The Talented Patricia Highsmith’s Private Diaries Are Going Public
By Alexandra Alter
The writer’s estate is releasing hundreds of pages from her personal diaries as a book.
Patricia Highsmith when she was a 27-year-old living in London. The secretive writer’s diaries are going to be published in 2021.
“No writer would ever betray his secret life,” the novelist Patricia Highsmith wrote to a friend in 1940. “It would be like standing naked in public.”
More than 20 years after her death, Highsmith’s secret life — her reflections on her creative aspirations, her tumultuous romantic relationships and her fascination with the psychological underpinnings of violence — will be made public for the first time, as her estate prepares to publish hundreds of pages from her personal diaries.
The diaries, which Liveright Publishing plans to release in the United States in 2021 as a single book, offer a glimpse into the life of a literary figure whose sharply observed psychological thrillers, including “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” became cultural touchstones. She was a secretive, often prickly woman who remained a cipher even to her friends and lovers, and a trailblazer who wrote one of the first mainstream novels depicting two women in love. But she could be blinded by her own bigotry and espoused racist and anti-Semitic views.
Scholars have long known about the diary entries, but they have not previously been available to the public. Spanning nearly 60 years, the entries reveal new facets of Highsmith’s life. They catalog her thoughts on such subjects as good and evil, loneliness and intimacy, and love and murder, which she saw as intertwined: “Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing,” she wrote in 1950.
Sexuality and sexual frustration are recurring themes. Highsmith was conflicted about her attraction to women, and underwent therapy to “get myself into a condition to be married.” But she also decried the repression she faced, and lamented that she had to hide that side of herself from the public, writing that “consciously I am not in the least ashamed of homosexuality.”
In one entry, Highsmith writes that “the American male does not know what to do with a girl once he has her. He is not really depressed or inhibited by his inherited or environmentally conceived Puritan restraints: he simply has no goal within the sexual situation.” In another, she describes an awkward, attempted sexual encounter with the writer Arthur Koestler as a “miserable, joyless episode.”
She had more fulfilling relationships with her characters. Highsmith writes about falling in love with Carol, a central character in her 1952 novel, “The Price of Salt,” which she published under a pseudonym. The novel, which was adapted into the 2015 film “Carol,” was among the first literary depictions of a lesbian relationship that didn’t end tragically for the women, at a time when gay and lesbian literature was considered scandalous. In the summer of 1950, Highsmith wrote in her journal with something bordering on rapture: “Today I fell madly in love with my Carol. What finer thing can there be but to fling the sharpest point of my strength into her creation day after day? And at night, be exhausted. I want to spend all my time, all my evenings with her.”
The diaries were discovered after Highsmith’s death in 1995, tucked away behind sheets and towels in a linen closet in her home in Ticino, Switzerland. The 56 spiral-bound notebooks, totaling some 8,000 pages, were found by her longtime editor, Anna von Planta, and Daniel Keel, the executor of Highsmith’s will and the literary executor of her estate.
The documents have remained in the Swiss Literary Archives, viewed by a handful of scholars and biographers. Transcribing and editing the journals was a monumental task, von Planta said. The process was complicated by the fact that Highsmith kept two sets of journals: notebooks about her professional life, where she recorded her plot ideas and thoughts on writing, and diaries in which she wrote down her private reflections and memories. “She had a system of double bookkeeping about her life,” von Planta said.
In editing the diaries and notebooks, von Plata said she aimed to offer an unembellished look at the author, without glossing over the darker aspects of her personality and beliefs. Highsmith was outspoken about her anti-Semitism, often decrying what she saw as global Jewish influence and referring to the Holocaust as “Holocaust Inc.,” or as the “semicaust” because some Jews were spared, according to Joan Schenkar’s 2009 biography, “The Talented Miss Highsmith.”
Von Planta said she won’t censor such opinions and that she is studying the diaries in hopes of tracing the biographical origins of Highsmith’s anti-Semitic attitudes.
Highsmith could be secretive even in her private journals. At times, she would learn that one of her lovers had read her diary and would abandon the private dispatches for a while, retreating into her professional notebooks.
While Highsmith was protective of her private life, her estate had no qualms about publishing her journals, von Planta said, in large part because Highsmith seemed to have anticipated that the journals might one day be released. She mentions them in her will as part of her literary estate, and left instructions to edit out repetition in her notebooks, von Planta said. She entrusted the diaries to Keel, who was a friend as well as her literary executor.
The two sets of records are woven together into a single chronological narrative in the forthcoming book, which totals some 650 pages and includes Highsmith’s drawings and watercolors. Taken together, the notebooks offer the most complete picture ever published of how she saw herself.
“The idea was to show how Patricia Highsmith became Patricia Highsmith,” von Planta said. “And to have her tell about her life, her thoughts, her concerns, the making of her work, in her own words.”
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Alexandra Alter writes about publishing and the literary world. Before joining The Times in 2014, she covered books and culture for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she reported on religion, and the occasional hurricane, for The Miami Herald.
A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 26, 2019, Section C, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: Patricia Highsmith’s Diaries to Be Published. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe