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A life transformed to chilling art

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, Andrew Wilson, Bloomsbury: 534 pp., $32.50 Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, Marijane Meaker, Cleis Press: 250 pp., $14.95 paper

August 10, 2003|Gary Indiana | Gary Indiana is the author of several novels, including "Do Everything in the Dark."

Among the myriad appalling high points of Andrew Wilson's "Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith" is the news that its subject regularly smuggled her pet snails back and forth between England and France by attaching them to her breasts. It is somehow a perfect image of Highsmith, who even in her rather stunning youth nurtured a dark and slimy view of the human condition, and especially of herself, yet managed to give this perspective a twist of Nietzschean triumph -- akin, one could say, to getting the snails through customs.

Wilson's book is a tour de force, an account so generous and prescient that Highsmith seems to step from its pages like a hologram, in all her contradictory glory. The element of nasty surprise so typical of Highsmith's novels and stories is abundant in her life: We learn, for example, that her mother, who divorced her father shortly before her birth, tried to abort her by swallowing turpentine. Years later, Mary Highsmith would often tell her Sunday-painter daughter, "Isn't it funny that you adore the smell of turpentine?"

Wilson has drawn on several decades' worth of intimate journals Highsmith kept throughout her life, her cahiers, which contained very close descriptions of friends and lovers as well as outlines of her fiction, produced at an astonishing rate even in the most psychologically horrible and physically peripatetic circumstances. He has also tracked down nearly everyone who ever breathed on Highsmith and come away with a stupendous trove of anecdotal material. The result is a rich tapestry of interwoven social worlds and an astute chronological explication of how a life was transformed into art.

Highsmith's work was her life to a more marked degree than is often the case: She felt dead when she didn't work, and despite a prodigious sexual appetite and compulsive bonding to women who were, like her mother, cold, withholding and disapproving, Highsmith maintained, most of the time, a staggering daily page count and an unflagging appetite for literary labor.

This biography makes a solid case for Highsmith's importance even as it charts the rather grim trajectory of her life, from youthful beauty who dated the teenage Judy Holliday to depressed, alcoholic curmudgeon who would, in her cups, pour out her loathing of Jews, blacks and Puerto Ricans. What is clear, and constant, in a life of incessant shifting of houses and countries and lovers is the steady, Germanic discipline of the written word.

Wilson ties the theme of shifting identity found in most of Highsmith's books to Dostoevsky, Camus and Sartre. And properly so. There is no doubt that Highsmith wrestled with philosophical questions rather alien to genre fiction and that she worked very complex ideas about the nature of consciousness into the texture of narratives of action. In a Highsmith novel, the question of guilt can arise even in the absence of a crime and yet fail to materialize in the brain of a murderer. Nothing is portrayed in terms of conventional morality; Highsmith's is the world of overturned values and metaphysical emptiness the existentialists discovered inside this one. As Wilson shows, Highsmith's flat, unexcited, factual style leads the reader into sympathy with "abnormal" psychological states, which are described in the same limpid way as the furnishings of a room.

In her Ripley novels especially, Highsmith plunges us into the schizophrenic perceptions of someone who is and isn't there, whose adaptivity is that of a sociopathic predator, at the same time someone who acquires the trappings and educated aspect of culture, who dabbles in the arts and really only kills people when he absolutely must -- but he enjoys it, even whooping with laughter in the process. Highsmith said that the first Ripley novel "wrote itself," that she felt she was taking dictation from the character. Several of Wilson's sources told him that Highsmith was rather like Ripley, strangely cut off from others, that she hadn't really lived in the world since the 1950s but inhabited, instead, the imaginary space of her fiction.

Whatever the case, Highsmith's habit of forcing readers into complicity and identification with a criminal or disturbed mind did not win her much of a following in America, land of happy endings and neat resolutions. One could make the case that her unpopularity may have been in direct proportion to the accuracy of her map of the national psyche. It seems also that in the late 1950s, and for much of the '60s, even pedestrian suspense fiction hit a big slump in the United States. Highsmith's early success with her first novel, "Strangers on a Train," and her submerged notoriety as "Claire Morgan," author of the lesbian classic "The Price of Salt," didn't translate into mass appeal with subsequent works like "The Blunderer" and "Deep Water." While certain books, notably "The Talented Mr. Ripley," did garner serious critical attention, Highsmith's U.S. sales were never particularly encouraging.

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