Originally written in September 2016, posted on Goodreads.
A few years ago I found a quote (I love quotes), by a certain Amy Hempel, that intrigued me:
“I read about a famous mystery writer who worked for one week in a department store. One day she saw a woman come in and buy a doll. The mystery writer found out the woman’s name, and took a bus to New Jersey to see where the woman lived. That was all. Years later, she referred to this woman as the love of her life. It is possible to imagine a person so entirely that the image resists attempts to dislodge it.”
I wondered who that mystery writer could have been, and I also identified with a mind that would daydream an entire life out of a moment and follow that obsession. That “mystery writer” was Patricia Highsmith.
While I was reading her This Sweet Sickness, about a loner unable to connect with people and who obsesses over a woman he loves, to the point of building a complete second identity, I identified with it, and how it was told, in a way that suggested that the writer was the kind of peculiar I was; hardly anyone knows about the depths of social blindness, isolation, anxiety and obsession (and attached maladies like obsessive-compulsive disorder and chronic depression) like autistic people.
Patricia Highsmith was a retiring, silent person with a tremendously dark interior world, who could not properly connect with anyone, who loved certain people when they were away but needed space when they were close. She considered herself to have a man’s brain, but didn’t want a man’s body, and was attracted to women, but didn’t particularly like them. She was a masochist who consistently “chose” to love women who bossed her around and hurt her. She smoked and drank so heavily that those vices destroyed her body, although, curiously enough, didn’t seem to have affected her mind. Her instincts didn’t align with the human world around her. She was hypersensitive to noises and being touched. She was clumsy and awkward. She was at her best while daydreaming or writing, but fell into horrible depressions the moment she came back to herself. She was never at ease with the world.
Almost everything about her screamed Asperger’s to me, but I can’t be objective about it. It was weird that nobody else caught it, until one of her friends did, as mentioned in this biography:
“In hindsight, I think Pat could have had a form of high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome. She had a lot of typical traits. She had a terrible sense of direction, she would always get lost and whenever she went to the hairdresser’s she would have trouble parking even though she had been with me lots of times. She was hypersensitive to sound and had these communications difficulties. Most of us screen certain things, but she would spit out everything she thought. She was not aware of the nuances of conversation and she didn’t realise when she had hurt other people. That was probably why her love affairs never lasted very long, because she couldn’t overcome the difficulties in communicating. Although she didn’t really understand other people – she had such a strange interior world – she was a fantastic observer. She would see things that an average person would never experience.”
She wasn’t a recluse, however, like some journalists called her. She kept plenty of friends, travelled and invited people over, people who tolerated how weird she was. She never made it as big as she deserved mostly because she didn’t care to belong to a “writer’s community,” didn’t like to expose herself to the public (she considered interviews humiliating), and her stories usually failed to offer hope or platitudes.
Patricia was also a misanthrope who disliked or even hated way more stuff and people than she liked. She got in trouble for her opinions regarding black people, religion, and Israel. Having been born clearly different, she was a hardcore individualist that intended people to take responsibility for themselves. During the last half of her life, and having been on the brink of bankruptcy, never knowing if the next book was going to sell, she was very stingy with money, but in her will she left her millions to a writer’s retreat she spent a few weeks in while writing her first novel. She died alone in Switzerland, in a home designed as a bunker.
Despite all of her issues, reading about her has made me aware of a hole in the world, the kind that opens when a real human being goes away. I look forward to learning more about her, and about myself, while reading her stories.
The following is a poem that Patricia wrote during her last years in Switzerland:
At dawn, after my death hours before,
The sunlight will spread at seven o’clock as usual
On these trees which I know.
Greenness will burst, dark green shadows yield
To the cruel-benign, indifferent sun.
Indifferent will stand the trees in my own garden,
Unweeping for me on the morning of my death.
Same as ever, roots athirst,
The trees will rest in breezeless dawn,
Blind and uncaring,
The trees that I knew,
That I tended.
I thought about this review because I’m finishing Patricia’s The Price of Salt, a prolonged daydream set in the 50s about dating that woman from New Jersey that at the most she saw a couple of times. In a significant part because Patricia reminds me so much of myself, I can’t think of any other dead writer that I would want more to be still alive and healthy.
Here are some quotes I highlighted from this biography:
After reading Burgum, [Patricia Highsmith] wrote in her cahier that, like Kafka, she felt she was a pessimist, unable to formulate a system in which an individual could believe in God, government or self. Again like Kafka, she looked into the great abyss which separated the spiritual and the material and saw the terrifying emptiness, the hollowness, at the heart of every man, a sense of alienation she felt compelled to explore in her fiction. As her next hero, she would take an architect, ‘a young man whose authority is art and therefore himself,’ who when he murders, ‘feels no guilt or even fear when he thinks of legal retribution.’ The more she read of Kafka the more she felt afraid as she came to realise, ‘I am so similar to him.’
If [Patricia Highsmith] saw an acquaintance walking down the sidewalk she would deliberately cross over so as to avoid them. When she came in contact with people, she realised she split herself into many different, false, identities, but, because she loathed lying and deceit, she chose to absent herself completely rather than go through such a charade. Highsmith interpreted this characteristic as an example of ‘the eternal hypocrisy in me,’ rather her mental shape-shifting had its source in her quite extraordinary ability to empathise. Her imaginative capacity to subsume her own identity, while taking on the qualities of those around her – her negative capability, if you like – was so powerful that she said she often felt like her inner visions were far more real than the outside world. She aligned herself with the mad and the miserable, ‘the insane man who feels himself one with all mankind, all life, because in losing his mind, he has lost his ego, his self-ness,’ yet realised that such a state inspired her fiction. Her ambition, she said, was to write about the underlying sickness of this ‘daedal planet’ and capture the essence of the human condition: eternal disappointment.
[Patricia Highsmith] had experienced at first hand many of Ripley’s characteristics – splintered identity, insecurity, inferiority, obsession with an object of adoration, and the violence that springs from repression. Like her young anti-hero, she knew that in order to survive, it was necessary to prop oneself up with a psychological fantasy of one’s own making. ‘Happiness, for me, is a matter of imagination,’ she wrote in her notebook while writing The Talented Mr. Ripley. ‘Existence is a matter of unconscious elimination of negative and pessimistic thinking. I mean, to survive at all. And this applies to everyone. We are all suicides under the skin, and under the surface of our lives.’
Early in 1967 Highsmith’s agent told her why her books did not sell in paperback in America. It was, said Patricia Schartle Myrer, because they were ‘too subtle,’ combined with the fact that none of her characters were likeable. ‘Perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone,’ Highsmith replied. ‘My last books may be about animals.’
As some people turned to religion for comfort, so, Highsmith wrote in her notebook in September 1970, she took refuge in her belief that she was making progress as a writer. But she realised that both systems of survival were, however, fundamentally illusory. She wrote, she said, quoting Oscar Wilde because, ‘Work never seems to me a reality, but a way of getting rid of reality.’
It seemed to me as if she had to ape feelings and behaviour, like Ripley. Of course sometimes having no sense of social behaviour can be charming, but in her case it was alarming. I remember once, when she was trying to have a dinner party with people she barely knew, she deliberately leaned towards the candle on the table and set fire to her hair. People didn’t know what to do as it was a very hostile act and the smell of singeing and burning filled the room.
Those close to [Patricia Highsmith], particularly her family, often commented on how Highsmith’s vision of reality was a warped one. In April 1947, she transcribed into her notebook what was, presumably, a real dialogue between herself and her mother, in which Mary accused her of not facing the world. Highsmith replied that she did indeed view the world ‘sideways, but since the world faces reality sideways, sideways is the only way the world can be looked at in true perspective.’ The problem, Highsmith said, was that her psychic optics were different to those around her, but if that was the case, her mother replied, then she should equip herself with a pair of new spectacles. Highsmith was not convinced. ‘Then I need a new birth,’ she concluded.
[Patricia Highsmith] was overwhelmed by sensory stimulation – there were too many people and too much noise and she just could not handle the supermarket. She continually jumped, afraid that someone might recognise or touch her. She could not make the simplest of decisions – which type of bread did she want, or what kind of salami? I tried to do the shopping as quickly as possible, but at the check-out she started to panic. She took out her wallet, knocked off her glasses, dropped the money on the floor, stuff was going all over the place.
Throughout her life, Highsmith looked for women whom she could worship. Sex was far from the most important factor in any relationship; rather, it was this near-divine quality for which she yearned.
The artistic life is a long and lovely suicide precisely because it involves the negation of self; as Highsmith imagined herself as her characters, so Ripley takes on the personae of others and in doing so metamorphoses himself into a ‘living’ work of art. A return to the ‘real life’ after a period of creativity resulted in a fall in spirits, an agony Highsmith felt acutely. She voiced this pain in the novel via Bernard’s quotation of an excerpt from Derwatt’s notebook: ‘There is no depression for the artist except that caused by a return to the self.’
As soon as [Patricia Highsmith] had stopped work, she felt purposeless and quite at a loss about what to do with herself. ‘There is no real life except in working,’ she wrote in her notebook, ‘that is to say in the imagination.’ It was in this state that she observed that only one situation would drive her to commit murder – being part of a family unit. Most likely, she thought, she would strike out in anger at a small child, felling them in one blow. But children over the age of eight, she surmised, would probably take two blows to kill. The reality of socialising with anyone, no matter how close, she said, left her feeling fatigued.
As the new year began, [Patricia Highsmith] felt completely paralysed, incapable of reading or picking up the phone. ‘I can feel my grip loosening on my self,’ she wrote. ‘It is like strength failing in the hand that holds me above an abyss.’ She wished there was a more awful-sounding word for what she was feeling than simply ‘depression.’ She wanted to die, she said, but then realised that the best course of action would be to endure the wretchedness until it passed. Her wish was, ‘Not to die, but not to exist, simply, until this is over.’
Faced with the prospect of a black depression, Highsmith once again retreated into fantasy, dreaming about an affair with the actress Anne Meacham, whose picture she had seen in a magazine publicising her role in the Tennessee Williams’ play, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. After the disasters of recent years, she reckoned that the safest option was to escape into romantic imagination. She reviewed her failures over the past five years and concluded that ‘the moral is: stay alone. Any idea of any close relationship should be imaginary, like any story I am writing. This way no harm is done to me or to any other person.’
[Patricia Highsmith] was an extremely unbalanced person, extremely hostile and misanthropic and totally incapable of any kind of relationship, not just intimate ones. I felt sorry for her, because it wasn’t her fault. There was something in her early days or whatever that made her incapable. She drove everybody away and people who really wanted to be friends ended up putting the phone down on her.
[Patricia Highsmith] was a figure of contradictions: a lesbian who didn’t particularly like women; a writer of the most insightful psychological novels who, at times, appeared bored by people; a misanthrope with a gentle, sweet nature.
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