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.

Found in the Street begins with a moment of moral and spiritual struggle depending upon spiritual sanctions: the decision by a shabby-genteel embittered loner to return to its rightful owner a wallet containing, among other things, 263 dollars. This social and spiritual act has falling upon it the shadow of the impure motive, since the proud good citizen is trying to prove not just something but everything, including that his violent principled atheism puts religionists to shame. ‘I’m an atheist, by the way, so naturally I returned your wallet.’ But the novel’s plot is not bent upon the wallet found in the street but upon the person found there in the opening sentences: Elsie Tyler, who is alive, naive, confident of body, staunch of nature, and educable of mind. Ralph Linderman, who found the wallet, and Jack Sutherland, who lost it, vie for her, though neither as a lover exactly: Ralph, to set her apart from the city predators, there in her coffee-bar and in her shared rooms; Jack, to lift her above her pinched contingencies into some larger air (the larger air-conditioning of affluent squalor, it does seem). Others, too, compete for her: her room-mate, gay; an ex-lover, gay; Jack’s wife, found playing both sides of the street. The end is death for Elsie. Do a girl in. Her death is like her life – tangential, in a way: if neither Ralph nor Jack is guilty. And they are shown to be – show themselves to each other to be – much more like each other, in their dangerous idealisings of Elsie, than they dare admit, even though the idealisings are, the one, unworldly, the other, worldly.

It is a question whether the book itself doesn’t idealise Elsie. She comes across as oddly vaporous – oddly because that might seem to be a way of not coming across (though one remembers George Eliot’s pungent vapour Stephen Guest). Perhaps Highsmith can’t quite bear to think that the matter to be contemplated is less that of a liveliness, a life, annulled than of a collusion between something of a personal nullity and modelling’s nubile nullities. More likely, though, is that T.S. Eliot’s terms apply, and that Elsie is not permitted – not by the book but by something in her and in her society – to become real. ‘That was crazy, airy, unreal, his words and his feelings even, as unreal as the Elsie he saw in the photograph in which her face showed largest.’ Elsie has something of the vaporousness of the heroine of ‘Maud’, the heroine loved and competed for and done for: trapped in the wishfulness, not just the wishes, of the driven others. There are gleams, and Highsmith is in her way, like Tennyson in his, a religious writer; I thought of Clough on ‘Oh! that ’twere possible’, from ‘Maud’, and on the simmering solitude of the crowded cityscape:

It seems to satisfy a want that we have long been conscious of, when we see the black streams that welter out of factories, the dreary lengths of urban and suburban dustiness,

                The squares and streets,

                And the faces that one meets,

irradiated with a gleam of divine purity.

The cityscape has its Dickensian gleams, too. When Ralph and Jack slug it out (their quarrel in the street is a thing to be entirely hated, since the energies displayed in it are not fine), there is a moment of suspended quotation which would have delighted both Dickens and his modern analyser Mark Lambert:

    ‘Adulterer,’ Ralph said calmly, ‘and murderer’.
    Sutherland said just as calmly, ‘Piss off or I’ll bust you wide open.’

Just as calmly, but not just as poisedly. Dignity’s preposterousness meets indignity’s factitiousness. What a world. And what a steely style to indict it with. ‘Jack did not exactly hear it, but Elsie had been pronounced dead, the attitude was that she was dead.’

Private Papers, too, may be thought of as notes from an underworld, that of family incrimination and recrimination and of likeness disliked by both parties, mother and child. Margaret Forster has a good ear for paranoia, as well as for the paranoia of that accusation itself. ‘All that is absolute rubbish, a clear case of paranoia’ – as if paranoia weren’t always desperately cunning at not permitting of a clear case, rather as a working rationalisation will have an indispensable quotient of solid reason. Mother, Penelope Butler at nearly seventy, is keeping a journal; her 49-year-old daughter, Rosemary (‘there’s rue’), is reading it, agog, jeering, indignant, interruptive. It tells of the ordinary sorrows of man’s – and more particularly of woman’s – life. Being born into motherlessness; being widowed in the Great War; scrimping and saving; losing a daughter (an adopted one, a misguided act of uncalled-for reparation) to death in the home, such an accident as is still the big killer; losing another daughter to lumpishness, and another to Glenda Jackson-type bitterness; losing all her hair, but not thank God for ever (‘It was nothing yet, the new hair, but it was everything’); losing a grandchild in the Falklands war. Margaret Forster, who is known both to write well and to shape well, succeeds in marshalling a vivid conspectus of fifty years of your grim typicalities. The family romance, the family Gothic, the family’s familiarities breeding contempt: this underworld is the turning-over of the stone upon which Wilde etched in acid: ‘Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.’

As a social historical novel Private Papers is deft and often lacerating. It discovers, in itself and in us, unexpected reserves of respect for yesterday’s decencies (the day before yesterday’s are always easier). And it is at every point alive to the cadences of speech and thought, not just as mimicry but with a genuine dramatic generosity. Mother calls up, calls upon, her daily small stoicism: ‘Must remind myself I have no rights, none whatsoever. Must stop feeling I have to sing for my supper or a day out, must stop that, too. But I feel beholden, always, sensitive to any imbalance in my relationships with my daughters.’ ‘Beholden’ is beautifully judged, and so is the gait – walking on eggshells – of the last ten words, on the brink of their own imbalance.

But Private Papers doesn’t entirely work as published papers. For there is a discrepancy between two kinds of literariness in it. Allusively, it is excellent, as one would expect from the author of The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, a novel which borrowed from Shakespeare with something of his own exuberant liberty. Private Papers makes the most responsible and unexpected use of Emily Brontë and of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But it is Robert Browning who fails to furnish the one thing needed, and this is where the novel fails. The dramatic monologue, after all, grew out of the epistolary novel. Forster is writing essentially an epistolary novel for the age of the telephone, and what is needed is new economies, new verisimilitudes, of the sorts associated with the dramatic monologue at its most stringent. So the first page has the voice of disgruntled Rosemary break in upon her mother’s memories, with ‘Who is she talking to, writing for? Is this a diary or a letter?’

There is no technical problem as far as Mother goes: her style, her old bearing in English prose, her sense of herself, and of what a family ought to be and perhaps once was, all conspire to make it not just plausible but true that she would set down this, set down this. She would water a family tree. But the daughter Rosemary is quite other, and never for me gives reality to, or finds reality in, her counter-writing. This strain of cacoethes is not hereditary. Psychologically there is falsity or vacancy; more importantly, there is a social inauthenticity. You can hear it when Rosemary has to pretend she is a Richardson heroine epistolarily in peril: ‘And now the gardeners are coming in and I must stop.’ Or there is the pretence that saying words like ‘shit’ or ‘crap’ or ‘sodding’ is the same as writing them down. It would be convincing – convincingly shocking – for Rosemary to interrupt her mother conversationally with these brusqueries and emancipated affectations, but writing them down in a counter-journal is a different thing.

So there is a technical problem, a daunting one about the epistolary novel and its possibility today (Swinburne’s Love’s Cross Currents may be the last one not to stagnate). It is papered over before your very eyes with Forster’s sleights of punctuation, dashing away with a smoothing dash. For when Mother is interrupted by Rosemary, it goes like this:

Whatever happened later to us, it is an undeniable fact that there existed between Rosemary and me a wonderful closeness –

*

A myth. Typical of my mother, endlessly romanticising to shape the past as she wishes to.

Mother did not write a dash there, and novelists should not take sides to the extent of allowing one character to rewrite another’s journal without this then being an acknowledged part of the inquiry. There is one moment (very important: Rosemary’s baby) where the abuse of the device of interruption is flagrant:

Emily and Celia had to know the truth. She told them herself and, to their credit, neither of them criticised her –

*

What an outrageous lie, neither of them criticised her, indeed. Dear Celia was all criticism and, Christ, how I hated her for it. She said she felt it her duty to tell me I was making Mother terribly unhappy. She asked me if I realised that. I said I realised she was a shit, and told her to fuck off, but she wouldn’t go away. I remember her standing in the doorway of the room where I lay, feeling like death, and lecturing me on my sins. She ticked them off on her fat fingers.

But when, after another dozen lines, Rosemary’s outburst subsides, and the thread of her reading is taken up again, we meet this:

– to me, Emily said she did not know why Rosemary had let it happen if she didn’t want a baby, but she didn’t go on to say she was against the abortion.

This is fraud. If Mother had been saying to Rosemary that ‘neither of them criticised her,’ it would be authentic for Mother to be at once interrupted, by anger’s micro-second insertion, with ‘What an outrageous lie’ etc. But on the page it is inconceivable that ‘neither of them criticised her to me’ would have permitted of this interjected premature misunderstanding of Mother’s dear old syntax. You don’t shoot from the hip sitting down.