Tag: patricia highsmith

Novel: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Published in 1962 by Viking Press

160 pages in the Penguin Classics Deluxe paperback


This book feels like the purest and most beautifully executed piece of wish fulfillment I’ve ever read. (The thing that comes closest to it is The Talented Mr. Ripley.) When I say wish fulfillment, I guess I mean that Merricat never has to grow up, never has to learn her lesson. Constance never has to grow up either, and after the brief temptation of adulthood passes, she returns happily (?) and with relief to the safety of Merricat’s little world. They win. They triumph. And the twistedness of their triumph is a pleasure in itself, which is only enhanced by the cruelty of the outside world—it’s as though Merricat’s madness is a reaction to that cruelty (though of course it needs no justification beyond itself) and a taunt to throw back against the taunts of the hostile neighbors.


Short story: “The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, the Trouble with the World”

“The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, the Trouble with the World,” by Patricia Highsmith

Appeared in the New Yorker on May 27th, 2002 (subscribers, read here); collected in Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith and elsewhere; read for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast by Yiyun Li

? words

“Life is a long failure of understanding, Mrs. Palmer thought, a long mistaken shutting of the heart.”

I love it when a short story embodies its central idea as precisely as this does. Also, it’s possible I don’t give Highsmith enough credit for compassionate insight.

Short story: “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving”

“The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in The Black House in 1981; also in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith and Selected Novels and Short Stories

? words

This story bears some resemblance to Virginia Woolf’s “Solid Objects,” which portrays a similar obsession (artistic? primal? both?). One protagonist ultimately abandons civilization, the other clings to it.

The title is so grandiose that I wonder if the author is having some fun at her character’s expense. After all, Highsmith is a practitioner of a craft as ancient as basket-weaving, and is far more dedicated to it.

Then there’s the symbolism of an empty, torn-up baby basket finding its way to someone who is childless by choice. Contrary to the usual trope, Diane doesn’t seem to be threatened by the symbolic loss of a child, or the lost opportunity to have one, only by her own latent creative potential. Maybe that’s why the symbolism doesn’t weigh the story down: the thing being symbolized is somewhat unexpected, and mysterious.

Short story: “The Great Cardhouse”

“The Great Cardhouse,” by Patricia Highsmith

First appeared in Story, vol. 36, issue 3, no. 140, May–June 1963 (there are several magazines with that title, but I think this is the one that folded in 1967); collected in Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short Stories

About 16 pages, ? words

It feels good to read a Highsmith piece with a happy ending that is neither chilling nor ambiguous nor altogether ambivalent. Some parts of this story go on a little too long—we don’t need the full tour of Lucien’s false body parts, in my opinion—but it’s ultimately satisfying.

Short story: “The Button”

“The Button,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in Mermaids on the Golf Course

Maybe around 8,000 words

I think what makes this story so eerie is its flirtation with pointlessness. Following the murder and aftermath, it spends a surprising amount of time on a mundane family vacation, and all the small attendant humiliations. I keep expecting a rise in the action or tension, but none comes. The only change is the wane of Roland’s anger. He still goes through the usual routines, but we don’t see him suppressing his hateful impulses anymore. The conclusion is almost anticlimactic. Having mused over the button for some time, Roland stumbles upon its real significance: “He had killed a man in revenge for Bertie. He had superiority, in a sense, one-upmanship. He must never forget that. He could face the years ahead with that.”

The story doesn’t quite spell it out, but the memory may allow Roland to behave like a tolerably good father for most of his life, just as we see him doing now. For some readers that probably adds another layer of horror. To me, though, it seems almost nice. The death of one probably innocent adult is a steep price to pay for a child’s happiness, but not as steep as I would have expected.

Apropos of nothing

“The thought of what Patricia Highsmith, in her most sexually active period (the 1940s were feverish for Pat) and in the right mood, might have made of Wonder Woman‘s bondage-obsessed plots and nubile young Amazons can only be inscribed on the short list of popular culture’s lingering regrets.”

—Joan Schenkar

On reasons for writing

“The main reason I write is quite clear to me. My own life, however interesting I try to make it by traveling and so forth, is always boring to me, periodically. Whenever I become intolerably bored, I produce another story, in my head. My story can move fast, as I can’t, it can have a reasonable and perhaps perfect solution, as mine can’t. A solution that is somehow satisfying, as my personal solution never can be.

“It is not an infatuation with words. It is absolute day dreaming, for day dreaming’s sake.”

—Patricia Highsmith (from a biography quoted at length here)

Things I haven’t read and mean to

These are books, plays, etc. that I keep hearing about that make me think I’m missing out on something significant.

That may be a mistake, that sense of missing out. I’ve noticed that people’s “Things I haven’t read” lists usually seem tinged with misplaced social anxiety. It’s one of the reasons this type of list is so irritating. The social value of having read The Old Man and the Sea is that I can now, comparatively late in life, tell people I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea—which is very close to zero value. The pleasure of reading it was non-zero but pretty low on the scale compared to, say, an Agatha Christie novel (certainly lower than certain other Hemingway stories). The real value of reading it was that I figured out what irritates me about Hemingway and what I like about him, and what makes him as widely read and admired and influential as he is. So I now have some opinions. I also now have the right to my opinions, which is a certain base satisfaction of its own. I still need to find something worthwhile to do with these opinions. But they’re there if I need them.

Luckily, most of the things I read to avoid missing out on are a great pleasure. Great Expectations, Howards End, the Book of Ecclesiastes, A Doll’s House, and Portnoy’s Complaint were all wonderful. Wuthering Heights was repellent but riveting, and the same for Of Human Bondage and Candide. Even if I didn’t have any useful opinions about those books, I wouldn’t regret talking myself into reading them.

My only fear about is that I will talk myself into finishing something irrelevant instead of coming to understand why it isn’t worth finishing. (Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books suggests that even excellent books may not always need finishing.)

In no fixed order, in no way complete, to be updated when I feel like it: …

  1. Moby-Dick: Currently listening to an audiobook. This audio version is really well done, but I think I missed something by listening to it rather than reading it with my eyes. Even at the height of the action, Ishmael (Melville?) writes some long, convoluted sentences.
  2. The Iliad: Need to look into translations. This seems like the kind of thing that can easily be killed by a bad or archaic or overly fussy translation. (Edited to add: Why is everyone in this book such an ASSHOLE?)
  3. The Odyssey
  4. Ulysses
  5. The Tempest
  6. Twelfth Night
  7. The Merchant of Venice
  8. Crime and Punishment This character list was a big help, though it names Lebeziatnikov twice.
  9. War and Peace
  10. Pride and Prejudice Surprised how much I liked this one. Might try some more Austen.
  11. Emma
  12. Anne Frank’s diary—Preferably an uncensored version. Wow, this book is a breath of fresh air. The jacket copy on my edition talks about Anne having “adult wisdom and views beyond her years,” but that’s crap. In fact, she’s an utterly ordinary teenager: sensitive to things adults fail to notice, ruthlessly critical of herself and others, lonely. In some better world, a renowned journalist turns eighty-three this June.
  13. Beloved: Got an audiobook.
  14. The Color Purple
  15. The Grapes of Wrath
  16. Of Mice and Men
  17. Don Quixote
  18. Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
  19. To Kill a Mockingbird
  20. Brideshead Revisited
  21. À la recherche du temps perdu/Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time (update: Swann’s Way is amazing)
  22. Beowulf (Seamus Heaney’s translation—very good!)
  23. A Tale of Two Cities
  24. Oliver Twist
  25. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
  26. Kafka’s diaries—Assuming I can stomach them. There’s something awful about reading something the author never meant to publish and thought he wanted to destroy.
  27. The Cherry Orchard
  28. The Sorrows of Young Werther: I started this but Werther was such a drip I gave up. I think it’s worth another try though.
  29. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: Listening to an audio version.
  30. The Screwtape Letters: Just started this. Amazingly clever writing. C. S. Lewis often offends me with his slightly arrogant, scolding brand of Christianity, but the preachiness is constantly tempered by earnest, merciless self-reflection.
  31. Tristram Shandy
  32. The Book of Job: Listened to an audiobook of the American Standard Version, very confused. I’m going to try another version. Tried Young’s Literal Translation and then skimmed a simple English version (here). I think it’s just confusing because God is a very strange character and Job’s friends all kind of sound alike.
  33. The Book of Revelation
  34. Orlando: Got an audiobook of this.
  35. Stranger in a Strange Land
  36. In Cold Blood
  37. Gravity’s Rainbow
  38. White Noise
  39. Snow Crash
  40. Neuromancer
  41. American Pastoral
  42. Rabbit, Run
  43. And Then There Were None Good times.
  44. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: I’m sad to already be spoiled for this but it does sound really interesting. Kind of cool.
  45. Death of a Salesman Hope to see a production at some point.
  46. The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Might borrow a paperback translation.
  47. The Satanic Verses: Got an unwieldy hardcover of this.
  48. Winesburg, Ohio Much as I enjoyed parts of this book, the stories all have an undeniable sameness, and the prose style, like most very distinctive styles, becomes cloying after a while. All the characters struggle with roughly the same inability to express themselves; that may be why, when they do manage to speak, their voices are frequently identical. Reading more than one story at a time, therefore, takes away some of their power, and I admire the individual pieces more than the cycle as a whole.
  49. Treasure Island: Listening to an audio version. Marvelous.
  50. The Tale of Genji
  51. “Brokeback Mountain”: Never saw the movie, curious about the short story. Liked it.
  52. The House of Mirth: Currently listening to an audiobook. Just finished this. Holy shit.
  53. Good Omens: My geeky friends tell me this is a must. Looks like a fun read.
  54. Pale Fire: I can’t believe I haven’t read this. I’m fascinated by bizarre misreadings of texts, for reasons that are probably pretty obvious. That was pretty sweet. I might have to go back and reread for the clues I missed.
  55. Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales
  56. The Age of Innocence !
  57. The Human Stain
  58. On the Road
  59. Death in Venice
  60. “Hapworth 16, 1924”—May as well bite the bullet. I feel like I just went to see Rocky Horror for the first time.
  61. The Cyberiad I can’t believe I never read this before. Fantastic.
  62. Relativity: The Special and General Theory—Reading various online versions.
  63. The Origin of Species
  64. The Epic of Gilgamesh
  65. The Great Gatsby—I read this as a teenager but it didn’t interest me at the time. Bit better this time around.
  66. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”
  67. Trainspotting
  68. The Idiot
  69. Solaris
  70. Lost in the Funhouse
  71. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  72. Invisible Man (Ellison, not Wells)
  73. Nausea
  74. The Brothers Karamazov !
  75. King Lear
  76. Ethan Frome
  77. Just So Stories
  78. The Federalist Papers
  79. Democracy in America
  80. The Death and Life of Great American Cities
  81. Sense and Sensibility (spoilers!): I’m so pissed that Marianne married Colonel Brandon.
  82. Histoire d’O/Story of O
  83. 120 Days of Sodom
  84. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
  85. Walden
  86. Bleak House
  87. The Killer Inside Me
  88. Le Deuxième Sexe/The Second Sex
  89. Venus in Furs
  90. The Possessed/The Demons
  91. The Communist Manifesto—to be strictly truthful, I listened to it and understood very, very little.
  92. The Book of Psalms
  93. The Constitution of the United States—Seeing as I live here and all. A pretty easy read. Of course, it’s hard to know how much of it I actually understood for practical purposes.
  94. “The Things They Carried”—I’m not sure if I’ve ever read this entire story or not. Maybe the others in the same collection too.
  95. Amerika—It’s kind of weird that I haven’t read this yet, right?
  96. We Have Always Lived in the Castle !
  97. A Brief History of Time
  98. Barthelme’s Sixty Stories
  99. Everything That Rises Must Converge
  100. Orientalism
  101. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  102. The Kreutzer Sonata (Tolstoy)
  103. The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  104. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
  105. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie
  106. Our Mutual Friend
  107. We Need to Talk About Kevin
  108. Demian
  109. Oryx and Crake
  110. Something by N. K. Jemisin

Other possible additions:

  • A Suitable Boy: Got a massive hardcover, suitable only if I find a good place to sit.
  • Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady: Sounds slow and difficult but interesting. Maybe I’ll just watch the BBC series.
  • The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion: Hoping someone publishes an abridged version someday.
  • Dune
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • JR
  • The Recognitions
  • The Corrections or Freedom
  • The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings
  • Naked Lunch
  • Kim
  • A Passage to India
  • The Hunger Games
  • A Lover’s Discourse
  • The Waves
  • The Twilight books—I have to admit, what with all the rants and parodies and wringing of hands, I feel like I’ve read them already.
  • Agnes Grey
  • House of Leaves
  • Strangers on a Train
  • The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • The Magic Mountain
  • The Bhagavad Gita
  • The Painted Bird
  • Steps
  • Peace, by Gene Wolfe—I’ve had this author recommended to me several times, and the book sounds interesting in a meta kind of way.
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
  • The Aeneid
  • Mansfield Park
  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • The works of Andrea Dworkin
  • The Name of the Rose
  • Foucault’s Pendulum
  • The works of George Sand (update: read The Devil’s Pool; it was okay)
  • The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories (Anton Chekhov)
  • Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  • Ancillary Justice
  • The Journalist and the Murderer
  • The Violent Bear It Away
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other works of Thomas Hardy
  • Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson—Wow, that was weirder than I was expecting.
  • The works of Friedrich Schiller
  • The Magicians
  • The Theory of the Leisure Class
  • Herland
  • The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
  • Revolutionary Road or other stuff by Richard Yates

Postscript: I forgot to mention the other reason this type of list is so irritating—the stench of acquisitiveness it gives off. As though every Significant Book were a merit badge to be collected, instead of (as it usually proves to be) a little world of its own. The desire to read lots of Significant Books is admirable in people who are just setting out to educate themselves; in people who have degrees and convoluted literary opinions, it’s another matter. I don’t mind being a snob, but I mind being a hobbyist. I have all the instincts of a hobbyist, a compulsive collector, and I don’t like to see them eat the things I love. Much worse than an irritation.

Postpostscript: If I remember right, this list originally contained around fifty things to read/listen to/consume. As of October 2012, it contains eighty, of which I’ve read twenty. At this rate, it will contain an extra ten unread things every six months. Presumably the rate at which I add things will diminish as I work my way through the canon and narrow my focus, while my reading rate will remain constant, so I’ll eventually catch up. Who are you calling a hobbyist, asshole?

Postpostpostscript: 39/100 as of April 2014.

“I have seen a great many lists of her drawing-up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” —Mr. Knightley in Emma, by Jane Austen

“[A]ny list you care to make about anything automatically creates two categories, those that are on the list and those that are not.” —John Searle

Short story: “Where the Action Is”

“Where the Action Is,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in Mermaids on the Golf Course; also here

? words (I’ll work it out someday)

A Highsmith story (or novel) often takes the form of a creepy, absurd, horrific, or misanthropic joke, drawn out at sober and detailed length, the creepiness/absurdity/horror/misanthropy snowballing as it goes on, passing the point where laughter seems appropriate. Instead of laughing, you get an enjoyable shudder, a kind of How did we get away with that?

This one is heavy on irony. Craig, a small-town photographer, accidentally snaps a picture of a tearful young woman running to meet her parents after being held hostage. The photograph becomes famous and wins a Pulitzer; the woman withdraws from social life and plays the part of a damaged but gracious victim. She even begins a career as a model, using her “sad-dog face” to sell perfume and clothing. Craig and the other characters spend a slightly ridiculous amount of time speculating whether she was “really” raped or just wanted an excuse to end her engagement. (Nobody dwells on the idea that she might be legitimately traumatized for other reasons.) Their curiosity is perfectly drawn: sordid, cynical, not especially malicious.

Meanwhile, Craig acts his part as well. Like the young model, he takes full advantage of the career boost, giving interviews, discussing how conflicted he feels about profiting from a stranger’s suffering, doing everything he can to seem deep and compassionate.

In a curious way, Craig realized that he had to hold onto his conviction that Lizzie Davis’s life had been altered, ruined—or he couldn’t make a success of the article-plus-photos that he had in mind. “You think she’s a phony?” Craig asked in a soft, almost frightened voice.

In the interview scene that follows, he “prepare[s] himself as if he were an actor,” and actually succeeds. “He believed, he knew now, that he was being sincere[.]” For the rest of his life, the story implies, he will be driven by this same hollow sincerity, building his career on suffering and compassion. In a way he seems more damaged than Lizzie Davis. He’s given up his innocence willingly.

I like stories about characters who are unwittingly trapped in falseness, selfishness, and ignorance by their own minds and choices. This one, of course, doesn’t have the depth of “The Depressed Person” because it places us at a comfortable distance from the main character; we can sneer at Craig instead of wanting desperately to save him or get away from him. I suppose misanthropy is never as effective a literary attitude as empathy.