The woman who invented Ripley may have been even odder and more unpleasant than the killers in her novels, Nikil Saval writes. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith Joan Schenkar St Martin's Press Dh140 "There is nothing innocuous left," begins one of the short pieces in the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia. "The chance conversation in the train, when, to avoid dispute, one consents to a few statements that one knows ultimately to implicate murder, is already a betrayal." Writing in his Los Angeles exile during the horrors of the Second World War, Adorno was the bad conscience of the postwar liberal consensus. With the United States leading what would be capitalism's golden age, and Germany itself about to become the site of an economic miracle, Adorno wished to temper the rush towards the future with gloomy gestures towards the tragedy of the recent past. For him, nothing was beyond critique, least of all common sociability, which encouraged mass conformism: even taking pleasure in cordial small talk on a train was, for Adorno, to sanction inhumanity. He looked askance at any spectacle of people enjoying themselves, going on with life as if nothing had happened - to him, they were ignoring the negative shadow, the grim dialectical opposite, that followed close behind.
In 1951, the year that Adorno's book was published in Germany, Alfred Hitchcock debuted one of his own masterpieces, Strangers on a Train, adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same title, which seemed to explore, in a literal-minded way, the repellent consequences of the very scenario Adorno had conjured up: a murder plotted from a random conversation on a train. Adorno probably didn't know his Highsmith, nor was it likely that she or Hitchcock knew him, but they all found themselves, around the same time, interested in the same issue: the rottenness and corruption of ordinary circumstances, the criminal potential lying just beneath the superficial ease of everyday life.
"I can't think," Highsmith said, towards the end of her life, "of anything more apt to set the imagination stirring, drifting, creating, than the idea - the fact - that anyone you walk past on the pavement anywhere may be a sadist, a compulsive thief, or even a murderer." In her more than 20 novels and her many short stories - not to mention her 38 notebooks and 18 diaries - which essentially spanned the length of the Cold War, Highsmith obsessed over this idea, giving us a skewed mirror of the middle-class social world, in which anyone anywhere was a potential criminal, capable of the most ghastly crimes, even against the people closest to him or (sometimes, rarely) her. Highsmith's most famous creation, the upwardly-mobile, identity-thieving Tom Ripley, was a paragon of this type - acquisitive and self-protecting to the complete exclusion of any moral norm, despite a well-cultivated veneer of bourgeois manners and habits. The most disturbing fact of all may be that distributed over all her creations was not just a little of Highsmith herself, as Joan Schenkar's exhilarating and ingeniously structured new biography shows amply.
A racist misanthrope who seemed to love only snails with any consistency (she kept over 300 of them as pets over her lifetime), Highsmith may have been stranger and more unpleasant than any one of her characters - an incredible achievement, given the competition. Schenkar gives us fair warning at the outset: "She wasn't nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her well would have called her a generous woman." But, of course, Highsmith's novels are warning enough. From Strangers on a Train to her posthumously published Small g, the atmosphere of "Highsmith Country," as it came to be called by her fans, was one of constant and unnamable menace, rising out of otherwise ordinary circumstances. Deliberately unlyrical - Schenkar refers aptly to Highsmith's "prairie-flat prose" - she set up a fairly consistent plot mechanism by which two people, usually desperately ordinary men, often with recondite sexualities, would unaccountably become obsessed with each other, each goading the other into committing distinctly "out-of-character" actions and crimes. Her peerless ability to asphyxiate her readers in the ever more isolated consciousnesses of her characters has more than once drawn comparisons with Dostoyevsky. Despite their comfortable place within the thriller genre, Highsmith's novels depend as much on subtle shifts in psychological intensity as on mere murder - though the utter lack of affect in her writing means that the murders seem to arrive with brutal suddenness.
One of The Talented Miss Highsmith's many virtues is that its subject's unpleasantness never discolours the reading experience. This is largely due to Schenkar's wise decision - which future biographers should strongly consider emulating - to dispense with a chronological narrative, thereby avoiding the pitfall that sank the only previous effort, the otherwise accomplished Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson, in a morass of lovers and plot summaries. Following the advice of Virginia Woolf, who called biography "a bastard, impure art" and who called for writers to separate the "facts" from the "life", we get a year-by-year of "what happened" by way of appendix, and a series of more-or-less thematic chapters to cover her life.
With a less capable writer, this method could prove confusing and dull. But Schenkar is an amiably garrulous stylist, with a tremendous, hard-earned sympathy for her intransigent subject. Across multi-part, mostly thematic sections, Schenkar free-associates her way from the biography into and out of the fiction, drawing generously on Highsmith's notebooks and Schenkar's own interviews with Highsmith's acquaintances. Liberated from the inexorable march of biographical facts, Schenkar digresses to evoke social atmospheres beautifully, such as her portrait of Greenwich Village in the 1940s - the only time that Highsmith, otherwise homeless in her own century, "tangentially" connected with it - which she examines first from the perspective of the bohemian scene, then later from the vantage of Highsmith's "hundreds" of lovers.
Schenkar's technique only reveals its limitations when she steps into the role of literary critic. Passionately cataloguing Highsmith's many obsessions certainly leads to the pleasant discovery of more than a few direct connections to the fiction. More often than not, however, these little coincidences don't add up to insights about the style or structure of those works as a whole. We find out that Highsmith had big feet and that she found feet and shoes incredibly fascinating, but this doesn't mean, despite Schenkar's attention, that exploring all the references to feet in Strangers on a Train helps to illuminate that novel's nasty murder exchange and psychological mind games. She hypes her undoubtedly important excavation of Highsmith's extensive career as a comic book writer, but, try as she might, Schenkar can't quite find the comic books in the novels: Highsmith's real inability to write convincing female characters might have something to do with her schooling in misogynist comics, but Highsmith's violently emotional reaction to her many affairs proves instantly more plausible as a source.
Highsmith had an intense home- and love-life, which makes for feverishly long stories with many unhappy endings; it also makes the implacable calm that pervades her writing seem even more eerie. The crushing infatuations and hatreds that characterise her plots, however, are perfectly mirrored in her own relationships. Highsmith was obsessed with her mother, who, in turn, was obsessed with her. Their letters - "as successful as smart bombs...and almost as painful as their authors' actual physical meetings," writes Schenkar - reveal, as many of her novels do, an essential, unyielding antagonism between two people, each of whom believed (correctly) that the other was dangerous and irrational. ("I believe you would gladly put me in Dachau if it were possible without a minute's loss of sleep," her mother wrote to her after a vacation they took to Europe.)
The record seems to suggest that Highsmith wanted to approach her unhappy, if extremely passionate love life with the same chilliness with which she depicted human relations: Schenkar reproduces a facsimile of a chart Highsmith drew up to categorise her lovers. Tellingly, it was only through her fiction, in her novel The Price of Salt, her only openly lesbian work (first published under a pseudonym), that Highsmith was able to resolve her contradictory impulses towards maniacal passion and severe control. Her only novel without a murder or suicide - indeed, one of the few lesbian novels of its time without the violent death of one of the main characters - it was also a story of successful upward mobility: a 19 year-old sales clerk, Therese, falls in love with the upper class customer, Carol, and they live "happily ever after".
As it happens, class mobility may have been Highsmith's most lasting obsession. A hint Schenkar keeps dropping is that Highsmith, for all her occasional concern with oppressed groups (despite hating Arabs, she dedicated a novel to "the Palestinian people" and wanted to leave her entire fortune to them), seemed to prefer "the society, if not the close company, of 'winners'". Highsmith seemed to want nothing more in her life than her own house - she associated cheap apartments with her painful upbringing - and towards the end of her life, as the money from film adaptations came in more steadily, she developed an impressive hatred for high taxes - alongside a paradoxical but equally virulent hatred for Richard Nixon (whose many racial paranoias she shared) and Ronald Reagan. The spectacle she admired most was that of success - and success, in a society she saw as always trying to pull you back down, was necessarily something you had to get away with. Thus the sexually ambiguous, hapless antihero of The Talented Mr Ripley becomes fascinating to the extent that he can murder his way up the social ladder, and to the extent that - reluctantly, almost without a choice - we cheer him on.
Each successive novel in the five-volume "Ripliad" becomes progressively less interesting, since Ripley's only remaining duty is to protect the increasingly bourgeois (and increasingly heterosexual) comforts he has cemented. Two dull pages of the fourth book, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, are devoted to an exhaustive explanation of Ripley's methods for evading taxes. In the last novel, Ripley Under Water, which Schenkar rightly judges a thin contribution, the predatorial Ripley becomes the target of a poorly dressed, ugly, petit bourgeois upstart, David Pritchard, who tries to expose Ripley's past crimes out of a class-based vengeance of the dispossessed against the comfortably wealthy. (Ripley wins.)
In other novels the disturbing element stems from the failure of upward mobility. In Strangers on a Train, the architect Guy Haines is seeking to marry up, to the tall, thin blonde (Highsmith's type) Anne Faulkner and her bland Connecticut suburban family. But like another fictional architect from the same period, Howard Roark (from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead), he finds himself dragged down by a dependent, the sexually conflicted alcoholic Charles Bruno. After a brief meeting on a train, Bruno tries to strike a deal with Haines: he offers to kill Haines' nagging ex-wife if Haines agrees to kill Bruno's controlling father. Haines, repelled, doesn't shake on the deal, but Bruno impulsively fulfills his part of the deal anyway. Rather than run far away from Bruno, Haines finds himself accepting the dependency (as Howard Roark never would); strangely compelled by Bruno, Haines fulfills his part of the deal. As Haines gains more and more comfort - a house in a commuter suburb, a boat, high-class architectural commissions - his and our anxiety grows as his possessions become less and less stable, with detectives closing in.
Strangers on a Train, like all of Highsmith's fiction, betrays an unconscious and profound fear of the equalizing tendencies of liberal society and its attempts to forge connections among distant people, which had, in her time, achieved a brief, if fragile consensus. About this consensus, Highsmith seemed to need to tell us - over and over, mediating her pathologies into art - there was nothing innocuous.
Nikil Saval is an assistant editor at the journal n+1.