Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Patricia Highsmith and metaphoric plagiarism

By Tracy

Given John's entry on Philip K. Dick, I thought I'd post a little about my own favourite (supposed) genre writer, who isn't "merely" a genre writer at all, or is only in the best sense... who is perhaps to the so-called suspense novel as Dick is to the science fiction book? (No offence intended to those who write straight genre.)

There's lots you could say about Patricia Highsmith. The Norton site on her includes a sample short story from her astonishing and disturbing collection, Little Tales of Misogyny. It's actually one of the best tales in that collection.

But what follows here is just fragmentary musing on one aspect that crops up again and again in her oeuvre.

There's a paranoia about imitation expressed throughout her novels and short stories, often taking the form of the double, the murderer and his victim, or an uncomfortably close relationship between two men.

(Less a fear of being a plagiarist, than the fear of being plagiarised, being copied?)

In the Ripley novels, I'm thinking of how this motif applies to Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf, right down to Tom assuming Dickie's identity – which is done not only by imitating his look, but by forging his signature; also imitating the style of his letters – this is imitation rather than plagiarism, but has features in common with it. There are also forged artworks from second novel on. And there's a would-be imitator in The Boy Who Followed Ripley.

Or Walter shadowing Melchior Kimmel in The Blunderer, almost coveting (but unable to commit) the other man's crime. Their convergence is devastating.

There's a double of the protagonist in Highsmith's short story “The Second Cigarette” (published first in French), which, as an aside, bears some similarities to contemporary novella Cosmétique de l’ennemi by darling of French-language lit, the Belgian Amélie Nothomb… I am not suggesting she got the idea from Highsmith, but the two works are in some ways strangely (uncannily?) alike.

I want to write an entry on Nothomb another time -- that's a whole other universe.

Back to Highsmith, who wrote, in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, pp140-141:

“… I am not interested in seeing how another writer handled a difficult theme successfully, because I cannot keep his or her example in my mind when I am faced with my typewriter and my own problem. I read Graham Greene’s novels for pleasure, but I do not ever think of imitating him or even of being guided by him – except that I would like to have his talent for le mot juste, a gift that can be admired in Flaubert too. And given this laziness about studying my own field, it is easy to rationalize and excuse it by telling myself I believe I run a danger of copying if I read other people’s suspense books. I don’t really believe this. There is no enthusiasm in copying, and without enthusiasm, one can’t write a decent book.”

I know what she means. But given how much enthusiasm for copying her characters show, is this a less-than-honest disavowal? Does it reflect a Bloomian anxiety of influence she seeks to deny?

More on that another time maybe.

In Highsmith's story, “A Dangerous Hobby”, the thief/murderer cannot make himself authentic as himself – tries to turn himself in but is not believed, because no one can authenticate his confession – he is not even remembered by the woman he burgled, and she in turn is the only one of his victims he can remember the name of…

Fear of dissolution of boundaries with others?

Plagiarism is taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. It may mean simply the idea or shape of an idea – it may mean lifting, verbatim, what someone else has written, cobbling it together (Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le noir is a walking plagiarism, quotes Rousseau to seduce his mistresses who think it is Julien's own speech, quotes whole chunks of Latin text to impress people etc).

The problem of originality: thinking of Bloom again, and those who have investigated his ideas bearing in mind the peculiar position of the woman writer. Highsmith often seemed not to see herself quite as a woman. It's a tangled area I am going to spend more time thinking through.

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