The Glass Cell by Patricia Highsmith

I begin this post with a warning to the many devoted Goldfinch fans who evidently put the latest Tartt magnum opus on a par with the Bible. You won’t like this, not one little bit. You see, I put down The Goldfinch smack bang in the middle of it and picked up The Glass Cell, which I didn’t stop reading until I finished it. ‘OMG, How COULD you? The greatest book in the whole history of books ever and you did THAT????’ I can hear them all, as I write. Well, I did, so there.

I needed to take something to an afternoon of film noir and the only goldfinch in existence which weighs two ton was not what I was going to take with me. For a start, what if it pooed in the cinema? That alone would weigh more than this petite offering from Highsmith.

The odd thing about choosing this book to take with me was that the first movie on the agenda was The Grifters, a rather unsatisfactory remake of the Jim Thompson novel. And here as you waited for the lights to dim was Highsmith, punching you right in the gut in an un-Highsmith, but definitely Thompson-like, way before you’ve even settled into the book. Correct me if I’m wrong, it has been a while since I read a Highsmith, but violence isn’t really her thing, is it?

One might say this book is divided into two parts, in the first of which our anti-hero is attempting to survive gaol when something horrific, but nonetheless not sensationalised in the recording of, happens to him so soon his toothbrush bristles are still straight. Looking around, I see that opinion is as divided as the book. There are those who think that the prison scenes are the better of the two and as good as prison scenes get, a sort of masterpiece of understated exposition of brutality, while others think the part where he is on the outside later on, trying to save what’s left of his sorry life is the superior of the two parts. Me, I don’t care to join either camp. It’s an odd structure, but a good book fullstop. I gather there is a well-regarded German film of the story, though I’ve no idea how one gets hold of it.

I’ve been watching Truffaut and Chabrol movies and the word that comes to mind is insufferable. The whole experience has made me take pen to paper:

They seek it here
They seek it there
Those wankers seek it everywhere
Is it in heaven
Is it in hell
No, it’s in French New Wave cinema

Ain’t it the truth.

Anyway, in Chabrol’s La Femme Infidele, a chap murders his wife’s lover and as he is being taken away for questioning at the end of the movie, it is the point at which his wife’s love for his husband is suddenly pronounced for us. She discovers what he has done, she even destroys evidence that would have incriminated him. That’s a wife for you, even if you have just bumped off the man she prefers. If only she’d made it clearer earlier, your life would be so much simpler.

I found the whole thing rather unlikely, put it out of my mind, only to discover that The Glass Cell has much the same denouement. Did Chabrol get the idea, I wonder, from Highsmith, whose book came out several years before The Unfaithful Wife?

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3 thoughts on “The Glass Cell by Patricia Highsmith

  1. You do like to live dangerously. I suppose you believe there’s no chance that the Donna Tartt fans and the people who read Cahiers du Cinéma are going to get together to fix your wagon, but those guys are better organized than you might think…

  2. you could get a wife to protect you? funny, i never found any of my wives in the least like that. i guess perhaps it’s one (or two) of those exceptions that prove the rule type things

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