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Passion and prejudice

In her letters – auctioned this month by Sotheby’s – the late Patricia Highsmith is revealed as a tough, sometimes bigoted woman, writes Sarah Boseley

CRIME novelist Patricia Highsmith was a semi-recluse from about 1970. She was very private in her Swiss home, having settled in Europe, which loved her amoral heroes whose escape from justice perturbed her fellow- Americans. She was very difficult to interview: journalists found themselves up against a barrier of suspicion – “I don’t trust any of them as far as I can throw my typewriter,” she wrote to a friend.

The public shutters were down, but letters auctioned by Sotheby’s reveal that her life was full of passion and intensity. She lived alone and seemed to have a horror of formal occasions, but would from time to time – when she felt she could leave her cats – fling herself into wild nights on the Berlin gay scene with a potential lover.

Highsmith, who died in February 1995, acknowledged her lesbianism although she did not talk about it. In 1990 her pseudonymous novel, The Price of Salt, written in the fearful Fifties, was republished under her own name with the new title, Carol.

Sexual identity, same-sex attraction and the guilt and fear felt by some in acknowledging the true nature of their sexuality are all strong currents in her stories, not least the Ripley novels, about a murderous drifter, for which she is best known. Reading her letters, there is striking resonance between Ripley’s world of secrets, in which he hides his criminality, and her own, very private life on the gay fringe. Graham Greene called her “the poet of apprehension” – an explorer of anxiety, which gnaws at us, rather than fear, to which we become numbed.

She was a prolific letter-writer. Some 640 letters were up for sale at Sotheby’s. They are addressed to two of her close gay friends, Charles Latimer in America and the artist and photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer, living in London. Most of them were written in the Seventies, when Highsmith was in her 50s.

They reveal her as a forceful and sometimes intolerant person, who hates the noise of the “pesty kids next door” letting off firecrackers, finds a good many people “crashing bores”, and is extremely rude about the French – “The French character is so badly flawed, it will fall into many pieces at a tiny blow – like the tap given to a chocolate orange.”

She was very direct and open with her friends, detesting any behaviour she considered two-faced. But the letters make it clear she was unable to control her life along clear and simple paths. When Ripley, her charming fictional rogue, is confronted by irritations, he decisively sweeps them away. She very much enjoyed writing the novels – in fact, she said it was as if Ripley wrote them himself, and she accepted one of her awards in both her and his names. But in her own life, she was sometimes paralysed by the unpredictability of other people’s behaviour.

The letters document an obsession with a 25- year-old German film-maker called Tabea, whom she met when she was 57. “I think you are one of the few people who understand that for the first time in my life I have met a girl who combines a strong sexual attraction (for me) with talent. As I no doubt said, I cannot and will not change her life in any way, but the present situation is nice while it lasts, and why not have fun?” she asks Ker-Seymer in May 1978.

But, the following month, enthusing about Tabea’s talents as an actress and costume/set-designer, she says: “I cannot play it very cool, much as I try.” Unlike Ripley, she cannot master and disguise her passions.

“So – in this uneasy state still,” she continues, “am trying to get back to work, which has to begin by clearing away boring business papers and unwanted books … Sometimes I can make it alone, or living alone, in fact it’s better for work. But now there is the awful hope that I can see Tabea again … The best I can hope for with Tabea is to see her now and then – if she still wants to. When the days go by without letters from her, then of course I go nuts.”

She had a serious drive to work and worried when it was disturbed by romantic misadventures with such women. But writing could also rouse her out of her misery. In August she wrote: “I admit since the beginning of June I have been guilty of most appalling lack of concentration. I’m ashamed of this. In the last days I have done 25 pages of the Ripley book – slow progress indeed but at least I’m getting back to it and it is the only source of my morale at the moment.”

About the same time, she wrote to Latimer: “Dreariest dyke or dike of all time came to my house Sat with a French girl called Monique Buffet, who is not bad. Second time I’ve seen Val (. the dreary one) who is a kind of `pen pal’. Now it seems she is hung up on me – always the wrong people, for me.” She writes of Val’s “Girl Scout type boredom” – a description she earlier used of the detested Marge in The Talented Mr Ripley.

But by November, she was a great deal more cheerful, had finished the first draft of The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and was proposing to dedicate it to Monique, whose copy of Lou Reed’s album Transformer she had just played to a Radio France interviewer who asked about her favourite music. “Am surprised since yesterday that the Ripley MS reads so smoothly, and I think I’ll not have to do the usual two and a half drafts – a big time saver. 250 pages done since 20 Aug and some (almost) without a blemish which came of getting Tabea out of my head, a girl who did me no good at all (God bless her all the same).”

The predatory end of the gay scene was not for her. “Christopher Street, Greenwich Village . I hear streams with homosexuals cruising nightly. I don’t think it would be my dish, even if I were 30 years younger,” she comments to Ker-Seymer. She is not shockable – she pens several dirty limericks in the correspondence – but some of Tabea’s stories of Berlin gay nightlife she finds repugnant.

“She tells me of bars where the girls “fight” as if for sport! . Others make love in the loo – and rather quickly. It sounds as bad as the worst male bars – and this (the girls) I must say I have never seen in Berlin and would not want to.”

“Morale” is a word she uses frequently. Discussing a story idea, she describes morale as “the tricks, successful and unsuccessful, that people use to maintain self-respect”.

But it also referred to her own survival. Writing to Ker-Seymer in the throes of the unhappy Tabea affair, she says: “I do try to see things correctly, to know what sustains morale (work) and I never pity myself. All troubles can be settled if one analyses them. If one does not, then some mechanism in the back of one’s head says `I shall collapse’, which usually means before an audience of family, which I have not. Or wife or husband, etc. Or lover. But I have no such intentions.”

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