«The difference between dream and reality is the true hell» is a line from one of Patricia Highsmith’s later novels, Edith’s Diary. It tells the story of a middle-aged suburban housewife who fantasizes about an alternate life through obsessive diary entries amid repressed frustration and despair with her discordant family life. The psychological thriller was fictional, but as Highsmith herself acknowledges in footage in Eva Vitija’s documentary Loving Highsmith, the sense of an existence hemmed in by social conventions and stifling conformity was one that the famous American writer and lifelong diary-keeper had come to understand only too well. Highsmith, who was born in 1921, was a lesbian when this was considered a shameful family secret in Texas, an identity many veiled by discretion, if not totally disavowed. The film about the late author’s life, which screens this month at the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival in Tel Aviv, is a compelling portrait, first and foremost, of the obstacles to an authentic life that homophobia constructs and Highsmith’s determined quest for a «happy ending» of her own, or at least, a situation that was emotionally bearable, and creatively fruitful.
Highsmith became well-known for her psychological thrillers, many of which were made into successful movies, including her 1950 Strangers on a Train, adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, and her 1955 The Talented Mr. Ripley, brought to the screen by Anthony Minghella. Loving Highsmith revisits this work, but most illuminating is its delve into The Price of Salt. Published in 1952, it was the only novel she wrote about an unequivocally lesbian relationship and the first work of lesbian literature to have a happy ending — an unprecedented acknowledgement of optimistic possibility in a genre whose characters more typically committed suicide or realised their dalliance was a dead end and returned to their straight husbands, morally chastened. The book was adapted for the screen under the title Carol by director Todd Haynes in 2015, from a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, and was embraced by the mainstream enough to win six Oscar nominations.
…it was the only novel she wrote about an unequivocally lesbian relationship and the first work of lesbian literature to have a happy ending.
But Highsmith felt, in her era, that she could write it only using a pen name, Claire Morgan, to disguise her identity and avoid exposure, as most authors did when writing gay literature. Her domineering Texan mother found out anyway and informed her priest. The weight of disapproval Highsmith was subjected to led her to eventually cut legal ties to the mother for whom her other achievements would never be enough to compensate for her not marrying a man and preventing shame from falling upon her parents. Her diaries were an oasis of freer expression outside her public persona, which required her to write about men — protagonists both men and women were conditioned to want to read about. Her novels giving reign to darker human impulses, in which cold-blooded murder might erupt through a facade of cultivated sophistication, were also, in their own way, attacks on the moral hypocrisy and self-righteousness of a society in which appearances were everything, and the truth mattered little.
Lovers and life
When it came to her own love life, Highsmith was only prepared to submit to the rules of repression of the era to a limited degree. She tried in her younger years to be sexually attracted to men, even visiting a doctor at her mother’s behest, but only felt such encounters as awkward and forced. She had numerous lovers during her years in the more open-minded nations of Europe, frequenting the lesbian bars of Paris such as Le Jeu de Dames and having an affair with German actress Tabea Blumenschein, who she visited the Berlin nightspots with, and exchanged letters with for many years (Bluemnschein shares her recollections on screen.) She fell in love with a woman and moved to London to be near her. Still, the romance eventually fell apart under the pressures of leading a double life, as her partner (whose name is not revealed in the film) is married with children and remains agonised, conflicted, and constrained by a strong sense of convention.
Among other partners was Marijane Meaker, another American writer of lesbian novels, who discusses, among her reflections, the concept of discretion and secrecy when it came to lesbianism, whereby women would visit gay bars, but felt a need to get out at the station before or after the convenient one, so they would not be so easily seen. To be a lesbian meant an existence, then, of compromise, subterfuge, and often a whole double and faked life, just to keep up the minimal reputation required not to be shunned from society. Highsmith’s talent enriched us while allowing her to create an alternate life of the mind for escape. In her words: «Writing is a substitute for the life I cannot live, am unable to live.»