“Only Lovers Live in the Present”: On the Notebooks of Patricia Highsmith

December 16, 2021   •   By Robert Minto

Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941–1995

Patricia Highsmith

PATRICIA HIGHSMITH’S crime novels are full of secret writers. Bruno, in Strangers on a Train (1950), writes and rewrites his plans for a perfect murder. Walter, in The Blunderer (1954), has been working for two years on a “big scrapbook” of creepy notes on the behavior of his friends. Sydney, in A Suspension of Mercy (1965), keeps a fake diary in which he pretends he has murdered his wife. Even Tom, in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), a man of action unlikely to incriminate himself, cannot resist filling the pages of an unsent letter with his dangerous imaginings “until the table was covered with sheets of paper.”

When Highsmith died in 1995, a pile of notebooks was discovered in one of her closets — 38 of them, to be exact, adding up to about 8,000 pages of private writing. These notebooks, all spiral-bound and identical in size and shape, were divided into two sets: “diaries” and “cahiers.” They have a claim to be her life’s major work. She began them when she was 15 and continued them to the day she died at 74, carrying them with her throughout a nomadic life. They are the bedrock upon which her books were constructed. In the novel that might be her best — Edith’s Diary (1977) — she even copied whole entries for the eponymous fictional manuscript.

While these notebooks have been available for years to biographers, editor Anna von Planta’s 1,000-page selection from them ­— a substantial volume, but nonetheless a mere tithe of the whole — is the first opportunity for readers to approach the private Highsmith unmediated.

Personally, I have always found diaries and notebooks superior to literary biography as a way to access the person behind a work of literature. Even the best literary biographies, when perused alongside their subjects’ own works, serve only to deepen the apparent gulf between what can be described of an outer life and the mysterious products of an inner life. A diary or notebook, by contrast, invites us to witness the inner turned upon the outer. It is a kind of writing with one foot in the land of imagination and the other in the world of history.

Even the best Highsmith biographers fall short in the face of her rather odd life. She wrote The Price of Salt (1952), a classic of LGBTQ literature and one of the first novels to give a lesbian couple a happy ending, but most of her books featured male protagonists and by old age she was an outspoken misogynist. A veritable Casanova in her 20s, by the time she died her only friends seemed to be the pet snails she cared for, which she smuggled over European borders in her bra. A snob about literature who concealed her early work in the comics industry like a black mark on her character, she became synonymous with crime thrillers. A member of the Young Communist League in college, as an adult she expressed a preference for countries with a peasant class.

Andrew Wilson, author of the clearest chronological account of Highsmith’s life, Beautiful Shadow (2003), abdicates the biographer’s responsibility to explain the personality of his subject by outsourcing the task to his interviewees, from whom he quotes lengthy, clashing assessments. Joan Schenkar, author of the most critically acclaimed biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith (2009), takes the opposite tack, producing a portrait so over-interpreted and overwrought that it reads like a prosecutor’s closing argument to a jury rather than an attempt to understand another human being.

The Highsmith that appears in her notebooks is a far more human and believable person than the subject of either of these biographies.

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Anna von Planta does not commence her selections with Highsmith’s first notebook entries. Instead, the book reveals the notebooks in medias res, in 1941, when Highsmith was a senior at Barnard College. By then she had already been keeping her notebooks for several years. The justification for von Planta’s choice of entry point is that 1941 is when Highsmith split her notebooks between “diaries” and “cahiers.” From that year on, with the exception of a few years when she paused to avoid snooping lovers, Highsmith would always have one of each on the go, a diary devoted to logging her activities and social interactions, and a cahier devoted to recording her ideas and writing projects.

Highsmith needed this division to cope with the growing conflict between the two things that dominated her life: writing and sex. Only in the latter endeavor was she precocious. We find her, in college, cutting a swathe across New York City’s enclaves of cultured lesbians, jumping in and out of bed with women a decade or more older than she was, while juggling a few student romances on the side. She was beginning to find it difficult to balance the hard work she wanted to do as a writer with the hurricane of her romantic life. It would be a persistent problem. As she got older, finding her first success with the international best seller Strangers on a Train and attempting to maintain longer-lasting adult relationships, she discovered an unfortunate fact about herself: when she was living with a lover, she longed to be alone working on her writing, and when she was alone working on her writing, she longed to be living with a lover.

In the early days of the notebooks, she conveys this paradox of desire optimistically, as a complementary relationship between mind and body: “4/14/41: My mind is now as greedy and as hungry as my body was four months ago — one month ago! […] Rather like two buckets on a well rope. One must be filled while the other is emptying!”

By choosing to begin her selection from Highsmith’s notebooks with the split between diary and cahier, von Planta focuses the reader’s attention on Highsmith’s efforts to balance love and writing. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the effect is to give the book an implicit and perhaps misleading narrative arc.

There is a great question about Highsmith’s life, to which any biographer, or critic, or editor of her diaries inevitably winds up addressing themselves. Why did she sour? From a young woman widely noted for her charm, wit, and sociability, she became by late middle age grim, terse, and unkind. Tales of her unpleasantness are legion. One of her publishers, Otto Penzler, sums up the general view of her like this: “Patricia Highsmith […] may have been one of the dozen best short story writers of the 20th century, and she may have been one of the dozen most disagreeable and mean-spirited as well.” The plot turn of this swerve is evident in the notebooks. You can even pinpoint the year: 1967. Suddenly every observation is punctuated with scorn. Misanthropy, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny leak from her pen. Why did this happen?

The story implied by von Planta’s selection is that Highsmith lost control of her central conflict between love and work. She lost the plot of her life. An aging body, her own unfaithfulness and the unfaithfulness of her lovers, as well as the difficulties of a sexual prime that coincided with the Lavender Scare, all combined to rob her of the possibility of lasting love. Without the tension between love and work, the work lost its value to her. Despite her enormous literary achievement and worldwide fame, she felt like a failure, betrayed on every hand by those closest to her.

But I am not sure this is the whole story. The seeds of Highsmith’s eventual misanthropy are already evident in the earliest notebooks. And while her lesbian identity undoubtedly shaped her life in profound ways — many of her cahiers contain the acronym NOEPS, for “notes on the ever present subject,” meaning lesbianism — we should be suspicious of the temptation to see her whole life as mono-causally shaped by it, or to see her fictions as mere sublimations of her romantic life.

I suspect that the centrality of the love-versus-work tension is overstated in the comparatively tiny fraction of extracts from Highsmith’s notebooks to which we have access in this collection. Von Planta heavily favored diary entries, with their easy narrative coherence, over cahier entries, with their subtler arcs and more technical discussions of writing. I know this because the biographies of Highsmith, which of course drew upon these same notebooks, quote and summarize many fascinating thoughts about writing that von Planta’s selections do not include; and because the list of notebooks in the book’s scholarly apparatus shows that there were almost twice as many cahiers as diaries, but the selections in the book are split roughly 50/50 between them; and also because we know that much of Highsmith’s private writing was devoted to planning and discussing her novels — hundreds of pages devoted to the first two novels alone — but virtually none of that is included in this book.

The “plot” I am attributing to von Planta’s editing is not an overt assertion of a narrative, not a commentarial overlay, but only an artifact of the selection process. It is an implication of what is not included. Perhaps this plot was not even intentional, and Highsmith’s romantic life was emphasized for the pragmatic reason that most people will be more interested in seductions and betrayals, pursuits and renunciations, than in the technical details of a writer’s daily grapple with form and language. At any rate, I think it’s important to bear in mind that a shadow world of larger concerns, philosophical and literary, lurks, unstated, behind the focus of this collection.

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The actual first entry in Highsmith’s notebooks — not included in von Planta’s selections — was composed when she was 15. It is described by both Wilson and Schenkar in their biographies. Here is Schenkar’s description: “[Highsmith] begins it with a lyrical vision of a ‘phantom-like girl dancing to a Tschaikowski waltz,’ in ‘selfless-spontaneity’ as if ‘the music had been growing within her and ripening through the years.’” I find this image evocative. While it suggests that Highsmith projected herself as a dedicated artist whose aesthetic ambitions came from within, there is also an almost metaphysical uneasiness in the absence of an audience, in the “phantom-like” nature of this girl. And indeed, what we might call metaphysical uneasiness lays at the very root of Highsmith’s deepest concerns.

She was raised disruptively, moving back and forth between New York and Texas, and given over for long stretches to the care of her grandmother, a strict Calvinist. This Calvinism filtered deep into her psyche. “I suffer from a Puritanical background,” she writes in one of her diaries, “it is having the usual effects.” Throughout the notebooks, there are passages written in a prayerful style that resembles Augustine’s many prayers in the Confessions. Here is an example:

3/25/47 […] Whither have I strayed, God, from the path of happiness? Is it my desire? Is it my material desire and my greed? Shall I live yet more precariously and school myself to care not? Shall I take less thought of food and drink and raiment? Lord, lord, how I would believe! Then my heart would be swept clean, and the veils, the dusty glass before my eyes would break, and I should not only see but participate with joyous clarity.

But there is a startling edge to some of these Augustinian interludes:

5/29/56: My dear God, who is nothing but Truth and Honesty, teach me forbearance, patience, courage in the face of pain and disappointment. Teach me hard, because I am stubborn and desperate, and one day I shall take you by the throat and tear the windpipe and arteries out, though I go to hell for it.

One certainly never encounters fantasies about murdering God by tearing his throat out in the works of Augustine. And then, sometimes Highsmith writes things like this: “I have been fond of church music since sixteen without realizing why, as I am not a believer. It is the fatalism, the resignation that appeals to me.” Perhaps she adopted the prayerful mode as a sort of aesthetic playacting, embracing the ancillary emotional postures of prayer without endorsing its substance (such as the belief that a real God is listening). This would explain her calm description of how she expects to murder God, which it is difficult to imagine in the prayers of a sincerely religious person:

8/20/81: Any person who wants to stay sane has to end up praying, in one form or another. Praying can be merely ritual, a way of doing everyday tasks or work. It is still ritual, and it is about the only thing one can hang onto. One has to inject meaning and value into it.

If this talk of injecting meaning and value into a merely ritual behavior reminds you of existentialism, it should. Highsmith took as her conscious model the work of Dostoyevsky, and she was a devoted reader of Nietzsche and Sartre, Camus and Kierkegaard. (In fact, one of her least successful novels — A Game for the Living [1958] — is explicitly intended to dramatize Kierkegaard’s ideas, full of chapter epigraphs from his work and characters having philosophical dialogues about faith and absurdity, anxiety and guilt. It doesn’t really work, and she abandoned that kind of philosophical novel for a more indirect exploration of the same themes.)

It seems to me that a vestigial Calvinism, perhaps acquired from the grandmother who partially raised her — a Calvinism of categories and concepts, of postures and emotions, without the inner core of belief — helps to explain much about Highsmith’s life and works. Her stories are often Calvinist in their simultaneous obsession with guilt and detachment of culpability from specific acts. Innocent characters feel guilty while murderers do not, and sometimes imagining an act is more guilt-making than committing it. Guilt is bestowed or withheld like the gift of some omnipotent and inscrutable power who discriminates between elect and damned without much regard for life choices. All these are features of a psychological landscape compatible with the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election, original sin, and divine sovereignty.

Another religious category, seldom named directly, nevertheless seems to lie behind many of Highsmith’s narrative obsessions and personal difficulties: conversion. Conversion bereft of its teleology — considered not as the psychological side of salvation but as an independent, unmoored phenomenon — becomes something rather sinister: a sudden total replacement of one set of values and beliefs with another. Love was Highsmith’s laboratory of conversion. Before she had begun to write anything of worth, she was already worrying about the instability of her affections:

7/30/41: The perversity in human nature reaches a peak in the sexual compartments. If one’s love affair is running smoothly and a new face appears, which will necessitate an unreasonable amount of trouble and disruption, and delay and unhappiness to attain, one will make for this new face like a man wandering on a desert will make for a distant sign of habitation he has just spied.

At first it surprises her when she falls in love, pursues someone for a week, sleeps with them, and immediately no longer cares for them. Later, it begins to worry her. Will she ever be able to stick out a real relationship, she wonders. And eventually this distrust of herself leads to the great misadventure of her romantic life: she takes up with a woman named Ellen Hill. Ellen quickly proves to be a hypercritical companion, whose every word is designed to demean and belittle. Yet Highsmith sticks with her even though she has abandoned far more congenial partners in the past, determined to practice faithfulness even as Ellen systematically demolishes her happiness. The notebooks show Highsmith hiding in a sweltering bathroom to read at night, because Ellen will complain if she can hear her; becoming gradually cut off from her friends, because Ellen will cause a scene if she spends time with them; bemoaning her inability to write, because Ellen accuses her of selfishness when she works; growing jealous of a dog, because Ellen is kinder to it than she is to Highsmith; abandoning her intentions to leave, because Ellen reacts by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. This relationship directly inspired the character of the vicious, critical wife in The Blunderer, whom the protagonist murders in what it is hard not to see as vicarious payback by the author.

Yet Highsmith wanted to make the relationship work. She longed for some kind of stability, some permanent source of value. As a young woman, she hoped that would be love. But she found her adult perspective conforming more and more to the one she gives Theo in A Game for the Living:

His moods usually had no causes that he or anybody else could discover, and so he felt he was not entitled to show them in the social system of things. He believed the world had no meaning, no end but nothingness, and that man’s achievements were all finally perishable — cosmic jokes, like man himself.

Highsmith’s concern with fickleness, with the ever-present ominous potential of conversion and de-conversion from one source of value to another, expressed itself most memorably in what many consider to be the central distinguishing feature of her novels: an interest in the passage from good to evil. Most of her books take us on a journey from ordinary life circumstances to murder: “7/1/50: I am interested in the murderer’s psychology […] good and evil […] how perhaps even love, by having its head persistently bruised, can become hate.”

Her novels are portal fantasies to evil. They take us on tight third-person journeys into the heads of normal people who become violent criminals, such that we sympathize and root for them every step of the way, looking up from the page with the consternating realization that we are experiencing a kind of pleasant release at the vicarious experience of criminality and that we are only concerned for our fictional vessel not to be found out.

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If love taught Highsmith pessimism, storytelling gave her hope; some writers acquire a literary vocation from a passion for reading, or a love for language — and some, like Highsmith, from an experience of the shamanistic power of storytelling:

2/14/55: The main reason I write is quite clear to me. My own life, however interesting I try to make it by traveling and so forth, is always boring to me, periodically. Whenever I become intolerably bored, I produce another story, in my head. My story can move fast, as I can’t, it can have a reasonable and perhaps perfect solution, as mine can’t. A solution that is somehow satisfying, as my personal solution never can be. It is not an infatuation with words. It is absolute daydreaming, for daydreaming’s sake.

She remembered her first experience of story’s power to transfigure boredom into meaning. It was in school, as a child. An English teacher assigned the classic report, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” She had spent it visiting the Endless Caverns in Virginia with her parents. She was supposed to share her report, note-free, in front of the class, a difficult assignment for a shy girl whose frequent moves precluded long-lasting friendships. She faltered through a description of the caves, and then began to tell how she had been discovered by two boys chasing a rabbit:

When I came to [an interesting part], there was a different atmosphere in the classroom. Everyone had begun to listen, because they were interested. I had suddenly become entertaining, and I was also sharing a personal emotion. I forgot my self-consciousness, and my little speech went much better. This was my first experience at giving enjoyment through a story. It was like a kind of magic, and yet it could be done and had been done by me.

How? What is it about storytelling that transfigures the dullness of life? For Highsmith, it had to do with time. “Time is a long dull sluggish snake,” she wrote, but “[a]rt stops it. Art arrests, slows down, speeds up, and casts out all the dross. Art is life, as God himself would see life.”

A curious recurring complaint in the notebooks concerns detail. Highsmith was against it. On August 23, 1949, she mentions that she ate a beefsteak, then immediately apologizes: “Forgive food details, dear diary, but they become life details, perhaps.” Or on January 11, 1968, after mentioning some visits to friends she’s made that day, she bursts out: “It’s good to keep a diary — at least for me, as I need a sense of continuity — but what a lot of rubbish one should not bother writing!” I kept coming across complaints like these, and I wondered why. As a novelist, Highsmith is notable for her deployment of nonessential detail; it’s part of the unique effect her fictions achieve. Andrew Wilson describes the technique like this: “Highsmith anchors her novels and stories in reality by listing a cloying number of details — clothes, physical appearance, food and wine, description of houses — the minutiae of life which carries the reader seamlessly over into the world of the uncanny.” But in her notebooks, she seems to get mad at herself for including any unnecessary details. It was not until I read the above quotation about art’s relationship to time that I understood. What were Highsmith’s notebooks for? I believe they were efforts, just like the novels, to secure some meaning against the absurdity of time, to impose by selection and narration a logic on the chaos of life:

9/21/1949: Now I know why I keep a diary. I am not at peace until I continue the thread into the present. I am interested in analyzing myself, in trying to discover the reasons why I do such & such. I cannot do this without dropping dried peas behind me to help me retrace my course, to point a straight line in the darkness.

So much about Highsmith had changed by the time she died. Old lovers were enemies. Her youthful leftist politics had hardened into something reactionary and dark. The joie de vivre of her college days had become hermitic misanthropy. But one thing remained the same. In the pile discovered in her closet was a fresh and empty notebook in the same style as all the diaries and cahiers, ready to go. The words “Book Thirty-Eight” were handwritten on the cover.

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Robert Minto is an essayist and writer of speculative fiction. He lives in Boston.