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In Memory of Patricia Highsmith

February 12, 1995|MICHAEL TOLKIN | This spring, Grove/Atlantic will publish Michael Tolkin's "Three Screenplays: The Player, the Rapture and the New Age."

The great writer Patricia Highsmith died of leukemia last week in Switzerland. Our best expatriate since Henry James, she wrote 20 novels and seven short-story collections. Her books were sold around the world, but at the end she had no American publisher.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, Highsmith left the country in the 1950s after the publication of her first novel, "Strangers on a Train." Many of her books became movies, but the only one to be made into an American film was Alfred Hitchcock's classic, "Strangers on a Train," with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler.

In the book, an ordinary man is approached by a psychotic to swap murders, each removing an obstacle from the other's life. Hitchcock allowed only the psychotic one to kill, which is a perfect example of the kind of American cultural repression that I like to imagine as one of the reasons she left.

Highsmith was a suspense writer. She was an artist who chose to work a genre, and she controlled its conventions as well as anyone who has written a mystery. Her best-known books were the five novels that chronicled the adult life of Tom Ripley, a small-time American crook who moves to Europe and kills his way to happiness.

She was always more interested in why than in who . As she said in an interview a few years ago, "I'm not interested in style, but emotion." Her prose was undecorated, but to say that does not mean she doesn't write beautifully: The opening lines of "Strangers on a Train" echo the description of a train in the first paragraph of Willa Cather's "My Antonia." Like Cather, or the 19th-Century American novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, she wrote simply, sometimes harshly, because her point was harsh.

Highsmith won most of her accolades for her crime writing, but even in the highest praise one could detect a condescension toward her work. Critics assume that something called "literature" was a standard against which something called "genre" could be fairly judged.

Literature, however, has itself become a style, and the books that win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer are often products polished for an audience of self-congratulators. This is the veneer she rejected. She does not flatter our pride for appreciating art, she exposes us to uncomfortable emotions: she's too exciting for the prizes, too upsetting.

One of her novels that's rarely counted was "The Price of Salt," which she published under the name Claire Morgan. It's the story of Carol and Therese, lovers on the run, and if it was rare for the times--according to Highsmith it was the first lesbian novel with a happy ending--it's also rare for her, because it has the only scene of contented lovemaking in anything she wrote.

Some devoted readers count "The Blunderer" or "The Tremor of Forgery" as her best. One of my favorites is "Edith's Diary" (1977), the greatest study of neurosis and political affiliation since Dostoevsky's "The Possessed." The characters, however, aren't young and excited Russian anarchists: Edith is a tormented New Yorker removed to Pennsylvania during the Vietnam War.

Highsmith could never crack the wall of officially sanctioned culture because her work was so resolutely about the middle class, and you can't show the mirror to the monster, so I suppose her greater popularity in Europe derives from the fact that its middle class is more brazen in its hypocrisies.

Highsmith's characters are almost always unhappy, or worse, sad. That so many of them might also be murderers does not, as the American myth tends to do, raise them to a higher spiritual level. The American heroic killer, as portrayed by writers from James Fenimore Cooper to Louis L'Amour, regenerates himself through violence, becomes the better for it.

Highsmith, in contrast, wasn't sure if the regeneration worked, or rather, she knew that if it did work, there was a cost. You can escape guilt as long as you're alone, and like her scruple-free protagonist Tom Ripley, you have to be clear about what you're doing: "Never kick a man when he's down, Tom thought, and gave Pritchard another kick, hard, in the midriff."

Tom wasn't her only killer, only her most successful. Highsmith tracked the migration of guilt, from soul disease to symptom to alienated fragment.

We can comfort ourselves that so long as the fragment clings to conscience, punishment abides, and with it, the possibility of justice, although in the final installment of the five Ripley books, "Ripley Under Water" (1991), Ripley, always under suspicion for the first murder of his career, kills his remaining pursuers, and is free.

If Patricia Highsmith had the gift of prophesying tomorrow from the ruins of today, perhaps she understood that guilt--and I mean the classic idea of guilt, the unbearable truth that surfaces against all attempts to smother it, Dostoevskyan, Freudian, Kafkaesque guilt--has finally released itself from the body; and this has been guilt's viral project for the century. So of course her greatest murderer was an American. It's our time now.

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