To my mind, two of the most brilliant and underappreciated authors of the last century were American women working repressed and female-unfriendly years of the 1950s and 1960s, Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson. Highsmith has always been more admired in Europe than in the US; and Jackson has never really had the recognition she is due.
I’m presently meandering my way through The Talented Miss Highsmith, the massive new biography of Highsmith. Joan Schenkar has attempted a biography shaped to the ideal design put forth by Virginia Woolf: a “husk” (the chronological events of the life) and the “atom” (the interior world). Schenkar has placed the chronological material in a lengthy appendix titled “Just the Facts,” while the bulk of the (quite hefty) book is organized along thematic chapters.
Schenkar clearly admires Highsmith (called “Pat” throughout the book), but she also clearly doesn’t like Highsmith, and, as with so many biographers, there is an undertone of surprise throughout the book as she notes that Pat Wasn’t A Very Nice Person. (I encountered this reaction in its most severe form a few years ago reading a biography of Peter Sellers. The author was continually shocked—shocked, I’ll have you know—at Sellers’ nastiness in interpersonal relations.)
Exactly why artists are expected to be generous, balanced people has never been clear to me, and actors, who spend their careers pretending to be other people, and writers, who spend their careers cloistered with the problems of imaginary people, don’t strike me as obvious models of mental stability. Highsmith herself said, “All writers are in the business for their health,” and I don’t think she meant the aerobic benefits of hammering on typewriter keys. I’m not proposing that all writers must be misanthropic or cruel to those close to them, but I’m not taken aback when I discover they aren’t paragons of behavior, or even the sorts of people you’d want to meet for a drink.
Schenkar is smart enough to understand that much of Highsmith’s genius arises from her rather twisted approach to life, but she is bothered by some quirks that I pass over with a shrug. In particular, the biographer dwells on the idea that Highsmith wrote her diaries (a major source for the biography) with an eye to posterity. She becomes particularly exercised when Highsmith has a series of dated entries that had to have been written days after the events described.
I find I can’t be bothered by this, and I don’t even accept that it is a deceptive or deplorable practice. After all, unless you are Richardson’s Pamela, who seems capable of writing letters or making diary entries in real time while the house burns down around her, diaries are always recollections. True, the convention is that the entries are the dates of the writing, but I see no reason that someone shouldn’t write down their recollections of November 17th dated November 17th, even if they are writing on November 20th. Nor am I wholly convinced that diarists like Highsmith are journaling for posterity; even if such a writer strikes poses or distorts facts in what they commit to paper, I think most of us engage in something less than searing honesty or icy clarity about ourselves even in our private thoughts.
Looking back over what I have written here, I realize it sounds as if I’m complaining about Schenkar’s book. On the contrary, I’m enjoying it, and, as this post shows, it provokes a lot of pondering on my part. And the title is well-chosen: although Highsmith might not have left a trail of well-concealed murders behind her, she was as amoral and focused as her anti-hero Tom Ripley. She might not be a model for how to conduct your life, but she offers a fine example of how a mental illness (in her case, I suppose a shrink would diagnose some form of sociopathy) can be channeled into art. Good for Pat, I say, and kudos to Joan Schenkar, too.
With a little luck, she’ll turn her attention to Shirley Jackson next. I've read about Jackson's husk, but I'd like to understand her atom.