Patricia Highsmith | Critical Review by Lorna Sage

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Patricia Highsmith.
This section contains 735 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Lorna Sage

Critical Review by Lorna Sage

SOURCE: "Savage Swiss Army Knife," in The Observer Review, No. 10612, March 13, 1995, p. 19.

In the following review of Small g: A Summer Idyll, Sage discusses the plot of the work and examines Highsmith's characterization and depiction of sex.

Patricia Highsmith's (posthumous) new novel [Small g: A Summer Idyll] starts out in cool, utterly characteristic vein. A beautiful boy, a character we've hardly had a chance to meet, is murdered on page two by strangers who'll never be caught—not in any story she's responsible for. And, to add insult to injury, Lulu, a self-possessed performing dog ('a circus dog, from circus stock'), is introduced as a character in her own right, one who takes up more or less as much space as the humans, and has about as much inner life as most of them, too.

Highsmith once notoriously confessed that if she saw a kitten and a baby starving on the side of the road, she'd feed the kitten first if no-one was looking—and Small g: A Summer Idyll, like almost everything she did, builds in the same shocking lack of prejudice in favour of the human race. Although this time, oddly enough, there is a plot which distributes rewards and punishments, it's done in a way that privileges frivolity, fairy-tale style.

Lulu the performing dog, who's dressed up from time to time in dark glasses and a headscarf, like an old-style movie star on a cruise, socialises in the Zurich bar, Jakob's Bierstube, otherwise known as the 'small g', that gives the novel its title. Small g is apparently guidebook code for 'partly gay', and a typically tidy Swiss way of making sure you know where you are. Except that you don't, since Jakob's is where gay and straight worlds border on each other and violence lurks around the corner.

Rickie, Lulu's owner, and the lover of beautiful Petey, dead on page two, is HIV positive, and trying hard—we've cut to a few months later—to get back into his life. Sentimentally (sentimentality is OK for Highsmith, it's claims to profound feeling that she scorns), Rickie resolves to take an interest in a pretty girl, Luisa, who was also in love with Petey. Luisa it turns out, is a sort of prisoner of the couturier Renate, to whom she's apprenticed; and now the plot gets into its stride—a battle between Rickie and Renate over Luisa's destiny.

Renate is an agent of the gender-police, a gay-hater, and a hater of youth and sexual freedom in general; Rickie is on the side of the mildly camp fun that goes on at the 'small g', and sees Luisa as a surrogate self, someone who yearns for the same golden boys as he does. Teddy, a sweet-and-straight Prince Charming, turns up, and Rickie encourages Luisa's interest in him, to Renate's fury …

So much for Swiss tidiness. Highsmith (who lived in Switzerland herself during her last years) relishes, clearly, the opportunity to litter the orderly, uptight scene with ambiguities. Again, in characteristic style, you're told some of the most vital-seeming things (Rickie's being HIV positive, Luisa's having been sexually abused by her step-father) in passing. But the most cavalier authorial gesture is the use of fairy-story motifs.

Renate is referred to as 'the old witch', and actually becomes one, complete with club foot ('Clump, scrape') and a half-witted familiar, 'like a classic village idiot of yore', whom she brainwashes into violence against her enemies. Highsmith's famous contempt for justice is here turned inside out—we have fairy-tale revenge, when the witch gets her come-uppance, silly Rickie is 'a knight in armour', and it turns out the doctor who did the HIV test was only teasing.

Doubtless the little dog laughed to see such fun and the dish ran away with the spoon, too. From one angle, this 'happy ending' looks 'mellow'; from another, though, it's full of malice (straights are cripples) and fear and loathing of the surveillance of other people's lives that happens in anything resembling a family. Luisa thinks of Renate's eyes as 'knives cutting her brain open'. Highsmith lived with animals, was bi-sexual, left no known survivors (as the New York Times quaintly put it) and once complained that, when she started writing, 'homosexuals in American novels had to pay for their deviancy by cutting their throats'. In this latest novel she imagined a new generation of golden boys and girls who would escape the gingerbread house of either/or.

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This section contains 735 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Lorna Sage
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