Friday, 26 June 2015

Forgotten Book - Eleven

Continuing my exploration of the work of Patricia Highsmith, I recently re-read Eleven, which I came across originally in the Seventies - it was published in 1970, and is a collection of eleven short stories, with a foreword by Graham Greene. In comparison to her better known work, it's a book that I think does count as a Forgotten Book, but it shouldn't be. I admired it when I first read it, and I was even more impressed the second time around.

Greene says, rightly I think, that Highsmith is "a poet of apprehension rather than fear" - in fact he relates this specifically to her novel The Tremor of Forgery, which he greatly admired, and which I discussed a few Fridays ago. He praises her short stories warmly, pointing out - which I hadn't realised before - that some in this book were written even before her first published novel, Strangers on a Train. As he says, "we have no sense that she is learning her craft". He picks out "When the Fleet Was In at Mobile" as his favourite, and it's certainly a poignant story, as well as being as dark as the other ten in the book.

Where I might part company with Graham Greene is in his remark that readers may sometimes be able to brush her stories off more easily than her novels, because their brevity means that we haven't lived long enough with them to be totally absorbed. For me, Highsmith is at least as brilliant a short story writer as a novelist. In fact, I'm tempted to say that her gifts were even better suited to the short form. I doubt whether this is a widely shared view, but I think it's no coincidence that, as her career wore on, she struggled to come up with dazzling new ideas for novels - returning to Tom Ripley time and again, for instance, and repeating some themes of earlier books - whereas she continued to write very memorable short stories. For my taste (and judging her by high standards), some of her weaker novels drag a bit. This isn't the case with her short stories..

Certainly, Eleven is full of dazzling, haunting stories. Two feature snails, and one a terrapin, but each is unique and splendid. "The Quest for Blank Claveringi", in particular, is one of the most horrific and gripping stories you could wish to find; it really is a horror story, but it also tells us something about human nature, in Highsmith's customary subtle way.  There isn't one story in the eleven that is anything less than excellent.

1 comment:

R.K. Robinson said...

I read this last year for one of Patti Abbott's author-specific Friday Forgotten Book posts, and it floored me. I agree with you one the impact of her short stories, particularly two or three of them here including both of the snail ones. Brrrr. Creepy.