Patricia Highsmith at 100 by K A Laity

International Noir, K A Laity, Patricia Highsmith

One hundred years ago the Cottingley Fairies were brought to the public’s attention by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote in the accompanying essay, ‘The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life.’ More a harmless whimsy than a grift, nonetheless people did feel a bit cheated as the scrutiny of the images led to growing skepticism. But they are remembered fondly, as an image of a sweeter time when anything was possible.

One hundred years ago today Patricia Highsmith was born to a mother at best ambivalent and a father who was already heading out the door of their Texas home. Her surname came from her step father, who had a hard row to hoe with the suspicious young girl. She was shipped off to her grandmother’s while her parents tried to set up life in New York City, eventually bringing Pat with them and giving her a sort of home base for much of her adult life, though she was always proud of being Texan.

Highsmith is difficult, not just in the way that women who forge their own paths are inevitably labeled difficult. She was always chafing against everything, unable to settle in, unable to feel comfortable—always pretending to be human. As her favourite alter ego says, ‘If you wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or thoughtful, or courteous, you simply had to act those things with every gesture.’

She was racist, pugnacious, anti-Semitic often despite having many Jewish women as her lovers (while the Shenkar and Wilson biographies are more authoritative, Marijane Meaker’s account of their love affair is a wild ride well worth taking). She loved snails, and yes smuggled them between Britain and France in her bra—the very thought of which gives me the vapours. But one of the few beautiful love scenes she ever wrote was in her serial killer novel Deep Water, where the killer watches his snails Hortense and Edgar make love, ‘How they did adore each other, and how perfect they were together!’ I can’t help thinking that Vic, who can’t dance, can’t love in the usual sort of human way is amazed and awed by the simple love of the snails and his creator is, too.

The Cottingley Fairies were adorable and sweet, something people longed to see. Highsmith is everything opposite to that, and yet just as arresting and memorable one hundred years later because she captured something no one wants to see, but knows lurks in the mind or heart of people who kill. She found her killers likable, but feared and hated people who made noise.

She drove most people away from her, finally withdrawing to a house like a bunker in the Swiss Alps. Up to the end she complained about paying taxes, but cheered herself by thinking, ‘it is good then to remember that artists have existed and persisted, like the snail and the coelacanth and other unchanging forms of organic life, since long before governments were dreamed of.’

If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend Edith’s Diary as particularly apropos in this moment. It’s a great demonstration of how one can be parted from reality step by step. A lot of that about.