For me, the name ‘Patricia Highsmith’ designates a sacred territory: she is the One whose place among writers is that which Spinoza held for Gilles Deleuze (a ‘Christ among philosophers’). I learned a lot about her from Andrew Wilson’s biography, a book which strikes the right balance between empathy and critical distance. Wilson’s interpretations of her work, however, are often vapid. Can one really take seriously remarks such as: ‘Highsmith’s fiction, like Bacon’s painting, allows us to glimpse the dark, terrible forces that shape our lives, while at the same time documenting the banality of evil’? Much more pertinent are the observations he quotes, such as Duncan Fallowell’s perspicuous characterisation of Highsmith as ‘a combination of painful vulnerability and iron will’. Or the anecdotes that illustrate her complete lack of tact, her openness about her fantasies and prejudices (although a leftist, she preferred Margaret Thatcher to the usual feminist bunch). Or the ethico-political grounds – already, in 1954, she was describing the US as a ‘second Roman Empire’ – on which she based her decision to make her home in ‘old Europe’. As Frank Rich put it, she ‘made a life’s work of her ostracisation from the American mainstream and her own subsequent self-reinvention’.
Wilson’s book provides a lot of material for what Freud called ‘wild analysis’. We learn, for example, that five months before Highsmith was born, her mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine; she later told her daughter about this, with the comment: ‘It’s funny you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat.’ It’s tempting to see Highsmith’s liking for the smell of what might have been the agent of her own extinction as an expression of the Oedipal wish to return to her mother’s womb – in other words, of the wish not to have left the womb in the first place and, therefore, not to exist. Such speculations pale into insignificance, however, when you compare them with the wealth of Highsmith’s fictional universe, which is very much more compelling than any secret that might be unearthed by a pseudo-Freudian search of her own experiences for a key to the morbid world portrayed in her fiction. The greatest challenge for a Freudian reading of Highsmith lies elsewhere: to explain how writing for her was literally what Lacan would have called her sinthome, or the ‘knot’ that held her universe together, the artificial symbolic formation by means of which she preserved her sanity by conferring a narrative consistency on her tumultuous experience. In her masterpiece, Those Who Walk Away, the hero’s wife justifies her suicide with the words: ‘The world is not enough.’ It was her writing that enabled Highsmith herself to endure in such a world.
It’s often said that in order to understand a work of art we need to know the historical context in which it was made. The lesson of Highsmith, however, is not only that too much historical context can prevent you from making proper contact with her work but that, in her case, it isn’t the context that explains the work but the work that enables us properly to understand the context. The task in reading Highsmith is not to understand her novels in the light of her biography, but to explain by reference to her books how she was able to survive in her ‘real’ life.
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on August 23rd 2003.]