10 October 2006

Highsmith's 1960 "This Sweet Sickness"

How Kelsey sees himself:

prince charming
falls for annabella at the ball
and secretly builds her
a beautiful new castle
while keeping his identity hidden
under a modest disguise

but when he finally comes
to claim her hand
he finds a hideous troll
has gotten there first
and cast a spell on her

the prince could simply
slay the troll
but if he hasn't first
broken the enchantment
there's a risk she might blame him
for the loss of her hideous beloved

so he maintains the secret castle
as a shrine to her perfection
and tries in letters
to discover a formula of words
that can awaken her from the spell
not omitting
frequent insults about the troll

but the troll sees the insults
and rushes to the old palace
to challenge the prince
but no one knows where he is just then
(worshipping at her shrine)
except a servinggirl, Effie
who'd once secretly followed him there

SPOILERS (highlight with mouse to read)

so Effie tells the troll where to go
and in the ensuing fight
the troll is killed

now the prince dare not
let annabella learn
he's the one who's killed her husband
so he flees the shrine
leaving the dullwitted sheriff
to inform her that
a mysterious stranger did the deed

the prince meanwhile consoles annabella
with growing hopes
and starts building a new shrine/palace

but when he then finds
she's married yet another troll
his mind becomes unhinged
he blames and strangles Effie
and leaps from a tower:

"Thinking no more about it,
he stepped off into that cool space,
that fast descent to her,
with nothing in his mind
but a memory
of a curve of her shoulder, naked,
as he had never seen it."


Highsmith's version
isn't told explicitly as a fairy tale
but rather from the pov
of a charismatic young scientist
in 1950s new england
whose fairytale delusions gradually
spiral out of control

he's Highsmith's least likeable protagonist yet
like in some early Nabokov novella
and there's precious few
nicely observed details, alas
to keep the reader's interest
(though that Nabokovian last sentence
quoted in the spoilers above
almost makes it all worthwhile)

and in retrospect, too
a charming portrait of Annabelle
comes into focus
as a modern girl
who runs from suffocatin' shrines
frankly preferring trolls
but still sufficiently flattered
that she keeps her conquered prince
on a long leash