Peculiar world of a singular talent

Highsmith was a great writer, with a moral vision bracing enough to clarify the terrors of the twentieth century


This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Patricia Highsmith wrote such vertiginously novels one isn’t much surprised to be told that she ate beef straight from the butcher’s block. Nor is one all that startled to learn that having battered a rat to death in her garden, she tossed it through the window of her guests’ bedroom.

Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith By Richard Bradford Bloomsbury, £20

But even the most seasoned of her readers — the reader who has, say, made it through that passage in Edith’s Diary about a teenager masturbating into a sock, or who has empathised (perhaps even sympathised) as Tom Ripley batters a putative friend to death — will probably be astonished to learn that Highsmith kept a rout of snails in her handbag. And they’ll surely be dumbfounded by the fact that when she moved to France, Highsmith smuggled the snails through customs in her bra. As Julian Symons once said, “Highsmith is an acquired taste, which means a taste that some people never acquire.”

I acquired it years ago, which doesn’t mean I didn’t gasp as I read Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires. Richard Bradford’s biography of Highsmith is never more than workmanlike, but the sheer strangeness of its subject renders the book unputdownable. Highsmith turns out to be even barmier than her dust-jacket photos suggest. At a Suffolk literary bash, a psychiatrist spied Highsmith alone in the hotel lobby. He told the other guests he’d only ever seen facial expressions like hers in the funny farm.

A breakfast-to-bedtime booze-hound, Highsmith once thought to amuse her dinner guests by putting her cat in a sack and swinging it around her head. She wanted, she said, to see how it would cope if it were drunk. Not that she hated animals. Highsmith always said that if she came across a starving child and a starving cat it’d be the puss that got fed first.

She had no time for people. The vast majority of them, she told her father, were “morons [whose] babies should be killed early”. Throughout her life she bad-mouthed Latinos, Arabs, Koreans, Indians, Red Indians, Mexicans, and blacks with their “animal-like breeding habits”.

But it was Jewish people who really got Highsmith’s goat. As a teenager she thrilled to Mein Kampf, and she would always say that the problem with the Final Solution was that it hadn’t been final enough. Far fewer Jews, she was fond of declaring, had perished under the Nazis than charity-grubbing myth would have it.

Indeed, so few of them had died that we ought to call the Holocaust the Semicaust. Highsmith was a restless soul who could never settle anywhere for long. But she spent as much time as she could in Switzerland, because, she said, it was like all of Europe might have been if only Hitler had been given his head.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, Highsmith had a peripatetic childhood. Her mother and her stepfather (her parents divorced not long after she was born), were commercial artists who never quite found settled jobs. Highsmith followed this pattern too, not because she was short of money — her novels sold well throughout her career — but because she was always either breaking up with a lover or chasing after a new one.

Horny as a goat, she was forever putting the moves on at least one new squeeze. When LeMonde misprinted the title of Travels with My Aunt as “Travels with My Cunt” she joked that Graham Greene (who called Highsmith “the poet of apprehension”) must have written her biography. Though Bradford tells the story of her sex life with as much clarity as he can, his most assiduous reader will struggle to keep tabs on what she got up to with whom in which bedroom.

She was romantic about sex in the way many men are. She saw it as a redemptive act

Not even the straight sex she had was all that straight. Arthur Koestler hit on her within minutes of their first meeting, then, Koestler being Koestler, he hit her for real in bed. As for the writer Ronald Blythe, who had a house near Highsmith’s when she was living in Suffolk, he says that while they were never lovers, “we did sleep together once or twice”. It was, the otherwise celibate and likely homosexual Blythe remembered, “like being made love to by a boy. Her hands were very masculine and she was very hipless like an adolescent boy.”

But most of the time Highsmith went to bed with women. Not that she called herself a lesbian. “I am a man,” she used to say, “and I love women.” If that sounds way out, get a load of the diary entry in which she relates being so turned on by a girlfriend that “I had to go to the bathroom to relieve myself of a big erection”. Then again, Highsmith’s treatment of her lovers was essentially masculine. She was romantic about sex in the way many men are. She saw it as a redemptive act, even though her desire could turn to disdain on a dime.

None of this would matter one jot if Highsmith hadn’t been a great writer. But she was a great writer, with a moral vision bracing enough to clarify the terrors of the twentieth century. From 1950, when Strangers on a Train came out, to 1995, when her last novel, Small g: A Summer Idyll, appeared, she published more than 30 books, around half of which are masterpieces of their genre, the psychological thriller.

This Sweet Sickness is a study in obsession that takes you deep into the mind of a man deranged by desire. Strangers on a Train is not merely a slick thriller worthy of Hitchcock, but a Camus meets Dostoyevsky mash-up that by granting us imaginative access to the fractured mind of the deranged comes very close to tragedy. As Bradford says, she did “more than anyone to erode the boundaries between crime writing … and literature, books that contribute to our understanding of who we are and how we behave”.

And then there is The Talented Mr Ripley, the first in a series of books that make dramatic sense of Auden’s otherwise fatuous phrase about the “necessary murder”. These are novels that work to make you feel complicit with evil. To read them is to realise that, given the wrong circumstances, you are capable of anything. Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Anyone who’s read what Bradford calls the Ripliad feels the same way about Tom Ripley.

Which is a way of saying that these books do exactly what F.R. Leavis said literature ought to do. They widen your moral vision. Richard Bradford points out that the plot of The Talented Mr Ripley is a straight lift of Henry James’s The Ambassadors. What he doesn’t say, what, as a professor of literature, he perhaps can’t say, is that Highsmith’s book is ten times as readable and a hundred times more fun. Nobody really believes in the great tradition any more, but if anyone ever wants to revive it they’ll have to make room for Patricia Highsmith.

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