THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH: THE SECRET LIFE AND SERIOUS ART OF PATRICIA HIGHSMITH
by Joan Schenkar
St. Martin’s Press
(December 2009, $40, 704 pages)
Before you think you are going to settle down for a glimpse at what made Patricia Highsmith tick, prepare for a chronologically challenged, confusing and often repetitive narrative of the ins and outs of obsessions, ruminations, ideas and idylls that gave Highsmith’s novels like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train their stylized edginess and cold calculation.
Patricia Highsmith the Writer was a woman to admire: she wrote in a straightforward yet brutal manner that pulls the reader right into the hard heart and cold soul of her protagonists. It is thrilling to become immersed in Highsmith’s novels because she had a grip on bad that made it so good. While difficult to categorize her in a specific genre, she was a pioneer. Highsmith may be best known for her Ripley novels but her body of work includes twenty-two novels, eight short story collections, a suspense writers instruction guide and a book for children. She published a ground-breaking lesbian novel The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952.
Patricia Highsmith the Woman was, quite possibly, someone best avoided. Labeled a psychopath and a “black cloud,” she was a raging alcoholic for most of her literary life. In many ways her art imitated her life – or at least the dark recesses of her psyche. She believed life didn’t make sense without a crime in it. In her one of her many self-observations she stated, “If I were to relax and become human, I could not bear my life.” A talented but flawed Miss Highsmith, indeed.
Joan Schenkar tasks the reader mightily as Highsmith’s biographer. She forgoes the traditional chronological approach and instead groups the book into Highsmith’s themes/obsessions: How to Begin, A Simple Act of Forgery, La Mamma, Les Girls, Alter Ego, Greek Games. Nine divided parts jump into different times and places in Highsmith’s life. It is a meandering wander, a hippy Christmas that is difficult to follow and makes for unsettled reading. Schenkar’s method is the polar opposite of her subject; Miss Highsmith kept detailed lists, diagrams, maps and charts throughout her life. Schenkar’s unusual style does allow one to flip through the book without really missing a beat. Unfortunately, it is a beat that resonates with an uneven repetition of themes regarding Patricia Highsmith’s internal drives, which were apparently fueled by alcohol and cigarettes. There were women – many women – and occasionally a few men, in addition to her racist attitudes and actions, her aversion to comfort, avoidance of truth, self-history revision when convenient and an intense desire for privacy. Ah yes, and the collection of three-hundred snails Highsmith kept as pets. Highsmith loved snails because of their ambiguous shell and difficult gender identification. When bored at a dinner party, as she often was because she disliked food, Highsmith would pull a snail out of her purse or bra and play with it on the table cloth.
The eight years Schenkar spent perusing 18 diaries, 38 cahiers (writer’s notebooks) and 8,000 pages of her unpublished work sit uneasily in nearly 700 pages. Patricia Highsmith’s personal thoughts and opinions are not pleasant places to linger, despite her talent. It is disturbing to see her age ungracefully from svelt sphinx to a craggy, hunched gargoyle. Phobias and fantasies become more prominent in her later years. After reading her biography, it can be safely said that one of Highsmith’s most admirable qualities of character is that she wrote about her demons rather than acting upon them.