Patricia Highsmith: Diaries & Notebooks

Patricia Highsmith (Getty Images)

 

 

 

Patricia Highsmith, the queen of the psychological suspense novel, was unabashedly gay. She did occasionally have sex with men (on one occasion, disastrously, with Arthur Koestler) but her real chief pleasure in life was sex with women. The Price of Salt, the semi-autobiographical lesbian love story Highsmith published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and later re-issued as Carol, bristles with same-sex intrigue and secrecy. Of her 21 novels, it is the only one not to feature a corpse.

Born in Texas a century ago this year, Highsmith was a ferocious malcontent, who drank herself to an early death at the age of 74. Her five Ripley thrillers – the so-called “Ripliad” – are among the darkest and most disturbing books ever written. Tom Ripley, the smooth-talking psychopath, is at times almost endearing as he goes about his business of garrotting and bludgeoning.

A new book, Patricia Highsmith: Diaries and Notebooks, opens a window onto this extraordinary writer’s inner life and working methods. It has been condensed from some 8,000 pages of material contained in fifty-six previously unpublished journals. The book is still, at nearly 1,000 pages, heavy as a house brick and, it must be said, relentlessly self-absorbed in tone (“I am sick of thinking about myself and about my own problems”, Highsmith finally confides on page 943.) But there is enough here to keep us entertained as well as appalled. Highsmith disliked in equal measure Jews, African Americans, Roman Catholics and “pansy” gay men. Like the deviant Ripley, she was in fact a casebook of neuroses. Her regular outbursts of anti-Semitism (“Jews – why do I consistently find some fault in them?”) show what a committed hater she could be.

 As a student in early 1940s New York, Highsmith hung out with Greenwich Village bohemians and assorted rackety types who flirted with Stalinism, drank heavily and frequented gay bars. With her striking dark looks, Highsmith cut a dash dressed in men’s shirts and “butchy” cowboy boots and belts. She was drawn to unhappily married older women, and adored Greta Garbo, who was part of Hollywood’s lesbian and bisexual underground. Early on Highsmith intuited that she was a loner at heart (“I have a definite psychosis in being with people”). What she enjoyed most in her many short-lived love affairs was the thrill of domination and a hoped-for element even of hatred (“in everyone we love, there is some quality we hate intensely”).
 The diaries are awash with alcohol. Heavy drinking was Highsmith’s compensation for childhood experiences of abandonment and loneliness. She never concealed her dislike of her stepfather, who may have abused her sexually. Like all alcoholics, she was a mess of self-pity, mendaciousness and gleeful irresponsibility. The previous night’s drinking is remembered in the diaries, if remembered at all, with bewilderment. Highsmith drank as though immune from hangovers. (“To be drunk and with the clarity of mind of tomorrow! That is the ideal.”) Like Hemingway, she saw an “essential beneficence” in booze, and insisted on its ability to uplift and even nourish. “There is something of the artist in every drunkard and I say God bless them all.” This romantic nonsense was part of Highsmith’s cultivated self-image as a murder mystery writer in the school of Dostoevsky.

Judiciously edited by Anna von Planta, Highsmith’s longtime editor, the book covers half a century from 1941 to Highsmith’s death (in Swiss tax exile) in 1995. Some of the diaries were kept in French, German, pidgin Spanish or Italian as Highsmith was keen to learn these languages – and no doubt deter prying eyes. From Italy to Mexico, she travelled relentlessly, noting down all she saw and heard. (“Rome by night: moonlight on the gray-white side of a church steeple.”) Along the way, we meet Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Dylan Thomas, Wim Wenders and Jeanne Moreau. In 1946, while working as a comic book script-writer, Highsmith discovered a new hobby: collecting and breeding snails. She kept a colony of pet snails on a head of lettuce in her handbag and was upset when one of them died (“My oldest snail died today”.) Published to coincide with the 100th centenary of Highsmith’s birth in 1921, Diaries and Notebooks is a welcome addition to the work of a most eccentric genius.

 

 

 

 

This article first appeared in the London Evening Standard on 16 November 2021