A strangely critical, yet fascinating, biography
From her first published novel, Strangers on a Train in 1950, Patricia Highsmith was a divisive literary figure. This year, the 100th anniversary of her birth, renowned academic and biographer Richard Bradford has written a book that delves into the enigma that was Highsmith.
After Alfred Hitchcock snapped up the film rights to her first novel barely before it hit the shelves, Highsmith’s notoriety was assured. She went on to write over 20 novels, and several other works, including short-story collections. Her most famous creation was Tom Ripley, the eponymous anti-hero of The Talented
Although generally considered a thriller-writer, her work sits uncomfortably across genres. All have aspects of the psychological thriller, yet they rarely follow the expected pattern and rhythm of that style. They are perhaps best described as roman noirs.
What Bradford digs into most in this book is Highsmith’s private life. He reveals a person of voracious sexual appetite, who left a string of broken women behind her, and yet who was constantly falling in love like a teenager. Her eccentricities, such as keeping live snails in her handbag, often tipped over into unacceptable, and possibly slightly “mad” behaviour, such as releasing them all over the table at a dinner party. Time and again we see her verbally abusing friends, lovers, and family, sinking into unrepentant alcoholism, and swapping affections from woman to woman with dizzying speed.
Sitting at the heart of this biography are Highsmith’s “cahiers”: the notebooks-cum-diaries she kept throughout her life. Much of what she wrote in them was embellished, or plain fictional. Sometimes she would write one several years after an event. These cahiers are a gift to a biographer, not so much for what they reveal about the writer’s life, but for what they show about her mind. Bradford skillfully weaves the writings in the cahiers to the development of Highsmith’s characters, particularly Ripley.
There is no expectation that a difficult woman like Highsmith will come out of a biography smelling like roses. Yet this work is unrelenting in its clear dislike of her. Interestingly, Highsmith garnered extraordinary loyalty from friends and ex-lovers, despite her apparently awful personality. It feels as if Bradford has skimmed over this fact, rather than choosing to interrogate it.
Even more fascinating for a literary biography is the fact that Bradford obviously doesn’t rate her work very highly. Each novel is
Despite this (or perhaps because of it?), Devils, Lusts
And it certainly makes one want to dive back into Ripley.
Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Distributed by: Bloomsbury
Released: 30 March 2021