Patricia Highsmith: A Tortured Soul

The film Carol, which is based on author Patricia Highsmith’s troubled life, is being tipped as a possible Oscar-winner, given also that the much-hyped film is drawing critical acclaim and rapturous reactions from audiences.

But behind this cinematic adaption of Highsmith’s tale of a lesbian affair in 1950s New York lies a real-life story of love and loss, for like one of the film’s characters Highsmith, too, had a penchant for married women.

Her novel is an extended love letter for some of the heterosexual women she had fallen for.

‘All my life’s work will be an undedicated monument to a woman,’ she wrote in her diary in 1942, ten years before the publication of The Price of Salt, which she penned under a pseudonym before it was re-published under her own name as Carol in 1990.

In 1993, two years before her death, I went to Lugano, the nearest town to Highsmith’s hideaway, where I spent the night before negotiating the Alps in search of her. She had given me directions to a small village where she would be waiting. She was there when I arrived, looking dishevelled and rather strange.

The house stood in a semi-wilderness and its interior was sparse, its décor grim. It struck me as an unhappy environment in which she led a kind of monastic existence. She offered me an alcoholic drink as I entered but I declined. I needed to have my wits about me for this potentially difficult encounter.

The interview was full of drama, as I suspected it might be. Twice during my questioning she stood up furiously and refused to proceed. As I tried to placate her, she poured herself a large whiskey and gradually became less tense and more amenable.

Her hostility disappeared when I referred to her book, People Who Knock on the Door, which she dedicated to the courage of the Palestinian people and their leaders in their struggle to regain a part of their homeland. Her face then became animated and I realised how committed she was to the Palestinian cause.

From then on the interview became less of a burden and I felt I had achieved my goal. Unpleasantness had been avoided, partly because of my Palestinian origins…

Despite what I deduced from that encounter, she was certainly a tortured soul at great odds with her environment, more in tune with animals than human beings, but nevertheless a gigantic talent whose literary output was phenomenal.

A large number of her novels were turned into successful films in Hollywood and Europe. She will always be remembered as a great novelist who understood the vagaries of human nature but lived a life in isolation which lacked the serenity that brings a measure of contentment in one’s life.

I mourn her passing.

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