Bored at a dinner party, American writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) would lean into the candle flame to set her hair alight or produce snails from her purse so they'd leave "silvery trails on the mahogany." A male-chauvinist homophobic lesbian who despised women because "they never left the house," she nevertheless bedded them by the Greenwich Village bar-load - her idea of a good first date involved visiting the crocodile pool at the local zoo. She was a tireless anti-Semite - "I could never love a Jew," she said, but also noted, "I have my good friends (most of them European Jews)" - while one of her greatest loves was an anti-Semitic Jewish academic.
"Psychopath," "pedophile," "murderous," "perverse," "alcoholic" - these are only some of the charges Joan Schenkar flings at her subject in The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith." Yet as I read this behemoth of a biography, I thought of another American homosexual, Walt Whitman, and his Song of Myself: "Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large - I contain multitudes.)"
Highsmith is Whitman's bitter twin, her contradictions as manifest as her identities were manifold.
Once disdained as a "crime writer" of "unpleasant" stories, Highsmith is now recognized as one of the greats of American late modernism, her preoccupations not crime but guilt, escape from identity and the enduring superficiality of American life.
In her best work - from Strangers on a Train to The Ripliad, five novels centring on charming American serial killer Tom Ripley - the pattern rarely varies. Two men, thrown together by circumstance, one good, one evil, discover commonality and, as they rub along together, their identities crisscross: The good man develops evil impulses, commits dastardly deeds, while the bad one emerges blameless.
This doppelganger motif lets Highsmith demonstrate that evil is in here, not out there. Sartre said few have intimate experience of their own evil, preferring to project it onto The Other. Highsmith brings The Other back home, making him both anti-hero and point-of-view, so readers can either fling the book across the room in disgust or end up identifying with and rooting for a psychopath.
Highsmith had intimate acquaintance with her own darker impulses. The Texas-born child of a mother out of The Glass Menagerie and a father in love with long distances, at 8 she had murderous thoughts about her new stepfather. Growing up lesbian at a time when homosexuality was an illegal abomination, she internalized society's hatred in the form of a heightened sense of her own monstrousness, once consulting a shrink in hope of a cure.
Writers entertain thoughts ordinary people wouldn't let in the door. Highsmith's fictions provided an escape from tortured self, as did alcohol (peanut butter and vodka the essential items in her fridge). The most mundane elements of her life were packed with menace: "Milk tastes of blood & hair, meat & bone, as alive as an embryo."
Alcohol and self-loathing led her to pose as a provocateur. She sought to shock and alienate everyone she encountered, to prove her hatefulness to the world (didn't work; she had hundreds of supportive friends, perhaps even more lovers). When she wasn't writing anti-Zionist letters to the editor under a variety of pseudonyms, she was capable of this: "[I]thought suddenly of the German atrocities against the Jewish people, and had a strange feeling that it hadn't happened, that it was impossible - and then - knowing it had happened - that it was more horrible, more bestial than the most eloquent describer has yet said."
Biographer Schenkar recently told The New York Times that for two of the eight years it took to write The Talented Miss Highsmith, she was "rigid with hatred" for her subject. It shows. She can't seem to distinguish between idea and act. Having murderous thoughts doesn't make one a murderer; otherwise we'd all be in jail. When Highsmith writes, "One situation … could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness," more than a few readers recently returned from feting the holidays en famille will find themselves nodding in agreement.
But Schenkar appears bent on pathologizing her subject because she "wasn't nice." Nice is a milquetoast virtue, of little use to an artist. Schenkar may herself be nice, but she's also a dreadful, supposititious and patronizing writer, describing Highsmith as "the bucket in The Well of Loneliness" (after Radclyffe Hall's 1928 lesbian novel), or as "The Embittered Old Oyster … [who was]once A Pearl of a Girl." She doesn't seem to grasp that a writer's mind can and must go everywhere, nor does she produce a whit of evidence that Highsmith was either psychopathic or pedophilic.
Worse, she's oblivious to Highsmith's central theme that evil isn't alien to any of us, suggesting instead that there is "something deeply damaging to the reader" in her work, as though Highsmith contaminates all us "normal" folk.
Ultimately, Schenkar leads us to wonder what a nice girl like her is doing writing a book like this, ending up in an obsessive eight-year biographical relationship with a writer who made her "rigid with hatred" and fantasizing about murder herself. Commenting on Highsmith's fondness for ironing - she got her best ideas then - Schenkar adds, "Although no character was ever dispatched with a blow from a red-hot steam iron." Near the end of book, Schenkar also proudly reveals she possesses a pair of Patricia Highsmith's jeans, noting that "they still hold the shape of her body." Ewww. Not very nice.
Will Aitken is a Montreal novelist and journalist. He wishes he had been The Boy Who Followed Ripley.