Let’s begin with a sidebar and ask: has any other novelist been as richly served by cinema as Patricia Highsmith? Strangers on a Train, Plein Soleil, The American Friend, The Talented Mr Ripley, The Two Faces of January. Not all masterpieces, I grant you, but still a pretty good record by my reckoning. Soon to join this group is Carol, Todd Haynes’ impending adaptation and, if the pre-release buzz is to be believed, Oscar winner.
Presumably, these cinematic successes are one of the reasons why a canny publisher had the wisdom to acquire Highsmith’s back-catalogue a couple of years ago and has since been rereleasing her novels as handsome noir-inflected paperbacks. The covers are nice and the books great, but it's the canny publisher - Virago, which of course only produces books written by women - which I think I find most interesting. Does this mean Patricia Highsmith, so frequently described as a misogynist writer, actually a feminist?
Highsmith managed to creep into my bookshelves and set up a fairly strong presence without me quite noticing. I read Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley as a teenager and ever since have found myself reading her books periodically, a novel every couple of years or so. A little like Ruth Rendell, who I wrote about not so long ago, Highsmith is another ‘crutch’ writer, whose books I don’t so much read as use. In truth, I still think of her as someone whose novels I should really get round to reading, but when I recently looked into it it turned out I’ve actually read quite a few of them.
Hence my picking up Edith’s Diary, a non-thriller curio published in the late 1970’s when, it’s generally agreed, her creative powers were on the wane. One of the main appeals of Highsmith is that you know what you’re getting: a tightly-knotted plot, shabby-glamorous European settings, and urbane young protagonists whose lunatic mixture of a high IQ and homicidal urges pull you along, rooting for his (they are usually men) escape all the way.
So it’s jarring to discover that Edith’s Diary is the opposite of all these things: a family saga set in suburban America with a housewife main character who, on the face of it, exhibits none of Highsmith’s hallmark perversions or morbidity.
The novel opens with housewife-writer Edith, journalist husband Brett and Cliffie, their ineffectual oddball son, preparing to move from New York to the more suburban locale of Brunswick. Although the hints that she is quietly unfulfilled in some areas of her life are pretty much there – she is disquieted when she discovers Cliffie trying, she thinks, to smother the pet cat, something Brett breezily dismisses – what we are presented with is a clever, forward-thinking woman writing articles for submission to liberal magazines like The New Republic and Commentary whilst putting together The Bugle, a brand new local newspaper, with some likeminded friends.
From there Highsmith heaps on the sufferings, most of them small enough to not be individually disturbing, but numerous in total to give the novel its downward spiral trajectory: Cliffie’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic; George, an elderly and unwell uncle of Brett’s comes to stay with the family; Brett instigates a rather bloodless divorce, leaving Edith for a younger woman; Cliffie is caught cheating and kicked out of school; George, growing worse, shows no sign of leaving his bed, let alone the guest room; The Bugle struggles to remain afloat; Cliffie sails off the rails, sarcastic and unloving all the way; Brett announces he and his new wife are having a baby; Edith is forced to take on a job in a shop… and so on. Gradually, Edith begins to find solace in her diary, creating an idealised retelling on her life in which Cliffie travels the world as a successful engineer, marries and gives her a pair of beautiful, loving grandchildren.
If all that sounds heartbreaking, it is. That said, the mention of the diary in the novel’s title gives it a little more significance than it perhaps deserves. Anyone looking for a novel in which reality and fantasy become indistinguishable won’t find precisely what they’re after here. Although a regular presence, and increasingly filled with the purely imagined, the reader (and Edith, presumably) is never in any doubt that what she’s crafting in her diary is a fictive adaptation of her genuine day-to-day existence. Equally significant – and equally bizarre – are the bronze sculptures Edith turns her hand to, literally recasting Cliffie as the handsome man in her diary and bringing life to Debbie, his imaginary wife.
What highlighting the diary’s presence does do is establish the novel's central theme - in essence, the same one which motivates Tom Ripley and most of Highsmith’s protagonists: self-invention. The key difference between this novel and a standard Highsmith work is the latter tend to be tooled around an act of self-invention as a devious piece of trickery employed to either commit or get away with a crime; here it is simply a reaction to the mundane tragedy that constitutes the protagonist’s life. I’m aware this probably makes Edith’s Diary sound rather dour and joyless, but it was actually something which turned my initial misgivings about the book on their head: many of Highsmith’s novels can seem like reiterations, or variations on a theme (no bad thing that). Here she takes what she knows about human frailty and does something different.
That’s not to say that Edith’s Diary departs wholesale from Highsmith country. Indeed, Cliffie is a Highsmith creepy loner par excellence, replete with darkly bonkers behaviour: he throws himself off a bridge for no reason; he obsesses manically over a girl he barely knows; he tinkers with Uncle George whilst he sleeps. What’s effective - and chilling - is the way in which Highsmith, although she gives herself ample opportunity, never makes any attempt at an explanation for Cliffie’s feckless brand of ominousness. His mind, it seems, is simply geared towards aberration.
It’s interesting to read this book and think of it as sharing space, thematically speaking, with the preppy-kooky state-of the-family novels which were to come in the 1980’s and 90’s, like Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm and possibly even The Corrections. I’ve not yet read People Who Knock on the Door, Highsmith’s non-Ripley follow-up to Edith’s Diary. As I say, the consensus seems to be that it marks a decline in her creative powers. But still. It’s fun to imagine what sort of fictions a Highsmith for the McSweeney’s generation might have created.
I can see why Edith’s Diary is, among her books, one of the more obscure titles, but I also think it’s one of the more serious and probably most substantial of hers which I've read. All the set-backs, humiliations and punishments doled out for Edith can be tracked back to the men in the novel: Uncle George is independently wealthy enough to pay for a nursing home, but would just rather not; Cliffie prefers getting drunk and masturbating to getting a job and moving out; Brett feels compelled to walk out on his family in order to gift himself a fresh start. Each chooses to embark on the life they feel they deserve, every step taking a little away from Edith. There is an anger which informs Edith’s Diary, not something which I think could realistically be claimed for much of Highsmith’s cool-eyed oeuvre. The novel often feels like an indictment of the then modern nuclear family: the male characters rarely makes an appearance without a drink in their hand; the house in which most of the action takes place is defined by repeated, multiform references to decay, stagnation and mould; and most brutal of all is the span of the novel, ploughing through two decades in its 300 pages, with years lost in between paragraphs, the dynamics of the family altered with each chapter, and a new small loss added to Edith’s burden every few pages. The only comparison I can think of for a display of how cruel the simple passage of time can be is Virginia Woolf’s The Years and the ‘Time Passes’ sections of To the Lighthouse.
So - Woolf invocations aside - does all this make Patricia Highsmith a feminist novelist? I’ve no idea. But I’d say Edith’s Diary is undoubtedly a feminist novel, albeit one which operates in the bleak end of the tradition where you’ll find novels like The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar. There is no fight-back or feminine glory in this book, nor calls for a better tomorrow, only an incisive delineation of a woman struggling to keep her head above the rising water.
To end on a final cinematic comparison, I suppose Edith's Diary has quite a bit in common with Lars von Trier's acclaimed but problematic humiliation pieces - Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves.
Here’s hoping a female director adapts it into a wonderful film.