Wednesday, February 4, 2015

My guiding darkness

‘Perversion interests me most and is really my guiding darkness . . . I love to write of cruel deeds.’ This is Patricia Highsmith, who died 20 years ago today, confiding in a youthful diary about a preoccupation that would come to dominate her writing, and, indeed, inspire her to produce some of the most popular psychological crime stories of the 20th century. The detailed diaries, meanwhile, have proved a rich resource for biographers of her troubled life, but as yet have not been published.

Mary Patricia Plangman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, the child of artists who divorced before she was born. Her mother soon married Stanley Highsmith, and the family moved to New York. She studied English composition at Barnard College, and found work at a comic publishers. Turning freelance allowed her to earn more money and to write her own short stories. She lived for a while in Mexico.

Highsmith published her first novel - Strangers on a Train - in 1950, to modest success. The famous film maker, Alfred Hitchcock, adapted the story in 1951, and the movie’s success rubbed off on Highsmith. Her second novel, The Price of Salt, a lesbian romance published under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, came out in 1952. The Talented Mr. Ripley, probably her most famous novel nowadays, emerged soon after, in 1955. Many other psychological thrillers followed, but it was not until 1970 that she returned to Ripley, eventually completing five novels (the Ripliad) about her compelling anti-hero.

Highsmith never settled down for long with a partner, male or female, though she had many affairs. Her private life was constantly troubled, she moved around a lot, living in various parts of Europe. She drank and smoked to excess, and the older she got the more she preferred the company of cats (and snails, apparently!), while colleagues found her misanthropic and even cruel. For the last 14 years of her life she lived in Switzerland. She died there on 4 February 1995. Her archives are stored at Swiss Literary Archives in Bern - see also Swiss Info.

Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia and Kirjasto, or from two biographies, available to preview through Googlebooks: Beautiful Shadow: a Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury, 2003) and The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar (St Martin’s Press, 2009). See also reviews of the former at The Guardian, The Telegraph, The New York Times; a review of the latter by Jeannette Winterson also at The New York Times, and an article by Schenkar at The Paris Review.

One of many extraordinary things about Patricia Highsmith was an obsession with documenting her own life. Having decided not to destroy her diaries, she left behind some 8,000 handwritten pages, in 37 work notebooks or cahiers (1938-1992), and 18 personal diaries (1940-1984). Although none of these diaries has yet been published - surely they must be in time - they have been mined thoroughly by the biographers, Wilson and Schenkar.

Wilson’s biography - which is generally rated more highly than Schenkar’s - refers to Highsmith’s diaries constantly, and always provides the exact source (i.e. whether from a cahier or a private journal, and with the exact date). However, he rarely provides any complete or long quotations from the diaries, choosing instead to incorporate phrases within his own text.

Here is part of Wilson’s introduction: ‘Her work explores the motif of the double or splintered self. The changeable nature of identity fascinated her both philosophically and personally. “I had a strong feeling tonight . . . that I was many faceted like a ball of glass, or like the eye of a fly.” [14 February 1942] [. . .]

Her private notebooks can be seen to represent, if not an authentic self, at least an identity that is somehow more substantial than the one she chose to show to the outside world. In addition to keeping incredibly detailed diaries, she recorded her creative ideas, observations and experiences in what she called her “cahiers” or working journals. [ . . .]

Many writers’ diaries are works of self-mythology, often more fantastical than their own fiction, but after checking Highsmith’s documents with other archival sources and information gleaned from my interviews, it is clear that her private journals were written without artifice. Her voice was tormented, self-critical but, significantly, brutally honest. She kept a diary, she said, because she was interested in analysing the motivation of her behaviour. “I cannot do this without dropping dried peas behind me to help me retrace my course, to point a straight line in the darkness.” [21 September 1949] Throughout her life she toyed with the idea of burning these most personal of journals, and although she was given the opportunity to incinerate any incriminating material before her death, she only chose to destroy a few letters from one of her younger lovers.’

Here are three extracts from Highsmith’s diaries taken from Wilson’s biography.

27 August 1942
‘Perversion interests me most and is really my guiding darkness . . . I love to write of cruel deeds. Murder fascinates me . . . Physical cruelty appeals to me mostly. It is visual & dramatic. Mental cruelty is a torture, even for me, to think of. I have known too much of it myself.’

25 October 1942
‘I believe people should be allowed to go the whole hog with their perversions, abnormalities, unhappinesses, [. . .] Mad people are the only active people, they have built the world.’

18 November 1942
‘The Lesbian, the classic Lesbian, never seeks her equal in life. She is . . . the soi-disant male, who does not expect his match in his mate, who would rather use her as the base-on-the-earth which he can never be.’

Finally, it is worth noting that one of Highsmith’s novels is about a diary - Edith’s Diary (1977). Unlike many other novels written in diary style, Edith’s Diary is much more fundamentally about the diary form. As Edith Howland’s life becomes harsh, a promotional blurb explains, her diary entries only become brighter and brighter: ‘She invents a happy life. As she knits for imaginary grandchildren, the real world recedes. Her descent into madness is subtle, appalling, and entirely believable.’

Editor’s note: As usual for Diary Review articles, trailing dots within square brackets, i.e. [. . .], indicates that I have removed some text from within a quoted extract. Trailing dots without square brackets indicates that those trailing dots can be found in the quoted text (and may, or may not, indicate text removed by that text’s editor).

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