In Review

Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks – ‘a generally excellent book’

This book offers a fascinating window into the writer's inner life

Patricia Highsmith is remembered for having produced some of the “darkest and most disturbing books ever written”, said Ian Thomson in the London Evening Standard – in particular her five novels about the “smooth-talking psychopath” Tom Ripley.

Highsmith herself had a personality to match: she was a “ferocious malcontent” who drank prodigiously, wreaked havoc in her personal life and held humanity in contempt. After her death from lung cancer in 1995, a vast cache of her diaries and notebooks was discovered at the back of a linen cupboard in her house in Switzerland.

Anna von Planta, Highsmith’s long-time editor, has now condensed these into a single volume – one that tracks the entirety of her adult life. The resulting book, though “heavy as a house brick”, is fascinating for the window it opens onto this “extraordinary writer’s inner life and working methods”.

The biggest surprise contained in this “massive volume” is that Highsmith “wasn’t always nasty”, said Mark Sanderson in The Times. Early on, as she “details how hard she works, all the books she reads and the languages she learns (French, German, Spanish and Italian), she seems a typical young woman of the time – except she prefers girls to boys”.

At Barnard College, and then in bohemian Greenwich Village – where she lived for most of the 1940s – the “fine-featured” Highsmith was so “obviously destined for greatness that both men and women threw themselves at her”, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. In a generally excellent book, the early chapters – full of “late-night taxi rides” and stolen kisses from unhappily married women – stand out as one of the best accounts I’ve read of “being young and alive in New York City.”

Yet after the “surprisingly jolly start”, these diaries lag, said Jake Kerridge in The Daily Telegraph. As one “gloomy year” follows another, Highsmith’s misanthropy comes ever more to the fore. An entry from 1971 reads: “One reason to admire the automobile – it demolishes more people than wars do.”

The fact is that Highsmith wasn’t a “first-rate diarist”: she was too self-absorbed to make her encounters with other people interesting. Highsmith may have had no “basic human warmth”, but she was a path-breaking writer whose novels “forged a new direction” for suspense fiction, said David Sexton in The Sunday Times. And that’s what makes these diaries worth reading: they show us the origins of her fiction “better than any biography could”.

W&N 1,024pp £30; The Week Bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)

Patricia Highsmith book
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To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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