Other than the five volumes of the “Ripliad” (that started with The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955 and came to an ignominious end with Ripley Under Water in 1991), I had read nothing by long-expatriated American writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) until I began delving into her “uncollected stories,” posthumously published in 2002 as Nothing That Meets the Eye. I moved on to read her last novel, Small g: A Summer Idyll, which was published in the UK in 1995, but not in the US until 2004 (even after publication of the volume of previously uncollected stories as well as the omnibus collection of stories that had appeared during Highsmith’s lifetime in story collections).
It begins with an attractive young gay man, Petey, robbed, stabbed and left to bleed to death in a Zurich street after a late-night movie. The novel is not a whodunit. There is plenty of malevolence in what follows, most of it stemming from and/or orchestrated by a club-footed dressmaker named Renata. Though it is obvious to most everyone except her that Renata is in love with an assistant she took into her household named Luisa, Renata is vituperatively homoerotic, and especially hates the charming, middle-aged commercial artist Rickie Markwalder.
Though Rickie is very attracted to Teddie, a new face in the mixed (not entirely a gay bar, hence the small-g from gay guidebooks) Jakob’s Bar, and takes him home to sleep off excessive alcohol ingestion and does not take advantage of the situation. Knowing that Rickie is straight, Teddie helps an amour betweent Luisa and Teddie, provoking Renata to paroxysms of jealousy and having a mentally retarded protégé of hers attack Teddie.
Though not getting any sex from Teddie, Rickie has the consolation prize of a cop (married to a woman) who is eager to have sex with Rickie. The somewhat slack tale of romances and thwarted the ogress reaches happy endings for most of the characters. For a Highsmith fiction, and fiction set in Zurich, the denouement is positively sunny, as in Highsmith’s early lesbian novel published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan, The Price of Salt, in 1952, when “The Homosexual Must Die” (and should suffer a lot first) was mandatory for any representation of homosexual characters in Anglophone fiction. (Whether Highsmith was still an “American writer” after residing in Europe for nearly a third of a century is open to question, though she never changed her citizenship.
Rickie is expecting to sicken and die of AIDS, so the story must take place sometime between the mid-1980 and mid-1990s (before the protease revolution, which postdated Highsmith’s life), though the somewhat airless world of Jakob’s Bar seems to me from an earlier time. (Gay and lesbian rights groups formed in Zurich in the early 1930s. Consenting sex between adults was decriminalized in 1942 in Switzerland, having beenvery little prosecuted before that and there was more to gay culture in Zurich even then than some mixed-patronage bars.) Say 1960s? And the closeted (even from her own consciousness of her sexual orientation) Renata seems an ogress from an earlier era, too (as well as being another exemplar of Highsmith’s misogyny: she may have loved some women but did not like women, seeming to identify with unmacho male characters like Tom Ripley).