Friday, 5 June 2015

Forgotten Book - The Tremor of Forgery

I first picked up a copy of today's Forgotten Book when I was a student, going through a Patricia Highsmith phase. Unfortunately, I only managed about fifty pages of The Tremor of Forgery before giving up. Later, I acquired a Penguin paperback of the same title, but only now have I got round to reading it. This time, I made my way to the end of the story, and I'm glad I persevered with it.

Opinions are divided on Patricia Highsmith and her books; but I do find that there is something hypnotic about her writing. Graham Greene and Julian Symons, no mean judges, thought that The Tremor of Forgery was perhaps her best book, but others will struggle with it, as I did first time round. For me, it doesn't compare to Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr Ripley. I'm not even sure it's right to describe it as a crime novel; that isn't a label that the author herself applied to it.

It is, strange to say, a book in which not very much happens. An American writer called Howard Ingham is visiting Tunis - the idea is that he will work on a film with an acquaintance, who has yet to turn up. The Tunisian setting is unusual, and as with so many Highsmith books, the wonderfully evoked exotic location contributes greatly to the pleasure of the story, as well as somehow helping to make plausible behaviour that might otherwise seem highly unlikely.

Ingham becomes anxious, as well as lonely bored, when he doesn't hear from his acquaintance, or from Ina, the woman he plans - in a vague sort of way - to marry. He befriends an American right-wing broadcaster (there's quite a lot about politics in the book, which provides a mildly interesting historical context) and a gay Dane. Ingham rebuffs the Dane's advances, yet remains strangely drawn to him.There's a strong gay sub-text to several of the scenes.

An incident occurs which may or may not amount to murder. Ingham's conscience is sorely troubled, but (spoiler alert!) we never know for sure what happened to the victim. And that's about as action-packed as the story gets. It's an odd, low-key book, best read for the sinuous prose rather than the almost non-existent plot. On the back of my Penguin, a reviewer comments that he'd rather read Highsmith's worst book than anyone else's best. The cynic in me wondered if the preceding sentence suggested this was indeed her worst book! I don't think it is, but it definitely won't be everyone's cup of tea. Agatha Christie she wasn't, but she was an extremely interesting and intelligent writer..


J F Norris said...

I happen to think that this is her most optimistic book. Even with all its ambiguity and the menacing presence of invisible villains (who actually did all those awful things? We never really find out) I think it's more a novel the at explores the desire for human connection and friendship, love even. What I most enjoy about her books is that the people who are viewed as outsiders tend to be the most well-adjusted characters in her books and the people who are presented as respectable tend to be just the opposite by the end of the book. THE TREMOR OF FORGERY is barely a crime novel, but it is most certainly a very fine literary novel.

Martin Edwards said...

Well put, John,and despite some reservations I certainly enjoyed it much more at the second time of asking.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Fascinating - not actually read this one!

Deb said...

(Possible duplicate post--sorry!)

I'd also recommend Highsmith's posthumous novel, Small g, about the interconnected lives and loves of a group of friends in a Zurich neighborhood. There's no real mystery, but the tone of the book is upbeat and optimistic. Certainly atypical for Highsmith.

Incidentally, after reading a couple of biographies of Highsmith, I'm convinced she had Aspergers or high-functioning autism, exacerbated by her alcoholism. This is why her characters often seem so disconnected and acting without motive--this was how she really saw her characters.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Deb. I haven't read Small g. Interesting point about her mindset. I'm about to embark on those bios myself.