Patricia Highsmith (1921- 1995) is much on my mind these days, after recently re-watching Carol (2015), the film adaptation of her romantic lesbian novel The Price Of Salt (1952), published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan”. Carol is directed by Todd Haynes, whose films, for me, never disappoint.
After humble beginnings in Texas, Highsmith traveled to Europe from 1949 onwards, moving between England, France, Switzerland and Italy. This nomadic lifestyle seemed to become the inspiration for her ”Tom Ripley” stories.
The first book published, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), is about a gay, debonair, psychotic, habitual liar, who cheats and murders his way around Europe, adopting various identities and playing different personalities in order to elude authorities. My kind of guy.
There would be four more: Ripley Underground (1970), Mr. Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Underwater (1990).
Highsmith produced 22 novels and seven collections of short stories by the time she checked-out, taken by Leukemia when she was 74-years-old.
Highly filmable, most of her novels have been adapted into successful films including Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1951). The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted to film as Plein Soleil (1960), starring Alain Delon, whom Highsmith thought was perfect for the role, and again in 1999 with Matt Damon. Mr. Ripley’s Game was also made a film twice: The American Friend (1977) with Dennis Hopper as career criminal Tom Ripley, and again in 2002, as Ripley’s Game with John Malkovich in the title role. They are all excellent.
Highsmith has been said to be mean spirited, misanthropic, cruel, racist and misogynistic. Those who knew her claim she was shy and unhappy in life. She was a lesbian with many lovers; none of these relationships lasted more than a few years.
Her uncomfortable novels of humiliation, delusion and futility move between serious literature, pulp fiction, comic books (which Highsmith actually wrote for at one point) and psychiatric clinical case studies. Highsmith’s intimate life and literary life both began with an early success and had a slow painful decline. Her books are filled with themes of hostility, guilt, anxiety and resentment, with situations and emotions most of us would rather not admit we are familiar with.
Highsmith preferred women for sex, although she preferred men in all other ways. In 1949, she made an effort to analyze and ”cure” herself by taking a fiancé. Her biographies name more than a dozen affairs with women. As it turned out, her private life was a sexual grand tour of Europe.
In her last years, Highsmith moved to unrequited crushes on film stars including Tabea Blumenschein, a young actor in German films, with whom Highsmith was obsessed after they enjoyed a brief fling in 1978.
In the last 30 years of her life, she ate little, but drank epic amounts of Scotch. She was so stingy with her money that she lugged a pile of firewood from home to home and would drive more than an hour to buy cheaper pasta.
If you are feeling dark, confused and put upon, I recommend the ”Ripley” novels. Read them in order, starting the next one as the previous book is closed. They may have you getting in touch with your inner Tom Ripley, which could be just what is needed.