Published: Dec 7, 2009
She kept 300 snails as pets. She drank a quart of gin a day. She considered robbery worse than murder. She left the United States to live in Europe because of what she called “the Negro problem” --- by which she did not mean discrimination against Negroes, but the civil rights movement that had Negroes demanding their rights.
A houseguest once left her window open; she threw a dead rat inside. She took tips left on restaurant tables. She’d drive 60 miles to get a cheaper spaghetti dinner. She called Hitler’s extermination policy a “semicaust”, because only half the world’s Jews died.
She thought that “life didn’t make sense without a crime in it.” Her idea of happiness was to write a murder. At 1:30 in the morning, standing in a lover’s apartment, she didn’t hesitate to make a booty call to another woman. “I am a man and I love women,” she wrote. She liked young blonds, very made up.
A mental health professional, observing her for only a few minutes, pegged her as a psychopath. Another writer described her as “a black cloud.” Her own assessment: “If I were to relax and become human, I could not bear my life.”
No wonder, then, that Joan Schenkar begins The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith like this:
She wasn’t nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her well would have called her a generous woman.
Why would you even think of reading more than 600 pages about such a monster?
Well, because Highsmith wrote a half dozen books --- among them Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and a wonderfully sexy, though never graphic, lesbian novel called The Price of Salt --- that will be read as long as readers like fiction that equally thrills and chills.
Or you could just be a lover of biographies and sense that, in Highsmith, you will encounter a train wreck of a person like no one you’ve ever encountered --- and, as if you were a pedestrian looking up at a would-be jumper on a terrace, you won’t be able to tear your eyes away.
Or, simply, you want to read a book that is original in form, authoritative in its evidence, and dazzling in its writing. And because I am now leaving description for praise, I should disclose: Joan Schenkar has been a close friend for 35 years. Her value to me is not that she is steady and loyal and easy to be with; it is exactly the opposite. Ms. Schenkar is steely and demanding; she sets the bar high and brooks no fools. I caffeinate before I see her, spellcheck before I hit SEND. In return I get tough-love criticism, dark humor, ideas I find nowhere else. She strikes me as the ideal biographer for Highsmith: brave, original and scary smart --- like Highsmith, but without the defects.
But I’m almost falling into a trap. Unless we are very young or lifelong fools, we do not look to artists --- or their biographers --- for our role models. Their work is enough. And Highsmith’s work is a triumph of will and talent over circumstance and pathology --- or perhaps an astute mixture of all of that.
I’m going to skip over Highsmith’s twisted relationship with her mother, her antipathy for her father and her early efforts to get somewhere as a writer to the core of her art and personality --- her obsession with love as an urgent, alpha emotion destined to end badly. Like murder.
Consider her first novel, “Strangers on a Train”, which quickly became one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better movies. You know the set-up: If each man commits a murder for the other, there will be no incriminating clues --- the anonymity will yield two perfect crimes. Thisis, says Schenkar, “the quintessential Highsmith situation: two men bound together psychologically by the stalker-like fixation of one upon the other, a fixation that always involved a disturbing, implicitly homoerotic fantasy.”
In Highsmith, there’s no real artistic development; this “double” plot is one she uses again and again. And it works just about every time, because who else writes --- approvingly --- of “the unequivocal triumph of evil over good”? Her villains aren’t exactly villains to her. They’re escape artists. That is, everything she wasn’t.
Oh, but she tried. Through obsessive sex --- she once seemed to have five lovers on the hook. Through alcohol. Through a push-pull relationship with her mother. And, most of all, through her writing, her one reliable way of feeling like herself.
Highsmith filled 38 notebooks and 18 diaries, 8,000 unpublished pages. With few exceptions --- she pretended she didn’t spend seven years writing stories for comic books --- these are pivotal. As Schenkar notes, “She ratted herself out every chance she got.” Schenkar should know. She read every notebook and diary and unearthed a staggering number of Highsmith’s lovers. (You’re thinking: It takes an obsessive to write a biography of an obsessive. Almost. I'd say: It takes a biographer who has equal parts empathy, imagination and artistry.)
It would be perverse, after all that research, to reduce Highsmith to a conventional biography. So Schenkar abandons chronology. Instead, she backtracks, skips ahead, loops around to trace themes and obsessions in Highsmith’s life and work. The result is very much like an amusement park ride, with high-speed turns and dizzying descents. And that would not be perverse but correct: A writer like no other gets a biography like no other.