Cleansing the heart

Thomas De Quincey:
On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts
No 4 Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1827)

A note in this postcard-sized publication, issued to celebrate eighty years of Penguin paperbacks, tells us that the 26-year-old author was somewhat affected by the Ratcliffe Highway murders in London’s East End in late 1811. We know from The Maul and the Pear Tree how deeply traumatising for the public those violent killings were, and De Quincey apparently was to write more than once about them over some three decades.

In 1827 he wrote this witty satire for Blackwood’s Magazine—a piece which, incidentally, I fancy the Brontë siblings would have eagerly pored over—in the course of which X. Y. Z. (De Quincey’s pseudonym) quotes verbatim a lecture to the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder. As the magazine editor noted, “We cannot suppose the lecturer to be in earnest, any more than Erasmus in his Praise of Folly, or Dean Swift in his proposal for eating children.” But we can also suspend our disbelief for a while to examine the outrageous claims of the anonymous lecturer, all written in a perfectly learned and civil style. Entitled the Williams’ Lecture on Murder (in honour of the supposed perpetrator of the Ratcliffe Highway atrocities) the text is full of Latin and Greek quotations which fortunately are here translated for us in square brackets.

Continue reading “Cleansing the heart”

Bitter aftertaste

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.

Continue reading “Bitter aftertaste”