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Books

What the critics liked

Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995

I tried to interview Patricia Highsmith in 1990, says David Sexton in The Sunday Times. It was a painful experience: the author of The Talented Mr Ripley was guarded, “repeatedly checking her watch, coldly hostile”. But in private, Highsmith was overwhelmed with emotions. Throughout her adult life she documented her every thought and feeling. When she died in 1995, aged 74, she left behind more than 8,000 pages of musings. The result is Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995, edited by Anna von Planta (Liveright £30).

“The whole book is excellent,” says Dwight Garner in The New York Times. “But the early chapters are special.” We tend to think of Highsmith as nasty and bitter – which she could be. In one diary entry she deadpans: “If these people were books, they wouldn’t get printed.” But her life as a 20-year-old in Manhattan was breathless and exciting. Her stories describe late-night taxi rides, kissing in restaurant bathrooms and trips to Chinatown to get tattoos. “They comprise one of the most observant and ecstatic accounts I’ve read – and it’s a crowded field! – about being young and alive in New York City.”

This is helped by Highsmith’s immense appetite for sex: specifically sex with married women, which she had endlessly. “Sex, to me, should be a religion. I have no other,” she wrote in 1941. Other entries are less poetic: “Three nights, three people!” Her desire for love meant she was often heartbroken and always half-broke. “When you date women,” she joked, “there’s no man to grab the check.”

She was also nearly always drunk. “The world and its martinis are mine,” she declared in an ebullient 1945 entry. Another passage recalls her having five martinis before a dinner with Jane Bowles, then being sick. Still, Highsmith reckoned she took more from gin than it took from her. “Without liquor I would have married a dull clod, Roger, and had what is called a normal life.” People say youth is wasted on the young. “It wasn’t wasted on Patricia Highsmith.”

Available as an audiobook on Audible.