Monday, December 3, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“NOTHING THAT MEETS THE EYE: THE UNCOLLECTED STORIES” by Patricia Highsmith (first published 2002)

            When reading Joyce Carol Oates’ collection of short stories Black Dahlia & White Rose, I’m reading the work of an American woman who sometimes focuses on dysfunctional families and the threat (or reality) of domestic violence. This puts me in mind of another American woman who wrote obsessively about violence planned or carried out, but her accent was not so much on broken families as on compulsive loners. And, of course, unlike Oates, she was more readily identified as a genre writer -  the genre being crime fiction -  even if her admirers always rushed to note that she was much more than a crime writer.

            I’m talking about Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995).

            Her “uncollected stories”, Nothing That Meets the Eye, were published seven years after her death. They form a very bulky collection – 450 large pages in the first edition I read. It may seem perverse of me to choose this volume to represent Highsmith’s skill with short stories (she was much better known as a novelist). It is true that when this posthumous collection was first published it received very mixed reviews. On line you can find the British Guardian review, which placed Nothing That Meets the Eye among Highsmith’s best work. But you can also find the Kirkus Reviews notice which regarded it as left-overs and said it would “not enhance [Highsmith’s] formidable reputation”.

            Personally, I find these stories more readable than Highsmith’s best-known, but overpoweringly perverse, volume of short stories, Little Tales of Misogyny. Maybe its because there are more variations in style in the posthumous collection.

            Nothing That Meets the Eye contains 28 stories. The publishers neatly divided them into 14 “early stories” from the 1940s when Highsmith was a beginner, and 14 “later stories” from the 1950s to the 1980s when Highsmith was not only an established name, but also a cult figure. About half of the stories had never been published before and were culled from extensive typescripts Highsmith left when she died. The rest were previously “uncollected”, having appeared only in magazines.

            It is not surprising that the collection ends with Paul Ingedaay’s long, scholarly critical essay on Highsmith, translated from the German. Highsmith always did have more fans in Europe than in her native America, and was regarded as a proto-existentialist in line with her favourite authors Dostoievsky, Kafka and Camus. Outside Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, the best movie versions of her work are still the French Plein Soleil and the German The American Friend; despite their later English-language re-makes as, respectively, The Talented Mr Ripley and Ripley’s Game. (The English-language versions reverted to the original titles of Highsmith’s novels.)

            Highsmith for me will always be psychopath Bruno Anthony trying to criss-cross murders with gullible Guy in Strangers on a Train; or suave, rational, manipulative Tom Ripley, who is at the same time totally insane. So, as I began to read the 28 posthumously-published stories, I was tempted to view them through the lens of Highsmith’s more famous crime fiction.

            I compiled statistics. I found no stories in the first person. Even when she dealt with solitary or alienated individuals (and she often did), Highsmith preferred the ironic distancing of the third-person voice. I counted off four stories about murder and four more in which murder is contemplated; three about suicide (in one case half-accidental), one comic tale of thwarted suicide and two that brush delicately around paedophilia. Additionally, I noted that the murders tended to be misogynistic domestics – husband murdering wife.

            All of which sounds in line with Highsmith’s reputation as the concocter of perverse crimes. But as a description of Nothing That Meets the Eye it is a little misleading. Many of the collection’s stories are about harmless cranks and eccentrics. In most there is psychological discomfort, but nothing violent or illegal. And throughout there is a curiously dispirited tone.

            Ingendaay’s concluding essay makes a good case for “failure” as the dominant motif in Highsmith’s shorter fiction. Sure enough, there is one story (“Born Failure”) that almost celebrates failure as an honest, honourable ambition, as if Highsmith were a latter-day Schopenhauer. But I disagree with Ingedaay. I think “disappointment” rather than “failure” is Highsmith’s keyword. Quite simply, Patricia Highsmith was permanently disappointed that human beings are no better than they are.

            Often, in the longer and more worked out stories, the issue is a deflated romanticism where people do not live up to idealised versions of themselves.

            In one story, a man finds a dog a more reliable companion than the woman he loves, who gave the dog to him. In another, an artist goes berserk when his wife proves not to be the muse he thought she was. This is the tone of what I judge to be the collection’s two most finished pieces, “The Pianos of the Steinachs”, with its merciless expose of a self-indulgent, bookish romanticism; and “A Girl Like Phyl”, in which a man realizes he has for years preserved a hopelessly unrealistic image of a woman he once knew.

            Easy to see why Graham Greene was such an unabashed Highsmith fan. He would have diagnosed her grey soulscape as Original Sin, but Highsmith had no more room for religious perspectives than she had for politics. She offered most of her characters the choice of putting up with it, or killing themselves. She did not see any redemption for her casts of con-men, murderers and perverse losers. It was left to the movie-makers to soften her crime stories by adding “compensating moral values”. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (partly scripted by Raymond Chandler), brilliant movie though it is in its own right, considerably softens Highsmith’s original novel even if – daringly for its day – it does manage to suggest a homo-erotic relationship between the two main characters. Anthony Minghella’s much more recent The Talented Mr Ripley has Tom Ripley eventually suffering remorse for what he has done. This is totally un-Highsmith-ian. Tom Ripley remains an unrepentant amoral bastard throughout all five novels in which he features, with Highmith coming out of the closet in the later ones by showing him as a predatory homosexual as well.

            Was Highsmith’s sexuality relevant to her work, and particularly to the stories of Nothing That Meets the Eye? It’s hard to think any otherwise. Highsmith was a lesbian who preferred to live alone and preferred the social company of men. In her stories men often do incredibly nasty things to women. Highsmith did once suggest that much of this misogynistic element was inspired by her own strained relationships with old girlfriends, and the punishments she fantasized about inflicting upon them. She was unable to sustain a relationship for long and, by acquaintances, was widely regarded as a misanthropic and bitter person. In Nothing That Meets the Eye there are some stories (none of them sexually explicit, of course) about unhappy single women, which could imply the lesbian writer’s own thwarted romanticism. But all sexuality is subsumed in the general tone of disappointment.

            This brings us to the next stage in Highsmith’s literary evolution. If human beings disappoint you and let you down, you can always start seeing them as counters for game-playing and trickery, like Harry Lime in Graham Greene’s The Third Man, counting those insignificant human beings he can exploit as he looks down on them from the heights of the great Prater wheel. There are no Tom Ripleys in the stories of Nothing That Meets the Eye, but the con man is beginning to emerge as hero in some of them (“In the Piazza”, “The Great Cardhouse”, “Variations on a Game”).

            Perhaps this was what Patricia Highsmith was working towards, even in her disappointed romanticism. People can’t be loved, but they can be manipulated. At least they can be by an author writing fiction. At which point Highsmith seems to say “Bruno Anthony, c’est moi. Tom Ripley, c’est moi.

            Nothing That Meets the Eye remains a formidable collection, and not just the cast-offs that the Kirkus Reviews detected. 

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