The beauty of snails


Patricia Highsmith, one of my favourite authors kept snails as pets. They lived in a glass tank and she travelled all over the world with them. Her snails and her brown portable typewriter click clunk clicking out her amoral thrillers as she drank whisky and smoked. Snails copulate after dark. The snails calmed her at night when she couldn't sleep. She watched them slide up and down the glass, leaving mucusy trails until several coupled themselves languorously, their muscles clinched in a slow loving-making dance.

In Highsmith’s novels and short stories, snails come and go. Her writing plunges to the deepest attractions and revulsions of human experience and she invites us to take ourselves on her ride. Black humour, loud and rancorous, makes her readers want to peer closer and turn away at the same time. Highsmith’s pets remained in their glass cage but in her stories snails take over, devouring their human hosts in Kafakesque horror.

In the ‘The Snail-Watcher’, Highsmith's protagonist, Peter Knoppert, takes up snail watching as a hobby. He houses them in glass tanks and bowls in his study. One day his cook has live snails in the kitchen ready to prepare for the evening’s meal but once Knoppert sees two of them ‘kissing’ he is so enthralled he saves the snails from the dinner plate and places them in his tanks along with his garden-variety breed. Knoppert puts down soil and finds they laid eggs, a little like caviar. The snails breed and eventually spread throughout the whole room. When Knoppert opens the study door he is slowly devoured.

Another Highsmith story sees a professor go on a journey of discovery. On a remote island he stumbles across snails the size of houses. Even though the snails are slow moving he is eventually eaten by them and, because they are so large, he sees their ‘mouths’ of scissor-like teeth descending. That’s how snails eat lettuce. Their mucus also helps break down the food and move them along to their next banquet.

Who knows what Patricia Highsmith would have thought of snail mucus being the latest ingredient in facials creams? I imagine this fact would have given her no shortage of ideas. Napoleon Perdis, the wealthy cosmetics magnate, has his air-brushed wife modelling the revolutionary ingredient for smoother, plumper skin. When I first saw the ad showing a face that needed nothing, let alone snail secretions, my reaction lay somewhere between titillation and revulsion. There is something abhorrent yet sensual about a snail producing something akin to silk.

But I ask myself how do cosmetic companies procure such a delicacy? Do the snails have to suffer or die? Is it like offal from the abattoir floor that cosmetic companies advertise as collagen? At least with that other popular ingredient, sheep placenta, an animal is born rather than killed for it. An Australian Company called “Rebirth” advertises it has sold over 5 million jars of sheep placenta worldwide. Put a bit of sheep afterbirth on your face and watch it rebirth itself. Ha! Highsmith would have delighted in the prospect. If there is real benefit however, I’m sure it would require ingestion rather than smoothing it on one’s face.

This is certainly what my brother did with snails. Before he was old enough to go to school he’d crack and peel their shells like an expert and chew on their naked, squirming bodies whilst delighting in our squeals of horror. Perhaps that’s why, in his fifties, he has such lovely, smooth skin. Or maybe it’s genetic. I should ask him if he's heard of Patricia Highsmith.

(Above image of vineyard snail courtesy Jürgen Schoner / Wikipedia)

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