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The Individuality of Patricia Highsmith

Alex Clark considers the writer at 100
Portrait Of Patricia Highsmith

In the Times Literary Supplement, Alex Clark takes stock of Patricia Highsmith at 100:

The secret of writing successfully, advised Patricia Highsmith (1921–95) in her slim guide Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), is nothing more than individuality – ‘call it personality’ – and, since we are all individuals to begin with, this simply becomes a matter of finding a way to express one’s difference from the next person. ‘This is what I call the opening of the spirit’, Highsmith continued. ‘But it isn’t mystic. It is merely a kind of freedom – freedom organised.’

On a straightforward tally, Highsmith was at this point halfway through her career as a novelist: eleven books had been published, including Strangers on a Train (1950), her debut, The Blunderer (1954), Deep Water (1957) and the first of her five Ripley novels, The Talented Mr Ripley (1955); eleven were still to come, perhaps most notably, Ripley aside, Those Who Walk Away (1967) and, a decade later, the highly curious Edith’s Diary (1977). (Interestingly, though death is present in both these later novels, outright murder is not.) There were also numerous short stories and even a children’s book, Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda (1958), which Highsmith illustrated – she was a talented artist – to take her mind off a tricky novel (A Game for the Living, 1958) and a failing relationship (her then girlfriend, Doris Sanders, provided the text). Under a Dark Angel’s Eye, a new selection of the stories, published this week to coincide with the centenary of Highsmith’s birth, has even unearthed two that have never previously been seen.

Highsmith was, then, at this mid-stage in her career, and by her own estimation, proving effective at organizing her own freedom, despite the normal creative hurdles. Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is candid, and even kind, about the false starts and blockages that all writers encounter, counselling that ideas must take time to percolate and breaks must be taken. Whether Highsmith would be an adornment to a modern creative writing faculty is another matter, and certainly she had little time for the practice of workshopping: ‘I cannot think of anything worse or more dangerous than to discuss my work with another writer. It would give me an uncomfortably naked feeling’.

In other news: Park MacDougald reviews Helen Andrews’s Boomers: “If you’re at all familiar with Andrews’s previous work, you’ll know she’s not one to mince words. ‘The baby boomers,’ she writes early in the book, ‘have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.’ Before they came along, according to Andrews, America was rich, democratic, unified, pious, and optimistic about the future; now, we are a divided nation of lonely, indebted, TV-and-pornography-addled depressives, so brainwashed by self-serving boomer propaganda that we can barely comprehend the enormity of what has been done to us. Perhaps worst of all, the boomers themselves don’t understand what they’ve done — they still think of themselves as heroes. Andrews would like to correct the record before they die.”

The world’s most magnificent churches: “Allan Doig includes Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the mosque-cathedral of Cordoba among 12 examples of magnificent church architecture.”

Voltaire’s Louis XIV: “Voltaire published his Siècle de Louis XIV in 1751, but he had been working on it since the late 1720s, and parts appeared in dribs and drabs in different places before that date. He conceived it not just as a history of France, but of Europe and even of the world . . . He began with the premiss that France under that monarch had achieved a fourth ‘Age of Perfection’ after that of Pericles, Augustus and the Italian Renaissance.”

Print magazines bounce back in New Zealand: “Sydney private equity firm Mercury Capital purchased Bauer NZ for an unspecified sum in June (later renaming it Are Media) – extending a lifeline to The Listener and four other mastheads. Metro and North & South were both acquired by independent investors seeking to preserve New Zealand’s tradition of long-form features journalism. Meanwhile, four entirely new monthly titles – staffed by former Bauer editors and writers, with former CEO Paul Dykzeul advising – were launched by School Road Publishing in November.”

Mary Anne Carter resigns as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts: “A policy adviser to former Florida Gov. Rick Scott and a public affairs consultant, Carter joined the agency as senior deputy chair in early 2017 and became acting chair on June 5, 2018.”

Photo: Siena

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