BEAUTIFUL SHADOW: A LIFE OF PATRICIA HIGHSMITH by Andrew Wilson
About 25 years ago, I packed a copy of SLOWLY, SLOWLY IN THE WIND, a short story collection by Patricia Highsmith, to read on vacation. Halfway through the book, however, I had to stop reading--the sense of unease, even dread, evoked by the stories was ruining my holiday. Eventually, I got around to reading more of Highsmith's work--both short stories and novels--and found her writing interesting and inventive, but it never lost its power to ignite foreboding; I cannot say that I've ever found Highsmith a comfortable writer. And yet--there's something there, something that makes me keep reading, keep wanting to discover what happens next, even when I know the outcome will almost always be awful. Highsmith is a writer I can read only in daylight--never just before bedtime--and always with the lights on.
Andrew Wilson's BEAUTIFUL SHADOW (the title is the English translation of Belle Ombre, the name of the fictional Tom Ripley's French home) is a warts-and-all biography of the writer capable of creating that sense of disquiet. Making great use of Highsmith's trove of letters, journals, and other material that she collectively referred to as her "cahiers," Wilson attempts to get to the heart of Highsmith, a woman of whom Otto Penzler once observed, "She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person. I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly." In this book, Highsmith doesn't come across as a very approachable person, but one certainly gains a better understanding of why Highsmith was the way she was and why she wrote the way she did.
Born in Fort Worth in 1921, Highsmith's upbringing was tumultuous: Her parents divorced before she was born, her mother remarried three years later, and it was this husband, Stanley Highsmith, who gave Patricia the last name she had for the rest of her life. Highsmith never liked her step-father and never resolved the difficult relationship she had with her mother (who would sometimes claim she tried to abort Patricia by drinking turpentine during her pregnancy). The cruelty of their love-hate dynamic expressed itself in a number of Highsmith's dark stories of bad children and even worse parents. Frequently overlooked and unwanted, Highsmith was moved from Texas to New York and back to Texas again, living first with her mother and step-father and then with her grandmother. She was not a happy child, but she loved to read and made great use of her grandmother's library. She was also a writer from an early age--even at eight years old she was writing little sketches about the hidden lives of supposedly "normal" friends and neighbors. This would be a major theme throughout all of her work: The juxtaposition of a person's public facade against their private desires.
After graduating from Barnard College in 1942, Highsmith worked for comic book syndicates (she was one of the first women to write for the comics) while she spent her spare time writing and developing her own style. She eventually spent time at the Yaddo writer's colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. It was here that Highsmith wrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN which was published in 1950 and provided her with her first major success, especially when it was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock the following year. She was fortunate that success came early. This permitted her to spend the rest of her life writing without needing an additional source of income.
Highsmith's popularity grew (especially in Europe) and the Ripley novels (five in all, published over a 36-year period) cemented her status. Tom Ripley, outwardly charming, inwardly a cold-blooded killer without conscience or compunction when it comes to protecting himself, personifies Highsmith's theme of the hidden interior life of people who appear quite affable on the surface. Highsmith herself was not immune from this dichotomy. She presented herself as an animal lover, a gourmet cook, and a good friend, when in actuality she alternately smothered and neglected her cats, was an atrocious cook who rarely ate (she had a drinking problem which only got worse as she aged and she always preferred drinking to eating), and was a terrible friend. None of her relationships (sexual or platonic, with men or with women) lasted very long because of her rages, unwillingness to compromise, and unreasonable demands.
If I have one problem with this biography, it is that is takes more than 300 pages before there is any mention that Highsmith may have suffered from undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome or another form of high-functioning autism, and even then the comment is made in an offhand way by one of Highsmith's acquaintances and is not really examined at all by Wilson. Having an Asperger's child myself (hopefully one who has been giving a more loving and secure home life than Highsmith received), and based on evidence of Highsmith's inability to relate to others and her social isolation, I think it's a very real possibility that Highsmith was functionally autistic and that idea should have been considered and explored much earlier in the book. It's very likely that someone with an autism spectrum disorder raised in the dysfunction and emotional deprivation of Highsmith's early life might easily evolve into the misanthropic and disassociative person that Highsmith became. As one of her friends observed, it was a good thing Highsmith could write, without that outlet she might have been committed to a mental institution. That, despite her alienating personality and worsening alcoholism, Highsmith could continue to produce quality work is an indication of her discipline (when it came to writing) and her undeniable talent--although some of the odd, violent, and unpleasant imagery served up by that talent may give one pause..
Highsmith's last years were plagued by ill-health and on-going self-imposed separation from those who wanted to help her. In addition, her nasty vein of racial prejudice and an almost demented anti-semtism began to disgust even the most tolerant of her acquaintances. Highsmith died of cancer in 1995 (outliving her mother by only four years), leaving the bulk of her estate to the Yaddo writer's colony. Several years after her death, the film version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" spiked renewed interest in her writing. She left behind a body of tense, uncomfortable, yet strangely hypnotic work and enough ancillary material to allow Andrew Wilson to fashion this thorough and thoughtful biography.
Charlie Stella reviews the same book right here.
Charlie Stella reviews the same book right here.
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