For many years now I have done all of my book-reading in bed. It is just a habit I have fallen into: my waking hours I would rather be watching stuff than reading. So I have grown accustomed to reading for half an hour or so before going to sleep, and then, depending on when I awaken, reading for an hour or so in the early morning. This morning, for example, I awoke sometime after 4 am, decided to read for an hour or so, this riveting book The Tremor of Forgery, by Patricia Highsmith. At around 5.30, I told myself I could still have an hour, maybe two hours, of sleep. I tell myself, talk aloud to myself, “this is going to be lovely,” as I snuggle down to go back to sleep. It doesn’t always work. It didn’t this morning, but usually I get another half hour or even as much as two hours of extra sleep, which sets me up for the rest of the day.
Ms Highsmith, who lived most of her life in France and Switzerland and died at the age of 74 in 1995, first came into prominence when in 1951 Alfred Hitchcock made of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, what I thought was a rather indifferent film, yet one that attained a certain notoriety because of its unusual story. This had a theme that Ms. Highsmith developed in a number of later novels, of characters who placed themselves, more or less by accident, in situations which lead them to later dramatic actions that they would, in their saner moments, rather not undertake. For example, the two strangers who meet casually on the train agree that they each had someone they wouldn’t mind doing away with, and even promise that they would perform the dreadful acts by killing each other’s chosen victim. Of course, one of them was half-joking, and recoiled from his promise, but the other, who turned up ready to do the deed, was deadly serious, and forced the reluctant one into action.
After this first novel, Ms. Highsmith was tabbed as a writer of mysteries, although it soon became clear that she was a psychological novelist of a high order. The first book of hers that bowled me over was The Cry of the Owl, an hallucinatory tale that begins with a man simply looking through a neighbour’s window at a young woman who spots him, invites him in, and then falls for him, with dreadfully tragic consequences. From the beginning, the reader is trapped by the impression that nothing can stop this character from proceeding, almost as if in the grip of some outside power, to actions he would rather have never taken.
Come to think of it, another remarkable American writer, Hubert Selby, jr, explored a similar territory, his novel The Demon being about a character who started off performing the smallest of improprieties, stealing a few dollars, a slightly criminal act that, gradually, he expanded into major misdemeanours, until reaching the maximum of murder. In other words, yet another writer interested in the consequences of ill-thought-out but apparently harmless actions that eventually run out of control.
Selby, incidentally, wrote the only book I have ever had to abandon through sheer inability to take on the horrors he was loading on me as his reader. As reviewer Tony O’Neill wrote in The Guardian, “the reader of The Room is dragged kicking and screaming into the head of the narrator, feels his rage, his impotence, his anger, his fantasies of retribution: we are made complicit in every sordid fantasy,” and he adds, “it a piece of art that will leave an impression on your soul.” To which I can only add, along with many others who have had a similar response to mine, “if you can get through it.”
Well, Patricia Highsmith is an almost equally disturbing writer as Hubert Selby, but at a less sensational level. This novel The Tremor of Forgery was written in 1969, but 20 years later was still being heaped with praise by reviewers, Graham Greene himself saying, “if I were to be asked what it is about, I would reply, apprehension.”
Its central figure is a novelist Howard, who has been hired to write the script for a proposed film, and has been sent to Tunisia to await his fellow workers. Unfortunately, he doesn’t hear anything either from the director, or from his girl-friend whom he is about to marry. After a longish wait of some weeks he is finally told that the director has committed suicide, having chosen the writer’s apartment in which to commit the act. The girl-friend weighs in a few days later, telling her fiancé that the director had expressed his love for her, and had taken it badly when she turned him down, after a brief flirtation, the depth of which remained unexplained.
Meantime, Howard, has run into two companions, the one a semi-hippie homosexual painter from Denmark, whose sexual attentions he rejects, but with whom he nevertheless becomes a close friend. The other is a character remarkably achieved by Highsmith in all his irritating tenacity and deviousness: a middle-aged, simple-minded American who takes Howard aside, and swearing him to secrecy, reveals that, at the suggestion of some government operative he had run into, he had embarked on a programme of recording weekly tapes extolling the American Way of Life, and transmitting them electronically into the Soviet Union. These broadcasts are so pathetic that Howard welcomes them, because he believes they will be creating a deserved anti-American backlash in Russia, not at all what the broadcaster is aiming for. He dubs the man, in his mind, as OWL, for Our Way of Life, the subject of his tapes, and that is how he is facetiously referred to throughout the novel.
The success of the novel rests on the superb delineation of the contrast between its Western characters and the physical and social reality of this hot, sandy country in which they feel such strangers.
Jensen, the Dane, has developed a contempt for the Arabs, Howard is more understanding, but is bothered by their habit of stealing, and when he surprises one breaking into his bungalow during the night, an incident occurs that becomes the central issue of the novel. He repulses the invader, shuts his door with a bang, and goes back to bed. It is around this incident that OWL’s tenacious and inquisitive nature asserts itself:, he heard a yell during the night, and questions Howard closely as to what happened. Gradually, he puts together a narrative to which he insists Howard must agree.
When Howard’s girl-friend Ina turns up to visit him from New York, OWL makes it his business to tell her of his suspicions, thus throwing a cloud of apprehension between the two lovers, who were just on the point of confirming their decision to marry. Prodded by OWL with his myopic Christian certainties as to doing the right thing according to Our Way Of Life, their apprehension develops into an all-pervading uncertainty.
The tensions that Highsmith succeeds in creating in this novel make it into a real page-turner, difficult to put down, something that I felt even though I began to realize after a few pages that I had read it before.
Patricia Highsmith wrote twenty-two novels, most of them superb studies in the problems of creating and maintaining human relationships. She also wrote something that her oficinados call the Ripliad, a series of novels about Tom Ripley, an attractive, well-educated, plausible and likeable young man who makes his living by criminality, and will stop at nothing in his search for personal gratification.
To add to the mystery of this great writer, if you are interested you should read the Wikipedia entry for her: she is variously described as chronically ill, depressed, alcoholic, and homosexual, although preferring men’s company to that of women. One of her publishers described her as “a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being…I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly…. But her books? Brilliant.” An editor said of her: “She was very rough, very difficult...But she was also plainspoken, dryly funny, and great fun to be around”.
In short it seems, a character well worthy of the novels she wrote.