December 01, 2021 Steve Donoghue
Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995
Edited by Anna Von Planta
When confronted with this huge, sumptuous new volume from Liveright presenting a selection from the diaries and notebooks that Patricia Highsmith kept over the course of five decades, readers should rightly have two startled, instinctively defensive responses. This was a brilliant, intensely reserved author, so the first of those responses is preemptive outrage: are we intruding on her privacy? Editor Anna Von Planta assures us not: it’s clear to her, from reading through all of the diaries and notebooks (some 8000 pages, only a fraction of which are printed here), that Highsmith (“Pat,” as she puts it) intended her private jottings for some kind of future publication, or at least didn’t object to it.
The second response is more delicate but equally vigorous: in addition to being brilliant, Highsmith could also be rough, and she got rougher as she got older. The unconventional opinions of her youth settled into sometimes obnoxiously hardened convictions during her renown and curdled into rancor in her final years. It’s not a pretty picture - biographers can dwell on it at lurid length - and since 21st century America is currently experiencing one of the greatest waves of censorship it’s known since Puritan times, a reader could naturally worry that such unpleasantries would simply be excised. But again, no: As Anna Von Planta puts it simply, “We aim to represent them faithfully.”
What’s produced here instead is something utterly beguiling, a double-track confession of Augstinian proportions. Highsmith kept both a conventional diary and also a series of notebooks that acted more like a jagged, introspective commonplace book. “Diary and notebook entries are interwoven and interlocked,” readers are told, “the diary entries dated in long form (month, day, year), the notebook entries in numerical form (with slashes), as was Pat’s style.”
The contrast is cumulatively dizzying, building the point where the readers feels like a dumbfounded witness to a heated, life-long dialogue between Highsmith’s id and her ego. On May 14, 1943, the diary entry runs like this:
A marvelous day. I spent two hours at lunch! Saw Jack Schiff from Detective Comics on Lexington Ave. He wants me to give him ideas - not synopses - for any character whatsoever. Met Tex and Cornell for drinks. Met a lot of their friends. Tamiris, etc. Had dinner at Eddie’s Aurora. Very nice. I wanted to kiss Cornell all evening and we tried to hold hands as much as possible. Though Texas tried to stay up, she fell asleep at 11:00. And Cornell was truly troubled. It was sad. The world is beautiful!
On August 25 of 1951, by contrast, the notebook reads like this:
Why writers drink: they must change their identities a million times in their writing. This is tiring, but drinking does it automatically for them. One moment they are a king, the next a murderer, a jaded dilettante, a passionate and forsaken lover; other people actually prefer to stay the same person, stay on the same plane, all the time. (This of all the psychological intricacies of the human species is the hardest for an artist to understand.)
Anna Von Planta is entirely right: these very different voices and registers depend on each other and feed off each other. Most diarists attempt to blend these two sides of the disclosing reflex; after even a hundred pages of this hefty Liveright volume, it’s impossible to imagine Highsmith doing it that way.
And the interplay, combined with informative, tastefully minimal footnotes throughout, create a better, wiser, less forgiving, and entirely more involving life of Patricia Highsmith than any formal biography that’s ever been written or ever likely to be written.
“Really how the others live,” Highsmith wrote in her notebook in the winter of ‘48,” the quality of their two-dimensional experience is really beyond me.” These pages, read late into the night, leave little doubt of that - for good or ill.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Washington Post, The American Conservative, The Spectator, The Wall Street Journal, The National, and the Daily Star. He writes regularly for The Boston Globe, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. He’s a books columnist for the Bedford Times Press and the Books editor of Big Canoe News in Georgia, and his website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.