Refreshingly unfettered: LRB Podcast's Close Readings on Patricia Highsmith

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

Archive on 4: A Writer and His Country — John le Carré Across Six Decades

BBC Radio 4

LRB: Close Readings — on Patricia Highsmith

Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other platforms

I’d forgotten what a rich and deep and characterful voice John le Carré had. Listening to author and lawyer Philippe Sands’s Archive on 4 programme on him last week, I was struck by how much more engaging it was than almost every other male voice on the radio these days. Le Carré’s weren’t simply the measured tones of a mid–century public schoolboy. There was a real spirit in his voice, something melodic, which, in a world of Nick Grimshaws and Greg Jameses, stopped me in my tracks.

Le Carré’s voice was undoubtedly part of the armoury that enabled him to win people over, even ‘to manipulate crowds’. This, his youngest son, the writer Nick Harkaway, told Sands was an ability he had inherited from his own father, the notoriously dodgy Ronnie. An associate of the Kray twins, Ronnie was something of a smoothie, with a shameless habit of autographing his son’s books as ‘the author’s father’ to sell on. It was all le Carré could do to ensure that he did not turn into him.

Sands got to know David Cornwell, as le Carré was called off the page, in 2003. ‘For me, he was just my neighbour,’ he said, perched outside his front door. In happier times, they used to toddle off to the pub together to share rhubarb crumble and discuss their opposition to the Iraq war. Cornwell suggested that Sands rereadA Perfect Spy, the most autobiographical of his novels, alongside an article he’d written for the New Yorker that he posted through Sands’s door. In the piece, well worth reading, le Carré described his violent father’s ‘reach, psychological and physical, and his terrible charm’.

What emerged most devastatingly from the archive of interviews, conducted from the 1960s through to his last appearance at Hay Festival in 2013, was le Carré’s insistence that having such a father had done him some good. As he told Mark Lawson in 2008, Ronnie had given him an ‘extremely rich’ range of experience. It was almost heartbreaking to hear him quote Graham Greene on childhood being the bank balance of the writer.

Rebelling in a family like his was not easy, but at a time when the bogeyman was German (his Sherborne peers named the school pig ‘Germany’), le Carré succeeded by immersing himself in all things Deutsch. It was amusing to hear his German publisher come on and confess how often she had ticked him off for idealising her country.

The biggest revelation, in a programme full of fascinating insights, came when le Carré’s son described how his father died an Irishman. The author, who made no secret of his aversion to Brexit, acquired Irish citizenship (his grandmother came from Cork) shortly before his death last December at the age of 89, and spent some of his final days wrapped in an Irish flag. One might only guess how his father would have reacted to that.

From the king of the spy novel to the queen of the psychological thriller, the London Review of Books’s recent Close Readings podcast on Patricia Highsmith was one of their most eye-popping to date. The guest on the episode was the American critic and Stanford academic Terry Castle, who had reviewed a new biography of the writer in less than glittering terms.

If you’ve heard Close Readings before, you’ll know that the episodes tend to progress like seminars, replete with line-by-line analyses of a kind that make you wistful for school. Recently, co-host Mark Ford talked us through Derek Walcott’s poem ‘To Norline’, differentiating ‘tern’ from ‘turn’ in the third stanza, and explaining how metaphors of writing were applied to the landscape. The podcast is one to enjoy with the relevant texts in hand and a pencil at the ready.

The Highsmith episode felt freer, more sweeping, less ‘close’. But it was just as penetrating. The main focus of the discussion was Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story she published under a pseudonym in 1952. Although it is sometimes described as her sole non-crime novel, Castle made the case for viewing it ‘on the same continuum as crime fiction’, and as intrinsically inspired by Highsmith’s own life.

While Castle didn’t hold back on the page — the ‘depraved’ Highsmith, she wrote in her review, ‘a sapphic swive-hound for the ages’, was ‘prouder of her self-styled “erections” than a Proud Boy’ — on the podcast she excelled herself, branding the author ‘a kind of female Don Juan’ or Ripley double with penis envy. ‘I think she often may have wished to have been a gay man,’ she conjectured, reflecting on Highsmith’s apparent appetite for ‘the casual hook-up’ at a time when lesbians enjoyed comparatively little sexual freedom. Her analysis was so refreshingly unfettered that I longed to be in her class.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments