Wednesday, 30 September 2015
NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 2/10/15.
In September 1991, Patricia Highsmith travelled from her home in Tegna, Switzerland, to London in order to publicise her latest book, Ripley Under Water – her third for Bloomsbury (following 1987's Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes and 1990's Carol) and the last to be published in her lifetime (a final novel, Small G: A Summer Idyll, was published shortly after her death in 1995). One of her publicity engagements was an interview before an audience at the ICA on 27 September, conducted by the crime writer Michael Dibdin – since made available on the British Library website (archiver, incidentally, of Existential Ennui). Later that evening Highsmith signed copies of the Bloomsbury first edition of Ripley Under Water at the late lamented Murder One on Charing Cross Road (and again the following day at Waterstones in Earls Court); but at some point on the day before, 26 September, she inscribed, signed and dated a copy of the book to her publisher, Liz Calder. This copy:
Which I acquired from Suffolk bookseller Claude Cox, and which came with an accompanying letter of provenance, signed by Liz Calder, on Full Circle Editions headed paper – Full Circle being the Suffolk publishing house Calder established in 2009 – the year after she left Bloomsbury – with her husband, Louis Baum, and Genevieve and John Christie.
I wrote about Ripley Under Water, the final novel in the Ripliad, back in 2013 as part of the Great Tom Ripley Reread, when I got my hands on a 1991 London Limited Edition of the book, flat signed by Highsmith. I mentioned then how as a Highsmith and Ripley enthusiast – okay, fanatic – "owning a signed Ripley novel is quite something"; so to have now come into possession of a signed association copy of a Ripley novel – even though it be the same Ripley novel, albeit in a (slightly) different edition – inscribed to such a key figure in Highsmith's life, is properly thrilling. (The book wasn't too expensive either, certainly in comparison to another association copy of Ripley Under Water currently listed on AbeBooks, a 1992 US Knopf edition inscribed to a literary agent and priced at around £250.)
In her accompanying letter, Liz Calder states that she "met Patricia Highsmith during the last years of her life and published several of her books", making note of the time "Highsmith came to London for publication" of Ripley Under Water and how Highsmith "was a gravel-voiced, quite shy but darkly funny woman who loved whisky and cats". Writing in The Oldie the month after Highsmith's death (March 1995 issue, as quoted in Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow), Calder recalled that publicity trip to London, when Highsmith stayed at Hazlitt's Hotel on Frith Street, Soho:
I collected her there for an evening on the town, and she had discovered that so crooked were the floors that her whisky bottle slid of its own accord down the top of her chest of drawers and she was catching it with glee as it flew off the edge. She kept repeating this trick a bit like Pooh and his balloon. She had a childlike pleasure in simple things.
Ripley Under Water is not the best Tom Ripley novel, nor my favourite (that would be 1974's Ripley's Game, in both cases), but I love the Ripliad as a body of work and Ripley Under Water is an intrinsic part of that series – a sequel of sorts to the second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground (1970), with a handful of excellent and memorable sequences which are the equal of anything else in the Ripliad (Tom luring his nemesis, David Pritchard, to a secluded seaside Tangier cafe and then losing his rag with Pritchard and beating him up; Tom and Ed Banbury's gruesome disposal of the remains of the art dealer Murchison; the final fate of David and Janice Pritchard). So I'm delighted to add to my Highsmith collection a unique signed copy of the novel, and especially one with so firm – and firmly dated, not to mention located – a provenance.
I'll be showcasing some more inscribed books over the coming weeks – not by Highsmith, although I do have a couple of other signed books by her I'll be unveiling at some point – but by other authors, some of whom have appeared on Existential Ennui before, and some who have not.
Monday, 28 September 2015
Patricia Highsmith on Writing, in Whodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense & Spy Fiction and Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H. R. F. Keating
By far the most sustained piece of writing by Patricia Highsmith on the subject of fiction – her own and others' – can be found in her 160-page (in its 1981 revised edition) guidebook Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (orig. 1966). But Highsmith did pen the occasional piece for other publications too, both magazines (Plotting itself grew out of an article Highsmith wrote for The Writer magazine, and in 1989 she wrote an article for Granta magazine on the subject of Tom Ripley) and books (the 1990 Bloomsbury edition of Carol includes an afterword on the genesis of that novel). In the 1980s she twice contributed to books edited and written by the crime writer and critic H. R. F. Keating – Whodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense & Spy Fiction (Windward, 1982) and Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books (Xanadu, 1987) – and both pieces are well worth a look.
Her piece for Whodunit, "Not-Thinking with the Dishes" in the "How I Write My Books" chapter, isn't very long – barely a page in length – but it's still revealing as regards her methods. Noting that she had "no set of rules for writing a book" and that she "never think[s] about who my readers may be", she states: "My book ideas begin with a situation of surprise or coincidence, some unusual circumstance, and around this, and forward and backward, I create a narrative with a beginning and an end." She continues:
I like to write three or four hours a day, taking a break frequently to do something such as finishing the last dishes in the sink, during which I am not-thinking about my work in progress. It is important that nobody else be in the house. Then my thoughts take a creative jump. Hard thought never did me very much good. I believe in letting one's mind alone. The only price I pay is having to rewrite, but not always a lot and mostly it is polishing, and having to cut a fair amount.
To illustrate this last point, Whodunit? reproduces a manuscript page from People Who Knock on the Door, which at that juncture hadn't been published (it was published by Heinemann the following year). Highsmith additionally reveals that she could write up to two thousand words a day, worked seven days a week ("In principle... something always happens to prevent work one or two days a week") and that she was unable to "adopt the method of a famous writer who said he writes the action parts first and fills in the gaps later" but instead had to "write all the in-between material as I go". She reasons: "Maybe this is inevitable because of the subjective attitude I generally take: I describe what is in the head of the protagonist, psychopath or not, because what is in his or her head must explain as well as advance the story."
Whodunit? itself is a thoroughly worthwhile book – there are essays by, among others, Michael Gilbert, John Gardner ("The Espionage Novel"), Gregory Mcdonald, Len Deighton and Eric Ambler, as well as writer-by-writer and character-by-character guides to crime fiction and thrillers – as is Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books, in which H. R. F. Keating offers a hundred two-page essays on key crime novels and their authors (the list can be found at Classic Crime Fiction). Highsmith penned the foreword to the book, in which she appears to demonstrate more of a working knowledge of the field than she suggested she had in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (she maintained in that book that she "seldom read" other people's crime novels). She singles out, among others, Wilkie Collins, Raymond Chandler, P. D. James, Cornell Woolrich, Georges Simenon and, especially gratifyingly for me, P. M. Hubbard (albeit only in passing), and picks over Keating's musings on these and other authors.
"One can open The 100 Best anywhere," Highsmith writes at the close of her foreword, "and be entertained by its contents, learn something new, or reinforce what is already in one's head." Not least in regard to Highsmith herself: Keating includes both The Tremor of Forgery (1969) – highlighting the "uneasiness" and "Fuzziness, ambiguity" of Highsmith's writing and "the to-and-fro indecisiveness of real life" she captures – and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), where he details the traits which make Tom Ripley such a compelling and, yes, charming character – "his genuine love of art and his true appreciation of the fruits of the earth... the simple affection he feels for his friends... his real interest in the earth-loving pursuit of gardening" and our "awed admiration" at "his willingness to take risks". He also recalls "a meeting of the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger award where one of our number announced that if we chose Ripley's Game for the prize she would resign".
Both Whodunit? and Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books are fairly readily – and cheaply – available (I found both for a few quid each in Colin Page Antiquarian Books in Brighton – where there is also, at time of writing, an expanded selection of secondhand crime fiction – a recently acquired collection, one which, needless to say, I've already raided). Not so the next Patricia Highsmith book I'll be blogging about: a signed association copy of the final novel in the Ripliad.