The Talented Patricia Highsmith
by Jonah Raskin
The Ripley Novels, in paperback, by W.W. Norton
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Patricia Highsmith belonged to the generation of American writers born in the 1920s who published their first work in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Two years older than Mailer and a year older than Kerouac, she came into the world in 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas. In 1950, the year Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature, she published her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which became a best seller and then an Alfred Hitchcock box office hit that made her famous. It was a good time to be young, talented, and male, and a good time, too, for young lions like Mailer and Kerouac to challenge the aging giants of American literature, though they weren’t going peacefully into retirement.
For obviously reasons, Highsmith didn’t belong in either the company of the grand old men, or the young lions, many of them born and bred on the East Coast, many of them with military experience in World War II, all of them determined to write the Great American Novel. That kind of literary greatness wasn’t on Highsmith’s agenda, and following Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner didn’t appeal to her, either. She set her sights lower on the cultural horizon, but she managed to write prodigiously for decades, and to appeal to a wide audience. Granted, Mailer probably didn’t regard her as a serious writer, but she worked her own literary ground intensively, and pushed her own remarkable talents to the limit as much as he did his.
As a student at Barnard College in New York, she studied English, Latin, and Greek, and developed an appreciation for the nuances of language. After graduation she made a living by writing for True Comics, Captain Midnight, and Western Comics before turning her attention to fiction. From 1950 until her death in Switzerland at the age of 74, she published 22 novels, including one under the pen name Claire Morgan, plus eight collections of short stories, such as Little Tales of Misogyny (1974) and a guide for authors, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966).
She won literary prizes including the O. Henry Memorial Award, and the Edgar Allan Poe Award. Gore Vidal called her “one of our greatest modernist writers.” Joyce Carol Oates noted that she was “savage in the way of Rabelais or Swift.” Still, she has rarely been included in the pantheon of 20th-century American writers. Now that may change. The five novels that feature Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s best-known character, have been reissued in paperback. If Highsmith is to be reread, it seems likely that it will be on Ripley’s strengths. After all, he’s a complex, and a strangely appealing character in whom art and murder are oddly combined.
In the first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith’s anti-hero takes on the identity of Dickie Greenleaf, his first murder victim. The crime itself is a brutal and bloody act and Highsmith relishes the details. More importantly, the murder allows her to explore the theme of the Double that fascinated Poe, Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, and Jack London and that hooked her completely.
Readers might have thought the theme of the Double was played out. She reinvented it for a world familiar with Freud and Jung, pathologies and neuroses, and not surprisingly her exploration intrigued readers and filmmakers alike. In fact, Ripley has been played by Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper and Alain Delon, the French actor Highsmith felt was perfect for the part. Had she lived until 2002, the year that Malkovich played Ripley, she might have found a new favorite. Malkovich captures perfectly Ripley’s ability to corrupt, insidious and invidiously, the most innocent of human beings, and to play one and all in the manner of a Mafia don or a C.I.A agent. Ripley’s Game, the most recent of the movies, is the darkest and the most ominous of the Ripley films. It’s noir and Gothic, and it creates a total nightmare world.
The first Ripley book appeared in 1955, the last 36 years. Titles like Ripley Under Ground and Ripley Under Water encouraged readers to wonder if her character would be murdered or if he’d live to reappear in another book. In fact, in book after book, he continues to puzzle readers eager to figure out his motives for killing, and while it’s tempting to diagnose Ripley, and label him a paranoid schizophrenic, or alternatively a man suffering from a borderline personality disorder, he’s too unpredictable and elusive a character to cubbyhole.
In Strangers on a Train, a dress rehearsal for the Riley books, and the theme of the Double, Highsmith explores the inextricable connections between pathological killer and seemingly well-adjusted citizen. Opposites attract fatally. Guy Haines, the successful architect, and Charles Anthony Bruno, the maniac who aims to commit the perfect crime, are drawn to one another. When Alfred Hitchcock filmed the book he cut through the tangled, messy plot, and turned it into a moral melodrama with good on one side and evil on the other. He also made it into a love story between a man and a woman in which love triumphs, thereby omitting the undercurrent of homosexuality that flows through Strangers.
Highsmith did not abandon the homosexual theme after her first novel, perhaps because of her own bisexuality. For much of her life she pursued romantic entanglements with both men and women, and wrote overtly about same sex relationships in her second novel The Price of Salt (1953) that had trouble finding a publisher because of the explicit sexual theme. Ripley’s own physical and emotional attraction to other men, both his age and younger, as in The Boy Who Followed Ripley, is almost always an intriguing aspect of the story, though there’s little if any overt eroticism and nothing pornographic in the series. Death and violence, not love and sex, seem to have engaged Highsmith’s creativity.
Like many first novels, Strangers enabled the author to experiment with ideas. “All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive and the negative,” she wrote. Once she had found that paradigm she no longer had to reinvent it. In The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), the first of the Ripley books, she no longer thinks out loud on the page. She tells the story, follows Ripley’s trail of murder, and his inner train of thoughts. Freud and Dostoevsky, who were visible just beneath the surface of Strangers, are swept aside, and there’s no obvious philosophical scaffolding to hold the story together.
Unlike Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishers, or the killers in Strangers, Mr. Ripley feels no compunction to confess his crimes or a desire to be punished. Moreover, the police in The Talented Mr. Ripley and elsewhere are no match for Ripley himself. At the end of that first book, he’s still on the loose, rejoicing at his ability to kill and to profit financially from his crimes. On the last page he heads off happily for more adventures, and more pleasures. “Was he going to see policemen waiting for him?” he asks rhetorically. “No use thinking about that,” he replies. “No use spoiling his trip worrying about imaginary policemen.”
The policemen that Ripley chooses not to imagine are in Alexandria and Istanbul. The Ripley books mostly take place in Europe, a continent that Highsmith knew well, having lived there for much of her adult life. The last Ripley book is set in North Africa. Strangers on a Train takes place in the United States. Moving her killer to Europe provided her with the unlimited freedom that Ripley seems to need as he bounds from country to country, crosses borders both literal and figurative, and makes transgressions into a way of life. At times, he seems to embody a version of the “ugly American.” From the outside, in his pressed suit, and neatly combed hair, he looks all-too normal. He has impeccable manners, is fluent in Italian, appreciates gourmet food, classical music, and knows the differences between real art and kitsch. His neighbors find him appealing, until he worms his way into their homes, and their private lives, and they can’t extricate themselves from the tangled web he weaves about them.
In the Ripley books, however, Highsmith is more interested in entertaining readers than in making statement about ugly Americans and our national identity. That’s a shift from Strangers on a Train where one characters observes of another, “She’s what people mean when they say America never grows up, America rewards the corrupt. She’s the type who goes to the bad movies, acts in them, reads the love-story magazines, lives in a bungalow, and whips her husband into earning more money this year so they can buy on the installment plan next year.”
Highsmith didn’t jettison her deep dissatisfaction with American superficiality and hypocrisy, but in the Riley books she doesn’t allow the characters to express her own feelings about the flaws of American culture, or the vacuity of American housewives. She doesn’t have to be explicit; readers fill in the blanks for her. Curiously, in the last Ripley book, published in 1991, four years before her death, she made her own political stance transparent in the dedication: “to the dead and the dying among the Intifadeh and the Kurds, to those who fight oppression in whatever land, and stand up not to be counted but to be shot.” That kind of death and that sort of dying are far different from anything she depicted in the Ripley novels where oppressed classes and ethnic groups don’t exist.
British author Graham Greene called much of his works - Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear and Our Man in Havana - “entertainments,” and distinguished those books from his “serious novels”: Brighton Rock, and The Power and the Glory. “Entertainments” is also an apt word to describe the Ripley books. Greene himself seems to have recognized Highsmith as a kindred spirit. He noted that she “created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”
Tom Ripley is, indeed, a testament to Highsmith’s talent as a fiction writer. He’s a character that readers hate to love, and love to hate. In five novels, from The Talented Mr. Ripley to Ripley Under Water he goes on entertaining readers with his murderous ways, all the while that he acts like an innocent American in Europe. It’s a pity he’s no longer on the loose, no longer targeting his next victim.
© 2012 Jonah Raskin