section of her work-life led to her completely concealing it later on, as though it were a nasty criminal little secret that needed to be destroyed.
Joan Schenkar interviewed as many survivors of that era that she could find, old men now who remember the pretty dark-haired girl hovered over her desk at, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, scribbling out comics dialogue. She was a novelty: a girl! Many of those men realized, in retrospect, that she probably was a lesbian, they got that vibe even then, and most had huge crushes on her.
Schenkar puts forth the theory that despite Highsmith’s embarrassment about her comics-book-past, that time in her life worked on her on a far deeper level than she herself could probably acknowledge. You might say that “alter egos” are THE defining characteristic of most comic books. Schenkar theorizes that Highsmith’s obsession with doubling made her a very successful comic-book story writer, and that her submersion in the world of comics helped her, later, to create the Ripley books, and all the others where mirror-image personalities and overlapping alter egos (with the constant fear of detection) are the themes.
When Pat gave her “criminal-hero” Tom Ripley a charmed and parentless life, a wealthy, socially-poised Alter Ego (Dickie Greenleaf), and a guilt-free modus operandi (after he kills Dickie, Tom murders only when necessary), she was doing just what her fellow comic book artists were doing with their Superheroes: allowing her fictional character to finesse situations she herself could only approach in wish fulfillment. And when she reimagined her own psychological split in Ripley’s character – endowing him with both her weakest traits (paralyzing self-consciousness and hero-worship) and her wildest dreams (murder and money) – she was turning the material of the “comic book” upside down and making it into something very like a “tragic book”. “It is always so easy for me to see the world upside down,” Pat wrote in her diary – and everywhere else.
In October of 1954, working on The Talented Mr. Ripley and thrilling to the idea of corrupting her readers, Pat said plainly what she was doing.
“What I predicted I would once do, I am already doing in this very book (Tom Ripley), that is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too.”
And then, just as plainly, Pat said why she was doing it, giving an account that sounds like Will Eisner’s explanation of how people who are trapped by “invincible forces” might feel compelled to escape into “invincible” Alter Egos.
“The main reason I write is quite clear to me. My own life, however interesting I try to make it by traveling and so forth, is always boring to me, periodically. Whenever I become intolerably bored, I produce another story, in my head. My story can move fast, as I can’t, it can have a reasonable and perhaps perfect solution, as mine can’t. A solution that is somehow satisfying, as my personal solution never can be.
“It is not an infatuation with words. It is absolute day dreaming, for day dreaming’s sake.”
Certainly, the suggestion that any of her novels could have shared a creative inspiration with comic books would have driven the talented Miss H into conniption fits. And the tenor of her response to the hint that Thomas P. Ripley, her boyish (and goyische) “hero-criminal”) might owe even a fraction of his identity to the Golem of Prague, the Moses who led the Jews through the desert, or the Superman imagined by two Bar Mitzvah boys from Cleveland Ohio, is only too easy to imagine.
Patricia Highsmith is one of my favorite writers. A giant who perhaps never got her due since the Ripley books (in particular) are seen as “genre” books. It’s an incredibly dismissive attitude. I happen to think that Stephen King wipes the floor with Don DeLillo, but who asked me? But look at how many times Highsmith’s books have been turned into films. Ripley alone has generated a whole cottage-industry of films. (My favorite “Ripley” is Alain Delon in Purple Noon, who brings that chilling blankness to his performance that feels so Ripley-ish.)
Highsmith didn’t “empathize” with Tom Ripley. She WAS Tom Ripley (without the serial murder), and so she knew how his brain worked, its calculations, its deceptions, its matter-of-fact organizational skills, something she knew a little bit about. Her books are both incredibly entertaining and deeply frightening. There’s sometimes a flat-affect tone, reminiscent of Charles Willeford’s books in that you get a palpable sense of Tom Ripley’s shallow emotional makeup.
But all you need to do is read The Price of Salt to get a glimpse into Patricia Highsmith’s heart where things weren’t so dark, where love possessed her, where obsession was painful – yes – but part of what happened between people, especially women falling in love in a culture/time where you just didn’t do that publicly. Women have been falling in love with each other since the beginning of time. Little cave-women sharing secret longing glances while cooking up a woolly mammoth stew. You know? It’s not a modern invention. Highsmith’s romantic tale, told with no embarrassment, is a revelation, especially when compared to her other books. The Price of Salt is rapturous about nature, for example, something not present in the Ripley books at all. The Price of Salt is rapturous about objects – suitcases, gloves, cars, clothes – and sex. Those who only know “Tom Ripley” need to know “Carol” and “Therese” as well. Without it, any understanding of this genius writer would be incomplete.
An important figure in American letters, Patricia Highsmith casts an enormous shadow. Other crime writers still struggle to claw their way out from under her influence.