Dear Diary… should I shoot my friend for betraying my sexual secret?
Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks
At the start of the year, the reclusive crimine writer Patricia Highsmith came in for a battering with a blunt instrument from her latest biographer, Richard Bradford.
Professor Bradford gave his nutty, slapdash biography the gothic title Devils, Lusts And Strange Desires and depicted Highsmith, che è morto in 1995, as a cartoonishly nasty, vendicativo, drunken nymphomaniac.
The truth about her is infinitely more interesting and complex, as can be seen in this selection from her 8,000 pages of diaries and notebooks, which she maintained from the age of 19 to the end of her life.
Patricia Highsmith (sopra) never quite abandons her sense of humour, though it gets blacker and blacker
After her death, all'età di 74, 56 hand-written volumes of diaries and notebooks were discovered tucked in the back of her linen cupboard.
In her foreword, their diligent editor, Anna von Planta, suggests this came as a surprise, but in fact Highsmith had been fairly open about their existence.
When I visited her in the early 1980s, at her cavernous house in Switzerland, she talked about them quite freely, describing them as ‘pretty boring’, and even let me browse through her current notebook, numero 36, while she took a phone call.
The passage I happened to read back then was all about a pocket watch she had been given by her grandfather when she was 12 years old in return for mowing the lawn. The watch had since been lost or misappropriated by her mother.
When I asked her about it at the time, she started ranting against her mother, with whom she clearly had a troublesome relationship. I was pleased to find that particular passage reproduced in this current volume.
‘This watch story illustrates perfectly my mother’s jealousy, malice, ambiguity, vacillation, mixed feelings toward me,' lei scrive. In old age, anxious and gloomy, she was a great one for brooding on past injustices.
But one of the most surprising aspects of these journals is quite how cheery she had been in her youth. She often introduces entries with ‘Very happy indeed’, or words to that effect.
She started writing her journals – divided between diaries, in which she chronicled her daily life, e quaderni, dedicated to thoughts and ideas – in January 1941, when she was a student at Barnard College in New York.
She was clearly seizing every opportunity to love, to learn and to have fun.
She was a voracious reader, thrilled by War And Peace and Henry James and Jung and Shakespeare. ‘It’s exciting to study like this: all day!' lei scrive, having just devoured Measure For Measure and Julius Caesar.
She is funny, pure. ‘How to get rid of persistent boyfriends. Should I develop a healthy case of dandruff?'
Lei era, as it happens, always much more interested – physically, at least – in women.
Her student life seems to have revolved around falling in love with a contemporary, having a passionate affair, poi, just as speedily, falling out of love and moving on to someone else, with a bit of a crossover period in between.
But through all the excitement and frolicking and zest for life, you catch glimpses of the deeper, darker woman she is destined to become.
‘We love either to dominate or to be bolstered up ourselves,’ she writes in her notebook in June 1941. ‘And there is no love without some element of hate in it: in everyone we love, there is some quality we hate intensely.’
This is an unusually bleak observation from anyone, let alone an attractive and popular 20-year-old more used to penning entries such as ‘Wonderful summer ahead – wonderful life ahead.’
In questi giorni, the term bipolar is perhaps overused, but there is an extreme, hectic quality to her youthful ups and downs.
‘Last night was wonderful – perhaps the most wonderful night of my life,’ she writes in April 1943. Tre mesi dopo, another entry begins: ‘A bad day, the saddest of my life so far.’ And as her life advances, the downs begin to outnumber the ups.
In other entries she talks about the compulsion to write, a compulsion she would never shake off. ‘I must write. Because I am a swimmer struggling in a flood, and by my writing I seek a stone to rest on. And if my feet escape it, I go under.’
Was writing the cure, or the disease? Even when she was young, she was clearly compulsive about everything, not least love and hate. ‘Sex, per me, should be a religion,’ she observes.
At one point she confides to a friend that she is obsessed with an older woman, and becomes furious when the friend betrays her secret to someone else. ‘What can silence her? Do I have to shoot her?’ she asks.
In her second year at Barnard she read Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, which was to remain her favourite novel to the end of her life. ‘A murder – a killing in a novel fascinates me,’ she writes in her notebook.
After Barnard she applied for a job writing for Vogue magazine, though she knew that her instincts were at odds with the glossy, feelgood world of fashion and luxury goods. Vogue turned her down.
‘There’ll come a time when I shall be bigger than Vogue and I can thank my star I escaped their corrupting influences,' lei scrive.
Like virtually all diaries that seek to honestly chronicle the day-to-day – the weather, feste, trips to the seaside – Patricia Highsmith’s can be drab and repetitive.
Even as she swings from one affair to another – in love, out of love, in love again – it can be hard for the reader to keep up, or stay interested. In this respect, from time to time, the diaries can, as she warned me in her old age, be ‘pretty boring’.
But they still offer fascinating glimpses of the process of becoming a writer: the emergence, at such a young age, of her bleak vision of human relationships.
A 24, she offered one of her brutal short stories to an agent. ‘If you could put a happy ending on this, Miss Highsmith, I think we could sell it,’ he suggests.
She leaves his office without a sale. ‘We do not speak the same language, I think as I go out into the sunshine,’ she notes in her diary.
By the age of 26 she was writing the book that was to make her name – Strangers On A Train. It set the template for her themes over the next 50 years or so, not least her fascination with what she used to call ‘my psychopath-heroes’.
‘Work was good,’ she writes in August 1947. ‘Am so happy whenever Bruno appears in the novel! I love him!’ Bruno is the psychopath in Strangers On A Train – a man who thinks nothing of murdering others.
Nel 1950, Highsmith stalked a rich woman she had met for just two or three minutes 18 months before.
‘I felt quite close to murder, pure, as I went to see the house of the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her for a moment… Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing. (Is it not, Attenzione, for a moment, from the object of one’s affections? To arrest her suddenly, my hands upon her throat, which I should really like to kiss)…’
Her novel The Price Of Salt (later renamed Carol) was a fantasy based on the idea of the two of them running away together. She published it under a pseudonym. It sold a million copies, but she never told her mother that she was its author.
As Highsmith grew older, her capacity for delight dwindled and her fears and neuroses multiplied.
Though she encountered quite a few famous people during the course of her career – Truman Capote, W. H. Auden, Susan Sontag, Somerset Maugham, Peter Ustinov – they only rate passing mentions in her diaries.
Un giorno, she ended up in bed with Arthur Koestler, but she refers to it only as ‘a miserable, joyless episode’. Few people give her pleasure. Maggior parte, she avoids. ‘Anxiety has become habitual, a normal state,' lei scrive.
By the age of 35 she is complaining of being old and burned out.
Simultaneously, her notebooks become more peculiar and, per me, more interesting, filled with brief ideas for her macabre stories, my favourite being an entry of just two words: ‘Strychnined lipstick.’
She notes that family life would drive her to murder, and then fantasises about how she would set about it. She never quite abandons her sense of humour, though it gets blacker and blacker.
‘Marriage is the easiest way of avoiding sleeping with a man,’ she observes. Her sourness is unabashed and, in our virtue-signalling age, strangely intoxicating.
Under the heading Little Crimes For Little Tots she lists ways small children might get away with murder: ‘tying string across top of stairs, so adults will trip… rat powder into flour jar in kitchen… colorless poison can be added to gin bottle’.
She jots down her dreams, pure. In uno, her mother cuts off the head of one of her girlfriends and orders Patricia to help her get rid of the corpse.
'Ero scioccato, paralizzato, and said nothing,’ she records in her diary. Anni dopo, she dreams about murdering two people and hiding their bodies in a garbage dump.
‘The realisation I had killed two people gave me a shocking, very real sense of shame, guilt, and insanity.’