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.

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