There is something compelling about a person so totally indifferent to social norms, but can you make readers care about her?
Bradford doesn’t, in contrast to his predecessors. Andrew Wilson aimed to be Highsmith’s “imaginary empathetic friend” in “Beautiful Shadow” (2003), to the point of being unduly credulous about the diaries in which she fabricated and altered events in her life. Joan Schenkar, though more critical in “The Talented Miss Highsmith” (2009), displayed considerable affection for the writer in an unusual, thematically organized biography. Bradford appears to dislike Highsmith, characterizing her as a sexual predator and repetitively referring to her “self-loathing.” He admires a number of her novels — in particular, the pioneering lesbian love story “The Price of Salt,” so radical in 1952 that Highsmith’s agent advised her to publish it under a pseudonym — but he goes beyond the consensus that her later novels were weak to describe them as “some of the most dreadful pieces of suspense fiction ever to go into print.”
The merit of Bradford’s book, for those who can slog through all the sordid details and judgmental appraisals, is the substantive argument he makes that Highsmith deliberately courted emotional violence in her life as fuel for her fiction. She sought out affairs that required subterfuge and lies, then sabotaged them with open infidelities. Bradford repeatedly makes connections between diary entries in which Highsmith chronicles mingled feelings of love and hate for her current partner and the murderous acts she invents for her characters. For Highsmith, he argues, “her real life and its fictional counterpart [were] aspects of the same narrative.”
The most intriguing example he offers occurred while Highsmith was working on “Strangers on a Train.” She embarked on one of her occasional heterosexual affairs with English novelist Marc Brandel, even going so far as to promise to marry him, and went into therapy with a psychoanalyst who, like all good Freudians in the 1940s, aimed to “cure” her homosexuality. Bradford argues persuasively that Highsmith never intended to marry Brandel and thought her analyst was an idiot. She was manipulating them both, he writes, “because they embodied normality . . . She wanted to establish a tension, a dynamic between the world of conventional inclinations and morals and a life of perpetual deviancy.” This was fodder for the twisted connection of Bruno and Guy in “Strangers on a Train.”
Bradford provides similarly interesting exegeses of autobiographical echoes in other Highsmith novels, but this generally valuable material gets lost in an endless parade of lovers and equally endless litany of Highsmith’s appalling personal conduct. Glaringly absent is substantive analysis of the writer’s tortured bond with her mother, Mary, to which Bradford devotes perfunctory attention in a brief chapter on her childhood and declines to evaluate in a peculiarly noncommittal three-page account of Mary’s cataclysmic 1964 visit to her daughter in London. He dismisses as “huckster psychology” the idea that Highsmith’s obsession with betrayal and deception stemmed from being left with her grandparents for a year when she was 12, while her mother reconciled with the stepfather she had promised to divorce. But Bradford fails to offer an alternative interpretation and later quotes without comment the assessment of a lover that “something in her early days” made Highsmith “totally incapable of any kind of relationship.” Such remarks suggest that this primal bond deserves more thorough appraisal than it receives here.
Later chapters become a depressing catalogue of bad books and bad health, as Highsmith retreated to Switzerland and became more and more of a recluse. She died on Feb. 4,1995, age 74; the last person to see her alive was her accountant. It’s characteristic of this intelligent but alienating text, which works better as literary criticism than biography, that Bradford feels no need to display any compassion for such a sad, lonely end.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires
The Life of Patricia Highsmith
By Richard Bradford
Bloomsbury. 272 pp. $30