By Jonathan Lethem
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; C01
THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH
The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
By Joan Schenkar
St. Martin's. 684 pp. $40
Here she stands, like one of her own self-incriminating suspects: Patricia Highsmith, beneficiary of one of the great revival campaigns in recent literary history (to rival those of Paula Fox, Dawn Powell, Philip K. Dick), yet still mistaken in plain sight. You hate to quibble with a revival, but what's with all the short-story collections? And why can't we look past the Ripley sequence? Highsmith's greatest work is in the non-Ripley novels, and she's a great novelist, unqualified by any label or apology. The stories are fascinating, once you've come to care for her, and there may even be a cache of gems lurking in all that mass, but she's too little interested in language to thrive in that compressed form, while her foremost capacity -- the one that distinguishes her as a master -- is for putting a set of characters through a deepening series of nightmares. Her tales are not so much credible as they are undeniable in their grim, winding, reader-implicating destructiveness -- like the catastrophes of human life, her plots leave us incredulous. To reduce her to stories is like wishing Hitchcock had made shorts. To ignore the non-Ripley novels is like wishing Dostoevski had opted for "The Further Adventures of Raskolnikov."
Which novels? "The Cry of the Owl," "The Blunderer," "This Sweet Sickness," "The Tremor of Forgery," "Deep Water," "A Dog's Ransom" -- those might make a core curriculum. (With, yes, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," the book that introduced the character.) Highsmith's novels with expatriate locales tended to fare better with reviewers during her lifetime, the rap against those with American settings being that, living overseas, she'd lost her ear for American manners and locutions. This objection, silly to begin with, evaporates over time. The preference for Ripley, despite the sequence's slide into mediocrity, isn't merely a preference for brand names, but for consolation. Highsmith resembles Georges Simenon, whose vision of human life was dark and senseless enough that it demanded the invention of the detective Maigret, he who sails somberly above the darkness, sorting out various local occurrences. Highsmith's vision was even more relentless; the only soul she could imagine skirting the morbid guilt of her world was Ripley, who is sweetly soulless.
Simenon and Highsmith have another thing in common: Their lives were so punishing, to themselves and their "loved ones" (a term that takes on an awful aspect when one considers the Highsmithian vision of romantic love), that they convert their biographers -- and, subsequently, the readers of their biographies -- into sorrowful judges, juries and executioners. Joan Schenkar, author of "The Talented Miss Highsmith," knew her subject in the latter part of Highsmith's life and drew more or less the same impression she conveys in her book, of someone forever tormented by child-parental longing and hurt, someone driven into habits of manipulation and concealment in every human exchange, someone terrifyingly alone in any crowd. No impression, however, could have possibly prepared Schenkar for the catalogue of torments her scrupulous and excruciating research uncovered. She is compelled by that research to tell us more than we could possibly wish to know. Much as Highsmith rates full treatment, I can't help wishing Schenkar had spared herself (and me) and written a personal recollection instead (think of Shirley Hazzard's short memoir of Graham Greene, "Greene On Capri"). Nevertheless, it is impossible to accuse anyone of completely losing her sense of humor during her own journey to the Dark Continent of Highsmith who is capable of writing the following:
"Luckily, their African trip never came off. Jane Bowles had phobias about trains, tunnels, bridges, elevators, and making decisions, while Pat's phobias included, but were not confined to, noise, space, cleanliness, and food, as well as making decisions. A journey to the Dark Continent by Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles in each other's unmediated company doesn't bear thinking about."
The best thing Schenkar accomplished, for me, was to drive me back to the work. If Highsmith's antidote to the poison of living was the writing of her novels, we can follow suit and read them. The antidote to literary biography is literature.
Lethem is the author of eight novels, including "Chronic City," published earlier this year.