A Game for the Living

A Game for the Living: A Virago Modern Classic (Virago Modern Classics) - Patricia Highsmith

"Theodore thought he was as happy as anyone logically could be in an age when atomic bombs and annihilation hung over everybody's head, though the world 'logically' troubled him in this context. Could one be logically happy?" 

I don't know, but I do know that this A Game for the Living certainly did not contribute to my happiness.


I am still confused as to what the story of this book was: was it a murder mystery, or an attempt to create an atmosphere of haunting guilt and haunting surveillance, while two of the main characters, Teo and Ramon, are trying to hunt down the killer of their ex-lover Lelia, while trying to decide whether the other is involved in her death.


This book just didn't work for me. There are rudimentary philosophical musings but Highsmith's atheist character, Theodore ("Teo"), was not well placed to discuss Ramon's Catholicism, and Teo's own attitude towards life is so detached that it is hard to empathise with him. There are, and I am probably biased from having read Sartre's Nausea only recently, some similarities between Highsmith's Teo and Sartre's Antoine, who both are outsiders and like to observe the people around them, never feeling part of the lives around them, and never really wanting to be.

As for Teo's Catholic counterpart Ramon, he was so guilt-ridden that he confesses to a murder he didn't commit, but instead of giving us an insight into why he feels this way, Highsmith doesn't go into much detail of Ramon's belief or frame of mind. There was a point in the story when I thought Highsmith might attempt a novel like Greene's The Power and the Glory (she was a fan of Greene's), exploring the different depths of the human condition, but this fizzled out into nothing as the murder mystery part of the plot took over.



It was all very unsatisfying.


At least, I am comforted by the fact that Highsmith knew this herself. When I took to Andrew Wilson's excellent biography of Highsmith to read up a little bit about the background to the book, I found this:

Later, Highsmith came to regard A Game for the Living, published in November 1958, as one of her worst novels. ‘The murderer is off-scene, mostly,’ she said, ‘so the book became a “mystery who-dunnit,” in a way – definitely not my forte.’46 She concluded that the book, which she said was ‘the only really dull book I have written’,47 lacked the elements which she thought were vital in her novels – ‘surprise, speed of action, the stretching of the reader’s credulity, and above all that intimacy with the murderer himself . . . The result was mediocrity.’

From Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury Lives of Women)


In summary, this was probably the weakest Highsmith novel I have ever read (followed by Strangers on a Train) but I am glad I've read it, even if it is just to remind me how high a bar she set for her books and what high expectations I have come to approach her books with.