Writers Behaving Badly: Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

For me, the name ‘Patricia Highsmith’ designates a sacred territory: she is the One whose place among writers is that which Spinoza held for Gilles Deleuze (a ‘Christ among philosophers’). (Slavoj Žižek)

Patricia Highsmith Key Facts

From an early age, she drank hard, fell in and out of love with various women (and one or two men), and rather quickly came to understand her own severe and private nature. Far more than Tom Ripley, she fits that Lawrentian description of being hard, isolate, and stoic, especially in her later years. (Michael Dirda)

Patricia 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.

Patricia 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 certainly in full control of her demons when she wrote.

The sheer variety of the films based on her Ripley novels is a testament to it: the cool psychopath has been represented by actors as different as Alain Delon, Matt Damon and now John Malkovich.

The sheer variety of the films based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels is a testament to her originality: the cool psychopath has been represented by actors as different as Alain Delon, Matt Damon and John Malkovich.

Patricia Highsmith’s most famous character,  Tom Ripley, is charming, epicurean, good friend and exemplary husband. He is aesthete, too. He never kills for thrill, only out of necessity. Life is like this — it’s often an absolute necessity to bludgeon or strangle a few people now and again. Eight, to be precise. And he isn’t amused observing two others drown.

Tom Ripley cares about people, all right. Still, cruel circumstances make him orchestrate rather serviceable suicides of three of his friends. He actually cared for those three. Remorse? If it ever was any, it, too, has passed.

Isn’t it rather odd that he doesn’t keep count of his victims? After all, he was merely defending himself, his family, his home, his business…
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Not people but animals — snails especially — were her preferred company. Once, she took 100 snails (give and take a few) to a party, in her handbag  –simply to have  someone to talk to. She kept them as pets, and some three hundred of them flew with her from New York to Paris, Rome, and Venice in cheese cartons. She “produced snails from her handbag and encouraged them to leave sticky trails all over her host’s tabletop.” It was a severe case of “snail envy.”

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In the novel Deep Water, Vic is the the keeper of aquaria. He has over a thousand snails, most of them the progeny of Edgar and Hortense, a superbly prolific mating pair. Patricia’s favorite snail was named Hortense.

“The Quest for Blank Claveringi” features Professor Avery Claveringi. He leaves his position at California university, embarking on a quest to find a giant snail species yet undiscovered.  He finds it, all right. The creature is gigantic, indeed, at about fifteen-foot, its “silvery patches gleam and twinkle as the great thing stirred.”highsmith_1-001

Professor Claveringi runs out of luck when snails chase after him. Now what? There are but two excellent choices — to drown or to become a tasty morsel in the creature’s lunch…

Perverse and misanthropic woman, Patricia Highsmith was a singularly talented writer. Her characters could be warped,  creepy and amoral beyond measure, but she lets the reader so close to them that, face to face, we cannot help but follow them wherever they go.

 

 

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