Books: Wednesday, July 30, 2003
The Talented Ms. Highsmith

A Fort Worth native and European literary star casts a Beautiful Shadow.


I first encountered the short stories of Patricia Highsmith in grade school. They were not, to say the least, part of the curriculum. On my own time, I devoured that seemingly endless series of paperback anthologies with the imprint Alfred Hitchcock Presents ... . Hitch himself usually provided a humorous single-page introduction full of puns on homicides and funerals. What followed was a junk drawer of mystery/horror/black comedy genres. Many of the tales were lurid and laughable; others were expertly constructed and written with a merciless, precise prose that cut straight down to my preadolescent marrow. Highsmith’s stories belonged to the second category. Her stylistic similarity to one of my idols, Roald Dahl, always made me notice her among the other Hitchcock contributors. Both writers specialized in killing off arrogant, self-deluded people — adults and children — in spectacularly savage ways. The fact that neither could hide their glee in describing these acts added another disturbing element; how seriously was a young reader to take their apparently boundless disdain for flawed humanity?

It turns out Dahl had nothing on Highsmith in the area of toxic misanthropy. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith is the first biography of an artist who bragged to others that if she ever discovered a starving baby and a starving kitten side by side, she’d feed the kitten immediately. However seriously you take such a flippant assertion, you can’t deny the prodigious literary skills that carried her far afield of the limited crime-fiction category to which she was consigned by her native country. British journalist Andrew Wilson has written a highly readable if — at 500-plus pages — overlong and rambling book. He has seemingly pored over every syllable of her voluminous diaries and letters. He quotes from them constantly, sometimes to enlighten and other times to titillate. Part of the book’s rambling sensation, however, is intrinsic to its subject, be-cause Highsmith, who left her Fort Worth home at age six, was an untethered soul. After graduating from Columbia, she began a lifetime of expatriation — she lived in England, France, Germany, Italy, and finally Switzerland, where she died of a blood condition in 1995 at the age of 74.

“They love me in Europe!” may be a laughable excuse for some creative types, but it was the reality for Pat (as her kept-at-a-distance friends and lovers called her). As Beautiful Shadow amply details, the author of novels like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley was a continental celebrity at the same time her novels were regularly delayed in or refused publication in the states. The New Yorker ignored her submissions until after she died. Meanwhile, globe-trotting writers like Gore Vidal, Graham Greene, and Truman Capote — who used his influence to gain the young Highsmith admission into the prestigious Yaddo Writer’s Colony — declared themselves fans. The praise of European critics was practically as high as her book sales there. While often dark, caustic, and containing at least one strange death, her novels and stories became increasingly ambitious and unpredictable for an American readership that desired the reliable payoffs of standard thrillers. As Highsmith moved from the 1950s through the ’80s, her work aspired to intertwine the social upheaval of the times with her characters’ twisted psyches.

She professed to loathe her Fort Worth childhood but was occasionally drawn back to the city. Beautiful Shadow posits that the most important relationship of her life was probably also the most destructive — that with her mother Mary. In 1921 Mary had drunk turpentine in an effort to abort Pat, the product of a brief, impulsive first marriage. Things scarcely improved after her daughter discovered this. Mary, who for a while was a wild-eyed Christian Science convert, despised her daughter’s open lesbianism and taunted her about it. Highsmith, a fervent reader of psychoanalytic literature since she was a teen-ager, believed her mother had “caused” her sexual orientation. Brief, unhappy love affairs with a novelist and a photographer — both men — were followed by equally unsuccessful attempts to become heterosexual through psychotherapeutic conversion. The notion that Mary turned Pat into a lesbian is dubious. Besides, her daughter preferred the camaraderie of men and could never find satisfying, long-term intimacy with another woman (although she sought it with many). The elder Highsmith eventually burned down her Fort Worth house on Martha Lane with a careless cigarette and was transferred to the Fireside Lodge rest home at her daughter’s expense. Angry, abusive letters periodically crossed between Europe and Texas until Mary died in 1991 — a scant four years before Pat’s demise.

Beautiful Shadow is exhaustively researched, true, but it’s also exhaustingly documented. The average page contains at least 10 annotations, and author Andrew Wilson expends far too many paragraphs explaining the philosophies of Nietzsche and Eric Fromm — two of Highsmith’s primary inspirations — as well the events of various American decades during her lifetime. (In this, it’s obvious he has written for a European audience that might not be so familiar with the last half of the 20th century in our country.) Still, this is an impressive achievement for a first-time author. He is earnest, often unflatteringly honest, yet sympathetic toward a deeply embittered writer who traveled the planet to escape her personal hellhounds. He takes pains to explain he is neither a literary critic nor a longtime fan of his subject’s work — he simply wants to document the influences of an unclassifiable talent and a troubled woman. Beautiful Shadow is cast a long way in that direction.

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