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CARPE LIBRUM: Dissecting love and going against the grain of societal norms

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Book reviews of the week.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story on our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s new bi-weekly book column. In it, I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many North Carolina writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world as well. 

The Price of Salt
by Patricia Highsmith
1952, Norton, 224 pages

E.M. Forster
1971, Hodder Arnold

Patricia Highsmith built a reputation as a writer of thrillers that twisted deep into the core of the human psyche. Her books usually follow a depraved and obsessed person on a mission. She is most famous for the Ripley books: “The Talented Mr. Ripley: (1955), “Ripley Underground” (1970), etc. which follow the adventures of Tom Ripley after he kills Dickie Greenleaf and assumes Greenleaf’s identity. Her breakthrough came from the thriller “Strangers on a Train” (1950)—a study of two men who agree to trade murders and one’s descent in to an almost Dostoevsky like self punishment. The film of the same name was produced by Alfred Hitchcock the following year.

thepriceofsaltPerhaps her almost unknown book, “The Price of Salt” (1952), published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, is the one in which she paints the picture of the ultimate thriller: the pursuit of true love and happiness in a world determined to prevent both.

“Carol,” the 2015 film adaptation of “The Price of Salt,” starring Cate Blanchett, made a splash at Cannes Film Festival and has refocused attention on Highsmith’s work. I thoroughly enjoy Highsmith’s writing. “Little Tales of Misogyny” terrified and thrilled me, while the Ripley series captivated. But “The Price of Salt” is unlike anything else she wrote. It is heart-breaking and arguably her best book. She poured her heart into it, and it shows the most of her inner thoughts on the page. Also, she published the book under a different name and disavowed most her life.

The contrast is E. M. Forster’s “Maurice” (1971). The date of the book is a bit disingenuous: Forster worked on it off and on for most of his life, but it wasn’t published until after his death in 1970. The auto-biographical novel follows the trials and tribulations of a young gay gentleman in Edwardian England. It begins with his prep-school days and progresses into a committed relationship with a man of a much lower social class (an under-game keeper).    Forster didn’t pursue publication in his lifetime, and “Maurice” is far from the finished, polished work of “Room with a View,” “Howard’s End or “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” It is, actually, probably, one of the most honest insights into his mind. It showcases his process as a writer, and his mental and emotional landscape as a gay man in the Edwardian era.

What is truly sad is two such talented writers were divorced from their most powerful works: the stories of their own lives. Both made names for themselves as respected and admired writers bridging eras: Forster from Edward to the late 1960s and Highsmith from post-WWII to her last Ripley novel in the early ‘90s. Both hid their lives from public view and from their work. Forster’s long-term relationship was with a married man, not unlike his early love interest in “Maurice.” Forster’s long-term love was a policeman, too, and class distinction permeates his work. Can there be harmonious relationships between people of different social classes? That almost was a greater struggle for him than the idea that gay men and women could live openly.

In “Maurice” the ultimate love he finds is with a man of such strikingly different class it is almost impossible to fathom. They become the ultimate outcasts, dependent upon each other for everything in life. It is a real testament to the power of love, from a man who was more hopelessly optimistic than his writing revealed.

Highsmith, however, was really an awful person in life, and few people could sustain a relationship with her for the long term. She died alone in Switzerland. The backstory for “Carol” was based on a real woman who Highsmith encountered when she was selling toy’s during Bloomingdale’s open Christmas season.

Like Therese Belivet, the protagonist of “The Price of Salt,” Highsmith was engaged to a man she wouldn’t marry and with whom she hated to have sex. Both Belivet and Highsmith work in the toy department for the holidays while hoping to finally get their big break. For Highsmith it was writing; Belivet wants to be a set designer.  That is where their similarities end. Highsmith couldn’t truly love another person and spent much of her life in and out of psychotherapy (some ostensibly to try to “cure” her lesbianism).

In the 1940s and 1950s, gay pulp fiction was not unheard of but the genre required several motifs: stereotypical butch femme characters and lovers could not find happiness with each other in the end. Either they suffer horribly for their choices, or they see the error of their ways and go back to a “normal” life. “The Price of Salt” was shocking when it was published because neither Carol nor Therese fit the stereotypes of depraved lesbians that were acceptable in fiction (or society) of the time. Though “Maurice” didn’t see publication till the 1970s, neither did the gay men in Forster’s book. Both books defy their supposed resolution: to be miserable in rejection of self and love. They fight for and insist upon a different ending—one that happens on the character’s own terms in society. Perhaps most powerfully apparent in both writings is the recognition of love as a life-changing force worth fighting for.

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