1001 Ways to die – (11) Patricia Highsmith, American, Writer (1921 – 1995)

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Patricia Highsmith was born in Forth Worth, Texas, USA, on the 19th January 1921.

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

“Patricia Highsmith, the American writer whose tales of gentlemen murderers and psychological intrigue were often explorations of her own obsessions, died yesterday at Carita hospital in Locarno, Switzerland, near the village where she had lived since 1982. She was 74. No cause of death was given by hospital officials, The Associated Press reported. Ms. Highsmith, who was born in Fort Worth and raised in Manhattan, spent most of her life in Europe, living first in England, then France and finally in southern Switzerland.” (10)

Ripley actors
Ripley actors

“Highsmith came from a family of Texan women with strong personalities and was locked in a lifelong power struggle with Mary, her neurotic mother. Both were “serious drama queens” whose relationship was more reminiscent of a sibling rivalry, which makes sense because Highsmith was raised in her early years by her grandmother. She spent a peripatetic childhood moving several times between Texas and New York City, where she attended an all-girls high school and, later, Barnard.” (4)

Patricia Highsmith and her Olympia typewriter
Patricia Highsmith and her Olympia typewriter

“La sexualidad es como tomar té o café, ya me entiende.”

Sexuality is like having tea or coffee, you understand me. Patricia Highsmith (7)

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

“She (Highsmith) thought that kissing a man was like ‘falling into a bucket of oysters’. When she looked at a trouser-press in a hotel bedroom, she imagined it as an instrument of torture. She wrote more than 30 books in a distinctive, stealthy prose. And in her novels of unease and ambiguity, she created a genre of her own…Highsmith was clearly out of control for parts of her life – a life spent largely in France, in Suffolk and in Switzerland. She drank hugely; she ranted; she made wild gestures – setting her hair on fire at a supper party. But she was under control when creating her fictions.” (9)

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

Like Oscar Wilde, Highsmith insisted (inPlotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, 1966) that “art essentially has nothing to do with morality, convention or moralizing…. I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature care if justice is ever done or not.” (1)

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

“Whatever innate characteristics she might have been born with, the circumstances that tortured Highsmith through her life included: a self-loathing of her lesbianism; resentment that she didn’t gain entry to New York’s highest social stratum; and a destructive love-hate relationship with her mother, Mary, who, when Patricia was 12, left the heartbroken child to live in Fort Worth with her grandmother for a year. “(2)

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

“There’s a story here in which a woman making a precarious living in New York frantically tries to tidy up her apartment before the arrival of her judgmental, small-town sister. At one point, she puts some eggs on to boil. You notice, as she leaves the apartment to meet her sister, that Highsmith has made no mention of her turning the pan off. Having, by this stage of my life, absorbed the information that a Highsmith tale is quite capable of including catastrophe, I spent the next few pages thinking to myself, “what about those eggs? Is there any chance that Highsmith has forgotten about them herself? Or are we going to find disaster has overtaken one of her blameless creations?” To have a reader vibrating like a tuning fork for most of a story surely demonstrates some degree of competence, or even talent, no?” (3)

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

“Her novels have more to do with the murky, airless worlds of Dostoevsky and Kafka than with the cops and gangsters of the American tradition or with clever ladies and gentlemen of the English “Golden Age” of detective fiction. They are, it has been well said, not “who-dunnits” so much as “why-dunnits”. And they are characterised by an urbane contempt for conventional ideas of morality. They were even more popular in France and Germany than in Britain and the United States, and after Hitchcock, two of her Ripley novels were made into memorable films: in 1960 Rene Clement made The Talented Mr Ripley into Plein Soleil, starring Alain Delon, whom Highsmith called “my ideal” actor; and in 1977 Wim Wenders adapted Ripley’s Game into The American Friend, starring Dennis Hopper.” (5)

Patricia Highsmith at her house in Aurigeno, Switzerland, April 1984; photograph by Gérard Rondeau
Patricia Highsmith at her house in Aurigeno, Switzerland, April 1984; photograph by Gérard Rondeau

“The English-speaking world might casually slot her as a writer of crime fiction, but Europeans honored her as a psychological novelist, part of an existentialist tradition represented by her own favorite writers, in particular Dostoevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Gide, and Camus. (That astute critic Brigid Brophy once called her a Dostoevsky “whose gifts include humour and charm.”) Highsmith’s books, after all, explore human souls in extremis, chronicle men and women sliding toward breakdown, probe the fluid nature of identity, and generally conclude that life is little more than an absurdity and a cheat, when not a downright horror.” (6)

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

“She is a writer who has created a world of her own—a world claustrophobic and irrational,” Graham Greene noted in his introduction to 1970’s The Snail-Watcher, reprinted here. A world without moral endings, as Greene says, dark, and lit by sudden flares of violent action. “Nothing is certain when we have crossed this frontier.” (8)

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

Key facts 

1921: Patricia Highsmith born in Fort Worth, Texas.
1938-1942: Studied English literature at Columbia University, New York.
1951-1953: Travelled through Europe.
1960s-early 1980s: Lived in England and France.
1982: Moved to Switzerland.
1995: Died in a Locarno hospital.

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith

Sources

(1) This Woman is Dangerous, The New York Review of Books

(2) Patricia Highsmith, The New York Times

(3) The forgotten egg, Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

(4) The talented Miss Highsmith, Marisa Meltzer, New York Post

(5) Obituary: Patricia Highsmith, The Independent

(6) This Woman is Dangerous, The New York Review of Books

(7) Entrevista con Patricia Highsmith

(8) The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, James Sallis, Boston Review

(9) Ripley’s dame, Susannah Clapp, The Observer

(10) Patricia Highsmith, Writer Of Crime Tales, Dies at 74, The New York Times