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quarta-feira, 11 de novembro de 2015
Happily ever after, at last: Patricia Highsmith on the inspiration for Carol
Once upon a time, lesbian novels only ended in despair or death. Late in her life, Patricia Highsmith - the author of Carol - looked back at how one feverish encounter changed all that
My inspiration for The Price of Salt, as Carol was originally called, came in late 1948, when I was living in New York. I had just finished Strangers on a Train, but it wasn’t to be published until 1949. Christmas was approaching, I was vaguely depressed and also short of money, and to earn some I took a job as salesgirl in a big department store in Manhattan during the period known as the Christmas rush, which lasts about a month. I think I lasted two and a half weeks.
The store assigned me to the toy section, in my case the doll counter. There were many types of doll, expensive and not so expensive, real hair or artificial, and size and clothing were of utmost importance. Children, some whose noses barely reached the glass showcase top, pressed forward with their mother or father or both, dazzled by the display of brand-new dolls that cried, opened and closed their eyes, stood on their two feet sometimes, and, of course, loved changes of clothing. A rush it was, and I and the four or five young women I worked with behind the long counter could not sit down from 8.30 in the morning until the lunch break. And even then? The afternoon was the same.
One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted towards the doll counter with a look of uncertainty – should she buy a doll or something else? – and I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand.
Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light. With the same thoughtful air, she purchased a doll, one of two or three I had shown her, and I wrote her name and address on the receipt, because the doll was to be delivered to an adjacent state. It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.
As usual, I went home after work to my apartment, where I lived alone. That evening I wrote out an idea, a plot, a story about the blondish and elegant woman in the fur coat. I wrote some eight pages in longhand in my then-current notebook or cahier.
The woman paid and left, but I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, as if I had seen a vision
This was the entire story of The Price of Salt. It flowed from my pen as if from nowhere – beginning, middle and end. It took me about two hours, perhaps less.
The following morning I felt even odder, and was aware that I had a fever. It must have been a Sunday, because I remember taking the subway in the morning, and in those days people had to work Saturday mornings, and all of Saturday in the Christmas rush. I recall nearly fainting while hanging on to a strap in the train.
The friend I had an appointment with had some medical knowledge, and I said that I felt sickish, and had noticed a little blister on the skin of my abdomen when I had taken a shower that morning. My friend took one look at the blister and said, “Chickenpox.”
Unfortunately, I had never had this childhood ailment, though I’d had just about everything else. The disease is not pleasant for adults, as the fever goes up to 104˚F for a couple of days, and, worse, the face, torso, upper arms, even ears and nostrils are covered or lined with pustules that itch and burst. One must not scratch them in one’s sleep, otherwise scars and pits result. For a month one goes about with bleeding spots, visible to the public on the face, looking as if one has been hit by a volley of airgun pellets.
Prior to this book, homosexuals in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality
I had to give notice to the department store on Monday that I could not return to work. One of the small runny-nosed children there must have passed on the germ, but in a way the germ of a book too: fever is stimulating to the imagination.
I did not immediately start writing the book. I prefer to let ideas simmer for weeks. And, too, when Strangers on a Train was published and shortly afterwards sold to Alfred Hitchcock, who wished to make a film of it, my publishers and also my agent were saying, “Write another book of the same type, so you’ll strengthen your reputation as…” As what? Strangers on a Train had been published as “A Harper Novel of Suspense” by Harper & Bros, as the house was then called, so overnight I had become a “suspense” writer, though Strangers in my mind was not categorised, and was simply a novel with an interesting story.
If I were to write a novel about a lesbian relationship, would I then be labelled a lesbian-book writer? That was a possibility, even though I might never be inspired to write another such book in my life. So I decided to offer the book under another name. By 1951, I had written it. I could not push it into the background for 10 months and write something else, simply because for commercial reasons it might have been wise to write another “suspense” book.
Harper & Bros rejected The Price of Salt, so I was obliged to find another American publisher – to my regret, as I much dislike changing publishers. The Price of Salt had some serious and respectable reviews when it appeared in hardcover in 1952. But the real success came a year later with the paperback edition, which sold nearly a million copies and was certainly read by more. The fan letters came in addressed to Claire Morgan, care of the paperback house. I remember receiving envelopes of 10 and 15 letters a couple of times a week and for months on end. A lot of them I answered, but I could not answer them all without a form letter, which I never arranged.
My young protagonist Therese may appear a shrinking violet in my book, but those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.
The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.
Many of the letters that came to me carried such messages as “Yours is the first book like this with a happy ending! We don’t all commit suicide and lots of us are doing fine.” Others said, “Thank you for writing such a story. It is a little like my own story…” And, “I am 18 and I live in a small town. I feel lonely because I can’t talk to anyone…” Sometimes I wrote a letter suggesting that the writer go to a larger town where there would be a chance to meet more people. As I remember, there were as many letters from men as from women, which I considered a good omen for my book. This turned out to be true. The letters trickled in for years.
I never wrote another book like this. My next book was The Blunderer. I like to avoid labels. It is publishers who love them.