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The Devil’s Disciple

Maura O’Kiely

Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith, by Richard Bradford, Bloomsbury, 258 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1448217908

One of the yardsticks by which The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield rated a book was whether, after reading it, you wished that the author “was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it”. You’d have to wonder how a call from the chatty teenager might have played out with Patricia Highsmith, a gifted writer but not blessed with the sunniest of dispositions. Famously troubled in her personal life and capable of dreadful cruelty, she was about as vile as a person can be. In a 2015 newspaper article, the screenwriter Phyllis Nagy strove to find nice things to say about her late friend but could only manage a limp “Pat didn’t suffer fools at all”.

A genuine misogynist, Highsmith ‑ the author of crime classics Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley and of many other novels and short stories ‑ didn’t much like people; not family or friends, nor the succession of women she seduced and deliberately hurt. According to Richard Bradford’s new biography, she was a hardcore racist and antisemite, and you really don’t want to know what she thought should be done with the babies born to “morons”, her all-encompassing word for those she despised. Children rarely appear in her books. Highsmith would have crushed young Holden to the bone.

She was born in Texas in 1921, making this year the hundredth anniversary of her birth. Bradford’s is the third Highsmith biography, her eight thousand pages of journal entries providing plenty of material for all. One of the problems with her archive, he cautions early on, is that she made things up, conflated unrelated events and revised previous diary entries, leaving researchers unsure what was the truth. Bradford thinks that when Highsmith bequeathed her journals to the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern the intention may well have been to confuse and vex future biographers. “There is considerable evidence to suggest that she was playing games with these scrutineers,” he writes, “creating some narratives that are contradicted by others and making claims upon events and their traumatic outcomes that often seem incredible.”

However, the archive, along with her other writings, does throw some light on the factors that formed Highsmith’s personality: for starters, there’s the chaotic childhood, the growing interest in “the abnormal”, the epically awful mother who cast such a long shadow over her only child’s life. Mary Highsmith – and this isn’t even the most extreme example ‑ liked to remind her daughter that she’d tried to abort her by swallowing turpentine. No wonder the adult Patricia had mental health problems, and developed alcoholism early on. Over the decades she became more and more contradictory: a liberal who held bigoted views, an animal lover who could torture an animal just for fun, someone who just didn’t seem able to separate love and hate.

Bradford contends that Highsmith’s novels were a lifelong autobiography, that each of her novels “bears her view of the world and how she understood her role in it”. When a book editor suggested that many American readers might be alienated because so many of her characters were devoid of humanity or anything approaching decency, Highsmith agreed and added: “Perhaps it’s because I don’t like anyone.”

On a more positive note, no one seemed to feel physically threatened by her; there’s never a sense that if things got too heated Highsmith might have a Colt 45 and a shovel ready by the back door. Which is not to say that she didn’t think about murder. Of a long-term partner, Doris, who suddenly began to irritate her, Highsmith wrote in her diary entry of June 29th, 1956: “My dear God … teach me forbearance, patience, courage in the face of pain and disappointment … one day I shall take you by the throat and tear the windpipe and arteries out, though I go to hell for it.”

Edgar Allan Poe, the prince of darkness himself, was a literary favourite but it’s interesting to learn that Highsmith was also smitten with the European existentialists, especially Camus and Kierkegaard. Was she a good writer? Graham Greene thought so, as did JG Ballard and Gore Vidal. Critically acclaimed in Europe, to which she had relocated in 1964, Highsmith won the prestigious 1957 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière and was a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991; so yes, her work was esteemed. But while her books were critically acclaimed in France she was mostly underappreciated in the US, leading her publishing contact at Knopf to wonder if “a cynicism about human transactions” in her psychological thrillers wasn’t “particularly user-friendly”. That is to put it mildly. In a collection of short stories that focused on “the dark side of domesticity” she even managed to make the kitchen a place of lurking menace.

Hitchcock, a director who liked to flirt with the darker side of humanity, understood the disturbing potency of Strangers on a Train, and started bidding on the film rights within days of the book’s launch party, intrigued by the warped perspectives of its main characters, Bruno and Guy. But he was constrained by the American censorship board, which is why the film is noirish rather than Highsmith’s uncompromised noir.

The Price of Salt, a love story, was an abrupt gear change for the author. Published in 1952 (the same year as PL Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park, itself a sequel to Mary Poppins Opens the Door) the plot was so controversial in the censorious climate of the time – a lesbian romance, and with a happy ending ‑ that a pseudonym was deemed necessary until 1990, when it was republished under Highsmith’s name as Carol. It tells of a same-sex relationship in a straightforward manner (or as Bradford jarringly puts it, “treated gays as individuals possessed of intellectual and emotional gravity rather than as sad compounds of their debauched inclinations”.) The book is noted as being the only Highsmith story in which there is no violent crime committed.

Bradford is at his best when offering insightful analysis, for instance regarding Bruno and Guy in Strangers on a Train; or colourful anecdotes, such as this one, which emphasises the uniqueness of The Price of Salt on publication: “Its only notable predecessor was Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) which prompted the editor of the Daily Express James Douglas to write that ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or girl prussic acid than this novel’.”

After reading Bradford’s book you will probably know more about Patricia Highsmith than you want. That unspeakable obsession with snails, that she sometimes ate raw meat (“not tartare, but in a bloody lump”.) There’s more, a lot more, but I’ll spare you the grisly litany. With the monotony of a metronome Bradford lists the lovers, the fights, the final flame-outs. He often comes across as sensationalist. And judgmental too. Here he is expanding on her relationships: “Compared to Highsmith, the likes of Casanova, Errol Flynn and Lord Byron might be considered lethargic – even demure. She seemed to enjoy affairs with married women in particular, but breaking up lesbian couples came a close second.” Later in the same paragraph we get this: “She found time in her busy career as a nymphomaniac to fall deeply in love, becoming enchanted by five women in particular.”

The title of his book comes from a New Year’s Eve diary entry in 1947 when Highsmith wrote: “To all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envys, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories, with which I do battle – may they never give me peace.” Not exactly a traditional new year toast, but it shows she knew it was her demons and desires that charged her imagination, and we know that without them she would not be the writer she was.

No, Highsmith was not graced with a beguiling personality; previous biographers also made that clear. Her furiously vacillating likes and dislikes must have made her impossible to be around. But she was extraordinary, by any standards; a writer whose stories captivate generation after generation of readers and scriptwriters. Yes, many of her characters have all the depth of a chalk outline at a crime scene; but her pared-down prose and nail-biting plots remain perfect reading material for long-haul flights and pandemic lockdowns. Even the nicest readers find themselves urging serial killer Tom Ripley to bury that body and get away. It’s not that they are exactly rooting for him, but they don’t want him caught either. Somehow Highsmith has distracted the reader from judging him.

She died in 1995 in Switzerland, aged seventy-four, a recluse but still plugging away at the books. Not a bad innings for someone with chronic bad health, who smoked forty tarry Gauloises a day and drank gin from breakfast onwards. How it was that a life such as hers, with its unpromising start, became transformed into art of a high order is a fascinating question. AN Wilson, biographer of Tolstoy and CS Lewis, thinks that “when the chronicle of twentieth-century American literature comes to be written, history will place Highsmith on top of the pyramid, as we should place Dostoevsky at the top of the Russian hierarchy of novelists”.

Meanwhile her work endures: twenty-two novels, nine short story collections and now three biographies; there are reports that her estate is to publish sections of her journals this year.

The American publisher Otto Penzler, who knew her socially as well as professionally, described Highsmith as a “mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being”, adding however: “But her books? Brilliant.”

And that’s the thing: they are.

1/3/2021

Maura O’Kiely is an Irish Times journalist.

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