Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

The Talented Miss Highsmith

By chance I picked up Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith at a bargain book store. I am infinitely grateful that I did. Not only is the subject of this incredibly thorough biography disastrously interesting, Schenkar’s insight, wit and prose is also utterly compelling.

Patricia Highsmith is perhaps best known to my hipster-generation as the author of the book upon which Alfred Hitchcock’s film Strangers on a Train is based (same title). In anglo-Western countries this is where her fame generally ends. Thanks to Schenkar’s super-human research and reading work however, the door to a pure, awful genius has been flung open.

A raging (actually raging) lesbian in 1940s Manhattan at a time when homosexuality was fiercely closeted, a comic book writer decades before writing comics was respectable (though she rarely admitted to it), a champion of the suspense/thriller/psychoanalytic novel genre crossover – Highsmith was truly one out of the box. She was a bundle of contradictions: she was described as a social recluse yet sent thousands of letters to countless correspondents; she hated being in love and yet loved to be hating; she forever yearned to travel yet lamented the absence of a true home; she was a Texan missing Texas but living permanently outside of it; she was an American pining for her country yet self-exiled to Europe – it goes on…and on.

Schenkar must have, bravely but not enviably, delved headlong into ‘Highsmith Country’ over many years to construct such a equal handed, detailed yet still well-paced and engaging biography of Patricia Highsmith. Goodness knows how many hours of interviews, millions of words and myriad travels Highsmith has led her through. Though this book is hefty and at times suffers severe name-dropping (some pages, I swear, must be half made up of cognomens) this is a stunning example of commercially-viable, proper biographical writing.

In the words of Pat herself, ‘There are hacks in every literary world…Aim at being a genius.’ Brava Schenkar.

One comment on “The Talented Miss Highsmith

  1. Pingback: The Last Empress | Ellan Read

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