Patricia Highsmith: Sour Tales for Sweethearts
Virago 2015 (1975)
Here are four domestic vignettes, all with a bitter ending, by the mistress of the twisted tale. ‘The Hand’ tells us that asking a father for his daughter’s hand may not bring the result the young man making the request expected; nor is the ending what we the readers may have expected. ‘The Invalid, or, The Bed-Ridden’ is a morality tale for those who would feign illness or disability, while in ‘The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife’ the titular character proves she can have her cake and eat it. Finally, ‘The Female Novelist’ features a writer with a heap of rejection slips and a wayward husband; where is she going to get her inspiration from?
Delicious little tales, these, with that unpleasant aftertaste that characterises Highsmith. Three of the pieces involve death, two the result of murder, the fourth might even hint at thoughts of violence. She uses a sparse narrative style, concentrating on description with few adjectives (except when necessary) and fewer adverbs. Occasionally a protagonist’s thoughts are revealed, but they are rarely profound.
The archaic titles of a couple of the tales only helps to distance the writer and the reader from the personnel. Highsmith is like a behavioural scientist, observing rats as they go about in their constrained environments and tweaking the controls to get them to do something out of the ordinary. It’s not a pretty sight, but for the reader it’s morbidly fascinating.
A word about this edition. This is a tiny selection from Highsmith’s 1975 collection Little Tales of Misogyny, which appeared in a UK edition in 1977. By this time the original will have been ‘translated’ for a British audience (as evidenced by expressing weight in stones as opposed to pounds) and an unsuspecting English reader would have little inkling these could be set almost anywhere in the US or Europe.
Now, the title. This is not actually Highsmith’s choice but one selected by the editorial director of Virago Books for presenting these four short stories. A little online sleuthing reveals that it’s actually based on a dedication she herself penned in late 1977: “sour reading — for sweet spirits.” In Nick Jones’ Existential Ennui blog he reveals that Virago discovered this dedication noted in a post he’d published about his copy of the collection: “When it came to reissuing Little Tales of Misogyny at the start of this year , to accompany it Virago concocted Sour Tales for Sweethearts, a showcase-cum-promotional item intended to sit beside bookshop tills, featuring four stories from Little Tales of Misogyny,” Jones wrote in his second post.
This then is a promo publication, the text of the tales limited to just 22 pages of largish type. As a taster of the author’s subject matter and style it’s perfect, its bleak outlook (shading to black humour) encapsulating the approach found in the Ripley books for example, or in novels like The Two Faces of January (1964). It’s an unsettling view of the human race she presents.
For the 2018 Ultimate Reading Guide this counts as a book you can finish in a day (and so it proved)