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Joan Schenkar | The Talented Miss Highsmith (Picador)

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Yet there was something about her that kept new victims lining up, furnishing Highsmith with a lifestyle that supplied plenty of material for her books.

 

 

 

The first Patricia Highsmith novel I ever read was The Price of Salt, in an Arno Press edition most notable for the garish orange binding that made it easy for those in the know to find reprints of "deviant" literature in the library stacks. Originally published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, it was considered a shocker of its day for two reasons: 1) the protagonist was a lesbian, and 2) the story ends happily. Strange as it may seem today, the latter was the more original decision; there were other novels about lesbians but they always ended in murder, suicide, or conversion to the other team (Ann Bannon's first novel lay 5 years in the future). Like many gay pulps of the period (but unlike most lesbian pulps, which were written to appeal to straight men), The Price of Salt took its heroine and her sexuality seriously and offered a pulpy tour of the New York City lesbian underground combined with a bildungsroman about a young woman finding her place in the world.

The Price of Salt was based on an incident from Highsmith's brief employment at Bloomingdale's and was not the first time she would cannibalize her life for her art—in fact you could make a good argument that most of her protagonists were versions of herself. It was also not the first time Highsmith would go against the grain. Her young protagonist Therese and glamorous older lover Carol are creations as unique in American fiction as her best-known character, the amoral Tom Ripley.

Tracing the relationship between Highsmith's life and her work is the main concern of Joan Schenkar's The Talented Miss Highsmith. Schenkar abjures a conventional chronological approach in favor of something more novelistic that concentrates on conveying the spirit of Highsmith's life and work rather than recounting a succession of facts.  Not that Schenkar is lacking in facts—she is the first biographer to have access to Highsmith's papers in the Swiss Literary Archives and provides extensive endnotes as well as an appendix supplying a chronological listing of the major events in Highsmith's life. Schenkar also provides a guide to locations in Highsmith's real and fictional New York City and reproductions of several diagrams and lists by Highsmith, including a plotting guide to a comic book and a list enumerating and ranking her lovers.

Highsmith was by all accounts a real piece of work. She loved to play psychological games and left a trail of bodies in her wake; one acquaintance likened her to "a dog with rabies," while another called her "a horrible human being." She was a vulgar racist and anti-Semite who indulged these aspects of her personality without shame. If bored at a dinner party she was known to take snails out of her purse and set them loose on the dinner table. Yet there was something about her that kept new victims lining up, furnishing Highsmith with a lifestyle that supplied plenty of material for her books. No matter how tumultuous her private life Highsmith remained productive, publishing books at the rate of one about every year and a half.

Schenkar's approach saves readers from getting lost in an avalanche of data (Highsmith tended to repeat herself and documented it all quite thoroughly) and lets them concentrate on finding the emotional core of Highsmith's work. Because, let's face it, were Highsmith not a brilliant writer no one would really be interested in reading about her life—if we could be bothered to care at all we'd dismiss her as a psychotic monster. But that's beside the point because Highsmith did write, and Schenkar offers us a chance to tag along on her mission to discover and expose the roots of the obsessions that fueled the creation of, among other things, Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. That's a journey that's definitely worth taking. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Talented Miss Highsmith won a 2010 Lambda Literary Award and was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2009. You can read an excerpt on the publisher's web site: http://us.macmillan.com/thetalentedmisshighsmith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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