Tuesday 23 June 2015

Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene and Eleven (Heinemann, 1970), alias The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 26/6/15.

"I have said little about other people's suspense books," wrote Patricia Highsmith towards the end of her inspirational book for budding writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966, revised 1981), "mainly because I seldom read them, and so I am unqualified to say that certain suspense books are good, very good, or why. I like best Graham Greene's entertainments, mainly because they are intelligent, and their prose is very skillful. He is also a moralist, even in his entertainments, and I am interested in morality, providing it isn't preached." (The only other suspense author to get much of a look-in in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is Julian Symons, who warrants one page to Graham Greene's three, although non-suspense writers like Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Henry James are referenced.)

Highsmith and Greene never met in person, but they were admirers of each other's work and corresponded for years. Highsmith told film critic Gerald Peary in 1988, "I have [Greene's] telephone number but I wouldn't dream of using it" (she added: "I don't seek out writers because we all want to be alone"), while Andrew Wilson, in his 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, recounts one occasion where Greene wrote to Highsmith expressing his disgust at some of the negative reviews of Highsmith's 1972 novel A Dog's Ransom. But the best example, and certainly the most frequently quoted, of Greene's enthusiasm for Highsmith's writing comes in his foreword to Highsmith's first collection of short stories:

Eleven, published in 1970 by Heinemann in the UK and the same year, under the title The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories, by Doubleday in the US. Highsmith was so keen to have Greene write the foreword to the book that when Doubleday would only pay $100 of the $500 fee that Greene's agent had demanded, Highsmith made up the difference. Considering how widely quoted the foreword has turned out to be – excerpts appeared on the covers of a good many of her subsequent books and in numerous other places besides – it was money well spent, but one snippet has circulated especially widely, and particularly online: "Miss Highsmith is the poet of apprehension". It's an intriguing line – or rather segment of a line – but the ensuing half-paragraph is more illuminating:

Miss Highsmith is the poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time, as we all learned in the blitz, is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably. We have to learn to live with it. Miss Highsmith's finest novel to my mind is The Tremor of Forgery, and if I were to be asked what it is about I would reply, "Apprehension."

Greene goes on to make the point: "In her short stories Miss Highsmith has naturally to adopt a different method. She is after the quick kill rather than the slow encirclement of the reader, and how admirably and with what field-craft she hunts us down." From the stories in Eleven he chooses "When the Fleet was in at Mobile" as his favourite, which with its devastating ending he commends as "Highsmith at her claustrophobic best", and further picks out "The Heroine" for being "as much a study of apprehension as [The Tremor of Forgery]... 'The Terrapin', a late Highsmith... a cruel story of childhood which can bear comparison with Saki's masterpiece, 'Sredni Vaster', and for pure physical horror, which is an emotion rarely evoked by Miss Highsmith, 'The Snail-Watcher'".

Rarely evoked perhaps, but to my mind the "pure physical horror" of "The Snail-Watcher" is matched in Eleven by "The Quest for Blank Claveringi", another tale of snails (Highsmith herself kept snails as pets) in which Professor Avery Clavering comes a cropper on the fictional Mastusas Islands at the hands – or rather teeth – of a monstrous mollusc. My own favourites in the collection are the very short, very sour "The Cries of Love", a sharp sketch of low-level internecine warfare between two auld biddies sharing a room in a retirement hotel, like a pithy precursor to Kingsley Amis's Ending Up (1974), and the powerful "Another Bridge to Cross", which in its portryal of an American man adrift in a foreign land following a bereavement and undergoing a crisis of identity explores similar territory to the aforementioned The Tremor of Forgery (1969). (In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction Highsmith herself singled out "Another Bridge to Cross", calling it "a tragic story", one "written from my own emotions, because I wanted to write it".)

"[Highsmith's] characters are irrational," wrote Graham Greene, "and they leap to life in their very lack of reason; suddenly we realize how unbelievably rational most fictional characters are as they lead their lives from A to Z, like commuters always taking the same train." That for me serves as more of an insight into the appeal of the best of Highsmith as that "poet of apprehension" line, and though the bulk of the stories in Eleven, splendid though they are, are designed more for "the quick kill", "Another Bridge to Cross" is as fine, albeit fleeting, an "encirclement of the reader" as can be found in her oeuvre.

I'll be returning to Graham Greene soon, with a gallery of beautiful editions of his books from the 1950s and 1960s and a review of an excellent "entertainment". But before that, another Highsmith first edition, one which will shortly be joining Eleven in the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery: The Talented Mr. Ripley.