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The Guardian (28/Feb/2000) - The talented Ms Highsmith

(c) The Guardian (28/Feb/2000)

The talented Ms Highsmith

Her heroes are deviants and genial psychopaths. No wonder film-makers from Alfred Hitchcock to Anthony Minghella have adapted her novels. Robert Shore on the enduring appeal of Patricia Highsmith

In life the novelist Patricia Highsmith habitually drew strong reactions from those around her. Like Brigitte Bardot, she appears to have reserved most of her affection for animals: when she died, in 1995, she left behind 22 novels, mostly studies of everyday psychopathy, and a lifetime's worth of sketches of cats. Her sometime publisher Otto Penzler described her as a "mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being" - and he was a fan.

Nor is Highsmith likely to find immortality as a feminist icon: her early books are notable for their negative portrayal of female characters. When questioned about her preference for male heroes, the author would reply: "Women are tied to the home... Men can do more, jump over fences."

But, as we all know, a bad character has never been a bar to creating good art, and Highsmith's claustrophobic studies of commonplace deviancy have been entertaining and appalling readers for a half-century now. In particular, they have found a receptive audience among film-makers. When Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley opens across the UK next month, it will be almost exactly 50 years since Highsmith was first adapted for the big screen.

That initial cinematic translation was in 1951, with Strangers on a Train by Alfred Hitchcock, and it made Highsmith famous -- not to say well-off -- overnight. In the intervening period, many others have felt drawn to the author's gallery of literary sociopaths: Claude-Autant Lara (Le Meutrier, 1963), Claude Miller (Dites-lui que je l'aime, 1977), Michel Deville (Eaux Profondes, 1981) and Claude Chabrol (Le Cri du Hibou, 1987) have all made films based on her work.

In addition there have been two previous attempts to adapt Highsmith's most celebrated creation, the genial psychopath Tom Ripley: René Clément filmed The Talented Mr Ripley as Plein Soleil, starring a very young Alain Delon, in 1960 (reissued in 1997 by Miramax, the company behind Minghella's version), while a later volume in Highsmith's Ripley series, Ripley's Game, was the basis for Wim Wenders's 1977 The American Friend.

But just as the foregoing list attests to Highsmith's popularity with film-makers (particularly ones called Claude), it also shows a marked bias for her work among European cinéastes. There is no real mystery about Hollywood's shyness where Highsmith is concerned, for the author -- though an American -- was positively opposed to the key film industry tenet that the good should be rewarded and the wicked punished. As she once said, "I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not."

No one who knows Highsmith only through American screen adaptations will therefore have much of a sense of the novels' characteristic moral climate. Hitchcock's version of Strangers on a Train has little in common with its source material beyond a general misogyny and an opening proposition -- two men, one a psychopath, one not, meet on a train and discuss their difficulties with their respective families. Suddenly the psychopath slams his palms together and cries out euphorically: "Hey! Cheeses. What an idea! We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on a train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?"

Thereafter film and novel diverge significantly. In the cinema version the good guy is never allowed even to contemplate going through with his side of the bargain -- at worst he risks being thought guilty by other people. In the novel, on the other hand, the honest citizen actually carries out the killing and becomes possessed by guilt; such is Highsmith's skill that the process by which he comes to commit the murder seems entirely logical, and all the more terrible for that. As Susannah Clapp observed in a recent issue of the New Yorker: "In Highsmith, the corruption of good intentions is so insidious that it comes to seem a perfectly natural process." Conventional notions of justice -- legal, divine, poetic -- have no force in Highsmith's world.

Highsmith does not appear to have invited discussion of her personal life, but the established biographical facts are none the less worth rehearsing. Her parents separated five months before she was born, in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921, and she was raised initially by her grandmother.

This happy period was cut short when she was summoned to join her mother in New York, where the two women appear to have formed a lethal partnership worthy of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; mother taunting daughter by relating how she had tried to abort her foetus during pregnancy. "She really tried to get rid of it -- she told me -- I didn't mind," Highsmith later remembered. "She said, 'It's funny you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat'. Because she drank turpentine before I was born trying to have a miscarriage. I didn't mind."

It is an extraordinary story, not least for the way in which Highsmith tells it, managing to make a monstrous revelation seem entirely ordinary, an effect that Highsmith achieves again and again in her fiction. In the circumstances it is perhaps understandable that Highsmith hated her mother and blamed her for her own later inability to live with others.

As a young adult, the novelist toyed with various careers, briefly pursuing writing for comic books: interested readers can still find the children's title Miranda the Panda is On the Veranda in the collection of the British Library. She almost became a painter, too. It will come as no surprise to learn that she was particularly drawn to the work of Francis Bacon: humanity vomiting into a toilet bowl struck a chord.

But recognition as a writer was not long withheld from her. In 1945 her first short story, The Heroine, was published in Harper's Bazaar. Soon after, on a recommendation from Truman Capote, she went to stay at the Yaddo writers' colony, redrafted Strangers on a Train, found a publisher in Harper & Sons and achieved international success - though, mirroring the tastes of film-makers, her books have traditionally had a larger audience in Europe than in the US. The novelist herself moved to Britain and France in the 1960s before finally settling in Switzerland.

When it was first published in 1950, Strangers on a Train was advertised by its publishers as "A Harper Novel of Suspense". If you go in search of a copy today, you will discover that the label has stuck, for her works are usually kept in the specialist crime or thriller sections of bookstores rather than among general fiction.

Although Highsmith is still thought of as a genre writer, her most obvious literary relations are rather grander than the classification would suggest. In the first place there is Henry James, another European-American puritan obsessed with the isolated consciousness and the destructive powers of the imagination: a James tale such as Maud-Evelyn shares many of the preoccupations of Highsmith's This Sweet Sickness. James's influence is hinted at explicitly in The Talented Mr Ripley when Mr Green leaf asks Tom if he has ever read The Ambassadors -- in fact the plot of Ripley, in which an American is sent to Europe to try to persuade a fellow countryman to return home, is borrowed directly from James, albeit with an important twist.

However, the literary movement that most obviously marks Highsmith's work is European existentialism, from her beloved Dostoevsky and Gide through to Camus and Sartre -- it is one of the constant lessons of these tales of individuals destroying one another that hell is other people.

Viewed in his proper postwar context, Tom Ripley is at once a psychopath and an existentialist hero. The series of books that Highsmith devoted to him -- The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Ripley Underground (1970), Ripley's Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) and Ripley Under Water (1990) - are a classic, if rather perverse, existentialist statement of the freedom of the individual to recreate him- or herself. Moreover, Ripley's murder of Dickie Greenleaf in the perfect tranquillity of San Remo is not without an echo in another seaside murder, that committed by Meursault in Camus's The Outsider.

In the existentialist tradition, the irrationality of human behaviour is an abiding theme. As Graham Greene wrote of Highsmith: "Her characters are irrational and they leap to life in the very lack of reason; suddenly we realise how unbelievably rational most fictional characters are."

One of the principal experiences of reading the novels is frustration: the reader's terrible sense of entrapment that comes with having to follow the mental processes of a character who consistently refuses to act in his own best interests. When, in A Suspension of Mercy, the writer Sydney Bartleby sets out to behave in a way that makes him seem guilty of his wife's murder, the reader is left to despair at the terrible lucidity of a consciousness ensnaring itself in absurdist Kafkaesque traps of its own devising.

Isolation, absurdity, irrationality: the philosophical essence of Highsmith's fiction is not obviously cinematic. As Russell Harrison points out in his monograph on the writer, it is the absence or displacement of many of the staples of realistic fiction that gives the novels their compelling, unique oddness. Politics, social observation, sex -- these are all simply missing from most of Highsmith's earliest and best work.

Sex, or the lack of it, in Highsmith is particularly intriguing. Highsmith presents a world in which her characters are cut adrift, determined neither by family nor work duties. The consequences of removing all such moral and professional props can be spectacularly disorientating.

When Ripley is about to kill Richard Greenleaf, we are told: "He could have hit Dickie, sprung on him, or kissed him, or thrown him overboard." That there is a homoerotic element in the relationships drawn by Highsmith between her male characters has not passed unremarked by critics, nor by Minghella in his screen adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley. However, in the novels, faced with the choice between killing or kissing, Highsmith's creations will almost invariably choose the former. There is one notable exception, however, for in an early work Highsmith did experiment with allowing her characters more explicit sexual existences and a conventional "happy ending".

The novel in question is The Price of Salt, which was first published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and which rapidly became an underground lesbian classic, selling nearly a million copies. When Highsmith finally owned up to the work in 1990, her explanation for the upbeat treatment of the gay lovers had a familiarly perverse ring, although here her insistence on going against the grain will strike most readers as more humane in its motivation: she had, she said, allowed the couple to find happiness in their relationship because "homosexuals male and female in American novels have had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality."

Ironically, The Price of Salt is one of the rare occasions when Highsmith's fiction indulges the desire for poetic justice so beloved of Hollywood producers - but, given its explicit subject matter and its leading female roles, it is probably the least likely of Highsmith's novels to be adapted for big-screen presentation.