Her Diaries and Notebooks, by Patricia Highsmith, edited by Anna von Planta

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Review by Basil Ransome-Davies

What a prodigious event this  book is. Highsmith was an assiduous note-keeper and diarist. The calendar spread is 1941-1995.  The editor has condensed ‘an estimated eight thousand pages into one volume’ of 999 pages weighing 1451g. It’s a treasure chest for those who recognise the formidable status of an author whose originality shelved the conventions of the whodunit, the ‘hard-boiled’ thriller and the conventional suspense novel in favour of cosmic unease and contagious guilt, Poe without the  Gothic trappings. She shares with him an exceptional ability to get on your nerves and make it a compulsive pleasure.  

Hitchcock’s film of Strangers on a Train (1951) boosted her profile. The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) rapidly became a word-of-mouth cult novel in the US and UK. It featured a shallow, posey American psycho, a morally decentred anti-Gatsby living the American dream through pretence, identity theft and homicide. Ripley believes ‘it’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody’ and gets away with it. Crucially, Highsmith proclaimed that she found ‘the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial… neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not.’  That credo frees her to address the reader from the viewpoint of the offender, rather than a wise, heroic authority figure who closes the case and restores order.

The first diary entries show Highsmith at twenty seizing her opportunities for a vivid social and cultural life in New York, having moved from Fort Worth, Texas (‘comfortable and horrible’). She has joined the Young Communists – her voracious reading includes Pat Sloan’s pro-Soviet hack job Russia Without Illusions and Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism – and already has a sense of being ‘different’. She is already so clear about her irresistible vocation as a writer, a stone priority. It would certainly be hard to imagine the mature Highsmith as a collectivist. The universe of her novels is a zone of atomised egos, amoral, unregenerate, arbitrary. 

Politics? World affairs?  They take a back seat to the intimate and immediate  The editor notes that in 1951, touring western Europe ‘she must have seen at every turn destroyed cities, broken people, rationing, and reconstruction. Her diaries and notebooks are focused solely on the battlefields of writing and her own life.’  The editor diplomatically leaves it at that, but for all her experience of travel, multiple relationships and personal success Highsmith also at times felt a hollow suspicion that writing was a substitute for full immersion in life (‘I cannot live’). In this her agonised self-interrogation echoes Henry James; in fact the first, and best, Ripley novel partially replicates the plot of The Ambassadors, which not coincidentally Ripley discovers in the ship’s library on his way to Europe.   

Highsmith’s own personal writings record a high but volatile affect. Depression and elation, passionate love and fading interest, seductions, high jinks and jealousy revolve and alternate in her accounts of a stormy emotional existence and she is generally able to recount them in the dispassionate style that marks her fiction, not playing the drama queen, the professional author overseeing all. She tends to tire of, or wear out, her sexual partners after a few years. The quest for love is as unending as the conscientious hard work of authorship.

Her Diaries and Notebooks is supported by a painstaking scholarly apparatus, but I feel that the appeal of it for most Highsmith addicts will be a pick-and-mix opportunity to raid it for glimpses of the author as she saw herself and others, withholding little. Illuminating and witty, she excels at the personality snapshot and could be wry about boring cultural superstars. Calling on Auden in Ischia, she finds that ‘we talked exclusively of money, or rather Auden tended the conversation to the financial aspect of every topic… He at last went off to his tailor in Forio, where he was saving 3/4 by having a tux made.’

The last diary entry, for June 1993 – in Switzerland, where she has relocated for tax reasons – muses on death which she wants to be sudden, unexpected, ‘the surprise element!’. Her alcohol and tobacco addictions have ruined her health and her looks, but she has made a unique intervention in the sphere of noir writing and secured a huge global fanbase, honoured by awards and prizes galore. Anyone who reads this book with a true understanding will warm to a woman legendary for her rude, obnoxious behaviour and pathological aversions who is also sensitive and discerning, fully alive for all her depressive fears – hurt, damaged, but with an audacious strength of character. Highsmith makes no concession in her finest fiction to the ruling formulae of either crime/suspense stories or mainstream social attitudes. She has written herself into literary history.  

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 Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Patricia Highsmith, Her Diaries and Notebooks (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021). 978-1474617598, 208pp., hardback.

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