Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Talented Miss Highsmith

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.


Frances Garrood said...

Yes - it's odd, isn't it, the way people expect those they admire in the arts to be wonderful people into the bargain, when so many of them were not. And of course this should in no way detract from the pleasure they give. I can't really comment on Patricia Highsmith since I thought The Talented Mr. Ripley a horrible book, so to turn this argument around, I would have been very surprised if she had turned out to be a delightful woman!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

I suppose I'd classify "The Talented Mr Ripley" as a delightfully horrible book, so that would work in both of your adjectives. But I can understand how someone would find TTMR so repellent as to be unreadable.

"Lolita" and "The Stranger" probably fall into the same category. I guess this topic (repellent novels) deserves more thought; it's an interesting issue.

Tim Stretton said...

David, I wholly share your appreciation of Highsmith's work. With Ripley she's created one of the great anti-heroes, up there with Stark's Parker (although rather more reflective).

From what I know of her a person I doubt I'd have liked her much either, which doesn't and shouldn't affect my admiration for her work.

All I know about Shirley Jackson is "The Lottery" - a bleak and memorable piece. I look forward to learning more.

Anonymous said...

There is a biography of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer, published in 1988. It's doubtful that Joan Schenkar or anyone else will publish another. Literary biographies usually sell three to five thousand copies hardcover. Because of the publicity and good reviews The Talented Miss Highsmith has probably sold 10,000. That's not a number to encourage a publisher to ask JS for another book about a writer. In the last 10 years, the only literary biography to reach the top ten of the major bestseller lists has been Charles Shields's book about Harper Lee, whose novel has sold, what, 20 million copies? Jackson's books have sold rather less than that.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yes, I really ought to add the Parker series to my list of basically repellent books I love.

Shirley Jackson is of course best known for "The Lottery" and her psychological horror novels, like "The Haunting of Hill House," but some of her most horrifying stories are simply an odd slice of the mundane. In particular, there is a great story of hers titled "Men and Their Big Shoes," about a part-time housekeeper who, for no particular reason other than a generalized bitterness about life, proceeds to drive wedges into a decent husband-wife relationship. Omninous, creepy, and with a resigned sense of predestination...and without even a hint of the supernatural.

She was a very odd writer indeed.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Anon--

Well, I've never been clear on the economics of literary biographies, but they seem to keep getting published. Schenkar's biography of isn't by any means the first or only bio of Highsmith, and it's hard to believe that the previous books sold so well as to make publishers excited at the prospect of a new one.

So I've never been quite sure how these things get published in the first place. Certainly the publisher know the numbers. It's a mystery.

Pricing might enter into it, I suppose. "The Talented Miss Highsmith" retails for $40...

steves said...

Highsmith has same birthday as Edgar Alan Poe, Janis Joplin and Dolly Parton. What a great birthday party that would be!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Steves--

Highsmith was deeply conscious of the fact that she and Poe shared birthdays. As to Joplin and Parton--well, I think it's cool, but if Highsmith were aware of it, I doubt that she was pleased about it!

Anonymous said...


Joan Schenkar writes about Shirley Jackson, and the latter's children reply. From their reaction it doesn't look like she'll be writing a biography of SJ anytime soon.

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