On the shelf
Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995
Edited by Anna von Plant
Liveright: 999 pages, $ 40.
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Detective writer Patricia Highsmith dedicated one of her most famous thrillers, Strangers on a Train, to All Virginias, and her diaries are full of them. The name was popular in the 1940s, especially among Highsmith lovers, and it was one of the easier tasks that editor Anna von Planta faced during her 25-year project: uncovering one of the most intriguing and challenging tasks of the last century. … and misanthropic authors in a single, honest and easy-to-read volume.
At 999 pages, Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941–1995, coming out next week, isn’t entirely meager or economical. It begins when Texas-born Highsmith was Barnard’s student, and charts her booze-fueled odyssey through term papers, story sketches, and serial novels, mostly with women. After college, she and her prose become more self-confident. She publishes Strangers in 1950 and The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955; her 1952 lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, gained a following through Claire Morgan, a pseudonym for Highsmith. She moves to Europe to escape the persecution of the McCarthy era. And by the 1970s, after burning countless countries, cigarettes, and lovers, her diary often flares up with paranoia.
Yet despite the extremes of mood and tone, this volcano of the book, weeded out from over 8,000 pages of notebooks and diaries left behind after Highsmith’s death in 1995, is in fact a model of compression.
It also has an amazing spontaneity. “Here you are – right in her life, as it happens,” von Planta told me via Zoom from Zurich, where she is editing for Swiss publisher Diogenes Verlag. “Looking back, you can connect the dots. But you cannot know now. You will only be able to find out later. ” Highsmith’s journals allow us, she says, “to trace her evolution. And she’s so honest and sincere. She does not feel sorry for herself – and she certainly does not spare others.“
Von Planta may know Highsmith better than Highsmith herself. She and Daniel Keel, Highsmith’s literary executor and founder-publisher of Diogenes, were the first, besides curious Highsmith lovers, to see magazines in the Swiss house where the author died.
“Daniel and I were looking for unpublished stories,” she told me. They found “scraps of manuscripts” and a chest with her drawings, but the magazines were out of sight. Von Planta suspected that Highsmith would have hidden them in a clean, dry, and safe place, such as a linen closet. So they found her. And there, under “beautifully ironed sheets,” lay half a century of private writings.
The excitement of the opening was short-lived. Soon, von Plante had to transform this huge treasure into something published – a task that Robert Weil of Liveright, the American publisher of the book, called “titanic.”
“For 15 years I have asked Anna for this book, and she always said it was coming soon,” Weil said. “She didn’t mention there were 8000 pages.”
Keel died in 2011; Von Plant continued to insist.
The laptops weren’t comfortable. They were filled with meager, jittery handwriting and borderless, wedged into spiral-bound Columbia University notebooks that Highsmith’s close college friend, Gloria Kate Kingsley Scutteball, had mailed to her after she moved from New York.
“We had two people to transcribe all the material,” von Plant continued, one for spiral bound workbooks and one for an inappropriate set of personal diaries. This alone took two years. She then turned over the massive transcription to Kingsley Scutteball, who revised it and gave Von Plante an “indiscreet commentary” about lovers whom Highsmith identified only by their initials. Von Planta has allowed some to maintain their anonymity. One particular Virginia didn’t do it: Virginia Kent Catherwood, a married Philadelphia heiress who may have been Highsmith’s first big passion.
Some of the entries read like ridicule for future editors. Why am I continuing to write? Highsmith asks in 1970. “It’s too boring and too much for anyone to go through after I’m gone.”
Von Planta first met Highsmith in the garden of a Zurich hotel after Keel acquired the rights to her novel Found in the Street. It was 1984. “I was barely 27 years old – junior editor.” But her English was the best in the office, thanks to a one-year internship with a literary agent in New York.
She found the American writer seated at a French metal table. “I reached out for European fashion, and she just left her hand dangling, ordered a beer and shut up.”
But von Planta continued to act. She liked the protagonist of Ours on the Street – a young country girl who lives in Manhattan. But setting the book “felt timeless, or rather, in a sense, like a fairy tale “because although it should have been in the 1980s,” it was like the 1940s or 50s. “
To von Planty’s surprise, Highsmith looked up. “Well, I don’t know about the timeless and I don’t know about the fairy tale,” she said. “But in the 1940s, I looked like this girl. I lived in New York, Greenwich Village. “
“Then we started talking,” von Planta said, “and everything went well. She even laughed. “
Back at the office, von Planta told Keel, “Maybe I’m not the right person for this. Because it took me a long time for her to speak. “
“What? Did she talk to you? He said.” It took me a while to get more than a yes or no answer. “
By then, Highsmith did not have a permanent New York publisher as she was rejected by the major press despite her bestsellers. Keel convinced her to make Diogenes his publishing house, positioned her as a literary novelist rather than just a genre writer, and found a prickly novelist editor she could get along with.
Von Plant was well suited for editing diaries in other ways as well. They are written in German, French, Spanish and Italian. “In Switzerland, we can’t go far without a dialect, so we learn languages quite early in our lives,” she says. Her childhood dialect was so distinctive that even Standard German was a foreign language. When she was 6 years old, her father, a doctor, briefly moved the family to London, which gave her an impetus to master the English language.
This fluidity proved to be necessary. Highsmith wrote her first notes in German to avoid the prying eyes of her family. In 1954, after her partner, Ellen Hill, once again looked into her diaries, she abandoned them altogether and wrote only in her notebooks for seven years. Yet the languages in which she wrote are not entirely idiomatic. Much of her German language is reminiscent of English with foreign words.
Having been the subject of several lengthy biographies, Highsmith is not entirely unknown. We are aware of her precarious relationship with Hill and her tragic relationship with a married English woman who had a child. But diaries provide a new level of intimacy. Editing them, especially as Highsmith gets darker and weirder, was an intense experience in itself.
“It hit me in the head,” admitted Gina Iaquinta, who worked on the American edition. “I edited a book about this time last year – at the height of the pandemic. And my anxiety skyrocketed. She’s so paranoid. She made me paranoid. “
Among the most recent discoveries are Highsmith’s intense and enduring relationship with animals. In the beginning, the human object of her Monday obsession was probably set aside by Tuesday. But Highsmith wasn’t all that fun with cats. In late 1969, she is grief-stricken after the sudden death of her beloved cat, Sammy. She also really wants to leave France for England. From this combination came a bitter eulogy: “In the countryside, where there are pigs and people who cannot be looked at, I especially appreciated her beauty. I love her demands. … This is the final blow. “
Highsmith had an even more eerie passion: snails, which she kept as pets throughout her life. In 1964, while traveling between France and England, she brought her collection of domestic snails in a bra through customs. However, the magazines do not explain: why snails?
“I think it started with a lot of love – obsessed love,” von Planta said, not about snails, but about Kent Catherwood. “They had house snails together. It connected them. You share a dog or cat with your lover. They split the snails. “
Snails also show no external gender identity until the moment of copulation. This ambiguity might have pleased Highsmith. Von Planta told me that there is a fabulous recording from 1942 in which Highsmith seems to be reflecting on his own sexual identity: “You look into a cluttered top drawer and expect to see a reflection of a man or a woman in it, which is very gratifying. it’s anxious when you don’t see either one or the other. ”
Highsmith easily classified the others. By the 1970s, she expanded the goals of her invective. “It attacks Catholics, Jews, America, its neighbors, the French in general, and the French bureaucracy,” von Planta writes in the introduction to letters from that era. This, too, has become a problem for von Planta and her colleagues: do they miss offensive remarks or remain loyal to Highsmith? They opted for authenticity, but only cut back for redundancy.
After clashes with the French authorities over taxes, Highsmith moved to Switzerland, where she spent the last years of her life in the village of Tegna.
Von Planta cannot forget her last visit, four months before the author’s death, and her walk from the Highsmith house to the train station. “It was a long street with a bend. I looked around before turning and thought: she will never get up there. ” But here she was. And in that moment – in that frozen, evocative moment: “I knew that I would never see her again.”
The moment it happened was not goodbye. It was an invitation she wouldn’t understand until she and Keel found the magazines. Highsmith gave von Plante access to her innermost thoughts. She trusted her to shape them – but kept them intact – before sending them out into the world.
Lord, author of The Accidental Feminist, is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California.