Friday 13 June 2014

Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game: Heinemann Uniform Edition, 1989

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 13/6/14. 

Ripley's Game, Patricia Highsmith's sixteenth novel and the third book in her five-book Ripliad, is, I think, my favourite novel – not only of her novels – that I've read, which is quite a lot – but of all the novels that I've ever read. I wrote about the book at some length the year before last as part of the Great Tom Ripley Reread, and though I was relatively pleased with what I concocted at the time and for a little while after, on reflection I'm not sure I did the novel justice – and especially so in comparison to a series of articles on the book by John Mullan which I recently came across. Originally published in weekly instalments in The Guardian Review in 2003, Mullan's articles break the novel down into four themes – "the anti-hero", "split narratives", "the novel sequence" (i.e. the Ripliad as a whole), and "the setting" – and all are well worth reading for anyone with an interest in the novel, or Tom Ripley, or indeed Highsmith.

I stumbled upon the articles because I'd had my eye on a copy of the 1974 US Knopf hardback edition of Ripley's Game, offered by a UK seller on eBay (and AbeBooks), and was mulling purchasing it, at the same time idly googling the novel with half a mind to posting something on Existential Ennui if and when I did buy it. I already own the 1974 UK Heinemann hardback edition (a key book in my collection), which is in fact the true first edition – it published some months before the American one – but I'd not come across a copy of the US edition on this side of the pond before, and as it's in as short supply as the UK first (fewer than 20 copies in each case on AbeBooks), even though this copy was upwards of thirty quid – not exactly a fortune, but certainly not cheap enough for it to be an impulse purchase – I was quite tempted.

Then someone else went and bought the bloody thing and that was that. I stewed for a bit and briefly considered posting something about how I didn't manage to buy it in an illustration of the unjustifiable impulses, flights of fancy and bizarre sensations of forfeiture and loss which plague the inveterate collector, and so I could link those John Mullan articles, but in the end sanity prevailed – or at least what passes for sanity round these parts – and instead I did what anyone else in their right mind would have done under the circumstances: I went looking for an edition of Ripley's Game that was even scarcer than the 1974 Heinemann and Knopf editions. And I came up with this:

The 1989 reissue of the Heinemann edition, which is actually the third printing of the Heinemann hardback; the original edition was reprinted in the year of publication:

Now, a reissue may not sound terribly interesting or desirable, and maybe to most people it isn't; but to my mind this one is. For one thing there's that aforementioned scarcity: at present I can see just two copies of this edition for sale online, one of them ex-library. Then there's the design of the jacket and attendant jacket blurb, which is different to the 1974 one (both printings):

which bore a photograph on the front by Graham Miller and quite a bit more text overall. The 1989 edition strips back both the jacket text and design (which is uncredited), and in the choice of typeface and photo of a metal puzzle – a nail and a triangle intertwined like Tom Ripley and Jonathan Trevanny in the story – on the front, effectively matches the styling of Heinemann's Uniform Edition of Highsmith's novels, two of which, The Blunderer and The Talented Mr. Ripley – which were issued in the Uniform Edition in 1966 – I own (in later printings) and have blogged about:

However, the weight of the typeface in the title of Ripley's Game is lighter than that in the titles of other Highsmith Uniform Edition books, and there's no mention of this one being part of the Uniform Edition anywhere on the wrapper (and no price on the jacket flap either; I suspect the print run for this edition was small and most copies were destined for libraries and export). What there is a mention of is of two other Ripliad novels being reissued – presumably in the same style – at the same time: The Talented Mr. Ripley – which had already been issued by Heinemann a couple of times in the Uniform styling – and The Boy Who Followed Ripley, which was originally published by Heinemann in 1980.

Anyway, for me, being such a huge fan of Ripley's Game, this is a nice edition to own the novel in (as well as the Heinemann first edition), and I've added it to the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery under "Patriciaphernalia" down the bottom. And while I'm on the subject of Ripley's Game, I've also ordered The American Friend, Wim Wenders's 1977 film adaptation of the novel, on DVD, and plan to watch that and re-watch Liliana Cavani's 2002 adaptation, with a view to posting something on them both. However, my next Patricia Highsmith blog post will probably be on her 1967 novel Those Who Walk Away.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

A Suspension of Mercy (The Story-Teller) by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1965): Book Review

The 1960s were arguably Patricia Highsmith's most creatively fecund decade, at least as regards novels. From 1960–1969 she published seven novels in total, one more than she published in the 1950s (her debut, Strangers on a Train, arrived in 1950) and a good deal more than she managed in the 1970s, '80s or '90s (although admittedly she died halfway through that last decade, so we should cut her some slack there). I've read quite a lot of Highsmith over the years, but until very recently I'd not yet got round to two of the novels she published in the '60s: Those Who Walk Away (1967), her twelfth novel, which I'm currently reading and will write about shortly, and this:

A Suspension of Mercy, her eleventh novel, published in the US by Doubleday in 1965 (under the title The Story-Teller) but seen here in its British Heinemann edition from the same year, dust jacket design by Tom Simmonds (who also designed the wrappers for the British first editions of Adam Hall's The 9th Directive, George V. Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Peter Benchley's Jaws, among others). I've actually owned this copy of the Heinemann first for getting on for five years (I bought it on eBay in November 2009, and it's resided in the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery since I set that page up last year), which may well be a record for the length of time between my buying a Highsmith book and finally getting round to reading the bloody thing. However, that shouldn't be taken as an indication of anything other than circumstance and happenstance, and in hindsight I realise I should really have read it last year, for the simple reason that large parts of it are set in the bit of Suffolk where the Day-Joneses vacationed last September – said vacation resulting in an interminable series of blog posts about the various secondhand bookshops I dragged Rachel and Edie to.

One of those posts featured Framlingham, a highly picturesque Suffolk town (with quite a good secondhand bookshop, oddly enough) just south of which live frustrated writer Sydney Bartleby, his wife Alicia and their new neighbour in the cottage next door, the septuagenarian Mrs Lilybanks – in A Suspension of Mercy I mean, although I guess it's conceivable there's a real Sydney and Alicia Bartleby and Mrs Lilybanks living just south of the real Framlingham. Anyway, the story which unfolds is, unusually for Highsmith, a three-hander, with the point of view split between Sydney, Alicia and Mrs Lilybanks, though in truth Sydney gets the lion's share of the limelight, especially once he and Alica embark on a trial separation due to marital difficulties and she buggers off to Brighton and then Arundel – both of which, back on the subject of locale again, aren't far from where I live in Lewes. (Local towns Lancing, Worthing, Seaford, Peacehaven and Shoreham all either feature or are mentioned too.)

The increasingly tense events which ensue are driven by Sydney's slightly odd actions and Alicia's reaction to them. In a confused interplay between his fiction and his real life, Sydney imagines killing Alicia, acting out the disposal of her body by burying an old carpet in some local woods ("to purge himself", but also in an effort to tap into the psyche of a murderer – John Christie is mentioned) – an act witnessed in part by Mrs Lilybanks (there's a clammy encounter between Mrs Lilybanks and Sydney at the novel's midpoint where the former accuses the latter of murder – Highsmith switching viewpoints from Sydney to Mrs Lilybanks so we see Sydney, entirely innocent – of murder at least; we learn he has hit Alicia "not severely" on occasion – as he appears to Mrs Lilybanks: profoundly guilty); in turn, Alicia's determination to stay hidden is bolstered by the involvement of the police in her disappearance – prompted by Sydney's carpet-burying activities – and her involvement with another man.

Patricia Highsmith's biographer Andrew Wilson identifies A Suspension of Mercy "as the author's most postmodern novel", "a literary hall of mirrors in which reality and fiction are constantly reflected and, ultimately, confused". Beyond the obvious parallels between Highsmith and Sydney (highlighted by Highsmith herself in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction) – Sydney is an American writer, like Highsmith, living in Suffolk, as Highsmith was at the time she wrote the book – Wilson quotes Highsmith's friend (and Heinemann's advertising manager) Charles Latimer on a more specific correspondence: "Pat liked to act out things to see what they felt like. I remember she buried some snails in the woods behind her cottage to give her some ideas or emotions for A Suspension of Mercy."

Anyone intrigued as to why Highsmith would have chosen to bury snails in order to conjure these ideas or emotions should head to Kelly Robinson's Book Dirt blog, but more interesting to me is the way that Highsmith's and Sydney's ad hoc grave digging prefigures that in Ripley Under Ground, in which Tom Ripley – the Highsmith protagonist who most closely mirrors her outlook – both buries a body (Murchison, the art collector) and is buried himself (by Bernard Tufts, the painter). And there are further Ripley parallels too, especially in the form of The Whip, the criminal character concocted by Sydney for a proposed television series. When Sydney initially conceives of The Whip, he determines that the audience should see "everything through The Whip's eyes", as Highsmith's readership does with Tom Ripley (largely; Ripley's Game is the sole exception); that they should do "everything with him, finally [plug] for him through thick and thin", as is the case, arguably, for most readers with Tom's adventures in the Ripliad. Additionally, The Whip, like Tom, knocks someone out on the way to the wine cellar (Ripley Under Ground and Murchison again, who is bludgeoned by Tom – admittedly rather more lethally – in Tom's wine cellar), and displays an aptitude for mimicry and disguise (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground) and even female impersonation (The Boy Who Followed Ripley).

On top of all that there's the matter of one character's demise, a death for which Sydney is indirectly responsible – "caused by his attitude" as he muses to himself, much as Tom's "attitude" causes Bernard's death in Ripley Under Ground. Highsmith's intention with A Suspension of Mercy, as she details in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (she devotes quite a bit of space to the novel in that book), was to have Sydney "commit no crime at all, only be suspected of one or two". In fact Sydney's playacting does in the end result in three deaths – the third one, at the novel's climax, particularly unpleasant. Here again Ripliad enthusiasts might think of Tom, especially when considering Sydney's fate at the end of the novel, although for my money A Suspension of Mercy, though engaging and laced with black humour, doesn't rank with the best bits of the Ripliad (Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game).

Andrew Wilson states in his biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, that "[w]hat Highsmith tried, but failed, to achieve with A Suspension of Mercy – the creation of a suspense novel that did not feature a murder – she succeeded in doing with her next book, Those Who Walk Away". Until I've finished reading Those Who Walk Away I'll have to take both him and Highsmith – who notes in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction that the novel has "no murder, no big crime" – at their words, but while I'm polishing it off, and to continue the recent Highsmith theme on Existential Ennui, I thought I'd take a look at a curious edition of not only my favourite Highsmith novel, but my favourite novel full stop: Ripley's Game.

NB: For another take on A Suspension of Mercy, head to Olman's Fifty.