“Mother is very hostile. Particularly because I am not feminine enough.” Image: © Ruth Bernhard, Trustees of Princeton

Patricia Highsmith’s hunger for love and thought

What decades of prolific journaling reveal about the author of “Strangers on a Train”
December 9, 2021
Patricia Highsmith: Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-95
Anna von Planta (ed.)
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“French exam this morning. It was difficult and I think I got all the questions I guessed wrong.”
29th January 1941

“I got an A in French and there were only two As in the class.”
3rd February 1941

Patricia Highsmith had just celebrated her 20th birthday when she wrote these two journal entries. The future author of the celebrated psychological thrillers Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley was a student at Barnard College in New York, and had begun “journaling” in earnest from her first semester. This present collection brings together extracts from her diaries (gossipy; quotidian) and her notebooks (work-focused; aphoristic), which were found in a linen closet after her death. The 56 journals (18 diaries, 38 notebooks) add up to eight thousand pages in total. As an editorial note states, this cherry-picked selection, amounting to almost one thousand pages, “should not be read as an autobiography… Pat’s diaries and notebooks provide a running account of a life in progress.” An extraordinarily detailed account at that. The first entry is dated 6th January 1941 and ends: “Mother is very hostile. Particularly because I am not feminine enough.” Highsmith’s troubled relationship with her mother would last until the latter’s death 50 years later, with Highsmith recording in 1985 that “my mother would not have become semi-insane, if I had not existed.” Troubled relationships were a theme of the author’s life. She is frank about her turbulent love life. In April 1941 she says in her diary: “My appetite is twofold: I hunger for love and for thought. Together those two can take me anywhere, you know. I wrote a poem about this.” But only a few weeks later she tells us: “I feel beaten down—discouraged from my work. I’m not developing enough, and I often think it’s sexual. Don’t know. What if these four years [at college] are lost! Wasted!” They certainly weren’t wasted in terms of words written or lovers taken. Highsmith in her early twenties adds as many as 700 pages a year to her journals, while enjoying New York’s temptations, from boozy lunches to late-night hook-ups. The first hundred pages of this collection deal with a single year, the year she turns 20. Eventually, she would start to write less in her journals, but these early sections are the most rewarding, presenting us with an unguarded portrait of a young woman taking the first tentative steps into the worlds of sex and literary endeavour. I say “unguarded,” but there is evidence that Highsmith went back and revised her diaries and notebooks throughout her life. A 1942 mention that Richard Wagner’s music is “almost any of it good to make love by” is amended in 1950 by the additional words “What horror!” By 1960 she looks back at her early writings and concludes: “I was twenty-three, a most immature, retarded, self-centred twenty-three. All my diaries should be thrown into a furnace.” This notion returns as late as 1992, the purpose being “to thwart idle curiosity.” Instead, she listed her journals as part of her oeuvre when she appointed her German publisher Diogenes Verlag as holder of her world rights.

Editing this extraordinary collection presented immense challenges. Highsmith often wrote in a range of languages, so translators were needed. The editor Anna von Planta decided to present selections from both the diaries and the notebooks in chronological sequence. Footnotes were required to identify characters sometimes listed only by initials or nicknames. What emerges is a capacious portrait of a complex author and a compelling coming-of-age story.

And yet… There are many gaps. Her final diary, begun in 1981, would last her the next ten years—quite a change from the college student filled with zeal to record her every moment. Highsmith often meets the famous and the celebrated, but doesn’t often record much of note about those encounters. As early as April 1943, she moves to a new address “next to Piet Mondrian, who uses the same door.” This is as much as we hear about her artistic neighbour. Likewise, much later in life when Jeanne Moreau visits, we learn that Highsmith is thinking of buying a fax machine and “Jeanne also says I should have one.” Nothing else emerges from the visit. Muriel Spark merits a moment because she agrees to look after one of Highsmith’s cats. No mention is made that Spark went on to satirise Highsmith in her novel The Hothouse by the East River (1973), where the exotic Princess Xavier keeps silkworms swaddled beneath her breasts—just as Highsmith was known to smuggle snails (which she loved and kept as pets) in and out of Europe in her bra. One thing both authors do share, however, is their almost superstitious choice of writing materials.

“In her early twenties, Highsmith adds as many as 700 pages a year to her journals, while enjoying New York’s temptations, from boozy lunches to late-night hook-ups”

Highsmith used the same notebooks throughout her life, sourced from Columbia University, while Spark’s novels were handwritten in school jotters, courtesy of an Edinburgh bookshop. Arthur Koestler garners rather more space, mostly because Highsmith goes to bed with him: “a miserable, joyless episode.” Her early twenties are filled with assignations, most of them fleeting. Though her relationships are mostly with women, she finds herself falling in love with a gay friend called Rolf Tietgens. “I should like very much to sleep with him,” she confesses, before three weeks later deciding she prefers her friend Helen. Six weeks further on and Rolf is now guilty of “disgusting behaviour, more psychopathic, more neurotic.”

On 17th September 1943, we get this fickle note: “One week ago Chloe and I first went to bed together! And how wonderful, how godly it was! Could be—certainly am—bored by her mind already, but never by her beauty.” In January 1945, she tells us she is about to meet with eight of her closest friends and has slept with six of them. (That same year she drew up a chart of current and recent lovers.) In July 1948 in three successive days she sleeps with Herbert L (“the best yet. God—maybe I’ll learn to love men”), Jeanne (“spent the night here”), and Marc (“three nights, three people!”). She goes on to become engaged to Marc, but almost immediately sets sail for England, where she falls for her publisher’s wife, who ends up joining her in Naples. Highsmith’s life will become more peripatetic, as if she feels unable to anchor herself to any one place, just as she cannot find the one true love to sustain her. Indeed, she states that she prefers to be alone, yet cannot help embroiling herself in intense relationships that always sour. One lover suffers a physical haemorrhage the day after sleeping with Highsmith (“too bad I am going to Europe, for we can’t plan a life”). Another, Ellen, attempts suicide in her presence. Highsmith records in her diary: “She… was poking eight pills in her mouth as I left the house.” It is only when she returns home at 2am after drinks with friends that she finds Ellen in a coma.

Her coldness brings to mind her most famous creation, the con artist and killer Tom Ripley. The idea for Ripley came to Highsmith in Positano in 1952, but is not recorded anywhere in her journals. As von Planta notes, we needs must consult a 1990 essay by Highsmith to learn more. Likewise, her celebrated novel The Cry of the Owl merits not a single direct mention in her notebooks, nor do we hear about the appointment of Patricia Schartle, who would be her agent throughout the sixties and seventies. During her trips across Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, there is a single mention of that recent trauma—“Munich shockingly filled with bombed-out buildings”—but this is immediately followed by “Ruth is very interested because I am buying a car.” By the same token, an earlier entry of 8th December 1941 segues from “Japan declares war on United States” to “miserable at school until I talked with Helen at 1.30.” The personal trumps the historic at every turn. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was mostly written during a 1948 stay at the Yaddo writers’ colony. Truman Capote had recommended her. Her time there was obviously important—she later named Yaddo as beneficiary of her estate—and the novel was her first successful attempt to show that “good and evil are present in a single individual in life, hence my themes, which are self-projections.” She would take this further with Ripley: “What I predicted I would once do, I am doing already in this very book, that is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too.”On 12th May 1954, Highsmith records in her diary how happy she is at the progress of her first Tom Ripley novel. However, that would also be the last diary entry for seven years. When her lover Ellen starts sneaking peeks at the diaries, Highsmith switches only to notebook entries, which are less personal (and less interesting).

“Her best stories are filled with wanderers and deceivers, outsiders who crave to be inside. This book takes us inside her mind and body”

By the time The Talented Mr Ripley is published, she feels, according to von Planta, “suddenly old, burned out, unmoored.” Money and health troubles would persist, along with the long war of attrition waged against her mother. Lovers would come and go, and Highsmith would keep writing, though rejection was still common. Von Planta warns us that, as she grew older, she also grew more bitter: “Some of her disparaging remarks readers will find offensive, especially when, as is frequently the case, they are addressed towards such perennially marginalised groups as Black Americans and Jews.” Young Highsmith is sniffy about working for a Jewish publishing house, but it doesn’t stop her taking the job. Later, however, she mentions an acquaintance who “hates the Jews, loves the Republicans (everything that disgusts me!)” There is plenty of evidence of Highsmith’s uglier beliefs, but it is not laid out on the page here in any great detail. Even so, she certainly reviles the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and refuses to allow her books to be published in Israel while he is in power. Her thoughts on writing are not often revelatory, but many are considered and at least partially insightful. “Artists are logically the most insincere people,” she writes in 1942. “They must be for a while whatever they work at. A murderer, a poet, a philanderer, a traitor, an explorer, a child, a savant. They are all these in turn, and none of them and nothing themselves. They are their own canvas, a palimpsest of all their creations, and if when not working they are a dirty smudge of coarse cloth, that is no fault of theirs.” She is also good on the appeal of the crime story to her: “I am interested in the murderer’s psychology, and also in the opposing planes, drives of good and evil (constriction and destruction). How by a slight defection one can be made the other, and all the power of a strong mind and body be deflected to murder or destruction! It is simply fascinating!” Graham Greene famously called her “the poet of apprehension.” Her best stories are filled with wanderers and deceivers, outsiders who crave to be inside. This book takes us inside her mind and body.

We live each day with her in extraordinary, sometimes fatiguing detail. What emerges is a compelling portrait—especially in the first 600 or so pages—of an individual undergoing an evolution. The (welcome) plethora of editorial interjections gives notice that this story—despite its compendiousness—is still incomplete. We may not find out what makes the creator of Ripley tick, but we do get to know Highsmith the woman, flaws and all.In 1963, Harper (Highsmith’s US publisher) turned down one of her books, leading the author to note: “These are days when I do not think the writing of a diary is silly. It is a big crisis in my life.” In other words, the diary counteracts each moment of crisis. It keeps the author grounded and sane by providing catharsis. In 1955, during a gap in her diary-keeping, she adds that a disadvantage of not writing one is “it takes away the purging effects of putting down things in words. It takes away the analysis—which however slight, always emerges when something is put into words.”

Von Planta and her team are to be applauded for this vast and complex scholarly undertaking and for allowing us to spend so much time in Highsmith’s innermost world.