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Tuesday
May312011

Ripley Under Ground

Wickedness has its advantages, we are consistently informed by those who do not believe that our life may end in reward (oddly, the whole notion sounds like a credit card jingle), even if the term wickedness is often supplanted by a close cousin, selfishness.  What does selfishness entail?  To those who believe in nothing except dirt and outer space, selfishness is the natural state of man.  It is how we, the talented, distinguish ourselves from you, the mediocre.  And the world is a better place for it: once we, the talented, find other talented people to reproduce with, and you, the mediocre, die in abject obscurity, poor, sick and childless,  there will be more of us and less of you, so therefore, on average, the world will also be more talented.  Sounds like a great deal (we can imagine a well-groomed and affluent audience jumping to its feet in rabid applause) until we enumerate the factions and political entities that have advocated what is generally termed social Darwinism, but which has a lot to do with eugenics and theories about making the strong stronger and the weak extinct.  These pathetic notions continue to our day in various guises, which should sadden more than surprise us.  How pleasurable it is, therefore, to shed any political chain mail and revel in the adventures of one so-called amoralist in particular and this fine book.

We are about six years past the events of this novel: Tom Ripley has remained in Europe and married a moneyed twenty-five-year-old Frenchwoman by the name of Heloise; people occasionally mention Dickie Greenleaf and Freddie Miles, but mostly as a self-important attempt to link past events to the present; Herbert Greenleaf still writes to the sole heir of his deceased son's trust fund, and has even directed Dickie's cousin Chris to Europe with the implicit hope that Tom can inject some sophistication into Chris's plain world view; and having exhausted Dickie's funds obtained through a forged will and testament, Tom has turned his eye to other money-making schemes, including pinching microfilms from visiting guests and an enterprise called Derwatt Ltd.  Derwatt is a gem of modern fiction because its namesake is an old-fashioned Romantic with modern hues and strokes.  A frightfully serious "saint," a "recluse" in Mexico, and someone who has sacrificed everything for his art, the British painter Philip Derwatt has become something of a sensation in recent years, in no small part to the work of Tom and his confederates:

Tom .... stared at the Derwatt above his fireplace.  This was a pinkish picture of a man in a chair, a man with several outlines, so it seemed one was looking at the picture through someone else's distorting eyeglasses.  Some people said Derwatts hurt their eyes.  But from a distance of three or four yards, they didn't.  This was not a genuine Derwatt, but an early Bernard Tufts forgery.  Across the room hung a genuine Derwatt, "The Red Chairs."  Two little girls sat side by side, looking terrified, as if it were their first day in school, or as if they were listening to something frightening in church.  "The Red Chairs" was eight or nine years old.  Behind the little girls, wherever they were sitting, the whole place was on fire.  Yellow and red flames leapt about, hazed by touches of white, so that the fire didn't immediately catch the attention of the beholder.  But when it did, the emotional effect was shattering.  Tom loved both pictures.  By now he had almost forgotten to remember that, when he looked at them, that one was a forgery and the other genuine.

Nothing is spoiled by revealing that the real Phillip Derwatt drowned himself in Byronic splendor in Greece, also about six years ago.  The connection between Ripley and Derwatt – apart from the fact that the former will imitate the latter on more than one occasion – is never fleshed out to our satisfaction: Tom was also in Greece around the time of Derwatt's alleged suicide, and his smug return there later in the novel is told in sporadic detail, almost as if it were a perfunctory exercise.  In the course of the last few years Tom has certainly made a great deal of money on the phony, if essentially aesthetically equal Derwatts painted by the very unstable Bernard Tufts, a trained painter who did not make a name for himself before a different name made him.  The main profiteers from the Derwatt business are Jeff and Ed, a gallery owner and journalist, respectively, who were, like Bernard, not only close friends with the original painter, but also in many ways his disciples in life and art.  For that reason everyone agrees that the best thing is to have Derwatt continue his oeuvres from the anonymous exile of Mexico.  That is, until a snooping, self-righteous businessman by the name of Murchison begins to make inquiries and finds that Derwatt the exile has a lot of friends who would love to see his fame increased even further. 

The critical dismissal of Ripley Under Ground has been mostly based on the assessment that, compared to its illustrious Ripliad predecessor, not much occurs.  And why, pray tell, should much occur at all?  That Tom spends an inordinate amount of time performing stopgap tasks that beget even more problems reflects the life of a criminal, which is rarely as sexy or dynamic as many films would have you think.  Tom sweats, struggles, fabricates and double talks, and lay outs an extraordinary amount of money given his investment in Derwatt Ltd.  And while both Jeff and Ed are mercenary and faceless in equal measure, it is to Highsmith's credit that Heloise is made complicit almost from the very beginning.  A woman may surely marry the wrong man; but she usually sees his flaws as a personal challenge to her powers of reparation.  In any case, it does not take a woman's intuition to realize that Tom, while smart, attractive, and resourceful, shall we say, to a fault, is not quite what he appears to be.  The sophistication he has absorbed through regimented learning would come much more naturally to an educated European.  Like most criminals who wish to lead a quiet life (as opposed to those who live as dangerously as possible knowing that they will meet a young, violent end) Tom lives in perpetual fear of some facet of his game being compromised by another person's malaise, and as the narrative progresses a few too many people have been let in on his secrets.  This criticism of the novel is particularly well-founded in light of its messy twists once the action transposes itself to Salzburg, home to Mozart and a generous selection of lonely bridges.  Unless you consider, of course, that few human beings, even those as baleful and soulless as Tom Ripley, can really keep too much to themselves.  

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