Patricia Highsmith, Carol

Patricia Highsmith, Carol. Bloomsbury pb, 2014. First published in the USA as The Price of Salt in 1952

Squeezing this last post in this month before I go on my travels, so there’ll be a hiatus here at TD for a while.

I’ve not read Patricia Highsmith before, but had read some very positive reviews of her psychological thrillers, and have seen films like Strangers on a Train (directed by Hitchcock in 1951) and The Talented Mr Ripley. Carol is very different.

The author explains in an Afterword that the inspiration for the novel came in 1948, soon after she’d finished Strangers, and was living in New York. Being short of cash she took a temporary job in a department store as a sales assistant in the toy department. Like Therese in the novel, she was assigned to the doll section:

One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat.

Patricia Highsmith, CarolShe went home and wrote up an 8-page story outline in her notebook. This was one of those germs of an idea that Henry James has written about; they simmer in the author’s mind for a while and then emerge as works of fiction.

Here’s how the scene plays out in the novel:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.

The 19-year-old Therese, an aspiring stage set designer, has had a coup de foudre. What follows is a compelling account of a passion that turns out to be mutual, but beset by the hostility and prejudice against lesbian relationships that were prevalent at the time – and still are, sadly, in some places.

Carol is a wealthy housewife in her thirties, married but soon to be divorced. Her husband uses the situation to ensure he is awarded custody of their little girl.

Therese and Carol go on a road trip out west. They are being followed by a detective hired by the husband. He’s as cynical and unsympathetic as the man who hired him, and the society that spawned them both. The cat and mouse pursuit and suspense that follows is heart-stopping and makes for a compelling read.

Carol was played beautifully by Cate Blanchett in the 2015 film (directed by Todd Haynes).

Not surprisingly, Highsmith published the novel in 1952 under an assumed name; her usual publisher wouldn’t touch it because of its lesbian theme. Big mistake: it sold over a million copies when it came out in paperback.

There’s an excellent introduction in this Bloomsbury edition, by Val McDermid. As she says, it’s ‘a polished and accomplished work’. I recommend it.

 

Writers are monsters: Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel. First published 1957; my edition: Virago Modern Classics, 2013.

‘Writers are monsters’, Hilary Mantel concludes in her introduction to this VMC edition. The gloriously inappropriately named protagonist of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel is a bestselling writer (born in 1885) of terrible romantic fiction. She’s the antithesis of her creator: Taylor writes her meticulously acute observation of ordinary lives, usually in unexciting suburban bourgeois settings, able through her sensitive writer’s antennae to pick up the tiniest signals of emotion and strangeness; her style is crisp, clear, restrained. Angel writes outrageously romantic, borderline salacious period melodramas with two-dimensional characters, dredged up from the shallow pool of her limited sensibility in luridly clichéd, overwritten prose. She’s opinionated and ignorant, and hates books and reading almost as much as she dislikes real people and life:

She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her…

When asked by her publisher when they first meet what authors she’s read and liked, she’s at a loss:

“I quite liked Shakespeare,” she admitted. “Except when he is trying to be funny.”

Angel escapes from and triumphs over reality in her daydreams; ‘she was menaced by intimations of the truth’. Henry James aspired to write ‘the real thing’; Angel

had removed herself, romantically, from the evidence of her senses: the reality of what she could learn by touching, tasting, was banished as a trivial annoyance, scored out as irrelevant.

These adolescent fantasies develop into her badly written stories as antidote to her drab, squalid life above a grocer’s shop in a dismal slum in a bleak industrial city.

It’s a novel that’s as bitter about the dreadful taste of a reading public that makes Angel a fortune from her scribbling as it is about the awful, exposed solitude of the writer’s life.

Elizabeth Taylor, cover of 'Angel'Perhaps that sounds a bit grim – but it’s a very funny, beautifully written book. From the opening words, when we’re treated to the only direct quotation in the novel of Angel’s execrable, purple prose style – an extract from a story written for her teacher (though it’s a style imitated viciously by one of her subsequent publishers) – it’s clear that Taylor has created a deliciously outrageous monster.

There are telling glimpses of the mediocrity of the adults around her that inspire Angel’s venomous animosity from the outset, such as that dull, narrow-minded teacher at a pretentious but useless private school:

She doesn’t believe I wrote it, she thought, glancing with contempt at the flustered little woman with the slipping pince-nez and bird’s-nest hair. Who does she think wrote it if I didn’t? Who does she think could? What a way to spend your life – fussing about with school lessons, getting chalk all over your skirt, going home to lodgings at night to work out the next day’s Shakespeare – cut to page this, line that, so that we don’t have to read the word ‘womb’.

The narrative voice has the wit, insight and sharp eye for detail that is all Taylor; Angel would never be capable of that selective kind of descriptive detail. But it’s a voice that also accurately expresses the viciousness and arrogance of the schoolgirl who so despises this harmless, commonplace teacher. It foreshadows the sheer nastiness, narcissism and intolerant cruelty that Angel displays throughout her life whenever someone criticises her work (which is clearly terrible), or has the temerity to challenge her fiery, rude and obstinate behaviour.

It’s perhaps this aspect of the novel that’s so brilliant. Anyone who’s ever aspired to write has to deal with the conflicting emotions brought about by the critical comments of those who read their work.  Angel has such a wilfully inflated, delusional view of her own brilliance that she’s incapable of accepting criticism gracefully, or of learning from it. She believes she’s perfect, so improvement is a logical impossibility in her view.

Maybe there’s something in this mixture of ‘great vanity’ and self-belief that all aspiring writers experience, but rarely admit to.

Here’s a typically astute piece of humour that also serves to draw attention to the egregious lack of self-awareness in Angel’s character; she receives fanmail, but also letters from clergymen complaining that she’s corrupting the morals of the young:

…these letters gave her a sense of power and she enjoyed reading them…she did not write for children. Letters which merely made carping criticisms, about flowers coming out in the wrong season, Orion appearing in the night sky in August, or some confusions with Greek deities, she put down as the work of literary critics, a part of their general scheme against her.

Typical of Angel, to make the expression ‘literary critics’ into an expletive (as ‘do-gooders’ or ‘anti-fascists’ are for extreme right-wingers). And notice that it’s ‘confusions’ and ‘deities’, plural! That hint of paranoia, too. Wonderful.

Then she picks up another reader’s letter:

“Dear Madam,” she read, “Since you can only describe what you write of from your own experiences, we must deduce from this fact that you are nothing but a common whore. Please keep your excesses to yourself and spare yours in disgust, Lover of Literature.”

When her husband roared with laughter on reading this, Angel ‘looked at him in amazement which changed to cold disdain.’ She can’t understand why he finds it – and her – hilarious, and then she feels sickened and angry; ‘he must be mad’, she concludes. The London EC4 postmark ‘meant nothing to her’; her vanity exceeds her boundless ignorance, for it is, of course, that of Fleet Street and the heart of English publishing.

I wrote in February about Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories and about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

The wolf and the lamb: a fable for our times

I was going to post about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel, which I recently finished reading, but was diverted by an entry in an old notebook of mine about this fable of the wolf and the lamb. It resonates even more today, given recent events in the world.

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The wolf and the lamb is the last one

The beast fables of Aesop (620-c 560 BCE), themselves often derived from more ancient oriental sources such as the Buddhist Dipi Jatakas, were adapted by the Roman poet Phaedrus (15 BCE-50). The text that follows is from a prose translation by H.T. Riley, published in London, 1887, available at Project Gutenberg; I’ve made minor adjustments in line with the original Latin text.

THE WOLF AND THE LAMB.

Driven by thirst, a Wolf and a Lamb had come to the same stream; the Wolf stood above, and the Lamb at a distance below. Then, the villain (thief or brigand, lit.), prompted by hunger (or ‘wicked throat’), trumped up a pretext for a quarrel. “Why,” said he, “have you made the water muddy for me while I am drinking?” The wool-bearer, trembling, answered: “Please, Wolf, how can I do what you complain of? The water is flowing downwards from you to where I am drinking.” The other, disconcerted by the force of truth, exclaimed: “Six months ago, you slandered me.” “Indeed,” answered the Lamb, “I was not born then.” “By Hercules,” said the Wolf, “then ’twas your father slandered me;” and so, snatching him up, he tore him to pieces, killing him unjustly.

This Fable is applicable to those men who, under false pretences, oppress the innocent.

More pertinent is the alternative version by Christopher Smart (1722-71), which ends :

Abash’d by facts, says he, “I know

’Tis now exact six months ago

You strove my honest fame to blot”—

“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”

“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,

And so he tore him, till he died.

To those this fable I address

Who are determined to oppress,

And trump up any false pretence,

But they will injure innocence

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry - artsy.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48311782

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1686-1755 – artsy.net, Public Domain

The fable was adapted many times subsequently; La Fontaine (published 1668-94) of course, but also by the Scots makar, Robert Henryson (fl. 1460-1500). Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his version (adapted slightly):

It’s about widespread social breakdown. The Lamb appeals to natural law, to Scripture, and to statutory law, and is answered by the Wolf with perversions of all these. Then Henryson in his own person comments that there are three kinds of contemporary wolves who oppress the poor: dishonest lawyers; real estate tycoons intent on extending their estates; and landowners who exploit their tenants.

To this could be added, in our day, the power-crazed in all walks of life, including politics.

I shall be going on holiday soon, so may not post much for a while; meantime I hope to post the Angel piece before I go.

Leopardi on life: Zibaldone revisited

In August 2015 I wrote about Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) and his enormous collection of reflections and thoughts, the Zibaldone. A critical study published yesterday by Peter Lang, Oxford, A System that Excludes all Systems: Giacomo di Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri, by Emanuela Cervato, has this summary on the publisher’s website:

For many decades Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri has been seen as a collection of temporary thoughts and impressions whose final expression is to be found in the published poems (the Canti) and satirical dialogues (the Operette morali). The conceptual consistency of the work was thereby denied, privileging Leopardi the poet over Leopardi the thinker.

This book shows that such a perceived lack of coherence is merely illusory. The Zibaldone is drawn together by an intricate web of references centring around topics such as the ambivalent concept of nature; the Heraclitean «union of opposites» (ancients and moderns, poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination); and the tension between the desire for happiness and the impossibility of its realization. Largely unknown to the English-speaking world until its translation in 2013, the Zibaldone is Leopardi’s intellectual diary, the place where dialogue with the ancient classical traditions evolves into modern encyclopaedism and what has been described as «thought in movement». It establishes Leopardi as one of the most original and radical thinkers of the nineteenth century.

Zibaldone

My copy

My 2013 Penguin hardback copy, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco d’Intino, was translated by a principal team of seven scholars, with additional material by others.

That 2015 post of mine suggested that Leopardi had influenced writers including Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett. It’s not a book for reading in sequence from page 1; it lends itself better to dipping in. Here’s an example of the sort of material such a strategy brings out.

I found I had highlighted this passage, on p. 183, entry numbered by the editors as 273:

The majority of people live according to habit, without pleasure or real hopes, without sufficient reason for continuing to live or doing what is necessary to stay alive. If they thought about it, apart from religion they would find no reason for living and, though unnatural, it would be rational to conclude that their life was absurd, because although having begun life is, according to nature, justification for continuing it, according to reason it is not.

Now this also sounds to me a bit (if you strip out that reference to religion, from which Leopardi was struggling to detach himself, it seems) like Camus.

This took me to the entry ‘life’ in the topic index. The quotation above is the first citation; this is the second, which also has a Camus/Sartre element:

The question of whether suicide helps man or not (which is what knowing if it is reasonable or not, and can be chosen or not, comes down to), can be reduced to these simple terms. Which of the two is better, suffering or not suffering? …[he mulls these options over for several lines, then…] And we conclude that since not suffering is more helpful to man than suffering, and since he cannot live without suffering, it is mathematically true and certain that absolute not being is more beneficial and more fitting to man than being. And that being is, precisely, harmful to man. And therefore anyone who lives (if you take away religion) lives because of a pure formal error of calculation: I mean the calculation of utility (p. 1069, entry 2549)

Other entries in the index extend the term to ‘[Life] is not necessary’; ‘What is life?’; ‘Why are we born?’…’Life is an evil in itself’, and so on.

I’m not qualified to examine Leopardi’s philosophy with any rigour; I can only dabble like this and make facile connections and observations. The editors in their introduction explain that he lived at a time after the first generation of Romantics known in Italy as an age of ‘discontent, frustration, melancholy’; Leopardi was grappling with ‘the existential choice between life and death’ (p. xii).

He was born in the Papal States, in Recanati in the Marche. His provincial, ultra-conservative family gave him a strict Catholic education, and expected him to become a priest. His deep study of philology and  the classics and then of contemporary literature, however, lured him in a different direction.

Benjamin Arcades coverHe paved the way in his writing, it would appear then, for Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, the existentialists and post-structuralists. His Zibaldone, like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, can be read as hypertext.

I need to look at the poetry, in which he also found release.

‘Rain and mist and darkness’: Patrick McGrath, Spider

Patrick McGrath, Spider Penguin 1992, first published 1990

Several of the books I’ve recently read deal with the traumatic impact on a child of the loss of their mother and the father’s cold, cruel behaviour, usually intensified by his replacing his wife with someone unsympathetic to that child.

That’s the case in William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. Even in Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, the eponymous heroine’s story is precipitated by the death of her parents and her decision to leave the unloving, constraining sanctuary she’d temporarily found with her brother and his family.

McGrath, SpiderPatrick McGrath (born in London in 1950, long resident in Canada then the USA) deals in darker areas of the human psyche. It’s not surprising, therefore, that his eponymous first-person narrator, Dennis Cleg, bizarrely but appropriately nicknamed Spider, will react to his family drama in far more extreme, dangerous ways than the characters in the books I just mentioned.

It’s a painful experience, reading this novel. Spider slowly spins out his web of a story in  sections of flashback – to the childhood when his father abused and tormented both his wife and young son, and to a present when it gradually becomes apparent that the grown-up Spider is living in some kind of halfway house after release from a mental institution.

He has trouble with the time frames: past intrudes into the present, and it’s not always possible for the narrator to distinguish then from now, reality from fantasy. He hears voices and disturbing noises in the attic. He loves the ‘rain and mist and darkness’, the ‘wetness and darkness and skies like thick gray blankets’ of grimy London slum of his childhood. His voice often resorts to that list structure and repetition of such details to evoke an obsessive attention and reaction to his bleak, modern-gothic surroundings.

The adult Spider spends his solitary days walking, sitting by a canal smoking roll-ups and trying to avoid looking at the gas-holders. He has a thing about gas, for reasons only revealed near the end.

I found this troubling and unsettling to read, not always in a rewarding way. I know when he was a child McGrath’s father was medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital, treating criminally insane inmates, and that he himself worked in a Canadian top security unit in a mental health centre. He uses this first-hand experience to chilling effect in his writing.

It’s never possible to rely on this narrative’s veracity; Spider’s story becomes increasingly incoherent and contradictory as his disintegrating mind circles around the objects caught in his web of memories and fantasies. There’s a murder, but he refuses to accept that he committed it, even though it results in his being institutionalised for decades. As a drastic coping mechanism he learns to split his identity or personality, one representing his ‘good’ side, the other that’s been ‘poisoned’ and gone ‘bad’.

He has an unhealthy attitude to sexual matters, and takes prurient interest in his father’s tarty replacement for Spider’s much-loved mother. Here’s his reaction to one of his father’s more vicious outbursts against her:

“It’s my fault – you go to sleep, it’s all right, I’m fine now.” And she leaned over to kiss me on the forehead, and I felt the dampness of her tears on her face. Oh, I hated him then! Then I would have killed him, were it in my power – he had a squalid nature, that man, he was dead inside, stinking and rotten and dead.

McGrath excels at using language to reproduce the voice of a deranged, troubled person; here the fractured or disjointed syntax and pulsating rhythms and repetitions are deeply disturbed and disturbing. Spider struggles with extreme emotions or challenging events; then he becomes, as he puts it, ‘uncoupled’ – a term that’s richly suggestive.

I can’t say then that I enjoyed this novel. Its deeply disturbed, damaged narrator’s voice is insidious, like a nightmare that you can’t wake from.

If you’re interested you might like my thoughts on the two other McGrath novels I’ve posted about:

Asylum (1996), which is the best of the three, in my opinion: again it deals with a psychologically disturbed man in…well, an asylum, and the wildly dangerous affair with him that the institution’s medical director’s wife enters into.

Constance (2013) has a narrator less psychotic than these other two, but still emotionally and mentally unstable.

David Cronenberg, himself not averse to exploring the disturbed psyche, filmed Spider in 2002. David Mackenzie directed Asylum in 2005.