Patricia Highsmith is the featured author for today’s Friday’s Forgotten Books event. My initial thrill (she’s one of my favorite writers) faded fast as I realized I’ve avoided writing about her for eons, always having trouble capturing exactly what it is that compels me. It’s partly her way of revealing the twisted psychology of even the most ordinary individuals -- their impulses and urges. It’s also the fact that even today, filmmakers always pull back from the most chilling plot points in her books. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train deviated from the most horrific plot point in the novel, one that changes its entire nature. The various movie versions of the Ripley series avoid his most dislikable character traits, making his murder a crime of passion rather than one of cool plotting. Let’s not even get started on the endings. I’m obsessed enough with Highsmith to feel unworthy of dissecting her biggest works, hence today’s post. I offer a taste of two short stories as a way of dipping my toes in, and also exploring one of the most unusual obsessions of the woman whose work obsesses me so.
|Patricia Highsmith, composed with snail shells. (By Jason Mecier.)|
Even allowing for the idiosyncratic behavior that often goes hand in hand with being a creative sort, Patricia Highsmith was a weird woman. She was an even harder one to like. She notoriously hated people, and it wasn’t just a case of being anti-social -- her disdain was more akin to a deep loathing. She abhorred her relatives (even despised the very concept of family), and was deeply racist, maintaining a series of pseudonyms to fire off anti-Jewish diatribes to the press. Though she had numerous affairs with both men and women, she never allowed herself to have anything like a relationship. She seemed to thrive on lies and deceit, and had a gamesman's predilection for busting up couples. It’s not much of a surprise that she died alone in a hospital, her accountant the last person to visit her.
|Publicity shot of a young Highsmith. The smile was rare.|
She did, however, have a thing for other living creatures. In particular, snails. She kept them as pets, and not just a few of them -- she lived with 300. Highsmith liked the fact that snails were sexually ambiguous, that it’s impossible to tell male from female. They were her housemates, but also her traveling companions, as she hid them away in cheese cartons to smuggle abroad, and sometimes secreted them under each breast. She brought them to dinner parties where she easily became bored with both the guests and the dinner (she reportedly also hated food, subsisting on cigarettes as much as possible). They’d arrive in her handbag attached to a head of lettuce, and she startled many by letting them out to leave their slimy trails across the table.
What’s hard to understand about Highsmith is how someone so averse to people wrote about them with such complexity, albeit a dark complexity. Perhaps it was down to the powers of observation. She translated those powers twice when it came to her snails, writing two short stories about them. They’re decidedly in the realm of weird tales, more horror than anything, and yet they still manage to betray her fondness for them. Despite the twisted endings, you can see the love story, though it lies underneath. Just as with her real-life affairs, she never gets too close.
|Eleven, which collects both of Highsmith's snail stories, along with nine other bizarre tales.|
Both of her snail tales are collected in Eleven, though they each were published earlier in magazines. “The Snail Watcher” first appeared in Gamma, and she had trouble getting it in print. Her agent told her that it was “too repellent to show editors.” She wrote to a friend that it elicited “ughs” for a full twelve years before she sold it to an editor she knew personally. The story, about a mild-mannered broker who becomes interested in snails after his wife brings some home for dinner, does take a turn for the disgusting.
Graham Greene wrote of “The Snail Watcher” that the protagonist relates to snails as Highsmith herself did with human beings: “He watches them with the same emotionless curiosity as Miss Highsmith watches the talented Mr. Ripley.” Before the story takes its terrifying turn, Mr. Knoppert’s snail-watching activities border on voyeurism. One of his early observations has an odd eroticism to it.
“Mr Knoppert had wandered into the kitchen one evening for a bite of something before dinner, and had happened to notice that a couple of snails in the china bowl on the draining board were behaving very oddly. Standing more or less on their tails, they were weaving before each other for all the world like a pair of snakes hypnotized by a flute player. A moment later, their faces came together in a kiss of voluptuous intensity. Mr Knoppert bent closer and studied them from all angles. Something else was happening: a protuberance like an ear was appearing on the right side of the head of both snails. His instinct told him that he was watching a sexual activity of some kind.”
The sexy snail scene is particularly interesting given Highsmith’s penchant for writing sexually ambivalent characters. The mating ritual is further described, and is probably the most blatant account of sex in any of her work. After viewing the mating snails, Knoppert’s initial frisson begins to border on sexual obsession in a way, reaching a frenzy that is ultimately his downfall.
|Original art for Highsmith's story in the Saturday Evening Post.|
Highsmith’s second snail story is even more of a horror story, which is saying a lot given “The Snail Watcher" and its unpleasant conclusion. “The Quest for Blank Claverengi” was first published in the Saturday Evening Post as “The Snails,” and while written with an obvious literary talent, it’s essentially a giant monster story. The monsters in question are fifteen-foot snails, discovered by a professor who hopes to have his name attached to them (Something-or-other Claverengi, which leads to the Blank Claverengi of the title). Like Mr. Knoppert, his desire is also obsessive.
As the professor ends up in a terrifying cat-and-mouse game between man and snail, the author’s well-known talent for suspense emerges. What’s notable is that Highsmith inverts the trope we’re so used to in her work. She so often writes about the doers rather than the done-to, and the fear of a victim here is as fascinating as it is palpable. The snails themselves are calculating predators who don’t give up as they exhaust the professor until he can barely fight back. They’re gastropod versions of Tom Ripley, smarter and stronger than the doomed Claveringi.
Fearsome as the gastropod giants are, snail-obsessed Highsmith can’t help but allude to a beauty that only a few people would ever notice in such a creature. “He had a view of its left side,” she writes, “the side without the spiral. It resembled a peach-colored sail filled with wind, and the sunlight made nacreous, silvery patches gleam and twinkle as the great thing stirred.”
The two snail stories in Eleven are by themselves some solid and darned unusual horror stories. Read with some knowledge of Highsmith and her problem with people, it’s easy to agree with Graham Greene that she wrote about snails in the same detached way that she viewed human beings. I think it goes beyond detachment, though. As she did in her personal relationships, she makes some choices. She sees some good, some beauty, which she reports as fact. Ultimately, though, she dwells on the worst.