Death for Elsie

Christopher Ricks

  • Found in the Street by Patricia Highsmith
    Heinemann, 277 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 434 33524 X
  • Private Papers by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 214 pp, £8.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 7011 2987 5

Patricia Highsmith has been praised by Graham Greene in the good old way as ‘a writer who has created a world of her own’. She can be even better than that – when she takes a world and makes it not only her own but ours. She lurks in the murk where you have to peer to check if this is an – or the – underworld. In her seething city-settings, paranoia may be the saving of you, and yet paranoia does have, too, a hideously masochistic alluring power. She is the poet of these death-bearing pheromones of fear.

Found in the Street is her exact territory; she patrols these Greenwich Village streets as if from a neighbourhood vigilante force. Strangers on a powder-train. She knows crime well, especially in its intimacy with sin and with frustration; she watches for the selfish illiberality of paid-up progressives and for the malfeasances of the Watch Committee, for prurience and high-minded corruption. As a novelist she is herself placed in this grey area or combat zone: should the new Highsmith be sent for review to the supreme fiction people or to the crime squad? She capitalises candidly on these equivocations. Her studies of alienation are at once very literary and allusive and entirely untrammelled by fictive thickenings and alienation-effects. If she is more than admired by, actually is read by, highbrows, this is partly because there is just now a special relief in so unfurrowed a writer from ‘the underworld of letters’.

The phrase is T.S. Eliot’s. His breach between the underworld of letters and ‘serious writers’, even though he judged the former (like the music hall as against ‘serious’ theatre) to be the more healthy in many ways, is one which Highsmith’s art both concedes and does something to heal. Their cities, Eliot’s and hers, are weightily real and phantasmagorically unreal. ‘That subway smell was of old metal-on-metal, of oily dust moist with human breath, the semi-trapped air.’ Questions of reality are crucial to Highsmith, but – as to Eliot – they are spiritual questions, not philosophical ones: spiritual, and instinct with the spiritual’s fear of an alliance between erotic and economic forces. Elsie Tyler, the victim in Found in the Street (or the victim who, unlike the others, has a sudden dying, not a long day’s one), is dead-set for success, garish and enslaved, in the world of glossy modelling and of lip-service to art, an underworld of unreality which comes on as the overworld. Highsmith’s anger, dismay and pity at such a world, and particularly at what it does to human decision, choice, and therefore reality, are precipitated by the conditions which Eliot enunciated with grim lips, suggesting

that with the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin, with the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle, the human beings presented to us both in poetry and in prose fiction today, and more patently among the serious writers than in the underworld of letters, tend to become less and less real. It is in fact in moments of moral and spiritual struggle depending upon spiritual sanctions, rather than in those ‘bewildering minutes’ in which we are all very much alike, that men and women come nearest to being real. If you do away with this struggle, and maintain that by tolerance, benevolence, inoffensiveness and a redistribution or increase of purchasing power, combined with a devotion, on the part of an élite, to Art, the world will be as good as anyone could require, then you must expect human beings to become more and more vaporous.

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