Monday, March 26, 2007

the talented patricia highsmith

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Book sales are always a great place to land deals. Consider the $1 purchase of Nothing That Meets The Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith. This compilation was, for better or worse, my introduction to the author of the Ripliana, the author whose first novel Strangers On A Train had been transformed by Hitchcock into one of his finest films. Perhaps it was the title (taken from one of the short stories in the collection) that drew my attention (although The Talented Mr. Ripley isn't without its own appeal). Or perhaps it was the cover (lovely design). That's in addition to the stories in the collection, of course.

The Ripley canon alone illustrates some of the themes in Highsmith's writing: questions of identity, a very internal world created by an often detached wordscape. There's a sense of Poe to some of the stories and yet the feverish texture of the master of the macabre is replaced by a crisp economical veneer.

The story that I remembered most from the collection, the story that remained to motivate me to pick the book off the table at the sale, is a story called Music To Die By. The story serves up descriptions of murder and the intent thereof in a most disturbingly mundane confection. The events in the life of postal worker Aaron Wechsler seem unsettlingly prophetic now.

The rest of the collection is filled with equally appealing yet diverse material. As a sample, consider the following paragraph that opens a delightful nugget called The Hollow Oracle:

The black mass of the house sprang out of the darkness, and he tripped on the wooden step. He knocked on the screen-door frame, seized the knob and wrenched it back and forth as though he must be let in before a pursuer overtook him. Like a murderer he held the powerful clawhammer straight down at his side, in a grip that made the hammer a part of his arm, welded in the ache of his muscles. He shook the door until the sound grew crazy in the silence, and he stopped, losing then the momentum that had carried him the two miles down the road, the murderer's momentum that had started twenty minutes before, like the beginning of the act itself. In the stillness there was time to hear his own gasping breath, to feel the eyes in the dark behind him. He pressed close to the house, making no sound.

2005 was the year that I saw all of my Ripley films: The Talented Mr. Ripley (whose fabulous opening credit sequence with its wondrous interplay of aural and visual jazz offered an echo of the book), Purple Noon (Scorsese championed a re-release in 1996, but my first experience was a poor VHS copy; I hope to make amends with the DVD) and Ripley's Game (of note is John Malkovich's chilling intellectual reading of the character). I hope Ripley Under Ground gets a release some day. The interesting thing about the films is how different the interpretation of the text and the character itself is in each one, unlike a series like the Bond films, where each new James Bond was forced to comply with a template of attributes thus limiting what he could offer to the character. If the synopsis of The American Friend (the second interpretation of Ripley's Game) is any indication, I'm in for another different experience. That's always something to look forward to.

[April 18, 2007]: cross-posted on Mount Helicon

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