Lovers on a Train

Susannah Clapp

  • Carol by Patricia Highsmith
    Bloomsbury, 240 pp, £13.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0719 8

‘Beautifully written’ is novel-reviewer’s shorthand for ‘written by a woman’. So is ‘slim’. And ‘slender’. I began to note these casual condescensions when I was helping to judge last year’s Booker Prize. But then, prizes bring out prickliness. ‘Do you think,’ asked one contributor to the London Review of Books, ‘that the Booker panel is as distinguished as it should be?’ The question was delivered with a speculative air, worthy of the academic who spoke. ‘After all,’ he mused on, ‘there are probably dons who would be prepared to act as judges.’

So it seems. There is, for example, Eric Griffiths, who was beamed onto the television screen cutting the Booker finalists, especially the females, down to size. He blamed A.S. Byatt for producing ‘the kind of novel I’d write if I was foolish enough not to know that I couldn’t write a novel’; he commended Brian Moore for having included, in one of the most routine sentences Moore has ever written, the words ‘a quarter to nine’. Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure he denounced as being a novel ‘about a charming little girl written by a charming big girl’. Books don’t come slimmer than that.

Some critics seemed to think that male writers must have been strenuously extruded from the short list. Why, one friend asked indignantly, wasn’t the ‘Amis-Barnes Axis’ on it? The explanation that neither writer had published a novel in 1990 was met by a witheringly sceptical silence. Others seemed unnerved by Bainbridge’s novel, which was patronised as a ‘surprise’ finalist. The surprise was partly because her novel had been put out in unfashionable December and skimpily reviewed. It was also expressive of a conventional idea of a Booker book. Bainbridge’s novels are short and funny and dark. They are very particular: an inventory of their names and contents – all those loofahs, geysers, murders, Fredas – could not easily be accommodated in another contemporary novel. They are not usually described as ‘ambitious’. And ambition, which is easier for people to agree about than, say, a sense of humour, is an advantage when it comes to prizes. It is a unisex quality. When Bainbridge was first shortlisted for the Booker in 1973, the prize was won by J.G. Farrell for The Siege of Krishnapur; this year it went to A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Both these good winners were rightly praised for the largeness of their historical reach. Bainbridge’s scenes are more claustrophobic – both drabber and more dire. But small does not mean puny. There is a scatter – it is hardly a line – of female wits whose stage is narrow, whose mode is elliptical, and whose secrets are guilty. They are called Ivy Compton-Burnett, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. All have crime at the heart of their novels. None of them is a crime novelist.

Patricia Highsmith is. And in making murder her main point, she has avoided being thought of primarily as a woman novelist. She has made a career of producing books of settled menace, in which acts of homicide surface, almost welcomed, as breaks in routine. Her heroes kill not without feeling, but without fear of reprisal. They bash because someone is about to get in their way: ‘He remembered his cool thoughts of beating her senseless with his shoe heel.’ And they strangle as part of a self-development project:

If he were interviewed he would say, ‘It was terrific! There’s nothing in the world like it.’ (‘Would you do it again, Mr Bruno?’) ‘Well, I might,’ reflectively, with caution, as an arctic explorer when asked if he will winter up north again next year might reply uncommittingly to a reporter.

Highsmith, who has said that she ‘never thinks about style’, has developed a distinctive prose which catches the obsessions of her protagonists, their dogged attention to detail, and their insulation from the rest of the world. This can go too far. Some of her narration has a stunned, Janet-and-John quality.

But the restaurant served only beer and wine, so they left. Carol did not stop anywhere for her drink as they drove back towards New York. Carol asked her if she wanted to go home or come out to Carol’s house for a while, and Therese said to Carol’s house. She remembered the Kellys had asked her to drop in on the wine and fruitcake party they were having tonight, and she had promised to, but they wouldn’t miss her, she thought.

This passage – a limp note in an atmospheric book – is from Highsmith’s second novel, which, under the unsurprising title ‘Carol’, is now published in Britain for the first time. Carol is a novel about a lesbian love-affair, and was written shortly after Strangers on a Train, which was branded by Harper as ‘A Harper Novel of Suspense’. Anxious not to be relabelled as ‘a lesbian-book writer’, Highsmith submitted the manuscript under a pseudonym: Harper turned it down. She changed publishers, and the book appeared in 1952. It was called ‘The Price of Salt’ and was said to be by Claire Morgan; it received ‘respectable’ reviews, piles of fan mail, and sold a million copies in paperback. It is a romance which reads almost exactly like a Patricia Highsmith thriller.

Highsmith got the idea for Carol in 1948, when she was 27. She had finished her first novel, was broke and fed up, and had taken a job in a Manhattan department store. She was sent to work in the toy department, on the dolls’ counter – where all those floppy or morbidly stiff little limbs and those rows of glassy eyeballs must have appealed to her. One day a blonde woman in a mink coat came into the store. She was elegant and a little uncertain. She bought a doll, gave a delivery name and address, and left. ‘It was a routine transaction ... But I felt cold and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.’ Highsmith went home and wrote out the entire plot of Carol, which begins with a meeting between a salesgirl and a glamorous older woman in the toy department of a large store, spills out across the North American continent, as the two women decide to go travelling together (at first simply as friends, later as lovers), and ends with the couple looking as if they will try to settle down together. It took Highsmith two hours to plan her book. The next day, still in a strangely swoony condition, she was diagnosed as having chicken pox. Characteristically, she identifies the germ that gave her the fever and pustules with the germ of her idea for a novel: she describes herself dreaming up her love story with a face full of ‘bleeding spots ... as if ... hit by a volley of air-gun pellets’.

Carol is constructed like a Highsmith thriller, with pages of uneasy eventlessness punctuated by sudden alarms. If anything, these alarms are more frequent and more exciting than those in her suspense novels. The young heroine Therese, infatuated by her companion and beginning to trust her, discovers a gun tucked away in her suitcase; as Therese and Carol travel from Chicago to Salt Lake City, a solitary man seems to follow them from hotel to hotel; in an unfamiliar town, the couple discover a bugging device strapped to their bedside table. There is a car chase through unpeopled hills, a confrontation with a detective, a pay-off and the possibility of a shoot-out. Each incident is given piquancy by the equivocal character of Carol, who is lovely, cool, mocking, given to abrupt silences and unpredictable sweetness. Her attitudes and affections are often in doubt; her impenetrability is as threatening as it is alluring.

But it is the landscape, glimpsed in Hopperlike snatches, at once sharp-edged and one-dimensional, which gives the novel its tang. That and the details of weird animation. Here is a Highsmith character eating a canteen lunch: ‘The peaches, like slimy little orange fishes, slithered over the edge of the spoon.’ And here is another, downing a wholesome bedtime posset: ‘The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh or hair ...’ This is a world full of the eerie vitality of the miniature. A toy train, freighted with tiny men and little logs, speeds round the department store in which Therese works, ‘like something gone mad in imprisonment, something already dead that would never wear out’ – or like the funfair roundabout near which a killing takes place in Strangers on a Train. A model village fascinates Therese, who wants to design theatre sets, and who pins up tiny cardboard rooms on her walls. Her fascination elicits one of her lover’s acerbic observations: ‘You so prefer things reflected in glass, don’t you? You have your own private conception of everything ... I wonder if you’ll even like seeing real mountains and real people.’ Which could be said of Highsmith’s murderers.

Like her murderers, Highsmith’s lovers make their dreams come true. In Strangers on a Train Bruno imagines committing the perfect murder (‘the idea of my life’), and then does it. In Carol the 19-year-old shop assistant fantasises about kissing the beautiful older woman – who has money, a husband, a child and a huge house – and ends up running off with her. In many novels such success would be punished, but in Highsmith’s fiction people get away with things. Tom Ripley begins a murderous career by drowning one acquaintance and battering another – and then swans off to a Greek island. Therese and Carol are vilified and threatened by husbands, lovers and lawyers, but finally decide they can manage a future together. It was this glimmer of a happy ending that attracted early readers of Carol. ‘Prior to this book,’ Highsmith reflects, ‘homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming-pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.’

It is unlikely that the sex in the novel drew people to it. Sharing a bed in a town called Waterloo, Therese and Carol kiss and fondle: then, suddenly, white flowers are seen glimmering in water, arrows are sent whizzing, and bodies melt into ‘widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow’. This can’t be good news. Highsmith can write persuasively about sexual feeling, but she is at her best when she does so obliquely. Before Carol, she had written Strangers on a Train, with its celebrated exchange of murders by two men, one of them a mother-dependent wheedler who craves the admiration of his counterpart. Immediately after Carol, she wrote The Blunderer, which featured a similarly charged relationship between two men, whose sexual ambiguity is given even more emphasis: ‘Kimmel was aware that he felt intensely feminine, more intensely than when he spied upon his own sensuous curves in the bathroom mirror.’ (Melchior Kimmel, who has vulgarly fat lips and a tendency to shrug, is an envier of ‘Anglo-Saxon good looks’.) When Highsmith began her Ripley series, with The Talented Mr Ripley in 1955, she created a protagonist who dresses up in his host’s trousers and prances in front of the mirror, who is disgusted by his chum’s girlfriend, and who savours as his most bitter memory an episode in which he was called a sissy at the age of 12. Carol has the compulsion of a thriller; Highsmith’s thrillers have the lure of romance.