Richard Bradford

Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith

A weak addition to the grand collection of Patricia Highsmith biographies.

Jun 10, 2022
Dimitris Passas

A pioneer of gay and lesbian literature, a woman who enjoyed provoking others with her statements and lifestyle, a lover who couldn't hold a steady relationship with either men or women, the author whom Graham Greene named "poet of the apprehension", all of the above and so much more, Patricia Highsmith is one of the most controversial figures in the American literary canon of the twentieth century and many researchers have attempted to provide a complete life chronicle, the emphasis being on the distinct memoir-in-fiction narrative and the correlation between her overall life stance and her body of work. Highsmith has published more than 20 novels, numerous collections of short stories and her most distinguished works have been adapted into the cinema screen by auteurs of the magnitude of Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train). Her trademarks that left a stark imprint on the minds and hearts of the global readership are her fixation with the theme of identity, the complete lack of morality that defines her most notable characters, and the cynical worldview that some describe as borderline misanthropic. Apart from Strangers on a Train that gained traction through the 1951 titular film by the English master of suspense, Highsmith is widely known for the "Ripliad" a series of five novels featuring Tom Ripley as the protagonist, an unscrupulous individual who won't hesitate to commit even the most atrocious acts in order to get what he wants. The first installment, The Talented Mr. Ripley has also become a movie twice: the first adaptation is René Clément's Purple Noon (1960) starring Alain Delon as Ripley, and the second is the 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, directed by Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon and Jude Law as Tom and Dickie respectively.

In order to better comprehend Highsmith's oeuvre it is necessary to keep in mind that she was a vocal lesbian in an era when homosexuality was still treated as a disease and that her fiery personality often led her to impulsive acts that ultimately found their way in her writing. The author of this biography, Richard Bradford writes: "Her record as a lover might be treated as a triumph for lesbianism, gay sexuality, and even women's rights in general". Her tempestuous sexual relationships with a multitude of women, most of them already engaged, always began with fervor resembling ecstasy but eventually ended in a "butchery of emotion or the extermination of love". That interrelationship between sexual deviancy and murder that becomes apparent in several of her stories indicates a distorted artistic mind, one that would offer in the course of five decades that her career lasted, some of the most wicked and daring literature exploring the nasty side of human nature and challenge the noble perceptions of what truly motivates human action: "When we consider how frequently the word 'murder' appears in her notebook entries on her lesbian relationships it is evident that sexual deviancy (...) overlapped, for her, with notions of killing". Highsmith used to keep an overwritten notebook, that finally exceeded the 8000 pages for more than 50 years, beginning in 1941 and concluding in 1995, the year of her death. In 2021, a compilation of more than a thousand pages of Highsmith's notebooks has been published under the title Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995 (Editor: Anna von Planta) and if you want to truly dive into the inner thoughts of the erratic American author, then this would be the perfect place to start.

Although Highsmith is chiefly known as a crime writer, she would undoubtedly protest in that kind of strict classification as her novels may contain some of the staples of the genre, a crime committed, a suspect is hunted, police investigations etc., nevertheless they retain a singular spirit due to the pointy, acerbic prose that dominate the text's mood. According to Bradford, in Highsmith we owe the bridging of a literary gap between pulp, genre fiction writing and literature as a high art. Her characters, especially the homosexuals are ascribed with substance and brooding solemnity, contrary to their caricature-like portrayal "as sad compounds of their debauched inclinations" in the media during the 1940s and 1950s in a deeply conservative America. On of the reasons why Highsmith's characterization strikes such a horde is that she drew upon her own experiences and way of thinking when creating her protagonists. There is a heavy autobiographical element in many of her greatest successes and as Bradford notes: "From her earliest years as a writer, Highsmith recorded in her notebooks an uncanny perception of her real life and its fictional counterpart as aspects of the same narrative". The blurring of the line that separates reality from fiction is tested to the extreme in Highsmith's notebooks where she often interjects completely fictional sub-stories within the descriptions of her professional and personal life. Thus, no one can be sure how much of what we read in her novels is based on her own reality and what is purely an invention of her bright imagination. The utter malice of some of her heroes may be used to provide further proof that she was a firm believer that humans are essentialy evil: "She never killed anyone or committed a serious criminal offence, but she regarded those who did as honest representations of the sheer wickedness of human nature".

Another thing for which Highsmith became notorious is her vast hate list that includes Blacks, Latinos, Catholics, Evangelicals, fundamentalists of any sort, and so on. However, her most striking antipathy was that toward Jews. She was an ardent admirer of Nazi Germany and she embraced the ideal of the Final Solution even in the years after the end of the Second World War and Germany's defeat in the battlefield. She also coined some newfound terms such as "Semicaust, to stress the fact that it was only the half of the Jewish population that lost their lives during the war, and "Holocaust Inc.", to suggest that the Jews have taken advantage of their cruel fate in order to earn money and propagate their propaganda. Even though she wasn't particularly fond of the Arabs too, she supported the Palestinian cause, claiming that the only way to end the injustice in Middle East is the abolition of the Jews. Once, in a social gathering, she had openly exclaimed: "I am sick of Jews", causing awkward glances and silences among her company. Apart from the objections we all may have regarding her political views, we have to admit that Highsmith was a bold and defiant woman as well as artist and she always mocked normalcy as a veneer, employed to hide the true, hidden compulsions of humans. Bradford puts it like this: "She wanted to establish a tension, a dynamic between the world of conventional inclinations and morals and a life of perpetual deviancy". The open admittance of her sexuality can be seen as a revolutionary act in the specific time context and her capricious manner by which she went in and out of relationships a further proof of her independence as an individual.

Highsmith published her first novel, Strangers on a Train, in 1950 and immediately Alfred Hitchcock picked the novel as the basis for the screenplay of his upcoming titular movie. Hitchcock purportedly asked Highsmith to adapt the novel into a screenplay, but it was Raymond Chandler, the American godfather of noir, who was eventually assigned to write the script. However, when he finished reading the novel, Chandler said that he "saw it as advocating nihilism, moral anarchy and homosexuality, a license for murderous compulsion". His rather harsh judgement made him abandon the project and it was Czenzi Ormonde who softened some of the most prickly aspects of the text and blunted some of its most striking edges. As a result "the film is disturbing enough, but it is Hitchcock's candy to Highsmith's arsenic". Her second novel, The Price of Salt, was published in 1952 under Highsmith's nom de plum Claire Morgan. It was only in 1990 that the novel, that was now published under the title Carol, bared Highsmith's signature. The reason for the use of a pseudonym for a novel with heavy lesbian undertones can be found in the general political and cultural status quo in America at the time. The notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy, the man responsible for a massive witch hunt of communists and liberals, has stated a year before the book's publication that homosexuals, due to their deviant nature, are more prone to communism than the other, "ordinary", folk. The novel is about the relationship between two women, Therese and Carol, the former a shopworker, the latter an affluent housewife, who become entangled in a romance that enrage those around them. It is one of Highsmith's works that is most influenced by the author's own life: "The Price of Salt was a unique enterprise. It is a fantasy novel designed not to feed the escapist appetites of its readers but rather to reinvent and purify in fiction the life of its author".

It is a lesser known fact that Highsmith inspired the story for the first installment in the Tom Ripley saga from a novel by Henry James, The Ambassadors (1903), that shares many similarities with the main story of The Talented Mr. Ripley. The novel was written in Mexico in five months time, a period in which the author shared the company of Ellen Hill one of the most significant of her liaisons with which Highsmith "maintained an addictive, masochistic attachment" even long after their break up. Bradford writes that the character of Tom is "one of the most fascinating exercises in autobiographical fiction ever produced" and it is true that he is one of the most alluring protagonists in crime fiction diachronically. He begins as a shy, meek youngster who is assigned by a ship magnate to travel to a small village in Italy in order to find his long estranged son, Dickie Greenleaf and convince him to return to home. As Tom embarks on his mission, he gets instantly fascinated by Dickie and his carefree lifestyle, thus a peculiar form of bond begins to emerge between the two men. Marge, Dickie's girlfriend is wary and distrustful toward Tom due to his obsession with Dickie and slippery nature. As the two friends travel together all over Europe some cracks will begin to shatter the façade of the perfect friendship, resulting in Dickie's murder by Tom in a small boat in the middle of nowhere. Tom assumes Dickie's identity, assumes his mannerisms and now poses as Dickie Greenleaf. Nevertheless, in order to keep alive the charade, he will be forced to kill again and prove to the readership that he has no moral compass guiding him. The plot of The Talented Mr. Ripley is exquisite, with tons of suspense, wonderful dialogue and set mainly in a small village somewhere in Italy. The following four books couldn't reach the high standards of their predecessor, nevertheless they sold many copies around the world and established Highsmith as the queen of amorality.

Bradford's intentions are good and his biography is intended to provide a general portrait of Highsmith, but it fails in a several aspects. First of all, a book of under 300 pages cannot possibly exhaust the details concerning the subject's turbulent life and nuances of her work. For a more rounded impression, you should check out Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith where the author meticulously probes every detail of her life and work. Furthermore, Bradford, while in may parts referring to Highsmith's "cahiers" (notebooks", he doesn't use a single quote, thus committing a terrible sin, cutting the reader out from the author's own voice. Something else that bothered me, was that Bradford seems to have a fixed personal opinion on Highsmith's personality, a rather negative one, and makes it evident with many of his remarks and descriptions of a woman who must be detestable, if we take into account the author's assessments. Finally the repetitive use of certain words such as "regarded" became farcical from a point onward and contributed to the degradation of the overall quality of the text. By the above, I don't mean that Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires is a redundant addition to the many Highsmith bios, but it is certainly not the strongest one as both the aforementioned Wilson's book and The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar are the two-must reads for all those interested in a spherical outline of the author. Bradford's work seems feeble compared to them , despite of some good moments in which the reader is fed with new information regarding the subject. For example, I didn't know that, at the end of her life, Highsmith was considering continuing the Ripley saga and she had even chosen a title: Ripley's Luck.

Bradford's book would nevertheless prove ideal to those who don't have the precious time to invest in a lengthy biography and want to learn a bit more about Highsmith in a short, concise read. These readers may found this book appealing , but those who are familiar with the previous biographies would feel underwhelmed and return to the works of Wilson and Schenkar to quench their thirst for bits and pieces of the life of one of the most evocative American authors of the last century.


Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith
Richard Bradford
Bloomsbury Caravel

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