Not a Desire to Have Him, But to Be Like Him
Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson · Bloomsbury, 534 pp, £25.00
For me, the name 'Patricia Highsmith' designates a sacred territory: she is the One whose place among writers is that which Spinoza held for Gilles Deleuze (a 'Christ among philosophers'). I learned a lot about her from Andrew Wilson's biography, a book which strikes the right balance between empathy and critical distance. Wilson's interpretations of her work, however, are often vapid. Can one really take seriously remarks such as: 'Highsmith's fiction, like Bacon's painting, allows us to glimpse the dark, terrible forces that shape our lives, while at the same time documenting the banality of evil'? Much more pertinent are the observations he quotes, such as Duncan Fallowell's perspicuous characterisation of Highsmith as 'a combination of painful vulnerability and iron will'. Or the anecdotes that illustrate her complete lack of tact, her openness about her fantasies and prejudices (although a leftist, she preferred Margaret Thatcher to the usual feminist bunch). Or the ethico-political grounds - already, in 1954, she was describing the US as a 'second Roman Empire' - on which she based her decision to make her home in 'old Europe'. As Frank Rich put it, she 'made a life's work of her ostracisation from the American mainstream and her own subsequent self-reinvention'.