Patricia Highsmith would have turned 100 on January 19th. She was an author who was convinced that anyone could become a murderer.
She took the liberty of being angry when she wanted to. In their works anyway, but also, as many people have said, in real life. Patricia Highsmith is said to have made plans to murder her stepfather at the age of eight. Even as an adult, she made no secret of her obsessive aversions to all sorts of things and, above all, to many people.
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Although politically left-wing, she was anti-Semitic and racist at the same time. She didn’t like dogs, flowers, or children. She considered women to be inferior to men – but wanted them sexually. She tried men too, in principle would have liked to marry one and was even engaged once.
The pressure of conformity of the times must have played an enormous role in this agonizing self-search and search for a partner. An attempt to “normalize” oneself sexually with the help of psychoanalysis failed. No wonder, because 12-year-old Patricia already felt like a boy in the body of a girl.
Love relationships – mostly with women – Highsmith had many over the course of her life, many of which assumed obsessive traits. Stalking was also one of her bad habits. An encounter with a fascinating woman, whom she reenacted for a long time (and probably in vain) in real life, inspired the novel “The Price of Salt”, which she published in 1952 under a pseudonym. It was not until 1990 that it was reissued under its own name.
Mutual love hate relationship
That was still not a direct commitment to being a lesbian; but Patricia Highsmith has never gotten closer to an official coming-out.
Your childhood wasn’t easy. At first, the child Patricia, who grew up mainly with her grandmother, moved with mother and stepfather (her parents had divorced before she was born) from Texas to New York at the age of six. There, too, the mother, who must have had a rather restless personality structure, did not come to rest.
Frequent moves and partner changes also affected the life of the daughter, who had a strong love-hate relationship with her mother throughout her life. It was based on reciprocity: both women are said to have kept lists of each other’s misconduct.
Patricia Highsmith began writing in high school, but she also showed talent in the visual arts at an early age. At the renowned Barnard College she studied English literature as well as the subject “English composition”, ie creative writing, and then lived for many years with the help of regular work as a comic author.
Hitchcock filmed “Strangers on the Train”
She no longer needed to earn a living when, in 1950, after she had already written two other novels and never finished, her first novel was published. “Strangers on a Train” (Eng. “Two strangers on the train”) was a great success. The fact that Alfred Hitchcock immediately decided to film the material (with a princely rewarded Raymond Chandler failing to make a script out of it) ensured that Highsmith became famous.
However, she has continued to enjoy great fame as an author more in Europe than in the USA. In her home country she was more perceived as a genre writer; and since Highsmith’s novels, despite all the murders that take place in them, are by no means genre-conforming, the crime readership was more skeptical of their psychologically cryptic stories. Highsmith only found an American publisher for “Edith’s Diary,” which does not even have a murder, when the novel was already published in Europe.
The author lived in Europe from 1963, but moved every few years. A time in Italy was followed by four years in England, then 14 years in France, and in the early 1980s she moved to Switzerland. In Ticino she had a house built for her that looked so unwelcoming from the outside that a friend called it “Hitler’s Bunker”. In 1995 she died in her adopted Swiss home.
She wrote five Ripley novels
The most famous of Highsmith’s fictional characters is also American in Europe: The name Patricia Highsmith is not so closely linked to any of the other characters she invented as to Tom Ripley, the multiple murderer without morals who should not let go of his author. She wrote five Ripley novels altogether, whereby the shocking cold-bloodedness of the young Tom, who kills a friend in order to be able to assume his identity, is overlaid in the course of the other novels by the hardships that Ripley has to expose as an established killer and middle-aged art forger to defend his carefully constructed double life.
She thinks Ripley is “amusing”, said its inventor, and found his popularity (the material has already been filmed several times and is now also to become a series) very easy to explain: Ripley, who was only 26 in the first part, only dreams of the same things as other young people: having plenty of money, a bit of glamor and dolce vita. Other people were just reluctant to walk over dead bodies to achieve these goals. The author is said to have made fun of it, sometimes signing as “Tom Ripley”.
The Diogenes Verlag in Zurich, where the German translations of Highsmith’s books have been published for many years, have not only published new editions of several novels for the 100th birthday, but are also planning a first German edition of the author’s diaries as a special coup for autumn this year. In addition, a volume with early stories has just been published under the title “Ladies”, many of them also for the first time in German.
If you read all these stories in a row that Patricia Highsmith wrote as a very young woman (between the ages of 15 and 27), the later creator of the psychopathic Tom Ripley is not really recognizable in most of them. What is missing is the consistent literary cruelty that Highsmith displayed in her novels and which consists not least of all in the fact that she denies her readers any opportunity to identify with her less sympathetic protagonists.
The heroes of these early tales are different. There are not only “ladies”, but also a few men, but this gender distribution is also something special, because in her novels, with the exception of “Ediths Tagebuch”, Highsmith consistently uses male main characters. In these stories, on the other hand, a woman is even allowed to become a murderer (or at least harbor real murderous intentions) and thus at least temporarily abandon the function of a female appendage to a man. Another is a loving nanny and a dangerous pyromaniac at the same time.
However, many of the stories are more about turning points in the inconspicuous existence of their protagonists, such as the one about a capable middle-aged office lady who has to help the neighboring family in a crisis and cannot go to work for days, which finally gives her boss the opportunity understand how much she means to him.
The uncanny creeps in
One would hardly believe that this romantic secretary’s tale comes from Patricia Highsmith – just like the story of a secret couple who meet at lunchtime to hold hands intimately on a bench and are watched suspiciously by a woman from better circles. However, both texts reveal a very precise look at the peculiarities of American society in the forties.
The uncanny has already crept into other stories: For example, when the friendship between a man and a little girl is described, which suddenly loses all innocence when the man realizes what other people might think of him. And in “The Snail Researcher” you can find out (in very unsavory pictures) where it can lead to breeding snails at home and leaving them unattended for too long.
By the way, Patricia Highsmith pursued the hobby of snail breeding herself – and shares it with the protagonist of her novel “Deep Water”, which will certainly attract special attention again soon, because there is also a remake of it (with Ben Affleck in the Main role), which is slated to hit theaters this year. “Deep Waters” is about the hell that marriage can become – and about the monsters that may slumber in apparently cultured people.
Murder without scruples
The protagonist of this story also murders (and his wife’s lovers) without being morally scrupulous, and only regrets that he is unable to tell his six-year-old daughter about his terrible deeds: because the child with his still Unsettled Moral Compass is very disappointed that his father is not, as other children have heard, a murderer. For the little girl, a murderer is synonymous with the hero of a story.
This little girl’s name is not Patricia, but she is very similar: Beatrice. In this secondary figure of the only child neglected by her easy-going mother, traits of the author herself have entered. How much of herself is in the main character, in the educated, sophisticated publisher and psychopath Vic, who outwardly endures his wife’s antics with universally admired equanimity, can only be speculation.
But just reading this novel, which was written in 1957, in comparison with the early stories, makes it clear that Patricia Highsmith has come quite a long way to develop her consistently amoral narrative mode.
To quarrel with sexuality
It is certainly not too far-fetched to ascribe some income to her psychoanalyst (who was probably a man back then, in the early 1950s). It is true that he may not have succeeded in turning the young writer, who struggles with her sexuality, into a heteronormative, married average American woman.
But that the “talented Miss Highsmith” (the title of the Highsmith biography by Joan Schenkar) brought the demons slumbering inside her to the surface to be able to play with them literarily was possibly unintentional, but in retrospect but quite a beneficial side effect of that therapeutic treatment.