Saturday, February 20, 2010
The Talented Miss Highsmith The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar
This is a very in depth biography of Patricia Highsmith. Joan Schenkar draws from interviews, books, and the 38 Cahiers (spiral bound notebooks) and 18 Diaries of Patricia Highsmith kept at the Swiss Literary Archives. The book itself is 683 pages long with notes, bibliography, index, a map of where she went in Manhattan, diagrams, a timeline of her life, and two extensive sections of black and white photography. It has a feeling of completeness to it.
Patricia Highsmith is best known for her suspense novels and short stories. The most prominent of these is The Talented Mr. Ripley. She also had many of her books turned into films. The most famous film based on her stories is Stranger on a Train directed by Alfred Hitchcock. She won numerous awards both in the United States and internationally.
This book exposes many parts of her life that are not that well known. Patricia Highsmith also wrote the lesbian novel, A Taste of Salt. This book describe Highsmith's many affairs with women both married and unmarried. She was quite passionate and ended up moving from one relationship to the next in short order. Joan Schenkar describes Patricia Highsmith as a driven woman with a predilection for strong drink, younger women, tight control of her money, cats, and odd habits.
One of my favorites parts of the book is the description of Patricia Highsmith as a comic book script writer. Patricia Highsmith tried to hide this all her life. She wanted to be a writer for Vogue and other fashion magazines, or literary magazines like the New Yorker. What she ended up following was the classic path of the mystery writer. First she started by writing comics like The Destroyer, Fighting Yank, and Black Terror. Then she started writing for the pulps (in her case, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine), then she started writing mystery novels. This is the same pattern which Mickey Spillane followed whom she met and did not like.
There are points where this book feels a little bit too revealing. Her family life is one of constant fighting with her mother, Patricia Highsmith has strong prejudices and outright hatreds, and her personal habits can be quite unsettling. She keeps snails, loves cats, hates dogs enough to describe them being killed in her novels, and has a strange sense of humor which is often macabre.
Even when Joan Schenkar describes Patricia Highsmith's success it is not one to be envied. Patricia Highsmith is described as having left the United State having traveled and lived throughout the United States, France, England, Germany, Mexico, and Algeria. She has left her native country, the United States and dies in Switzerland. Her travels have a brooding up and down feeling to them.
Even her professional life is fraught with intrigue and arguing. She jumps from agent to agent always trying to get the best money possible, eventually moving her rights to Europe. She seems to often not like the films made from her books as well.
I cannot say I liked all the parts of the book. There were points where the descriptions became a little unsettling. However, the majority of the book was well written and quite intriguing. This is a very complete and very dark biography of a quirky, talented, and interesting writer with a unique view of the world.