Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson

I saw the movie of The Talented Mr. Ripley for a second time a few years ago, and I started wondering what the novel was like. So I read it, and the first sequel, Ripley Under Ground. It made me wonder what kind of a person with what kind of a mind could have created Ripley, and Strangers on a Train. So when my niece Maggie and I were in St. Mark's Book Store on Sunday, I pounced on Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith on the sale table. Then I inhaled the book in a few days.
Highsmith was nothing like I thought she was. From Texas, not a Brit. A conservative, an anti-Semite, a racist, a misogynist (despite the fact she was a lesbian) and deeply, deeply strange. At the age that I was reading fairy tales and then the lives of the saints (St. Barbara's life is remarkably like Rapunzel), she was reading Karl Menninger's The Human Mind, about deviant behavior.
Wilson is a journalist, and it shows in the writing, which is dutifully plodding and repetitive. With a good editor (are there any anymore?), the book could easily been cut by 20%. Or I've just been spoiled by spending so much time with Lyndall Gordon's well-considered prose. The one thing Wilson does capture is Highsmith's constant struggle with reality (the one that most of us are in) and the world of her imagination. Ripley's character became so real to her, she considered him a co-creator of the novels. Her romantic relationships line the biography like so many fallen soldiers, and invariably it's Highsmith's idea of who she's fallen in love with pit against the reality of it. The idea gets smashed, and she flees. Over and over again. Ultimately, Highsmith was a deeply sad woman, however adept at her craft.
The uncredited publicity photo is from 1966.

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