Thursday, October 7, 2010

Patricia Highsmith part two - RIPLEY UNDERGROUND

Ripley Under Ground

A theme that resurfaces in Highsmith's books is that of a double, a doppelganger. In STRANGERS ON A TRAIN we have Guy and Bruno. In the first Ripley book we had Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf. They look enough alike that Ripley can impersonate Dickie. In this second book, Tom's double is a painter, Bernard Tufts.

This second Ripley book takes place six years after Tom Ripley has killed Dickie Greenleaf (and Dickie's friend Freddie Miles), impersonated Dickie, then forged a will which allows him to live off Dickie's trust fund.

The book begins with Tom at Belle Ombre, his home in France. Tom has married a beautiful French woman from a wealthy family. He still has money coming in from Dickie's trust fund, but also supplements that income with money from a scheme only Ripley could've conceived: forging the work of the painter Derwatt.

Ripley's cover story is that Derwatt is producing more paintings than ever from a tiny unnamed village in Mexico. In reality Derwatt has been dead for five years and his paintings are created by Bernard Tufts, an English painter and idolizer of Derwatt. The crisis of this book occurs when Murchison, a wealthy American suspects – and to his own satisfaction can prove – that the recent Derwatts are phonies.

So Tom flies to London and impersonates Derwatt to have a talk with Murchison. But even this doesn't satisfy Murchison. Tom, now back in his Ripley persona, invites Murchison to Belle Ombre. When he finds he cannot dissuade Murchison from his theory, Tom reveals everything. He appeals to Murchison, who has met and likes Bernard Tufts, and tells Murchison that Tufts has been doing the forgeries.

‘Bernard Tufts — You saw what kind of fellow he is. He’d

commit suicide if it came out he was forging his dead

friend’s paintings. He told you not to buy any more. Isn’t

that enough? The gallery asked Bernard to paint a couple of

pictures in Derwatt's style, you see —' Torn realized he had

suggested that, but no matter. Tom also realized that he was arguing

hopelessly, not only because Murchison was adamant,

but because there was a split in Tom’s own reasoning,

a split he was well acquainted with. He saw the right and the

wrong. Yet both sides of himself were equally sincere: save

Bernard, save the forgeries, save even Derwatt, was what

Tom was arguing. Murchison would never understand.

This is not enough to mollify Murchison, so Ripley kills him, then buries him in the woods near his house.

So how has Ripley changed from the first book? For one thing, he is much more decisive. For another, he is stronger, his has convictions which could only be his own. The Tom Ripley in book #1 seems almost like a baby in comparison. This early version of Ripley gets physically ill by things you and I might take for granted. The later Ripley is tougher, more resourceful, and refuses to let himself worry.

For example, take this passage where Tom must dispose of Murchison's body:

Downstairs, he pushed aside the mat before the front

door, then went down to the cellar. Murchison went up half

the steps very nicely, but Tom had spent a lot of energy on

it, and had to pause. The rope was cutting his hands a bit,

and he was too impatient to run to the toolshed for his

gardening gloves. He took another grip and made it to the

top. It was easier going across the marble floor. He varied

his task by rolling the wheelbarrow round to the front and

tipping it on its side. He would have preferred to get

Murchison out via the french windows, but he couldn’t

cross the living-room with him without taking up the rug.

Now Tom pulled the elongated lump down the four or five

outside steps. He tried to put the thing sufficiently into the

wheelbarrow, so that if he lifted one side of the wheel-

barrow, he could right it. He did this, but the wheelbarrow

tipped all the way over and spilled Murchison out the other

side onto the ground again. It was almost funny.

That Ripley sees the humor in this is great character depiction, but also foreshadows what's coming. Soon the police come around asking questions. Tom must move the body. He get help from Tufts, who is visiting, and together they exhume the dead man and sink him in a nearby river.

But Tufts is out of sorts, and after hanging an effigy of himself in Ripley's cellar, tries to kill Ripley by hitting him with a stone and burying him in Murchison 's grave. Ripley is literally buried alive – and the reader is there every step of the way. One can't finish this chapter without admiring Ripley for his determination, audacity, and humor.

In a later section, he must tell Ed and Jeff, his two co-conspirators in the Derwatt scam, about killing Murchison:

‘Gosh,’ Ed said. ‘My God. Can you face his wife?’

‘Sh-h,’ said Jeff quickly, with a nervous smile.

‘Of course,’ Tom said. ‘I had to do it, because Murchison

got onto me — down in the cellar, matter of fact. He realized

that I’d been playing Derwatt in London. So it was all up if

I didn’t get rid of him. You see?’ Tom walked about trying

to feel less sleepy. They did see, and they were impressed.

At the same time, Tom could sense their brains grinding:

Tom Ripley had killed before. Dickie Greenleaf, no? And

maybe the other fellow named Freddie something. That was a suspicion

merely, but wasn’t it true? How seriously was Tom taking

this killing, and in fact how much gratitude was he going to

expect from Derwatt Ltd? Gratitude, loyalty, money? Did

it all come down to the same thing? Tom was idealistic

enough to think not, to hope not. Toni hoped for a higher

calibre in Jeff Constant and Ed Banbury.

Later, explaining that Bernard Tufts is mentally unbalanced,

Tom said, "I am speculating. No use getting upset before

it’s happened. But you see —" Tom got up. He started to

say, the important thing is that Bernard thinks he has killed me.

But Tom wondered, was it important? If so, how? Tom

realized he had been glad no journalists had been on band to

write, tomorrow, ‘Derwatt is back’, because if Bernard saw

it in any newspaper, be would know that Tom was out of

the grave, somehow, alive. That, in a sense, might be good

for Bernard, because Bernard might be less inclined to kill

himself, if he thought he had not killed Tom Ripley. Or

would this really count, in Bernard’s confused thinking just

now? What was right and what was wrong?

It's this type of interior monologue that makes the Ripley character so interesting. In his way, Tom believes in right and wrong, and deplores the fact that they are often indistinguishable.

Towards the end of the book, Ripley finds Bernard in Salzburg. At this point the reader sees that Bernard is the only person in this story Tom actually cares about. Bernard is a genius, a great painter whose talent was subverted by Tom. So when Tom tries to show he's alive, that Bernard didn't succeed, Bernard thinks he's gone mad, that Tom is a ghost, and hurries away:

Bernard was walking briskly, not looking behind him.

There was a madness in the way Bernard walked, with

nervous but regular strides that Tom felt he could keep up

for hours until he simply dropped. Or would Bernard ever

simply drop? It was curious, Tom thought, that he felt

Bernard was as much a kind of ghost as Bernard apparently

thought he was.

Again we see the idea of a double, a doppelganger. Except this time, they are both ghosts. But only one of them will survive.

RIPLEY UNDER GROUND gives us a more capable, audacious Tom Ripley, but inside we see he is as confused as ever. He makes for a great noir character.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Talented Ms Highsmith

Part Two of the my blog about Patricia Highsmith's five novels featuring Tom Ripley begins with her first Ripley book – "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

At the beginning of this book, Tom Ripley is unformed, a con man who can't quite fully execute his con. He's been bilking people out of thousands of dollars by pretending to be an IRS agent, but all the checks to the IRS he's collected remain uncashed, even though Tom needs money. He has the beginnings of a con man, but no confidence in himself. So he starts as a small-time confidence man, between jobs, living hand-to-mouth, engaging in cons that only make trouble for himself. In fact, before Dickie's father asks for Tom's help, Tom thinks the father is a cop out to get him.

Also, Highsmith chooses to portray Tom not as a devil-may-care smoothie, but as the person least suited to do the things he must do. Time after time, Tom just barely survives, and unintentionally makes as much trouble for himself as his antagonists.

Tom is acutely sensitive other people. So throughout the book Tom has violent reactions to people, places, and events. He gets physically ill, he makes mistakes, he blunders, he forgets, he lets things slip. All of this creates tension for the reader as we wonder if Tom will make it to the end?

This first Ripley concerns identity theft, of Tom Ripley stealing the identity of Dickie Greenleaf. And yet, it's not as pre-meditated as it sounds. Tom's action are improvisational. When he and Dickie go out in a boat, Tom doesn't yet have a plan. It's while he's in the boat he decides to kill Dickie, it just comes to him. He improvises, like a jazz musician taking a solo. He kills Dickie to luxuriate in the possession of Dickie's clothes, his rings, his shoes. Access to Dickie's fortune doesn't even enter the picture at first. It isn't until later that Tom realizes he could forge Dickie's will, leaving everything to Tom.

It's Highsmith's superb writing that keeps the reader in the game. By allowing the reader to understand Ripley, she gives us the opportunity of identifying with him without condoning his actions. And the tension she creates is palpable.

There's also an enormous amount of detail: for instance, Tom's study of Italian makes him realize that Dickie could never properly conjugate certain verbs. So in his portrayal of Dickie, Tom mis-conjugates the same verbs. He does things left-handed, like Dickie. He practices Dickie's expressions in front of a mirror. I doubt any method actor has ever gone so far in learning to "be" someone else, the way Tom learns to "be" Dickie. Here's an example of how Ripley becomes Dickie:

He felt alone, yet not at all lonely. It was very much like the

feeling on Christmas Eve in Paris, a feeling that everyone was

watching him, as if he had an audience made up of the entire

world, a feeling that kept him on his mettle, because to make a

mistake would be catastrophic. Yet he felt absolute1y confident

he would not make a mistake. It gave his existence a peculiar,

delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a

fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a

stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not

be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not

himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he

consciously controlled every move he made. But he no longer

felt tired after several hours of it, as he had at first. He had no

need to relax when he was alone. Now, from the moment

when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was

Dickie, brushing his teeth with his right elbow jutted

out, Dickie rotating the eggshell on his spoon for the last bite.

Here's another section describing how Ripley becomes Dickie:

He had done so little artificially to change his appearance,

but his very expression, Tom thought, was like Dickie’s now.

He wore a smile that was dangerously welcoming to a stranger,

a smile more fit to greet an old friend or a lover. It was Dickie’s

best and most typical smile when he was in a good humour.

Tom was in a good humour. It was Paris. Wonderfu1 to sit in a

famous café, and to think of tomorrow and tomorrow and

tomorrow being Dickie Greenleaf! The cufflinks, the white

silk shirts, even the old clothes — the worn brown belt with the

brass buckle, the old brown grain-leather shoes, the kind

advertised in Punch as lasting a life-time, the old mustard—

coloured coat sweater with the sagging pockets, they were all

his and he loved them all. And the black fountain pen with little

gold initials. And the wallet, a well-worn alligator wallet from

Gucci’s. And there was plenty of money to go in it.

Ripley's talent for impersonation helps him to become Dickie Greenleaf, but also it makes Ripley a more capable person, in the sense that killing Dickie and Freddie gives Ripley a grounding he needs, in order to continue his successful journey.

Finally, Tom has to stop being Dickie and become Tom Ripley again. Except he doesn't. At this point, after spending weeks and months impersonating Dickie, Tom is now "being" Tom Ripley. That is, Tom is playing the role of Tom Ripley. Since he is about to be questioned by the same Italian cop who interrogated Ripley playing Dickie, Ripley decides to play himself more broadly, to heighten the contrast between Ripley and Dickie. Tom takes his own mannerisms and refines them, to draw the distinctions between who he is and Dickie. It's a marvelous and frightening bit of writing.

He might play up Tom a little more, he thought. He could

stoop a little more, he could be shyer than ever, he could even

wear horn-rimmed glasses and hold his mouth in an

even sadder, droopier manner to contrast with Dickie’s

tenseness. Because some of the police he might talk to might

be the ones who had seen him as Dickie Greenleaf. What was

the name of that one in Rome? Rovassini? Tom decided to

rinse his hair again in a stronger solution of henna, so that it

would be even darker than his normal hair.

Part of the undercurrent of this first Ripley book is the sense of pressure, of being a successful American male. The need to strive, to persevere, to succeed, is something implicit in this story. When Tom tells Dickie that Dickie's father gave Tom a tour of the family shipyards, Dickie replies, " I suppose he offered you a job, too. Always on the lookout for bright young


Tom Ripley is driven. And his eventual success seems perversely triumphant, like a Horatio Alger story as viewed through a fun house mirror.