Patricia Highsmith at the Swiss National Library
Bern, 07.03.2006 - Her novels fascinated Alfred Hitchcock and Wim Wenders, her anti-hero Tom Ripley was brought to life by Alain Delon and Matt Damon: Patricia Highsmith inspired a good many screenplays. She is to literature what Hitchcock is to film – a master of suspense. The Patricia Highsmith exhibition at the Swiss National Library in Berne makes it possible to venture into the author's cryptic world. The Swiss Literary Archives have opened up her literary estate to the general public for the first time, thus offering an insight into her creative realm through the showing of original items. The exhibition runs from 10 March to 10 September 2006. It will also be open on Sundays and public holidays.
Patricia Highsmith died at a Locarno hospital in 1995. From 1988, she lived reclusively in the village of Tegna in Ticino. Texan-born, she moved to Europe in 1964 at the age of 43. She spent several years in England and France before settling in Switzerland in 1981 as a world-renowned writer. After her death, her literary estate was acquired by the Swiss Literary Archives, where it is preserved and made accessible for research and consultation.
Two labels are associated with Patricia Highsmith: "crime novelist" and "lesbian writer". With "Strangers on a Train" (1950), "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1955), "The Cry of the Owl" (1962) and some two dozen further titles she became one of the leading thriller writers. "The Price of Salt" published in 1952 became a classic of lesbian literature.
However, both labels fall short of the mark. In eight chapters, the exhibition at the Swiss National Library sets out the diverse themes that pervaded her life and work: Families, a refuge out of hell; Killers and fantasists; Morality, normality and oddity; On Music; Home, sweet home; Curious breeders and collectors; Society under a microscope; Mirror portrait.
Her own ideas of morality
Patricia Highsmith owned up to a liking for criminal and psychopathic characters, and found “the public passion for justice quite boring”. Indeed, she turned the rules of crime writing upside down and reformulated in her own way the ideas of justice, morality and ethics, rejecting out of hand the notion of moral endings in her short stories and novels. The oddity of her plots, the unsettling power of her anti-heroes − such as the mysterious Mr Ripley – caught the attention of many artists, including Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Bowles, Graham Greene, Arthur Koestler and Wim Wenders.
Hell is the otherThe broad recognition she received did little to quiet Highsmith’s feeling of private unease, however. She liked to say that “Hell is the other”. From her early years in Texas, she was imbued, as a lesbian, with a feeling of social non-conformity. Later, her status as an American living in Europe also marginalized her, making her as much of an outsider in her chosen home as she had been in her country of birth. Highsmith the loner mirrored herself in her fictional characters, entrusting them with much of her own social claustrophobia. The sexually ambiguous Tom Ripley was, by her own saying, her favourite character and somewhat of a literary alter ego.
The private diaries, letters and numerous other papers that make up the Highsmith collection at the Swiss Literary Archives (SLA) in Bern, Switzerland, cast new light on her life. They show Highsmith to be an author who, through seemingly private novels, captured a great deal of the social mood, and revealed the unstable foundations of our normality with her incorruptible eye.
The exhibition is a co-production with the City of Zurich and will be shown at the Strauhof Museum from 21 March to 27 May 2007.
Address for enquiries
Further information for the media
Dr. Ulrich Weber, Curator of the Highsmith collection and exhibition, Swiss Literary Archives, phone + 41 (0)31 322 89 69, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hans-Dieter Amstutz, Head, Marketing and Communication, Swiss National Library, phone +41 (0)31 323 17 72, email@example.com
Swiss National Library