The Talented Miss Highsmith

BOOK: The Talented Miss Highsmith
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For my mother
With love and gratitude

There may be the girl waiting, the kiss in the dark, the whispered word of promise, the sun in the park or the swans on the lake, the job for me and the job for him and for him, the flag waving bold and free forever, and over and over again the handsome boy meeting lovely girl and all the lovely love pursued and captured. It might all be for the best…. but I don't see it that way. I never will. I just don't see it that way.

, 1942

It is terrible to have the life of another person attached to one's own like a bomb which one holds in one's hands, unable to get rid of it without committing a crime.

& T

A Note on Biography

She wasn't nice.

She was rarely polite.

And no one who knew her well would have called her a generous woman.


What Patricia Highsmith was—apart from an outsider artist of exceptional gifts—is something like the negative of an old photograph, with all the black parts white and all the white ones black. Lady Diana Cooper said the same thing about Evelyn Waugh.

“I don't see it that way. I never will. I just don't see it that way,” Pat Highsmith wrote in 1942 at twenty-one, as plainly as she could. Plain speech was her usual style, and what she didn't see was the way other people pictured the world. So in the acid bath of her detail-saturated prose she developed her own image of an alternate earth—Highsmith Country. A territory so psychologically threatening that even her most devoted readers hope never to recognize themselves in its pages.

Her slow literary crawl over the surface of things produced one iconic character, the talented Mr. Ripley, and hundreds of raspingly acute portraits of quietly transgressive acts. The toxic brilliance of their trail goes on glowing long after their author—as cruel to her characters as Henry James was to his—has dispatched her perpetrators to their nasty fictional ends.

Miss Highsmith's own end was a model of clarity. She drove a last, devoted visitor from her hospital room—“You should go, you should go, don't stay, don't stay,” she repeated until the woman left—and then died unobserved.
Everything human was alien to her.

Colliding with American popular culture like one of those speeding trains on which her sublimely indifferent characters carry out so many of their (and her) casual executions, Pat Highsmith—an accomplished, original, immensely alluring twenty-nine-year-old with murder on her mind—saw her first novel,
Strangers on a Train
(1950), made into a feature film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. That book posed what was to become the quintessential Highsmith situation: two men bound together psychologically by the stalker-like fixation of one upon the other, a fixation that always involved a disturbing, implicitly homoerotic fantasy. Nothing, it turns out, could have been more American.

Her second, pseudonymous work,
The Price of Salt
(1952), was so marked by her secret obsessions that writing it felt like a birthing. “Oh god,” she enthused, “how this story emerges from my own bones!”
In it, she mixed images reminiscent of Grimm's fairy tales and
(three years
Nabokov published his masterpiece) with a luminous halo of incest and a little light pedophilia to bring to an eager and (mildly) misled public the novel they read as the first popular narrative of successful lesbian love.
The Price of Salt
sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made Patricia Highsmith uneasy all her life.

And that was only the beginning of her career.

There is an avalanche of available information about Patricia Highsmith, and the most useful part of it—if certain necessary correctives are applied—is furnished by Highsmith herself. Fascinated by concealment in general (snails were her favorite mollusc) and silent about her own complicated life in particular (“I don't answer personal questions about myself or other people”), she nevertheless repeated the fatal flaw that hobbled every one of her “criminal-heroes” except Tom Ripley: she ratted herself out every chance she got. Her pitiless self-exposures in her notebooks and diaries—slightly compromised by the ice-cold glances she darted towards posterity while making them—have preserved for us what is probably the longest perp walk in American literary history.

Doggedly, religiously, and in eight thousand pages of work she showed to no one, she set down her states of mind, the color of her current lover's hair, the quality of a past relationship, the cost of a Paris hotel breakfast, the number of rejections she received from publishers, the fees, the fears, the falsehoods—as well as thousands of pages of notes for stories, novels, poems, and critical articles.

She told what she knew (but by no means
she knew),
and she told it in a far more direct and forthcoming voice than the low, flat, compellingly psychotic murmur she tended to use for her fictions. She makes it easy for us to be ravished by her romances, sullied by her prejudices, shocked by her crimes of the heart, appalled by the corrosive expression of her hatreds. But her long testimony in the witness stand of her notebooks, and in the jury box and judge's chair of her diaries, is far more revealing than anything anyone else has written or said about her.

In her teens and in her twenties Pat read obsessively, using books, she said, as a “drug.”
But “being influenced” to her meant reading the writers who confirmed her own instincts. Inspired by Dostoyevsky (but not in ways that are usually ascribed to her: half her attraction to his work was his struggle with Christianity, which, she wrote, “was more exciting, dangerous, and horrifying than any murder story he ever invented”),
she was also compelled by the cruder psychocategories of Karl Menninger and Richard von Krafft-Ebing. And she found some of her strongest validation in the work of male homosexual novelists.

It was Proust, after all, who wrote that neurosis gives plot to life, and Pat's own plot, like that of most of her characters, was founded on repetition. She did the same things over and over again. For variation, she tried to do them all at once.

In her fictions, in her facts, and in her affections, Patricia Highsmith, like all obsessive artists, circled around the same coordinates, the same grievances, the same inspirations. Each of her love affairs has its elements of identity with each of her other love affairs. (She dedicated the manuscript version of
Strangers on a Train
to “all the Virginias” because she had slept with several women named Virginia, then slyly changed the paperback dedication to “all the Virginians.”) All of her novels have their similar themes. No writer has ever savored the pains or suffered the pleasures of repetition more than she did.

Nothing in this operating principle makes Highsmith a very good subject for traditional, chronological biography. A time line drawn from her orphan-with-parents childhood in Fort Worth, Texas, to her highly public and well-attended funeral in Tegna, Switzerland, cannot begin to account for the perversities which hover so persistently at the borders of her writing, or the dazzling doubles act lodged at the dead center of her artistic life. Emotional memory was what lit up Pat's work and darkened her days, and emotional memory rarely wears a watch or walks a straight line.

The “truth” of Pat's life—the deeply eccentric swings and swerves and reversals that make her mind almost mappable and her work always recognizable—is misrepresented by the long lines of dates and hours, the crisp lists of appointments and appearances, the solid sense of case histories completed, that make chronological biography such conventional reading—and such conventional comfort, too. Except in her aspirations, Pat Highsmith was never a conventional woman—and never,
a conventional writer.

Pat used her own lists of dates and data defensively, as imaginary train tracks on which she could run her valiant Little Engine of Ambition and Accomplishment towards a brighter future: a future in which—for she always tried to be a practical woman—she had long since ceased to believe. Chronology was one of her favorite forms of “misdirection.”
She employed it to beguile herself into doing the one thing she continued to value: pulling herself “forward” with her work. And so she went on recording the hours, the days, and the years of her life—and measuring, weighing, and counting up everything else.

But Time—that cruel professor whose students never leave the classroom alive—didn't have much to teach Pat Highsmith. Neither her writing nor her approach to living ever “developed” or “matured.” (Oscar Wilde said that only mediocrities develop.) She was what she was from the start: fixing her implacable hatred of her stepfather at three and a half years, her sense of her sexuality at six, and the “betrayal” that altered her life at twelve. Her imagination was similarly marked. “The Heroine,” the story she wrote at twenty about a disturbed young helper who sets the family house on fire so she can “rescue” the children in her care, was so fully developed (and so good) that she came to regard it as the “curse” which overshadowed her work for the next ten years.

Virginia Woolf, whose novel
The Waves
Pat once hoped to imitate, called biography “a bastard, an impure art,” and reckoned that the best way to write a life “would be to separate the two kinds of truths”: the “husk” (the facts), and the “atom” (the inner life of the subject). There should be, Woolf thought, a list of the “facts” set down “in order” and then there should be the “life,” written as “fiction.”
Between Pat Highsmith's conviction that dark forces in her “blood” were directing her life (and that even darker forces in her subconscious were shaping her art), and her attempts to control those forces by list making, diagramming, and compulsive counting, she managed to live out Virginia Woolf's two kinds of “truth” every day.

In life
art, Highsmith Country always required plotting. It was a rare Highsmith letter that didn't arrive with a map, or a list, or with several intricate calculations involving numbers punctuating its text. And both Pat and her fictional doubles had their own special fun with graphic design: they drew and painted, devised buildings and books, collected art (and counterfeited it, too), and ordered their lives with lists. Although her mind always worked by intense and repetitive associations, Pat's eyes and her images inched over ordinary surfaces and wrapped themselves around architectural shapes and volumes. In many of her novels, she built the “strong” houses she yearned for in life—and then took the fictional trouble to furnish them. She liked to run her attention over the gear, tackle, and trim of different kinds of work, and some of her objections to women came from her fascination with tools and trades. “It is difficult for me to understand women because they have no jobs,” she wrote.

But more than almost anything else, she loved to draw up and pore over maps, charts, plans, lists, and diagrams—and the history of her imagination cannot be told without them.

And so, inspired by both Virginia Woolf and Patricia Highsmith, I have tried to put Pat's solid specifics—what Virginia Woolf would have called her “husk”—into the appendices of
The Talented Miss Highsmith.
Here you will find “Just the Facts,” the first fully annotated chronology of her life and work. Its pages of dates, places, and times are Pat's “cover story.” Here, too, is “Patricia Highsmith's New York,” a map/list/chart/diagram on which the addresses of her New York life are cross-referenced with the coordinates of her New York fictions. Mapping the ways Pat's real life coincided with her imaginary one produced the blueprint of a heart that never really left its home: Pat went right on murdering her fictional victims and lodging her fictional murderers at every single New York City address where she or her lovers had once lived.

Other diagrams important to Pat are also in the appendices: a chilling chart she made in 1945 that ranks and compares her girlfriends; an astrological calculation drawn up by a close friend in 1973; a plan of the house in which she spent the six most important years of her life; a storyboard she created for a Fawcett comic book Superhero during the 1940s when she was the most consistently employed female scriptwriter in the Golden Age of American Comics.

The appendices make Pat's designs for living—her dates and her data, her charts and her plans, the “husk” of her existence—instantly available for reference. And they free up the rest of the book to tell how she
lived her life.

Obsession, and the repeated themes and metaphors and intense relations that organize it, is a much better way to think about the overheated connections between Patricia Highsmith's living and her writing, and between her writing and her life. “No use looking for one's self in a static condition, surrounded by the things, attitudes, people one thinks of…. The living self,” she wrote, “is always in flux.”
Her “living self”
in flux—and repeating it was how she channelled the flow.

“Obsessions are the only things that matter,” she wrote. “Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.”
And as the material of her obsessions migrates from one of the forms she mined so diligently to another; as it is added into her writer's notebooks, multiplied by her diaries, and divides itself throughout her fictions, the twists, the turns, and the abrupt and shocking changes of this essential stuff of her imagination give a fascinating and unprecedented moving picture—more like a film than a document—of the mind of a writer at work.

For much of her life, Patricia Highsmith was an improbably tough woman (and not just tough, but “Texas tough,” says her legendary American editor Larry Ashmead) with an impossibly sore center. Early and late, the hopes of many friends and lovers foundered on that adamantine shell of hers. What they saw beneath it, if they even
beneath it, was usually more than they could handle. But Pat could handle it, and she handled it with fortitude.

Although nearly every letter she wrote was topped and tailed with racking complaints about the “people, places and things” (a favorite category in her writer's notebooks) that seemed to be conspiring expressly against
although she vacillated between deep trances of desire and the even deeper desire to rip her trances to ribbons; although she was preoccupied with personal, psychological problems as richly detailed as those exhibited by Dostoyevsky's “half-mad” postulants pacing the icy streets of St. Petersburg; nevertheless Pat Highsmith managed to get on very well with her business of writing six, seven, and eight pages a day. “Just now I am working on ONE play…also on a novel, of which I've written 160 pages in a month, a normal rate—40 pages per week, but it takes a bit out of one.”

BOOK: The Talented Miss Highsmith
13.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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