Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Talented Miss Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith said of herself, “I am always in love. . . .” Yet at her memorial service in Tegna, Switzerland, in 1995, there were no lovers from the past, and there was no lover to mourn her in the present. The service was filmed, which Highsmith would have liked, because although reclusive, she was interested in posterity. Such display also allowed Highsmith to hide in plain sight (as her hero Edgar Allan Poe put it in “The Purloined Letter”) the fact that all her relationships had failed. Highsmith had died in a hospital alone, and the last person to see her was her accountant. Highsmith was obsessed with taxes.

There had been so many lovers, usually women, but men, too, including Arthur Koestler, who had the good sense to give up. Highsmith was attractive to men and to women, until her diet of alcohol and cigarettes (she hated food) raddled her beauty.

Men never fired her imagination, except in her fiction, where her males, especially Tom Ripley, are versions of herself. It was women she wanted, and she found them in bars, on boats, at parties and, best of all, in settled relationships with other people.

Highsmith loved a triangle, and she liked to destroy it, axing the part of the couple she didn’t want, but usually sleeping with her first. Hers was a life jammed with encounters, and it is not by chance that her novels obsessively use the unexpected life-changing/life-threatening encounter as the drive into the narrative — think “Strangers on a Train” or any of the Ripley series.

- Jeanette Winterson, The New York Times

Read the rest of the review here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas books

From prizewinning poetry to bestselling thrillers, D-day to the credit crunch, Wolf Hall to a picturebook about a dying duck, our writers and guests pick the best of 2009.

Anthony Browne

The two best illustrated books for me this year have both come from abroad, and both are stunningly original. Tales from Outer Suburbia (Templar) by Shaun Tan, from Australia, is a collection of 15 short illustrated stories all stemming from sketchbook doodles. It's an unusual approach – most illustrations in books are reactions to the text, but here the pictures inspire the stories. They are all strange and beautiful. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (Gecko Press) is a superb picture book from Germany, that tells a gentle story of the relationship between Death and a duck. Death is portrayed as a sympathetic figure in a dressing gown who is with us all the time, but who only comes into Duck's consciousness towards the end of his life. It is warm, poignant and witty.

AS Byatt

I have read three novels this year, all of which were disturbing, original and brilliant. They are A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (Faber), Vagrants by Yiyun Li (Fourth Estate) and The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck (Harvill Secker). Moore describes the pains and hazards of child adoption in the American chattering classes. Yiyun Li describes the effects of the execution of a Chinese dissident on those around her. Franck begins with the abandoning of a child on a German railway station and tells the tale of his mother, damaged by the interwar years. All are heart rending; all find new and exciting ways of constructing a story.


Read the rest of the recommendations here.