“To all the devils, lusts, passions, greeds, envys, loves, hates, strange desires, enemies ghostly and real, the army of memories, with which I do battle—may they never give me peace.”
This was Patricia Highsmith “New Year’s Toast” in 1947. It is the toast that only a writer could make: battling with her demons on paper is her life—peace would kill her.
I mostly steer clear of crime writers. They are too predictable, and there is too much emphasis on the plot. The quality of the writing is usually secondary. Agatha Christie is the supreme example, and I’ve never enjoyed her books (not that I’ve read many). I do enjoy George Simenon, who writes “why did he do it” rather than “who dunnit” books. I like Donna Leon for her evocation of Venice, and P D James does a good job of creating a sense of place.
But after I read reviews of a biography of Highsmith, I decided that I had to read one of her books because of the praise heaped on her by other writers. Here’s an extreme example from A N Wilson: “My suspicion is that when the dust has settled and when the chronicle of twentieth-century American literature comes to be written, history will place Highsmith at the top of the pyramid, as we should place Dostoevsky at the top of the Russian hierarchy of novelists.” You might cynically observe that being put at the top of American writers is no big deal anyway when making comparisons with Russian writers, but I wouldn’t accept that. But nor would I accept after reading one book by Highsmith that Wilson is right: I’d rank Bellow, Roth, Updike, Hemingway, and many others above Highsmith.
Edith’s Diary is the story of the disintegration of a woman, a woman who might be living nextdoor or even be a friend. Edith like Highsmith is a writer, although not a successful one, and her diary, filled with a fantasy, is her main comfort.
There is only one crime in the book, the almost accidental murder of an old, bedridden man. The murderer, Edith’s hopeless son, “showed a noticeable confidence in himself since George’s – removal.” The crime is not central to the book, and not only do we know whodunnit but we know that it’s coming. Graham Greene famously called Highsmith “the poet of apprehension.”
Highsmith seems to have been a ghastly person, a drunk, philanderer, and abuser. This bleak novel might contain Highsmith’s philosophy of life, which these quotes capture:
‘Don’t think, keep moving,’ was her frequent advice to herself, and she sometimes added, ‘Don’t look for a meaning,’ because if she did look for a meaning for even half a minute, she sensed that she was lost, that she had turned loose of her real anchor which was not Brett, but a kind of firm resignation.
One more little cog in the messy human-race machine, full of proper food and vitamins, destined to die one day like everybody else.
She admired his falseness. It was a kind of strength.
The joy of life is in the doing. Don’t judge too much what is done or expect praise or thanks.
I didn’t greatly enjoy Edith’s Diary, and I fear that it may be the kind of book that I forget that I have read in a few year’s time. But I will read at least one more book by her.
Other quotes I took from the introduction and novel:
If great writers had an oath it would begin: First, do not lie.
Highsmith’s writing won’t make you feel that everything will be all right in the end. It won’t make you feel taller or thinner or smarter. She won’t just keep your eyes busy for a commute, but she might prompt you to walk out of that job you hate. Her books will thrill you with the truth of things. Her books will make you reckless.
They talked of a variety of things – old family stories that Melanie might have heard from her own grandmother’s knee, Thomas Mann’s essay on Nietzsche and The Will, school integration (the South would do better than the North, Melanie predicted), and the proper way to make dill pickles.
So she wrote at greater length, voluptuously and voluminously, but still carefully in her big diary.
‘The funeral home told me they’re open day and night.’ Like death, Edith thought.