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The Poet of Apprehension

A Swiss exhibit gives new insight into the life and work of Patricia Highsmith, writer of The Talented Mr Ripley.

india Updated: Apr 21, 2006 17:16 IST

A glass case holds a psychiatrist's book Patricia Highsmith read when she was 8. Two Confederate swords- bought by the 13-year-old Texas native before she grew up to become an internationally famous mystery writer- hang from the ceiling of the exhibition hall.

As Highsmith's work enjoys a revival in the United States following years of neglect, a unique exhibit at the Swiss National Library gives new insight into the author's life and work a decade after her death in her adopted Europe.

With some admirers likening her startling prose to that of Crime and Punishment author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, many of her titles have been reissued in the United States. Contributing to her posthumous comeback was Anthony Minghella's widely applauded 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley.

A portrait showing her as a stern-faced young woman, painted by one of her lovers, is in stark contrast to the photograph of a cheerful-looking 20-year-old Highsmith taken in 1941. The upbeat picture is on the exhibition posters inviting visitors to "venture into the novelist's cryptic world." On view through Sept. 10 are some 130 items selected from the voluminous estate left by the novelist, who died at her home in southern Switzerland in 1995 at age 74.

Patricia Highsmith

Ulrich Huber, curator of the exhibition catalogue, said preparations took two years because of the vast amount of the Highsmith papers, including more than a thousand letters plus some 300 photographs of her beloved cats. The library acquired the estate in 1996.

On display are primarily diaries, letters, typescripts and other documents as well as a few memorabilia. Among them is the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe award Highsmith won in 1956 for her harrowing The Talented Mr. Ripley. It was the first of five novels featuring a charming psychopath who kills with impunity. The amoral Ripley was Highsmith's favourite character. She found that "art has nothing to do with morality."

She had always been extremely secretive about her private life but many of her papers record in detail the problems she faced since what she once termed a "childhood hell"- her parents divorced shortly before her birth. Highsmith's notes make plain that pessimism was virulent throughout her life. They tell of broken love affairs, frequent fits of depression and even occasional fear of insanity.

"I do not believe in happiness of human life," she wrote in 1942 after graduating from Barnard College. "People who are ideally happy are ideally stupid."

Highsmith's work reflects such gloom-filled views. But writing brought her relief. "There is no real life except in working," was her dictum. Her debut, Strangers on a Train, was a modest success. However, Alfred Hitchcock immediately bought the film rights. His movie, released in 1951, drew wide audiences. But Highsmith's all-time best seller was written under a pseudonym. The Price of Salt, an explicit lesbian love story published in 1952, sold almost a million copies. It became a cult book.

Highsmith had numerous lovers. But it took almost four decades before she came out, hesitatingly allowing republication of The Price of Salt under her own name and titled Carol. She moved to Europe in 1963, settling permanently in Switzerland 17 years later. She became popular among European readers, with Graham Greene setting the tone. He hailed Highsmith as "poet of apprehension" who "created a world of her own, a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger."

Anthony Minghella made a film based on Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley

Highsmith disdained the American way of life, but most of her novels have an American background and American protagonists. The exhibition catalogue says that as an expatriate she felt as much as an outsider as she had in her homeland.

She was a scathing critic of U.S. Republican administrations. One collection of short stories included a bitter attack on then President Ronald Reagan. And her People who knock on the Door was an indictment of American Christian fundamentalism. She dedicated that novel in 1983 to the "courage of the Palestinian people" and a later work to the "the dead and the dying among the Intifada."

Other displays include a bundle of reader's letters Highsmith sent to newspapers to denounce Israel's policy and Washington's attitude in the Middle East conflict. She used her own name and numerous pseudonyms.

Also on view are carbon copies of lists drawn up for her Swiss publisher, Diogenes, in which she named things she liked or disliked. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well as noisy people and the wearing of jewellery got bad marks. Cited among likable things were music by Bach, "being alone" and Swiss army knives.

First Published: Apr 21, 2006 15:53 IST