December 2, 2021 QueerForty.Com
The newly-published letters and diaries of America’s lesbian master of psychological thrillers are as gripping as any of her fiction.
In this Patricia Highsmith’s centenary year, the publication of the mammoth Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995 offers a prismatic look at the history of some of the most fraught years in American life while also telling a deeply revelatory tale of the prolific writer in her own compelling narrative.
It’s an extraordinary work of personal and literary depth in which Highsmith’s thoughts on her work, her life as a writer and as a lesbian, and even the nature of good and evil are viewed as they happened in real time. Like the diaries of Anais Nin and Virginia Woolf who also wrote exhaustively of their own lives and the literary and personal milieus in which they lived, these pages from Highsmith chart times and places that tell us much about what it was like to navigate the world of underground queerness in pre-and post-World War II America and beyond.
Patricia Highsmith | Photo: Bequest of Ruth Bernhard
Highsmith writes about writing all the time—at one point she decides to stop working a book “it just isn’t very good”—and about the topics she is most captivated by, like the trajectory of personal evil. On her most enduring character, the handsome and venal Tom Ripley, she writes on October 1, 1954, “What I predicted I would once do, I am doing already in this very book (Tom Ripley), that is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too. Thus the subconscious always precedes the conscious, or reality, as in dreams.” This 999-page collection includes entries that range from 1941, when Highsmith was a student at Barnard College, to 1995, the year she died in Switzerland of lung cancer and aplastic anemia at 74. It is edited with incomparable diligence in a years-long and true labor of love by Highsmith’s longtime editor Anna von Planta.
Anna Von Planta | Photo: Nathan Beck/Diogenes Verlag
As von Planta details in her introduction, the book is culled from 8,000 pages of handwritten entries in 56 notebooks and diaries by Highsmith. These were written in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian to keep them private during the decades that Highsmith was a rollickingly out lesbian in the sheets and demimondaine streets, yet deeply closeted as a writer in a homophobic publishing industry.
But what is lasting for Highsmith — aside from her increasingly focused grievances as she ages — is her love for and devotion to women. Highsmith is in love with love and sex and the intoxication of both, and the alcohol that often fueled her many affairs. (Drinks and hangovers pepper the early years.)
What is so refreshing and surprising is how openly and vividly she records her sexual escapades and her adoration of women. We’ve been told repeatedly how controlled and circumspect lesbians pre-Stonewall were in their sexual lives. But the sexually excited and excitable Highsmith puts none of those restrictions on herself. She is veritably giddy at times as she writes about her sexual experiences and it’s a revelation.
Lesbians having sex as willingly and unreservedly as men in this era is not something we have much of a written record of outside the realm of euphemism.
“Sex, to me, should be a religion. I have no other. I feel no other urge, to devotion, to something, and we all need a devotion to something besides ourselves, besides even our noblest ambitions. I could be content without fulfilment. Perhaps I should be better off in such an arrangement.”
Patricia Highsmith, Age 20, August 7, 1941