The Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith
; Dimensions (in inches): 0.74 x 8.26 x 5.51
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; (October 1988)
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Highsmith at her best, June 29, 2003
from Freeview, VT
Sometime after Patricia Highsmith's death in 1995, my local bookstore moved her books from the "Mystery & Thriller" section to the more general "Fiction" section, a final irony for a writer who had been largely ignored in the U.S. (except perhaps by mystery readers). Why this was so is not clear at all. Did Hitchcock's filming of her 1950 "Strangers on a Train" fatally pigeonhole her as a mystery writer? Or did the expatriate nature of her life, living abroad in England, France and finally Switzerland for so many years, allow us to lose sight of her as a great American writer? For make no mistake about it, Highsmith was a great American writer, as evidenced by perhaps her most serious and ironic work, "The Tremor of Forgery" (1969). "Tremor" begins with novelist Howard Ingham's arrival in Tunisia, where he expects to spend a few weeks writing a screenplay with the film's director, who will be joining him shortly. The director never does arrive, leaving Ingham to begin working on a new novel while immersing himself in Tunisia, where everything in his life gets turned upside down. His new novel is "about a man with a double life, a man unaware of the amorality of the way he lived." Is this a description that fits Ingham as well? "In his book, he had no intention of justifying his hero." Could this be true of Highsmith too? Within a few pages, Highsmith introduces the kind of exotica found in the great expatriate novels: Cafe de Paris, Herald-Tribune, Pernod, jasmine. And by the end of the second chapter she has also introduced the novel's themes: identity, loneliness, male bonding, and cultural relativism. The latter figures prominently as Ingham begins to change, unable to make the decision to return home after realizing the film will never be made. Already in chapter 4 he is "irked" when he hears some "Germans" speaking "very American American." And soon the African sun makes difficult "the sheer effort of imagining New York's unwritten conventions." The backdrop for this novel is the June 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. While not a factor in the plot, this war, which coincides with the first couple weeks of Ingham's stay in Tunisia, provides a historical context for the reader. This is definitely not the world of Lawrence of Arabia. Nor is it really the world of Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky" (1949). Rather, the world of "Tremor" is a precursor to our own troubled times. Which is not to say the novel could have been written yesterday. Some aspects of the novel make it almost a period piece. For even though the '60s can seem like only yesterday, those years were more like the previous century than like subsequent decades in many ways: international communication could be slow and unreliable, there were no cell phones, faxes, Internet, e-mail or credit cards. And in "Tremor" the characters still wear cufflinks. Highsmith is not a humorous or witty writer, nor is she much of a stylist. However, there are many things to like about her writing. Two of the characters that Ingham meets in Tunisia are especially well drawn. Anders Jensen, a homosexual Danish artist, provides a European point of view on the "funny" Americans, with their annoying consciences. Francis Adams, a retired American, represents contradictory America during the Vietnam War (which is also raging, just out of sight) and stands for everything that Ingham's nickname for Adams conjures up: OWL (Our Way of Life). The portrait of Ingham is also interesting. A successful young novelist who continues to write well even during periods of personal turmoil, Ingham wrestles with a number of demons. His meditations on identity, particularly cultural identity, have weight and significance for many of his decisions (or non-decisions). Is cultural identity tied specifically to place, so that Antaeus-like we lose our cultural moorings once lifted clear of our cultural origins? Or are there values and elements of character that are indelibly burned into us, unchanging regardless of setting? At one point, it appears that Ingham's "character or principles had collapsed." But this is followed almost immediately by an incident that contradicts this statement, where Ingham's character reasserts itself, one more bit of irony. Highsmith, in her mid-forties, was probably at her peak when she wrote this novel. Nearly every sentence is taut and firm. Her writing is like that of a "thriller" the way M. Night Shyamalan's movies are like those of traditional "horror" films in that much of one's enjoyment and expectations are based on knowledge of the genre, the more so the better. Would "Tremor" make a good movie? Highsmith has been filmed before, by international directors from Britain (Hitchcock, Minghella), France (Clement) and Germany (Wenders). Would the movie of this novel be too slow, too thoughtful, kind of an anti-thriller where what you expect to happen doesn't quite, ending with a mystery that almost isn't? Or could it be a nice quiet "psychological" movie, a period piece, in an exotic setting, containing foreshadowings of today's resurgent, militant Islam? It wouldn't have to be a Hollywood production. It might work as a PBS-type TV movie, assuming PBS one day expands its sense of "Masterpiece" to mean more than just "anglophile." Too obscure even for PBS? Well, PBS broadcast series made from Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" and Olivia Manning's "Balkan Trilogy" and "Levant Trilogy" and none of these is exactly a trendy or action-packed work. Highsmith might well have been thinking of her own novel when she describes Ingham's attitude toward his novel as "a difficult book for him to think of in film terms." But it's still fun to wonder about that possibility. And even more fun to read and re-read her novel whenever we need a bit of something exotic in our reading lives.