Sunday, September 11, 2011

A very conservative person

Having read some novels by Patricia Highsmith - and in particular The tremor of forgery in which she portrays rather patronizingly an American living abroad who makes anti-communist radio broadcasts to then communist Eastern Europe - I assumed that her own political views were liberal in the American sense. So it puzzled me a bit that I liked her as a writer. Usually writers with a liberal or progressive agenda really bother me - and so I don't bother with them.

This puzzlement was resolved when I read these words of Highsmith's friend, American playwright Phyllis Nagy (cited by Andrew Wilson in Beautiful shadow, his biography of Highsmith):

"The fact that Pat was from Texas is incredibly important for an accurate appreciation of her character. When you say things like this to people who aren't American they think it's terribly facile but Southern conservatism was deeply ingrained in her. People forget that she was a very conservative person ..."

She did, however, "... hold some very weird and contradictory views."

Patricia Highsmith was a complex character, flawed but very human. Her writing style is plain and spare and utterly non-experimental. She explores the themes of identity and morality in her fiction in very confronting ways.

Tom Ripley is her greatest creation, a likable psychopath. He only murders people (very few really) when he has to - and feels no guilt. He can kill someone in the afternoon and have a pleasant dinner, or dispose of the body during the night and really enjoy his morning coffee.

But Highsmith is acutely aware of the moral landscape that Ripley's behavior seems to challenge. In particular she is sensitive to the nuances of human communication which constitute in large measure the texture of our lives. In Ripley under ground, a suicidal artist character reads from the journal of another suicidal artist:

"Where has kindness, forgiveness gone in the world? I find more in the faces of children who sit for me, gazing at me, watching me with innocent wide eyes that make no judgment. And friends? In the moment of grappling with the enemy Death, the potential suicide calls upon them. One by one, they are not at home, the telephone doesn't answer, or if it does they are busy tonight - something quite important that they can't get away from - and one is too proud to break down and say, 'I've got to see you tonight or else!' This is the last effort to make contact. How pitiable, how human, how noble - for what is more godlike than communication? The suicide knows that it has magical powers."