Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson

(pb; 2003: biography)

From the back cover:

"The life of Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, was as secretive and unusual as that of many of the characters who people her 'peerlessly disturbing' thrillers and short stories. In Beautiful Shadow, the first biography of Highsmith, British journalist Andrew Wilson mines the vast archives of diaries, notebooks, and letters the writer left behind, astonishing in their candor and detail. He draws on interviews with her closest friends and colleagues, as well as some of her many lovers, and traces Highsmith's literary roots in the work of Poe, noir and existentialism, whose influence distinguished Highsmith's writing so startlingly from more ordinary thrillers. The result is both a serious critical biography and one that reveals much about a brilliant and contradictory woman, one who despite her acclaim and affairs always maintained her solitude."


This is one of the best literary biographies I've ever read.

Wilson show Highsmith -- a bristling, often seemingly depressed and private being of contradictions -- for all her flaws and glories. Born on January 19, 1921 (the same birthdate of one of her main writing influences, Edgar Allan Poe, years prior) in Fort Worth, Texas, she quickly realized she was different than those around her, including her family. She knew at an early age that she was romantically attracted to girls, an attraction that led her into more than a few tortured relationships, and impelled her to publish her only blatantly-lesbian novel, Carol, in 1952, under the nom de plume Claire Morgan. (This landmark book -- its ending doesn't conform to the usual "pulp lesbian" novels of that time -- was re-published, over thirty years later, under Highsmith's name, and re-titled The Price of Salt.)

Young Highsmith also realized that she was fascinated by crime stories, especially ones rife with dark ironies and twisted personalities. Psychological, sometimes pseudo-political crime thrillers became her trademark, making up many of the thirty-four books she published in her lifetime. (It was these elements which caused many American publishers and readers to be repelled by her works: her misanthropy, which dictated many of her actions and words, was laid bare in her existential stories. In Europe and other parts of the world, she was better received, commercially and awards-wise.)

American readers' discomfort with Highsmith was reciprocated: she often reviled what America, with its political witch hunts, political and social uptightness, and materialism, stood for, and she wasn't afraid to write about it in her novels. Yet, ironically, many of her core beliefs and attitudes, were, in a twisty way, based on her American childhood.

Privately, she could be an exceedingly difficult, Type-A, financially-stingy person -- judging by what many of her ex-lovers, acquaintances and long-time friends have said of her in interviews, many of which were told exclusively to biographer Andrew Wilson; but she could also be incredibly shy, charming and kind, quietly lending money to friends in need, while moving constantly moving around the world: France, Switzerland, England were her dour playgrounds. She also enjoyed meeting new people, despite her media-"reclusive" -- read: private -- personality.

Wilson captures well all these sides of Highsmith, at once sympathetic and honest. Wilson's sense of flow is sure, always interesting; he shows enough details to back up his portrayal(s) of Highsmith, never verging into didactic overkill (as some biographers are inclined to do). In this regard, this reads more like a lively fiction novel about a real person than a standard biography of a distinctive, talented writer.

Highsmith died on February 4, 1995, of complications arising from her aplastic anemia. The creator of the "whydunit, in which an interest in the criminal and criminal psychology replaces the puzzle" (as one critic from The Times described her work) was seventy-four years old.

Check this out.

1 comment:

Asobime said...

Thanks, Steve, for posting this fantastic review of Highsmith.

So much I didn't know about this fascinating woman.

A good 'heads up' you wrote here.

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