Obsessions Are the Only Things That Matter: On Patricia Highsmith’s Diaries and Novels
By Cody SilerMarch 13, 2023
Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941–1995 by Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith exemplifies a quintessential archetype of today’s online culture: she is the “problematic fave” par excellence. One of the most successful suspense novelists of all time, she came of age as a lesbian in the 1940s, underwent therapy to “cure” her sexuality, and published the iconic queer love story Carol (also known as The Price of Salt) in 1952 under a pseudonym, fearing it would damage her reputation. She was also an outspoken racist, a virulent antisemite, and an emotionally abusive partner. Contemporary fascination with Highsmith dates back to her death in 1995, when 42 notebooks were discovered neatly stacked and bundled in a closet in her imposing Swiss mansion. Those diaries, which stretch all the way back to when she, as a college student, first recorded her thoughts on the theme of obsession, have provided fuel for the nearly three-decades-long litigation of her character that continues today.
Her work—oblique, disturbing and violent—has also attracted more attention since the diaries were discovered. Debates about her 22 novels circle around questions of genre. Are they suspense novels? Or are they literary fiction—whatever that means? Critics have used the notebooks to answer these questions and push her novels into the literary canon, but those same fictions suggest that the lens of biography might distort more than it clarifies. From the grave, with her reputation in the gutter, she continues to enthrall and disgust.
In February 1952, Highsmith set off on a manic road trip through Europe with her lover, Ellen Hill, and Ellen’s dog, Henry. They sped from Munich to the French Riviera and onwards to Barcelona, where they took a ferry to Mallorca. It was a cold European winter, and relations between the couple were frigid. In her diaries, Highsmith complained about Henry, whom Ellen insisted on bringing into bed with them, and the “continual [state of] warfare” between the couple, which had made the trip “one long horror.” They continued through Switzerland and Italy at a breakneck pace, fighting all the while. After leaving Ellen at the train station in Florence, Highsmith wrote in her notebook: “Thank God.”
It wasn’t the first destructive, high-octane adventure that Highsmith had embarked on with a lover. Three years earlier, with Kathryn Cohen, she had followed some of the same itinerary through Southern Italy. Later in her life, she would do the same in Mexico with her partner Doris. These doomed road trips are typically Highsmithian: destructive, melodramatic, and compulsively repetitive. As her biographers have pointed out, her entire adult life revolved around love affairs, alcohol abuse, and writing. At age 20, she recorded thoughts in her diary that could have come from any point in her development: “My appetite is twofold,” she explains. “I hunger for love and for thought.”
Literary critic Laura Marcus writes that “the true autobiographer is in some way driven by an inner compulsion to write of the self.” It’s easy to see evidence of this diaristic drive in the repetitive preoccupations of Highsmith’s fiction, as well as those of her personal life. The central motif of her novels is the double, or what Highsmith herself identified as the “two-men theme”: the obsessive entanglements of doomed pairs, like Tom and Dickie in The Talented Mr. Ripley or Bruno and Guy in Strangers on a Train, that drive their morbid plots. It’s not reaching to point out that her tumultuous elopements also loosely fit this pattern, though the murders they inspired were purely imaginary.
Richard Bradford, her third and most hostile biographer, latches on to the road trips to make his argument that Highsmith’s novels were a “lifelong autobiography” representing her belief in “the sheer wickedness of human nature.” His thesis, that Highsmith was a traumatized sociopath obsessed with manifesting evil in her fiction, is a common reading of Highsmith’s work and character. Concerning quotes (“Am I a psychopath?”) that populate her notebooks have been dredged up and used to gird her authorial persona. Psychology Today’s Joanne Intrator summed things up in a bullet point: “Highsmith’s sublimation of unacceptable feelings led to great psychopathic characters.”
Fair enough. For Highsmith, sexual desire and violence were linked; reflecting on the woman who would inspire the eponymous love interest in Carol, Highsmith wrote that “murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing.” In her diaries, she entertained fantasies of killing her lovers and her stepfather, as well as Ellen’s dog. Highsmith was promiscuous, but she was never comfortable in her own skin. “I want to change my sex,” she wrote in 1948, adding: “Is that possible?” In another entry, she recalls saying “at the age of twelve” that she was “a boy in a girl’s body.”
This context can color our understanding of her two-men plots. Tom Ripley, her most famous character and alter ego, fixates on Dickie Greenleaf as an archetype of upper-class, WASPy masculinity. Their relationship was simplified into a narrative of frustrated homosexual yearning in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film adaptation, but, as Slavoj Žižek points out, Ripley’s desire is not “to have” Greenleaf, but “to be like him.” The drive to become someone else is common among Highsmith’s protagonists. It was also the animating force of her fictional practice: “Writing,” she speculates in one of her notebooks, “is a substitute for the life I cannot live.”
Crude Freudianism may or may not be good analysis, but it is certainly good marketing strategy. Highsmith, who in her life was considered a suspense novelist, is now a literary writer, or at least a boundary-blurring one. Eva Vitija, the director of Loving Highsmith, told NPR that “Highsmith had more in common with Dostoyevsky than Mickey Spillane,” and that she was unfairly “put into the box of mystery and crime novelist.” Genre and gender are of the same etymology; according to Marcus, both are contexts that tell us how to read a book or a body. A biography—even in the form of a book-jacket blurb—can also inform our approach to a text. Our reading of an author’s personal life informs our understanding of their work; as Bradford and Vitija show, it can transform their novels into the devious fantasies of a psychopath or manifestations of marginalized angst. But just like Highsmith’s writing, which always flirted with the line between literature and entertainment, the self that emerges from her diaries is slippery.
For an author with such an outsize persona, Highsmith is elusive in her own novels. The best of her books—The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Blunderer (1954), Deep Water, The Tremor of Forgery (1969)—are claustrophobic and voiceless. She hews to her amoral protagonists with strict third-person limited narration. The tone of the Ripley books, critic Burt Supree writes, is “flat, with little or none of the respite caused by connotation or resonance. No author-persona interrupts to explain causality or ethics.” We smell her protagonists’ sweat when they are afraid; we feel their exhilaration as they kill and get away with it. But she never reassures us that she knows they are in the wrong.
This lack of authorial presence contributed to Highsmith’s relegation to the lower leagues of genre fiction, according to Fiona Peters, who argues that the “deceptive clarity of her writing” made it difficult for reviewers in the United States to classify her work. Ripley’s past is a mystery to the reader. We cannot “Gatsbyise” him into a symbol of American social mobility, as Žižek puts it, or psychoanalyze him. Highsmith and her character seem to inspire a similar hunger for biography, for a narrative that can render them intelligible. But that kind of coherence is precisely what Highsmith rejects with Ripley, whose core is disturbingly vacant, or at least incomprehensibly obscure. His skills are mimicry and forgery; as the character reflects, he is literally a “nobody.” It’s hard to argue that Highsmith makes any “point” with Ripley, even about, as Bradford says, our universal “wickedness.” If there is an essential human nature, it’s one that he does not share.
Highsmith later said of the first Ripley book she “often had the feeling Ripley was writing it.” Her favorite protagonist was also her alter ego. She signed letters as Ripley, and she felt it so easy to slip into his voice that she considered writing the Ripley novels a break from the more taxing work of her other novels. Our knowledge of Ripley’s past is limited to two short sentences that he lets slip at a dinner. So, the 8,000 pages of autobiography that Highsmith left us set her apart from her hero—if, that is, we take them at face value.
Scholars disagree about whether Highsmith was honest in her diaries. Andrew Wilson, Highsmith’s first (and best) biographer, claims that they were kept “without artifice,” while Bradford accuses her of dishonesty throughout. But remarks she made to her literary executor before her death suggest that she expected or intended them to be published and may have revised or omitted sections with an eye toward her legacy. She was known to edit earlier entries, and real life occasionally interfered with her record keeping, like when she caught Ellen reading them on their ill-fated European tour. And, as Northrop Frye points out, all autobiography is to a certain degree “fictional” in that it comes from the “impulse to select only those events and experiences in the writer’s life that go to build up an integrated pattern.”
“Now I know why I keep a diary,” Highsmith wrote in 1949. “I cannot do this without dropping dried peas behind me to help me retrace my course, to point a straight line in the darkness.” Her “peas,” like all autobiographies, are a form of self-mythology; no life follows a “straight line.” Instead of using the diaries as a lens through which to view the fiction, then, we should take the two projects as equal partners in a dialogue. Just as Bruno and Guy, the two protagonists of Strangers on a Train, each become the other’s “cast-off self,” the split halves of Highsmith’s written record implicate one another.
Highsmith left clues that can help us understand her diary-writing in two of her later novels, Edith’s Diary (1977) and A Suspension of Mercy (1965), both of which feature characters who keep journals that blend fact and fiction. The female protagonist of Edith’s Diary (one of the few in Highsmith’s work) chronicles a fake, ideal life; when her ex-husband tries to force her to see a psychoanalyst, she is terrified that her diary will be discovered and used as evidence of her insanity.
A Suspension of Mercy features a crime-writer protagonist named Sydney, another Highsmith alter ego. The plot, in broad strokes, goes like this: Sydney’s wife, Alicia, leaves him for another man, Edward Tilbury. In his diary, Sydney writes a fictional account of how he killed Alicia—much like how Highsmith, during her doomed 1952 road trip, recorded her fantasies of killing Ellen’s dog. He even acts out the murder, burying a rolled-up carpet in the woods. The police find his diary, casting him under suspicion. Alicia emerges out of hiding. Sydney kills Tilbury (for real this time). Finally, he gets away with it, having already been cleared of the original accusation.
Ripley the forger, Sydney the false confessor. Both characters embody the “curious truth in human nature” articulated in one of Highsmith’s journals—“that falsity becomes truth finally.” This cynical twist on the meritocratic “fake it till you make it” ethos finds a compelling expression in her fiction, but its inverse is more intriguing. At the end of Suspension, Sydney plans to write down an account of his murder before he forgets it so that he can use it for his next novel. He reflects that the notebook, already deemed fictional by the police, “was now, after all, the safest place in which to write it.” Here, we see the other side of the maxim: just as fiction becomes truth, the truth also, in the right context, can become fiction.
Highsmith’s editor Anna von Planta, in her introduction to the published notebooks, cautions readers that the real Highsmith is only to be found in her diaries: her “novels,” she says, “are more likely to distract us from who she was […] than lead us to her.” But the truths of Highsmith’s diaries have been, like those of Sydney’s journal, transfigured by the fictions that preceded them. Her public self is at the mercy of the currents of popular culture: here, she is a psychopath; there, she is a lesbian icon; now, she is a literary writer sublimating her trauma. “The interest of autobiography,” writes Paul de Man, is “not that it reveals reliable self-knowledge—it does not—but that it demonstrates in a striking way the impossibility of closure and totalization […] of coming into being.”
The impossibility of coming into being: This is the problem that plagues Highsmith’s protagonists. The central motif of her fiction is the double, the second self, which offers the false promise of coherent identification—the same tantalizing carrot that Highsmith’s diaries dangle in front of her readers. Narrative closure, understanding, empathetic connection—these are the promises of autobiography and all concepts that, in her fiction, are categorically negated.
French theorist Gérard Genette wrote that Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913–27) leads the reader into an “endless discussion between a reading of the novel as fiction and a reading of the same novel as autobiography.” We could say the same about the split halves of Highsmith’s work. According to Genette, “We should perhaps remain within this revolving door [tourniquet], rather than trying to escape it.” Highsmith is an author of detotalization, of pursuit, who spent her life fleeing her home country, her gender, and her genre. The revolving door between truth and deception, the uncomfortable space of unrealized meaning—that’s where her readers must remain.
Cody Siler is a writer from California who currently lives in Dublin, Ireland. You can find him on Twitter @codytape.
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