BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 17 OCT 16
Featured in
Issue 183

At Least As Alive

What's so great about authenticity?

BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 17 OCT 16

Yesterday, there were two dead moles in the wood, beached a few yards from one another, blood still wet on their noses. Today, I woke in the dark and tossed there, trying to find my way back into dreams. I’m on the verge of starting a new book, flinging the windows open, encouraging a breeze. Starting is like dowsing or trying to find an unmarked path. I keep going away, keen to steer clear of my house. Marazion, Budleigh, Aldeburgh: seaside towns, marooned in time. In Lyme Regis, I unzipped the top pocket of my suitcase and found a forgotten Penguin, slightly bent. Ripley Under Ground (1970) by Patricia Highsmith, the second in a loose quintet written between 1955 and 1991.

The only one I’d read before was The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), which charts the transformation of Tom Ripley from awkward arriviste to murderer, imposter and bon viveur, dispatching the playboy Dickie Greenleaf and stepping gleefully into his well-made shoes. What’s so great about authenticity anyway, when you can bag the life you deserve? Why not wriggle into a richer self – il meglio, il meglio! (Tom’s closing cry) – even if it means killing the original with a blow to the head and shoving his bleeding corpse into the sea?

In Ripley Under Ground, Highsmith refines her unsettling take on fakes and fraudulence, relocating operations to the art world. Tom – smoother now, glowing with wealth – has been busily masterminding the production and sale of forged paintingsby an artist, Philip Derwatt, whose suicide he’s concealed. Composed in fleshy, muddy reds and browns, Derwatts are characterized by multiple outlines (an effect I imagine as something like early Frank Auerbachs, though Highsmith was apparently inspired by the Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren). Like Tom, the paintings are lifelike at a distance, coming disconcertingly to pieces at close range. His favourite is, of course, one of the many forgeries. ‘It was the restless (even in a chair), doubting, troubled mood of it which pleased Tom; that and the fact that it was a phoney. It had a place of honour in his house.’

I love these books, which play on the communal terror of being exposed while still taking pleasure in the artistry of the fraud. Tom isn’t just concealing murders; he’s hiding the ugly, unsophisticated boy he once was; the frightened face he used to wince at in the mirror. The things he buries in shallow graves are forever rising to the surface, misdeeds returning like waterlogged corpses. No wonder you root for him. Who wouldn’t like to outrun their ugliest self, the gauche, the ignorant, the tacky? Who hasn’t copied or adopted; who isn’t, frankly, two-faced? ‘I have long been lucky enough to feel real,’ Maggie Nelson says in The Argonauts (2015), but in Highsmith’s world realness is rarely a steady state.

Tom wants to pass as rich, but he also wants to punish the wealthy with his forgeries, to test their discernment, to sabotage their sophistication. It’s terrifying, the capacity of things to betray us. When I first moved to a city where the fear of vulgarity was acute, I took to carrying around a blatantly fake Prada bag. ‘I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar,’ Frank O’Hara wrote in his poem ‘My Heart’ (1955), though sometimes it’s a case of being less dead than the tasteful.

Highsmith bestowed on Tom her loves and frustrations: dahlias, harpsichords, the Internal Revenue Service. A lesbian and an alcoholic, she understood how it felt to have to construct false selves. Once you strip away the veneer of plot, the best book of the Ripliad, The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), is plainly the story of a closeted gay man on a spree in Cold War Berlin, the brutally divided city. In drag at Der Hump, Tom abruptly queers the issue of the fake. His habit of switching selves comes into focus as a high-stakes game of passing. Constantly serving realness of one kind or another, a fabricator and fabulist, he pulls the rug out on reality. The dodgy art, the artful dodge: making things up from out of thin air.

Main image: Alain Delon in Purple Noon, 1960, a film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, 1955. Courtesy Janus Films, New York.

Olivia Laing is a writer and critic. Her latest book The Garden Against Time: In Search of the Common Paradise will be published in May 2024.