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BooksJanuary 19, 2016

‘She slept with a man experimentally, much as one tries tripe to see if one develops a taste for it’ – Peter Wells on Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith’s second novel The Price of Salt dealt with an obsessive lesbian relationship in an era of homophobia so severe her agent warned of career suicide. Peter Wells reviews the book, reissued and retitled Carol, and finds a ‘daring masterpiece’ which offered a glimmer of hope in the ‘gloom zone’ of the 1950’s. 

Graham Greene called her ‘the poet of ambiguity’. He was tipping his hat to another author who specialised in a kind of moral gloom striated by tension, crackling with sexual electricity. Patricia Highsmith is best known as a crime writer whose bent arrow novels have been snatched up for the silver screen. Hitchcock the master was the first in the queue, paying her a measly $7500 with no further rights for that wriggling can of worms, her debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950). This novel set the pattern really, for tales of obsessive gazing, double identities told in a swift and economic narrative style. The truly astonishing thing is that Highsmith’s next novel was the small and daring masterpiece The Price of Salt, now reissued and retitled as Carol, to tie in with the new movie version starring Cate Blanchett.

Everything about this novel is unusual. Its title, first of all. It was usual for lesbian novels of the time to be plangent, almost complaining – as in I Walk Alone. Other titles aimed for a kind of sexual tease that allowed women but also randy straight males to toy with the possibilities – Dormitory Women, I Prefer Girls‘. But this was where Price of Salt with its nod to literary values (the title it came from a line in Gide’s The Counterfeiters) was also unusual.

The book fitted within a context of almost underground lesbian writing of the 1950s – yet it sold a million copies. The novel was a great hit in anyone’s terms, despite Highsmith’s agent telling her she was committing career suicide by following up a successful debut with something so overt. This is where the novel is so innovative.  It doesn’t have any of the usual period hesitations, explanations, parentheses. One leaps straight into the candour of an open heart. The word lesbian is never mentioned, however. Rather, one is taken into the emotions of a 19-year-old woman hungry for a certain kind of love. She has a boyfriend, of Russian descent who is boringly decent and morally blind. They are part of the demimonde of New York art wannabes.

Therese comes from an ambiguous background: her father died young, her mother remarries and she is farmed out to a religious school where she falls in love with one of the nuns. But this is no pervy lesbian romance. The nun she falls in love with is plain, rather harsh and no fool. This could almost be a mirror image for Highsmith herself – her inner self. Therese is hard up and though she’s aiming to be a set designer in off-off-Broadway she has to make ends meet by slaving in a department store over Christmas. This is the highly specific world in which Therese meets the fascinatingly ambiguous older woman, Carol.

Carol is an almost sublime symbol of American post-war affluence. Whereas Therese wears a thin cloth coat in New York’s freezing temperatures, Carol is insulated by mink. She has the vague, almost numb blindness of the rich. Of course she’s unhappy. She’s on the point of divorce, with one child called ‘Bindy’. Rich people always have pet names that end in ‘y’ – it allows them to stay cacooned in a childhood fairy dream for so much longer. Adulthood is a cruel awakening. Carol, in some senses, is struggling to come awake. She wants…she wants to be real.

It’s Highsmith’s virtue that she makes the nervy, willful, bright coin Therese real. Her emotional radar is true. She struggles with a sense that her relationship with Richard is underwhelming. She’s slept with him experimentally, much as one tries tripe to see if one develops a taste for it. But during the act of penetration she remains isolated, distant, viewing her own sensations analytically, wondering why she is not swept along as ‘she should be’. This persistent ache of selfhood, this determined sense to follow her own intuitions, is what drives the novel. She is exploring a self, and in exploring a self she speaks for a generation of women, and some men too, who had to feel their way forward without any guidelines. She has to rely on her feelings, her sense of what is true.

I read The Price of Salt about 20 years ago and was amazed at its prescience. It seemed at the time almost remarkably unusual in that it managed to describe a same-sex affair with precision. The absence of contextualisation – meaning explanations to straight readers who need softening up so they can accept a pervert’s tale – is what makes it so fresh. She takes no prisoners. Or rather she takes the reader prisoner by packing her/him aboard the roaring train of her narration. You hop on board and you don’t get off until a transformed Therese does, at the end. It’s not a surprise it sold a million copies at a time literary novels sold in the mere thousands.


An interesting parallel is James Courage’s novel A Way of Love (1959). The New Zealander, living in what you might call moral exile in London, wrote what was then a daring novel about an older man’s love for a younger man who he met at an orchestral concert. The broader context of the novel was the move towards decriminalizing homosexuality in Britain – The Wolfendon Report came out in 1957 advocating decriminalization. Courage himself was known for his sensitive, finely wrought novels. The Young Have Secrets (1954) is really one of the great postwar NZ novels though it is not recognised as such by the tone-deaf New Zealand literary establishment.

Courage was a cultivated ‘bachelor’ living alone in London during the maelstrom of war, casually relaxed about sex with a mordant point of view. (When the toff and art writer Brian Sewell first realised he might be gay, Courage lent him various young men he knew as ‘try-outs’ to see if there was any spark.) But as Courage aged he underwent a terrible shrieving: he became mired in a deeply homophobic psychiatric analysis which, without making too fine a point of it, fucked him up really big time. His creativity dropped away. He became alienated from his self.

How does A Way of Love compare with The Price of Salt – noting at the same time the parallels of the titles. A Way of Love, in following the feelings of an older man, is chaste – he does not open the emotional floodgates though Courage intimates they are self destructively there – but this may have been Courage who was born into the Canterbury gentry – mentally, one might say, with a bit between his teeth. His book was also hindered by being addressed (not consciously) to the heterosexual readership who were considering decriminalisation so it was always in a sense explanatory. This means a lot gets left out.

Highsmith’s book bounces over these prevarications by mainlining Therese’s intense emotional feelings. (The young man in Courage’s novel is seen through the older man’s mordant, almost grieving gaze. The bisexual young man is as troubled, or even more troubled than Therese but the gap between the older man’s gaze and the younger man’s tumult is ultimately distancing.) Highsmith’s novel has a kind of emotional velocity that Courage’s novel never quite manages. Hers is orchestral, his is a quartet.

This is not to diss Courage’s novel, which was seen as such a hot property in New Zealand it was banned in 1961 (and in fact my copy came from the Parliamentary Library where perhaps a few same-sex loving MPs nervously fondled the cover).

An elegant quartet has its own virtue. But it’s the orchestral drive of A Price of Salt ergo Carol that makes reading this novel as involving today as it was when it was first written. (A fascinating thing that struck me at the time was the way Therese and Carol’s lighting out on a road trip through motels precedes Nabovok’s Lolita by three years. One wonders if Nabokov actually read The Price of Salt – another tale of two sexual outlaws on the run sampling America’s roadside weirdness while being shadowed by detectives – and decided it was just too good not to copy. Where is Brian Boyd when we need him?)


Was Carol autobiographical? It was obviously emotionally autobiographical though Highsmith by 1948, which is when she met Carol – real life name Mrs Senn – was a much more sexually experienced young woman. The incident of seeing a glamorous blonde swathed in mink in a busy department store’s toy shop really did happen. But this is where writing fiction differs from mere transcription of mundane experience. Highsmith only had to see Mrs Senn once to sit down and develop very quickly the imagined universe of the novel. ‘I am terrified, because she knows I am terrified and I love her. Though there are seven girls between us, I know she knows, she will come to me and I will wait on her.’

It could be any 1950s song in a way – seeing a stranger ‘across a crowded room’. But it has the velocity of same-sex love, the kind of hurtling vertigo that comes from a background of forced restraint, illegality and stigma. It’s as awakening as a slap on the face.

‘So you want to fall in love?’ asks the maddeningly elegant Mrs Aird. (As in ‘air’ as in ‘laird’. It’s a film role Cate Blanchett was born to be husky in.) ‘You probably will soon, and if you do, enjoy it, it’s harder later on.’

‘To love someone?’

‘To fall in love. Or even to have the desire to make love…’

When Therese asks Carol what she means by saying people try to find in sex something other than sex itself, Carol replies by the enigmatic statement, ‘I think that’s for each person to find out. I wonder if I can get a drink here.’

If Carol was an arrow shooting towards the future with shimmering assurance, its grounding in the homophobic past was stickier.

Highsmith chose to publish the novel under a pseudonym Claire Morgan, anxious that a lesbian novel under her own name would hamper her career trajectory. She never even acknowledged that she wrote the novel till the very late date of the 1990s. And as for Mrs Senn, the beautiful archetype who produces the fascinating Carol – Highsmith did her own Talented Mr Ripley by tracking her down on the quiet and finding out where she lived and the details of her life. (She did this in psycho-Ripley fashion too, the very day after she finished her novel, via a receipt.) Mrs Senn’s story was not so fairy tale. Rather like James Courage towards the end of his life, Mrs Seen buckled under the period’s repression. She became an alcoholic who was periodically institutionalised. Finally in 1951 she sat in her garage inside her car and turned on the gas.

This stark tragedy stands in contrast to the dream fulfillment of Highsmith’s novel (and perhaps an explanation of why it sold so extraordinarily well in that gloom zone of the 1950s.) Alone out of the many same-sex novels of the era, it had a relatively happy ending. (Even Gore Vidal’s 1948 novel The City and the Pillar had a stock horror ending originally, in which one male lover kills the other. Anais Nin persuaded Vidal to alter the ending as times changed.) In this way Carol looked to the future with an uncanny prescience. It evoked a time when ‘unhappy endings’ were no longer mandatory.

As for Highsmith herself – described by one lesbian contemporary as looking ‘like a combination of Prince Valiant and Rudolf Nureyev’ –she must have been dynamically attractive – Highsmith ended her life living alone, conjuring up those twisted sister stories of suspence that kept her busy and rich and involved in the construction of the tiny universe of her own cruel invention. But that is the difference between dream and life – in the dream world lovers ache, brush their parched lips over the opened mouth of the other, seek forever to elude, clasp, meld into and merge – but in the real world, writers do only one thing mainly – they write. That is what they do. But what they write can summon up a future.

Carol ($29) is available at Unity Books.

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