The Birdcage Archives

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Patricia Highsmith’s Centenary

 Hello Gentle Reader
Today marks the 100th birthday of Patricia Highsmith (January 19 1921 – February 4 1995). Throughout her life Patricia Highsmith was known as a contrarian individual. She once reflected to herself in one of her diaries, that she learned to live with the murderous rage at an early age, when her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith corrected her pronunciation of the term: “Open Sesame.” Her childhood was riddled with the usual turbulence of all unhappy childhoods. Highsmith’s biological father (Jay Bernard Plangman) divorced her mother Mary Plangman (née, Coates, future Highsmith) ten days before Patricia was born. Even before her birth, Patricia Highsmith’s life was marked with foreboding violence. It is rumoured that Jay Plangman encouraged Mary to have an abortion; while other sources state that Mary Plangman attempted to abort the yet unborn Patricia with turpentine, which she is said to have mocked Patricia with in later years for enjoying the smell of. These incidents would only foreshadow an otherwise complicated and unhappy view on marriage, family life, and human relationships. At the age of twelve Highsmith’s mother and stepfather left her in the care of a parenteral grandmother, while they jetted off to New York, to get settled before bringing the young Patricia up to join them. Highsmith described this year as the saddest one of her childhood, when she viewed that her mother had all but abandoned her. Regardless her grandmother had taught her to read at an early age, and Highsmith took full advantage of her grandmothers’ library, reading with a ravenous appetite. After this sad year, Highsmith would rejoin her mother and stepfather in New York, but their relationship was riddled with complications. Highsmith noted that Stanley and Mary would often engage in extreme fights, leaving Highsmith to wonder if divorce was on the horizon. At times her mother would pack their belongings and leave somewhere else; before returning to Stanley once again. Perhaps this is why Patricia Highsmith herself would never show any inclination towards the conventional concept of marriage and family; well that and the fact that she was a lesbian, which she held in contempt and discomfort; viewing her sexuality as a blemish of embarrassment rather than a natural component of herself.
In her youth, Highsmith even attended psychoanalysis therapy in order to rid herself of her sexual orientation, in order to become more conditioned for marriage. To no surprise the therapy did not work, and Highsmith never married. Though ironically in one of her many journals, Highsmith did note the following notion:
“Persistently, I have the vision of a house in the country with the blonde wife whom I love, with the children whom I adore, on the land and with the trees I do adore [ . . . ] My God and my beloved, it can never be! 
An otherwise odd reflection from a writer who was adamantly misanthropic, who once stated she could not write when the cleaning woman was in the house, and proclaimed her imagination functioned far better when she didn’t have to converse with others. To imagine Highsmith living some suburban ideal conventional and compromised life is not only laughable, its degrading. This being stated Patricia Highsmith would not be considered a bohemian, though in her youth she did have her unconventional moments, before her writing career had taken off in its entirety. Before, Highsmith became the Godmother of the Psychological Thriller, she first began her writing career after she graduated from Barnard College, writing scripts and scenarios for comic books. This fact was made a secret throughout Patricia Highsmith’s life and career, perhaps because the author herself did not view comic books as anything of merit or literary venture, but a mere commercial enterprise. Regardless of the authors own views on the matter, her time writing for comic books, both as an employee and freelance, were her longest stints of full-time employment before the author began to support herself off her writing alone.
Halfway through the 20th century, Highsmith finally made her claim in the world with the publication of the novel: “Strangers on a Train.” The novel did moderately well for a debut, but with Hitchcock’s film adaption, Patricia Highsmith’s reputation grew, especially amongst European readers. Throughout her initial literary success Highsmith’s character had already matured. These characterizes included a resentful distaste and general disgust for food, preferring in its stead the pleasures of cigarettes and the inebriation of cheap liquor. Misanthropy was becoming a common feature of the writer, which would later be known as a hallmark trait. She viewed people with no fascination and a general tiresome disinterest. To go out in the evening, be it for dinner, socializing or drinks, would not rank high on Highsmith’s plans for an enjoyable outing. Her work ethic was also in full swing, producing in her lifetime a total of 22 novels and 8 collections of short stories, which appeared variously in magazines. Yet, after the dark tour of the almost mundane darkness that lurks within the human mind, expertly explored in “Strangers on the Train,” Patricia Highsmith wrote one of the most groundbreaking novels of the 20th Century, “The Price of Salt,” also republished as, “Carol.” This novel was a noted lesbian story that ended with a revolutionary happy ending. The novel would not be published under Highsmith’s own name. The novel itself was riddled with the exploits of the authors own tumultuous love life with various women. Still, Highsmith refused to acknowledge the novel until the early 90’s, when it was republished under the title “Carol,” under her own name with an afterward. Perhaps it did her more service to disregard the novel, leaving it orphaned in the bookshelves, because afterwards Highsmith had begun to pen her most well-known literary creation, the talented sociopathic chameleon: Tom Ripley. Tom Ripley became the literary alter ego of Patricia Highsmith. Ripley was the literary vessel of all of Highsmith’s darker ambitions. At the time, Ripley was a groundbreaking character, a dark antihero who characters feared and abjectly admired. His ability to charm and con his way into high society was both deprived and marvelous. His ability to kill and get away with it even more allude justice, tantalized and horrified the reading public. Compromised morals or rather amorality was her favourite tropes to explore, and Ripley represented them all, with all the rewards, prestige and enjoyment life had to offer.
As for Patricia Highsmith, however, she was not as superficially charming as her famed antihero. As she aged and secluded herself into further isolation, fortified with cigarettes and alcoholism, Highsmith would unleash a torrent of horrors upon those who dared to get to close. Her prejudices became more vitriolic, acerbic and vocal. Lovers were disposed of unceremoniously, and viciously murdered in her novels. She ripped into anyone who dared to get too close to her, and those who either through a masochistic virtue or stupidity continued to seek her company, received greater punishment. One of the most famous stories of Highsmith’s vicious vitriol was a dinner New York, when she met with her then editor and publisher Otto Penzler. Penzler took her out to eat at an anonymous restraint in New York, where the waiter is said to make painstaking steps to ensure that Highsmith received the best cut steak on offer. In usual flare, Highsmith berated the waiter, in a theatrical display of venom and only wanted beer. Penzler is said to have recalled the event with a disgust, and is quoted to have found Patricia Highsmith a truly:
“[ . . . ] mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being. I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly . . . but her books? Brilliant.”
As in due course, Penzler dropped Highsmith as a writer. When asked about it years later, Highsmith hissed at the reporter that it was due to him being a Jew, advertising her already well-known antisemitism. This was only an aspect of a myriad of horrible perspectives which included racism, homophobia, misogyny, which were all wrapped up in her general disgust towards other people and slumped together as: misanthropy. Despite these otherwise disturbingly grotesque characteristics which were wielded like weapons, those who were able to swath through her otherwise demented views, found a writer who was both dryly funny, plainspoken and in her own way even charming. Though these finer features of Highsmith, only came out after a relentlessly torrent of bitterness had been unleashed, and such a pearl of character could only be offered to those who braved the current to weather her tirades. Of course, one only got lashed with her venomous vitriol when they disturbed someone who retained an air of guarded privacy. Highsmith was known as being as reclusive as the snails she kept as company and often thwarted interviews with cat like indifference. On the more preserve and even ironic side of the situation, Patricia Highsmith was a profilic chronicler of her interior life. Through a collection of journals and cahiers, Highsmith unabashedly recounted her most intimate, darkest and personal thoughts. These journals are riddled with her bitter brew of her vicious character, where she described having sex with a man like “steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place – leading to a sensation of having to have, pretty soon, a bowel movement.”
These diaries and cahiers were included in Highsmith’s archive, with it were appear to be in both spite and resentment she bequeathed to the Swiss Literary Archives at the Swiss National Library in Bern, rather than any American institution considering how her work never appealed or appetized the American reading public, in their repugnant indignation cling to their morals of justice, like a nun clutches her rosary as she faces hell. These diaries and cahiers have been reviewed and poured over by biographers and academics, who have often described them as a sojourn into the most unpleasant aspects of the most irrational and idiosyncratic mind—to be blunt: it was far from pleasant. But the research did provide a thorough understanding of their subject’s personality, perspective and psyche. Now these same diaries and cahiers are set to be released this year (2021), when the reading public will be able become acquainted with the cruel, ruthless and well fermented character of Highsmith, who it said meticulously documented, her life through a dark lens.
As a reader, I’ve never found Patricia Highsmith’s novels all that compelling, interesting true, but not as a compelling as the legendary misanthropy of the writer herself, and with the publication of her diaries and cahiers, those brave enough, curious enough and depraved enough will be able to get acquainted with the writer in her own words; not the distilled perspective of her tireless biographers who have painted a fair and honest portrait of the author. I for one cannot wait to be able to review the diaries and cahiers themselves, to read them with horror and delight, ensuring it becomes a tonic to ensure that one does not become equally as vicious, cruel, ugly and unbecoming. No matter how bad life will get, its best not to retrace the path already etched in the ice by Highsmith.
Happy Birthday Patricia Highsmith; Rest In Peace All The Same. 
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary

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