Don’t let the pull quote form Slavoj Zizek put you off. This too-little read classic by Highsmith is a cracking read. It’s suffused with an existential dread so thick you could cut it with a Derwatt paint knife. It starts in Rome and quickly moves to Venice, currently repopulated with swans and dolphins, which is no less bizarre than this book.
Adding to the head-jerking oddness, it’s dedicated to Lil Picard, ‘painter and writer, one of my more inspiring friends’ in Highsmith’s words. The Jewish artist was once part of the Dadaists scene in Berlin, hanging out with Brecht and Dix, then fled to New York where she hung out at Andy’s Factory and made performance art with Caroline Schneeman and Yoko. It’s a surprising choice for the notoriously anti-Semitic writer (they’d not spoken in a decade) but it speaks volumes to her yearning for art and artistry.
Art permeates the story: Ray Garrett is thinking of starting a gallery as he grieves for his wife’s suicide, fearing that he might have been able to save her if only he’d seen the clues (Highsmith dealt with the same when her lover, the artist Allela Cornell, committed suicide). This is the least of his problems, however.
The book opens with Garrett walking through Rome with his passive-aggressive father-in-law who, quiet suddenly, takes out a gun and shoots him, and then runs off. More shocked than injured, Garrett panics and runs back to his hotel to put a Band-Aid on the graze and clean the blood from his shirt. And to think: how did Colemon get a gun? What would he do when he discovered Ray was not dead?
This begins a weird tale of cat and mouse that quickly moves to Venice. ‘If he saw Coleman alone again just once, he could say it all plainly in words—say the plain fact that he didn’t know why Peggy had killed herself, that he honestly couldn’t explain it.’ But her father won’t accept the truth. So much so that Ray begins to wonder if he does bear some guilt. When Coleman shoves him off a boat into the wintery canal, Ray goes into hiding to let him believe he’s been killed. It may, in part, be fueled by the fever he catches from his soaking. But it becomes quite surreal.
He begins to think like a criminal, inventing lies sometimes for cover and sometimes just for a kind of romanticised desire to disappear from himself. Ray tells himself he’s not trying to change his appearance with the beard at the same time he’s cautioning himself to invent a ‘decent’ story: ‘The nearest to the truth was best, or so he had always heard.’ I love how Highsmith tips her hand here about her own easy story-making. Ray looks at himself (oh the cliché but this is 1967) and sees a lot more than he wants to:
It was an American face, slightly on the handsome side, hopelessly marred by vagueness, discretion, the second thought, if not downright indecision.
As gruesome as this all sounds, there is actually a lot of humour in the novel. Ray and his partner consider opening the Gallery of Bad Art in NYC, if they can’t find enough good painters to share. ‘Call it Gallery Zero, for instance. The public’ll soon get the idea.’ Highsmith obsesses over art and its quality in a very different way from Ripley’s blithe assurance that forgery is better than ‘good’ art. The humour pops out quite unexpectedly (like Highsmith’s own ‘jokes’ apparently) and so do the astute observations, like a sharp knife in the dark. I think Camus and Sartre would approve of this one which seems to sum up so much of her work:
Perhaps identity, like hell, was merely other people.