Thursday 27 September 2012

The Great Tom Ripley Reread, 3: Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann First Edition, 1974)

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

We've reached the halfway mark now in the Great Tom Ripley Reread, with a book which is not only my personal favourite of Patricia Highsmith's five Ripley novels, but one of my favourite books full stop. And this particular edition – which is becoming quite uncommon these days – also holds a special place in my heart, because it's one of the first books I bought when I started collecting first editions, lo those many moons ago (er, about three or four years ago, for anyone counting):

It's the British first edition of Ripley's Game – the third Tom Ripley novel, following The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground – published by Heinemann in 1974 under a dust jacket featuring photography by Graham Miller (and scanned for me by the estimable Ellie Wilson). I bought this copy in a Cecil Court bookshop which has since disappeared, but I read the novel itself some years prior to that and fell for it in a big way. It's an atypical book in the Ripley series – although not in Highsmith's oeuvre overall – in that it's related from two perspectives, rather than just Tom's. In fact Highsmith preferred to write from two viewpoints whenever possible, and did precisely that in, to name but a handful, Strangers on a Train (her 1950 debut), The Blunderer (1954) and The Two Faces of January (1964). So that might be one reason why I rate Ripley's Game so highly, and linked to that, the way in which Highsmith, by practically sidelining Tom in parts, brilliantly shows not only his malicious and manipulative nature, but his admirable resourcefulness, bravery and even, bizarrely, loyalty.

Set six months on from the events of Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game further explores the notion of Tom as malevolent spirit, an idea never really touched on in The Talented Mr. Ripley – Tom is too young and headstrong in that novel, too impetuous to be pinpointed as a master manipulator – but instead raised in Under Ground, where Tom identifies himself as "a mystic origin, a font of evil". At the heart of Game is "...nothing more than a practical joke... a nasty one", as Highsmith/Tom puts it: as payback for a perceived slight at a party, Tom suggests local framer – and what an apposite occupation that is – Jonathan Trevanny, whom Tom learns is slowly dying of Leukemia, to his shady associate Reeves Minot, who is looking for an innocent to commit one, perhaps two murders of Mafia men in Germany. Despite the fact that "Tom detested murder unless it was absolutely necessary", he puts Trevanny's name forward purely out of malice, because it amuses him to do so. Thus begins Ripley's game.

Thereafter, Tom effectively vanishes from the narrative for sixty pages, and events are related from Jonathan's perspective, as Reeves convinces him to come to Hamburg to seek a second medical opinion on his illness and, it transpires, carry out the first of the two hits. Even so, Tom is a constant presence: Jonathan wonders who it was who spread the rumour that his condition had worsened, and who might have suggested him to Reeves; and in a more general sense Tom is a corrupting influence: Jonathan is forced to lie to his wife, Simone, to explain the money he's been paid by Reeves, a lie which grows in size and becomes ever more toxic as the novel progresses.

Once Tom reenters the tale and hears that Jonathan has actually carried out the first assassination, he briefly speculates, "Could it be that Trevanny was one of us?", but quickly decides that "us to Tom was only Tom Ripley". It's additional confirmation that Tom is fully aware of who and what he is – not only a font of evil but "a man on the borderline of the law" – and how different he is to most, if not all, people. And by and large he can live with this knowledge, even revel in it to an extent; certainly he takes pleasure in shocking his friends around Villeperce, the (fictional) village in France where he and his wife, Heloise, live, telling Antoine and Agnes Grais, a couple who live locally, that he's "thought of a wonderful way to start a forest fire", to which Antoine "chuckled grudgingly" and Agnes and Heloise "gave appreciative shrieks of horror". That Tom has been mixed up in one or two murky episodes is evidently common knowledge, something he himself is cognizant of: 

He was aware of his reputation, that many people mistrusted him, avoided him. Tom had often thought that his ego could have been shattered long ago – the ego of the average person would have been shattered – except for the fact that people, once they got to know him, once they came to Belle Ombre and spent an evening, liked him and Heloise well enough, and the Ripleys were invited back.

On the other hand, when a Mafia man later cowers in fear at Tom's feet, Tom confesses, "For once [he] was proud of his reputation." He does, however, admit to feeling "vaguely ashamed of himself" for having got Jonathan involved in Reeves's scheme – especially the planned second hit, which proves rather trickier than the first – and his guilt motivates him to offer assistance to Jonathan, and consequently become more involved in his affairs – much to Simone's alarm. Simone is afraid that Tom has corrupted Jonathan, which is precisely what he has done. But he's also, in a way, made him more alive: Highsmith never lets us forget that Jonathan is dying – will die sometime within the next few years no matter what he does – and so securing some kind of financial future for his wife and son gives him purpose. Of course, the money too is tainted; Jonathan cannot confess to Simone how he earned it, and his feeble excuses – supplied by Tom – for how he obtained it only make it more suspect in her eyes. And in the end, even Simone will be corrupted by it, and by Tom.

Unlike, arguably, Talented and Under Ground, where Tom often seemed to be at the mercy of events, trying to stop them spinning out of control, in Game he's as in command as we'll ever see him. His superhuman intuitiveness again plays a big part in this: his leaps of logic and ability to anticipate what might or will happen – "...those inspirations that came sometimes while he was under the shower, or gardening, those gifts of the gods..." – inspirations which also, handily, assist Highsmith in keeping the plot moving. In Game Tom explains this acuity of vision: "I'm the worrying type. You'd never think so, would you? I try to think of the worst before it happens. Not quite the same as being pessimistic."

Reading a novel for the second or even third time, naturally one notices things that either initially passed one by, or that now spark as a result of things one has since become interested in. Early on in Game, Tom ruminates on Reeves's "microfilm activities", the smuggling operations that Tom sometimes acts as a middle man for, and "which presumably had to do with international spying". When I originally read Game my passion for spy fiction had yet to ignite, but this time round I found Tom's thoughts on espionage wryly amusing. Highsmith came to identify strongly with Tom Ripley, and every now and then it's possible to detect her voice rather than his, such as in this passage, which could be taken as a commentary on the 1960s spy boom, the aftereffects of which were still being felt in fiction in the early 1970s: 

Were governments aware of the insane antics of some of their spies? Of those whimsical, half-demented men flitting from Bucharest to Moscow and Washington with guns and microfilm – men who might with the same enthusiasm have put their energies to international warfare in stamp-collecting, or in acquiring secrets of miniature electric trains?

Much later, Tom is subjected to Simone's righteous fury, and his reaction again seems to reflect Highsmith's own attitudes and feelings, in this case her tempestuous relationships with other women: 

To Tom [her fury] was a circular chaos, a ring of little fires, and if he successfully extinguished one, the woman's mind leapt to the next.

Numerous links to the previous two books litter the text – mentions of Dickie Greenleaf from Talented and Murchison and Derwatt from Under Ground; Tom using the fake passport Reeves supplied to him in Under Ground – but something we learn for the first time in Game is Tom's (skewed, of course) politics. Noting that Heloise is reading a book he bought on the French socialist movement, he reflects: 

That would not improve relations with her father, Tom thought. Often Heloise came out with very leftist remarks, principles which she had no idea of practising. But Tom felt he was slowly pushing her to the left. Push with one hand, take with the other, Tom thought.

Set against these reread revelations is the fact that the terrific twist, or rather reveal, in the middle of the novel loses its impact on second reading. At the same time, on this go round I was struck by the level of violence in the book. Much of this is blackly comic, but even so, Game is by far the most bloodthirsty of the Ripley novels, boasting a succession of shootings and garrotings, bludgeonings and burnings, all climaxing with a full-on Mafia assault. During the course of all this Tom and Jonathan go from being antagonists to allies to friends – almost; or at least brothers in arms: eating steak together prior to a battle, defending and saving each other again and again, like protagonists in a prototypical 1980s buddy flick, complete with narrative back-and-forth and a sprinkling of verbal sparring. There's even, ultimately, what appears to be a noble sacrifice, although little in the way of redemption; this is, after all, a Ripley novel.

By story's end it's clear that Highsmith has once again returned to her frequent theme of two men who become oddly fascinated by one another – see, among others, Strangers on a Train, A Game for the Living (1958) and, of course, The Talented Mr. Ripley (Tom and Dickie) and, to an extent, Ripley Under Ground (Tom and Bernard Tufts). And see also the next book in the Ripley series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, in which, just for a change, it's Tom who becomes the object of a bizarre fascination...


  1. Agree with pretty much everything you've said here. This is my favourite of Highsmith's novels, which means it's my favourite Ripley novel too. I remember it was also the last of the five that I read, which made it all the more enjoyable - it really had everything. Not sure why I held off from reading it for so long, though. Possibly because I'd already seen the movie and thought I knew everything that happened. But, of course, I didn't. The movie, while excellent (with Malkovich at his malevolent best), misses out a lot of stuff while adding other material. But I'd still recommend it, if only for the scene on the train. Unfortunately, the novels go downhill from here on in, IMO.

  2. Crikey, that was fast work on the commenting, Jason! I like the Malkovich movie as well, but I thought best to steer clear of it for this post – and of the film adaptations in general with all these Ripley posts, lest they end up even more bloated than they already are. And we have these 'ere comments sections anyway, in which to discuss the finer points of the various films.

    The novels going downhill after this high point was my original impression too. Of course, whether or not I still believe that remains to be seen...

  3. I've only seen the Matt Damon and Malkovich films, but I strongly favor the Malkovich film.

    Though the Damon film is remarkably true to the book, except I don't remember Ripley being homosexual in the novel.

  4. Dave I think there is definitely the suggestion in The Talented Mr Ripley that he is homosexual and as with most films nowadays they seemed unable to leave anything to speculation or imagination.

  5. Yeah, as I outlined in the Talented post, it's pretty clear that Tom is in love with Dickie, or at least the idea of Dickie, in the novel. Highsmith herself didn't think Tom was necessarily gay, just that he wasn't especially interested in sex full stop. That's certainly born out by his marriage, but when I read Talented again, Tom's desire for Dickie is pretty apparent. I'm rereading The Boy Who Followed Ripley at the moment, which is the other Ripley novel I recall Tom's (probable) latent homosexuality featuring, so I may explore that when I get to the post on it next week.

  6. Incidentally Dave, the film of Talented does take quite a few liberties with the novel. Tom's criminal leanings are established right at the outset of the novel, and Dickie's murder is much more premeditated in the book, not the result of an argument as it is in the movie. There's also that whole business of Dickie getting the Italian girl pregnant, which seems to be there to almost justify his death, and the last part of the film is very different, and unnecessary really. All that said, I do like the film in its own right; Damon isn't a bad Tom, and Jude Law is a believable Dickie, and gives one of his best performances.

  7. I've already written a book's worth of comments on the Ripley's Game, so there's no need for me to go into it further. I'll just say that I continue to be annoyed at how critics dismiss the Ripley sequels while putting Talented on such a high pedestal. I agree with anyone who calls Game the best of the Ripley novels, because I also consider it Highsmith's best, period.

    As for the Matt Damon film, it should be called The Incredibly Fucking Lucky Mr. Ripley, since everything just seems to fall into his lap. Book Tom has the arrogance to assume that he can imitate Dickie, while Movie Tom only gets the idea when someone mistakes him for Dickie after a quick glance. Book Tom uses his skills to forge Dickie's will and get his money, while Movie Tom gets Dickie's money after Dickie's father, for no reason whatsoever, decides that Dickie would have wanted Tom to have his money, because why the hell not.

    The film also makes Tom far too innocent. Highsmith had the balls to say, "I'm going to write a story in which the villain is the hero, and I'm going to make you like him and root for him to get away with it all." The movie is too afraid to do anything like that, so they turn the planned murder of the book into one of self-defense, and they make sure that Tom tortures himself with guilt over what he's done... because bad deeds must always be punished in Hollywood's eyes, which directly contradicts what the Ripley novels are all about: the fact that people get away with horrible crimes all the time and suffer little guilt over them. On its own terms, there's plenty to admire about the Damon film, but as an adaptation of the book, it's a disaster.

    I've also made my thoughts on the Malkovich film known in comments on other posts, so I'll just add a brief recap: it's a very good movie, but critics have gone a little too far in claiming that it's a perfect adaptation of the book. Malkovich is a fine Hannibal Lecter, but he's far too rude, smug, and anxious to kill to be Highsmith's genuinely polite and likable con man who considers violence a last resort (his hatred of the Mafia excepted). It's a shame that The American Friend seems to be the most obscure Ripley film, because once you get over the shock of seeing Ripley walking around in a denim jacket and cowboy hat, you realize just how successful it is at capturing the essence of Ripley... better, in my humble opinion, than any of the other films. (And Highsmith, from what I've read, agreed with me.)

  8. Mein Gott, I love the Ripey series...I am a fan of the Anthony Minghella film, partly because, I think it captures the flavour of the books, and the performance from Jude Law is outstanding, He captures that charming WASPY rich boy thing, yet at the same time, there is a lingering air of menace. You get the feeling that at any minute he is going to get extremely nasty...

    Ripley's Game is a good film, but it ain't Patricia Highsmith. Malkovitch is highly entertaining, but he isn't Ripley.

    Like you, I rather fancy the life of Ripley at Belle Ombre- but without the gay bit. A spot of painting, a bit of gardening (pruning the dahlias), casual excursions to Berlin or Morocco, agonising over the evening's supper menu with Madame Annette; living in the countryside outside Paris, collecting 20th century art...all these are good things...

  9. They are indeed, Luke – and I'd throw in a spot of light book collecting too, of course!

  10. I like the canon of Ripley films. Damon has the youth, Malkovich the finesse, Hopper the insecurity. I'm not sure Delon in Plein Soleil adds much.
    I'm nearly at the end of a dedicated re-read of all five books and my revisionist opinions have even surprised me. Aside from The Boy Who...which is an odd fit, I find the first three, though I love 'em, a bit too constructed. I'm gaining a new appreciation for Under Water which I didn't expect. It's kind of 'incidental' if you know what I mean. Existential in the best way.
    I've been writing for folk on Facebook recently about how the Ripley books cover a time span of maybe a dozen years in Tom's fictional life whilst occupying some thirty odd years of Miss Highsmith's life. Oddly, though, the changes in the world of Ripley reflect the thirty year period, not the dozen. Interesting.

  11. My comment, which I took a good while over, has disappeared.

    1. It's there, Dave – I have to approve all comments, and since yours came in overnight (I think), I didn't see it till this morning.

  12. It would've been hilarious if Highsmith had written a tongue in cheek short story where Mme. Annette kills the local butcher after she discovers he's been overcharging Ripley's account after she turned down his filthy advances years ago...

    1. Ah, if only... Actually any kind of Highsmith story from Mme. Annette's perspective would have been amazing. Or a Heloise story for that matter. Now that would've been something: a peek inside her head...

    2. But Mme. Annette is the Greek Chorus almost! The perfect personification of everything that is good about the French. And the reader would empathize with her.

  13. Arh, now I understand.

    Thank you