Friday 25 September 2015

Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 1990); Orig. The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan (Coward-McCann, 1952): Book Review

To flick through the 'other books by' pages of Patricia Highsmith first editions from the 1950s to the late 1980s, one would be forgiven for assuming that her second published novel was The Blunderer (1954 US/1956 UK). In fact her second novel was The Price of Salt, published under the nom de plume Claire Morgan in 1952 (by Coward-McCann in the US, after Harper & Bros, publishers of Highsmith's 1950 debut, Strangers on a Train, rejected it) so as to avoid Highsmith becoming labelled, as she later put it, "a lesbian-book writer". It took until 1990 for the novel to finally emerge from the closet and become an authorised part of her backlist when it was reissued as Carol by Diogenes in Switzerland and Bloomsbury in the UK (both editions featuring Tolouse-Lautrec's L'abandon, les deux amies on the cover), Highmith having at long last been persuaded to publish it under her own name.

Which isn't to say that the book hadn't been tremendously successful under its prior author name and title. In a new afterword to the novel printed in the Bloomsbury edition of Carol (recently made available in edited form on The Telegraph website), Highsmith revealed how after gaining "some serious and respectable reviews when it appeared in hardcover in 1952... the real success came a year later with the paperback edition [published by Bantam in the States], which sold nearly a million copies and was certainly read by more". She added: "The fan letters came in addressed to Claire Morgan, care of the paperback house. I remember receiving envelopes of ten and fifteen letters a couple of times a week for months on end."

The Price of Salt was reprinted by Bantam at least four times in the years following its initial publication, and was reissued by Macfadden-Bartell in the US in 1969 and again by Naiad Press in 1984. Each time it was published under the Claire Morgan alias (despite the best efforts of the publishers), and though word had begun to circulate as to the true identity of Claire Morgan long before Bloomsbury published Carol, the arrival of the retitled edition under Highsmith's own name was sufficient to prompt a wave of publicity, including newspaper interviews and a television appearance (on BBC 2's The Late Show, whose Sarah Dunant – according to Highsmith's biographer, Andrew Wilson – called the new edition "a literary coming out").

Doubtless there'll be another surge of interest in the novel in the run-up to the release of Todd Haynes's Rooney Mara/Cate Blanchett-starring film adaptation (which was praised by the critics at Cannes in May); already this year there have been articles on Highsmith in The Guardian and the Daily Mail. If Haynes's film brings the book and Highsmith to a new audience, so much the better, because Carol deserves to be widely read, especially by those who might otherwise dismiss Highsmith as a crime writer.

The story of a romance between Therese, a young shop assistant at a New York department store, and Carol, a well-to-do housewife whom Therese serves a few days before Christmas, the novel has its basis in a fleeting encounter Highsmith had with "a blondish woman in a fur coat" when Highsmith, like Therese, was working in the toy department of a store (Bloomingdale's, as opposed to the novel's fictional Frankenberg's) in December 1948. The woman bought a doll for her daughter, left her address for delivery and departed, but this seemingly ordinary episode left Highsmith feeling "odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision". That evening at home, Highsmith wrote out an eight-page outline for The Price of Salt. (In his 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, Andrew Wilson identified the woman as Kathleen Senn, and discovered that she had committed suicide in 1951, a fact of which Highsmith was unaware.)

Informed by Highsmith's love affairs with married middle class socialites like Virginia Kent Catherwood and Kathryn Hamill Cohen (wife of Dennis Cohen, the founder of the Cresset Press, British publishers of Strangers on a Train and later The Blunderer and The Talented Mr. Ripley), the novel is a relatively straightforward account of the relationship that develops between Therese and the older, more sophisticated Carol. In that sense it's an atypical book in the Highsmith canon, but in its unflinching portrayal of romantic infatuation and with its measured yet compulsive pacing and what Anthony Price called "the unpretentious simplicity of the Highsmith prose" – and yet still complex in the way it communicates the inner turmoil of Therese (the novel's point-of-view character) – it's recognisably the work of the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), This Sweet Sickness (1960) and The Cry of the Owl (1962), and as good in its own way as any of those novels.

It's unlikely I'll ever be able to afford a 1952 Coward-McCann first edition of The Price of Salt, pictured above; those run into the thousands of pounds. Thankfully British first editions of the novel – i.e. the 1990 Bloomsbury edition of Carol – are rather more reasonably priced; I picked up the copy illustrating this post for £3.50 in Oxfam Books in Bloomsbury, appropriately enough, and copies can be had online for around a tenner. I've added my one to the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery (where an uncorrected proof of the Bloomsbury edition can also be found) – and I'll have more on Highsmith and Bloomsbury (as in the publisher) soon.*

NB: This post linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 25/9/15.

* Update, 30/3/16: A couple of months after I posted this, I sold my copy of the Bloomsbury first edition on eBay for over £30, which is probably a better indication of the going rate for a first in the wake of the Carol film. Decent copies of the Bloomsbury first are in shorter supply these days too... although not in as short supply as the Bloomsbury proof of Carol, where there are at present no copies for sale online. Fortunately I kept my one.