Becoming insane: Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny

Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny. Virago Modern Classics, 2015.

There are 17 very short stories printed in a large font in this slim volume of just 135 pages, so they’re probably best described as flash fiction.

They were first published in German in Switzerland in 1975 with a title that translates as “Little Tales for Misogynists”, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his Guardian article about them. Rather than serving to teach misogynists a lesson, he suggests, ‘it’s something you might give a misogynist on his birthday’. Yes, “his”.

They do provide venomous but curiously affectless little accounts of some pretty horrible women. Their titles indicate that Highsmith takes mischievous aim at some stereotypical female figures in the patriarchy: The Coquette, The Female Novelist, The Dancer, The Invalid, The Middle-Class Housewife, and so on. Most of them behave despicably, and most come to a seemingly deserved or inevitable sticky end.

Highsmith Misogyny coverThe sheer nastiness of the protagonists and the calmly detached tone of the narrative voice that depicts their atrocities before despatching them make for some uncomfortable reading. What was Highsmith playing at? Ok, she’s famous for the twisted, psychopathic behaviour of some of her best-known characters in her full-length fiction, such as Ripley. Here she seems to be up to something different from those novels that induced Graham Greene to describe her as ‘the poet of apprehension’.

The stories read like fairy-tales or parables, with more in common with Kafka’s than Aesop’s, or Angela Carter’s with the feminism and metaphysics redacted. In the first story, for example, a young man ‘asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box – her left hand.’ It’s the insouciant irrelevance of that last phrase that causes such a tingle down the spine.

The young man not surprisingly goes mad, or ‘became insane’ as the narrator blithely puts it. The young woman visits him in the asylum ‘like a dutiful wife’. By now, it’s apparent that every time there’s one of those deceptively anodyne statements in the story, it’s going to be followed by something vicious – and it is here:

And like most wives, she had nothing to say. But she smiled prettily. His job provided a small pension now, which she was getting. Her stump was concealed in a muff.

The women in these stories behave like monstrous caricatures of the casually misogynistic male views and attitudes prevalent in the popular culture of the fifties and sixties – the ultra Don Drapers. Their men drool or despair and often, like the young man with the girl’s hand, ‘become insane’.

One way of reading the stories is to see that the women are in fact simply conforming to that male stereotype that’s been constructed for them. In Oona, the Jolly Cavewoman, for example, she’s described like a Playboy bunny:

She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, round-hipped, and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her.

Really? What did men like about her – the curves, or the jolly smiles? Either way they’re shallow and stupid. Oona drives them crazy – literally. So whose fault is that?

Some of the women characters, however, are plain malicious. The Coquette, for example, lost her virginity when she was just ten years old. She ‘told her mother that she was raped.’ She had thus ‘sent a thirty-year-old man to prison.’ Yet she’d effectively seduced him, delighting in presenting herself as sexually provocative and alluring, and she takes pleasure in ruining his life – and his wife and daughter’s. When she pits two suitors who bore her against each other, they collude and kill her ‘with various blows about the head.’ There’s that weird tone again: it’s the detachment of a police report stripped bare of any moral stance.

The world, then, is a mean and nasty place, according to these stories. Men objectify women, who are restricted to roles as submissive, decorative housewives or sex objects. If  women strive for agency or fulfilment, like The Female Novelist, The Artist or The Dancer, they are either deluded or just randomly murdered. Feminists are as morally anaesthetised and unhinged as the Middle-Class Housewife; when they meet, there’s mayhem and death.

Are these just pitch-black comedies? There’s humour there for sure, as I hope the extracts I’ve given indicate – but it’s dark as night. Take the title alone of The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife. Shades there perhaps of Sue Bridewell’s objection to marriage in Jude the Obscure as being ‘licensed to be loved on the premises.’

Or there’s The Breeder: a woman who gives birth to 17 children in fewer years. Her husband’s friends make the expression ‘she gets pregnant every time he looks at her’ horribly literal. He has little option but to become insane. When the wife visits him in yet another asylum he suggests she stand on her head to reverse the process that seemed to instigate her fecundity. The story ends with another typically barbed banality in response to that:

“He’s mad,” Elaine said hopelessly to the intern, and calmly turned away.

It’s that blandly calm detachment and acceptance of the horrific that’s so chilling, conveyed by those two perfectly selected adverbs. Warped humour that’s not exactly funny, but insidious: it’s assumed that Elaine is quite right to have no hope.

On first reading I felt pleased that I didn’t inhabit this bizarre and unsettling distortion or moral inversion of the real world. Looking again at these narratives I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s not such a distortion. Like parables and some fairy-tales, ‘the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.’ In striving to rid ourselves of our daily cares we simply exacerbate them, just as attempts to interpret these tales become parables themselves.

‘Misogynists’ is probably a misnomer, then. They’re really subversive Little Tales of Misanthropy to cheer us all up.

I’ve posted on these other Highsmith titles:

Carol

Edith’s Diary

A Suspension of Mercy

 

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy. VMC. First published 1965

I’m not usually keen on suspense thrillers, as I find they generally lack suspense and don’t thrill. A Suspension of Mercy did little to change my mind. I found it contrived and far-fetched.

The central character Sydney is an American thriller writer who fantasises about murdering his posh English wife Alicia, and gets a kick out of giving his neighbours and friends the impression that he’s indulged that fantasy, offering an implausible-sounding (but true) explanation that they’re having a trial separation – it’s difficult to see why Alicia put up with his abusive, selfish behaviour for as long as a year.

Highsmith Suspension coverIt’s set in rural Suffolk, and mirrors many key aspects of Highsmith’s own life at the time. But even the post-modern metafictional aspects failed to engage me: they too seemed self-indulgent. It seemed to me that PH was having far more fun writing this novel than I was in reading it. Like she’d set herself a challenge to write a murder mystery without a murder – an exercise in plotting. Her characters as a consequence have all the vitality of chess pieces.

Sydney’s slightly deranged flirting with danger in posing as a wife-killer, even though he was innocent, is portrayed with chilling detachment, and this is perhaps the most skilled part of the plotting and characterisation: the doubling and subversion of reliable narrative voice that are among PH’s trademarks work pretty well here.

What’s less successful is the highly unlikely actions of the married pair as their situation spirals out of control. People do die, one more or less of natural causes, though Sydney is again under suspicion, one who is murdered; but neither of the married pair behaves in a convincing manner. They behave in order to keep the plot ticking over, and cease to convince as well-rounded characters.

The secondary characters are also bloodless and serve to move the plot along or keep it tangled, little else – though I quite liked the treacherous turn Sydney’s writing partner Alex takes. People can be horrible like that.

This novel was disappointing. I thought the two others by PH that I’ve read and posted on – Carol and Edith’s Diary – were well written, tautly plotted and psychologically interesting and highly original. A Suspension of Mercy is inferior to them in every respect.

 

 

 

 

Patricia Highsmith, Edith’s Diary

Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary. VMC 2015. First published 1977

Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers probe the twisted minds and lives of people who adopt an oblique approach to what most would call reality. (Carol, which I posted about last summer, is different.) In Edith’s Diary we are back in the world of disquieting mental states in a deceptively tranquil domestic setting in the nineteen sixties and seventies.

Highsmith Edith's Diary coverBrett and Edith move from the city to a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb to enable their son Cliffie to grow up in a healthier environment. Big mistake. It’s not the city that’s unhealthy. Aged eight he tries to smother the family cat. At ten he jumps off a local bridge into the river below – twice – and is fortunate to be rescued.

Sullen, contemptuous and uncommunicative, he clearly has mental health problems way beyond the usual adolescent truculence. As the novel develops Cliffie emerges as something of a psychopath, cruel and unsympathetic to those around him, and with murderous tendencies. As a boy he watches the collapse of his parents’ marriage with detached curiosity verging on pleasure: if he’s ‘not normal’, what are they?

But it’s Edith who’s at the heart of this novel. When Brett leaves her for a younger model, her own difficulties with reality worsen. The occasional entries in her eponymous diary become increasingly out of touch with the heartbreaking and often dangerous realities of her disintegrating life – and mind. One of her earliest entries sets the tone for the rest:

‘Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?’

She’d felt better after getting that down on paper. Such an attitude wasn’t phony armor, she thought, it was a fact that life had no meaning. One simply went on and on, worked on, and did one’s best.

 

Edith’s existential passivity and nullity is at odds with her apparently committed views on politics and social mores. Contemplating her husband’s unmarried elderly hypochondriac uncle, who she ends up caring for alone when Brett abandons her, she angrily wonders why he’d never married:

Edith couldn’t imagine a man thirty-five or so not getting married, if he could afford to, because it was so convenient to have a wife, he wouldn’t be here now, for instance.

Highsmith astutely handles Edith’s incongruous mixed-up thoughts in order to expose the hypocrisies and inequalities in a complacent patriarchal society which Edith lacks the strength or clarity of mind to confront head-on. It’s apparent that the newspaper she co-edits is received with either indifference or contempt in her community, and it becomes as trivial and banal in its editorials as its target audience.

Edith in her diary fabricates an alternative existence in which Cliffie goes to Princeton (he’d flunked all his exams or cheated and been exposed), and becomes a global executive in an elite engineering firm.

As the indolent young man in the nightmare real world becomes a violent alcoholic parasite, ever more antisocial and unhinged, she cranks up the perfection of this imagined world of her diary: she marries him to a trophy Wasp, gives him two adorable children and they all dote on her.

These fantasies serve to heighten the sense of foreboding and horror of what’s really going on under her roof: ‘it was pleasant and reassuring to imagine’, the narrator confides at one point as Edith invents a happy wedding for misfit loner Cliffie.

As the gap between ugly reality and her own delusions widens, Edith becomes as deranged as her obese, monstrous son. Brett had been a leftist journalist, while Edith produced a local free paper in which she could write fervently liberal anti-Vietnam War polemics – but her mental collapse is accompanied by an alarming swing to authoritarian conservatism which alienates her few friends. She loses her job as a result of her increasingly erratic behaviour.

This is an unsettling, meticulously constructed exposure of a dysfunctional family – all of whom are damaged, deluded and self-deceiving in their various ways. They could be seen as a metaphor for the disintegration of fragile liberal American values at the time. I wonder what Highsmith would have made of the present post-truth world.

It’s not possible to say it’s an enjoyable novel, given its uncomfortably disturbing subject matter, explored with unflinching forensic attention by Highsmith. But it’s gripping in a car-crash sort of way.

 

 

 

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.